Hail to the thief? 

On Saturday, Jan. 20, when George W. Bush is sworn in as the nation's 43rd president, Brian Morris of Orlando will be there. But the 40-something computer-systems programmer won't be among the throngs of Republican faithful laying eyes on their crowned prince, or among the mere tourists lined up along the Washington, D.C., streets for a glimpse of history in the making.

Morris will be there to make a statement -- and he won't be alone. Officials expect more than 20,000 protesters to converge on Washington this weekend, making this inauguration, like the election itself, the most protested in history. Though registered as an independent, Morris' thoughts echo Democrats' murmurings across the country, and especially in Florida: We was robbed.

And they probably were. Despite the official final election tally that had Bush winning by just 537 votes statewide, a Miami Herald analysis indicated that if every intended vote were counted, Al Gore would have won Florida -- and consequently the presidency -- by as many as 23,000 votes. And the vice president did win the national popular vote. (A consortium of news organizations currently is conducting its own hand recount in all of Florida's 67 counties. The results are expected sometime next month.)

Morris wasn't enthralled with Gore, but he so disliked George II that in the weeks before the election, he displayed homemade signs -- the most popular being "No Bush and Dick in 2000" -- to those who drove past his post on Lee Road near I-4.

On Thursday, Morris will hop a flight for Dulles International Airport, make his way to a hostel in the capital and wait for Saturday's inauguration parade. He'll be a peaceful protester, he insists, but he plans on being arrested anyway. Asked what that will accomplish, Morris responds, "It'll bring a message that this is an illegitimate president."

For their part, the Democrats put forth a massive effort this year to register new African-American voters. Indeed, Florida blacks went to the polls in record numbers -- only some weren't allowed to vote. In the post-election aftermath, reports surfaced about widespread disenfranchisement of black voters in the Sunshine State.

According to allegations in a class-action lawsuit, hundreds of people were denied their right to vote because they were wrongly purged from voter registration rolls; untrained poll workers didn't provide required assistance to first-time voters; although required by law, bilingual assistance to Spanish-speakers wasn't available in all precincts, including some in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties; and some blacks were harassed by police on their way to the voting booth. Moreover, many of the so-called "undervotes" that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered not to be counted in Florida came from minority-dominated precincts. (Ninety percent of black votes nationwide went to Gore.)

"That can't happen again," says Diane Gross, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "When people hear the stories of folks who were disenfranchised, they realize how widespread it is."

The committee joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and others in filing that class-action lawsuit in federal court against Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, Florida Supervisor of Elections Clay Roberts and a hodgepodge of county elections supervisors, alleging that many blacks in Florida were denied their basic voting protections.

"This lawsuit," Florida ACLU director Howard Simon said in a statement, "is not about reversing the outcome of the election or challenging the legitimacy of any particular candidate. The motivations behind filing this lawsuit are bigger than any candidate or political party."

To "restore public trust" in the ballot, Gov. Jeb Bush followed the election fiasco by creating a bipartisan task force to examine the voting process and recommend legislative remedies.

The U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, which also jumped in to investigate Florida's voting problems, wondered why the governor didn't realize that problems existed before the November election took place.

Queried during a hearing last week in Tallahassee, Bush told the commission that he didn't know about African Americans' voting difficulties until after the election. Furthermore, running an election wasn't his job -- it was Harris'. But she, too, passed the buck, saying she had delegated her election authority to Roberts.

County supervisors of elections, however, pointed their fingers back at the top. Harris provided the erroneous voter information that caused people to be mistakenly purged from voter lists, they said, and Bush vetoed a bill granting $100,000 for a voter-education campaign.

"I don't know who's responsible," commissioner member Victoria Wilson complained to Harris. "The supervisors are saying you're responsible. You're saying Mr. Roberts is responsible. I'm on the merry-go-round called denial."

Added commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry: "If public officials are not able to articulate clearly their role, how can they have responsibility for oversight?"

Clearly, commissioner Christopher Edley concluded, voters had indeed been disenfranchised, though Bush and Harris were loathe to admit responsibility. "What's missing for me," he said, "is a confession of, 'Yes, we blew it. We should have thought about it more carefully, and we're sorry.'"

Following additional hearings around the state, the commission will report its findings to Congress by summer.

Al Gore's concessionary pleas for unity may have played well in the media, but they were ignored by many liberal activists. Perhaps the most vocal has been the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition will mark Inauguration Day with a march in Tallahassee.

The civil-rights leader has pledged to fight Gov. Jeb Bush's presumed re-election bid in 2002, starting in earnest new voter-registration drives and urging disgruntled blacks to make their voices heard. "That's one of the reasons we chose to focus our efforts here `instead of in Washington, D.C.`," says Jackson spokeswoman Keiana Peyton. "This was the scene of the crime." The march -- part of a coordinated "National Day of Moral Outrage" -- has co-sponsors including the Florida Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Interfaith Alliance.

Still, "Jesse Jackson is a two-edged sword for the Democratic Party," says University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. On the one hand, Jewett says, Jackson energizes liberal activists and minorities, a key group within the Democratic power base. On the other, he's a turn-off for moderate swing voters who think he's an opportunist.

"He doesn't choose his battles very well," Jewett says. Though the post-election fight is a worthy cause, Jewett suggests, Jackson's overexposure has damaged his credibility beyond the party base. In other words, when the average white voter saw Jackson on TV complaining about disenfranchised black voters, they turned the channel.

Though the Florida Democratic Party hasn't backed Jackson's rally in an official capacity, some of its leaders will be among the protesters. Says Orange County Democratic Party chairman Doug Head: "Everybody who's as ticked off as I am is going."

"The bottom line from our perspective," says Oral Majority leader and South Florida gay-rights activist Bob Kunst, "Bush stole the election."

Kunst's vitriol is unmatched. He's outspoken where others pretend to be cordial. Like Morris, he is headed to Washington. Only he's taking a bus loaded with like-minded protesters. The National Parks Service, Kunst's website boasts, granted him a all-day permit at John Marshall Park, where the "Bushit" inauguration parade begins.

Along the way there, Kunst plans to stop at Gov. Jeb Bush's mansion in Tallahassee and the headquarters of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in Virginia. In the spirit of bipartisanship, the man who led the successful fight 20 years ago against Anita Bryant in Dade County also faults the Democrats. With the exception of those in the Congressional Black Caucus and Florida Democratic U.S. Reps. Robert Wexler and Peter Deutsch, who challenged Bush's Florida victory, Kunst thinks the Democrats sold out in exchange for a Senate power-sharing arrangement.

"Bush," he says, "is a thief, and we want everyone to know about it."

In Washington, they and other protesters will be greeted by an atmosphere unlike any previous inauguration. Not since Richard Nixon's 1973 inauguration, in fact, has so much tension surrounded the parade.

For the first time ever, spectators will have to pass through police checkpoints. "We will have about double the personnel we would normally have for a presidential inauguration," Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey told CNN last week, "because of the threat of protests."

The FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are each bracing for the unknown, from blockades in the parade route to a terrorist bombing. Protesters are even restricted as to the types of signs they can carry -- cardboard, and not too thick.

The whole thing, Morris says, reminds him of a third-world election. "The tone of it is very repressive," he says. "It's an inauguration that sounds like a police state that has put somebody in power."


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