When close to two thousand people marched to the Capitol Reflecting Pool Saturday afternoon to protest the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, it was if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street had clasped hands.
"It's very important that the American people be allowed to talk about what they want to talk about, with whom they want to talk about it, and not have the government paying attention to anything," said David, a consultant with the Public Health Service who described himself as more Tea Party than Occupy.
The rally was sponsored by Stop Watching Us, a coalition of groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, was meant to build support for forthcoming legislation that would end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of communications data under the Patriot Act. Reauthorized several times by Congress, the full scope of the programs were not known to the public until the leak of a secret surveillance court order by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Since Snowden's revelations, public opinion has begun to shift away from government surveillance programs, for the first time since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Top intelligence officials claims about the usefulness of the programs for preventing terrorism have withered under scrutiny.
The crowd at the protest reflected the strange political hodgepodge that has found common cause in protesting the NSA (though perhaps no stranger than the NSA's supporters). Protesters held signs that read "Stop Mass Spying" and thanked Snowden for leaking information to the press. Some of the protesters wore buttons from Occupy Wall Street or said "Free Bradley Manning," others wore t-shirts from the libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty.
Several protesters purchased blue jackets fashioned to look like the raid jackets worn by federal agents, which said "U.S. Citizen" on the back. Medea Benjamin, the head of the anti-war group Code Pink, was weaving through the crowd on a pink bicycle, wearing oversized glasses and carrying a giant pink sign shaped like a hand that said "hands off our data." Supporters of the conspiracy-minded Lyndon LaRouche were also there, holding signs depicting President Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache.
But if some fringe activists were there, many of the protesters had practical concerns. Sam and Blake, a couple from San Francisco, said they were there because of how revelations about NSA spying had affected the tech industry. "People around the world don't trust the American government and the companies that are subject to American laws anymore because they want their data to be kept private," said Blake.
Amina Rubin, an activist with the Council on American Islamic Relations, said she was there to take a stand against mass surveillance.
"As a Muslim I've been aware that it's been happening at least for our community for a long time, but we've recently been learning it's been happening to everybody," said Rubin. "It's really important for people to show we're not just going to let it happen."
As the crowd marched toward the reflecting pool, protesters carried a large blue banner inscribed with the language of the Fourth Amendment. Protesters chanted "get a warrant" and "wiretap? Fight back!" to the thundering beat of a drum. Kyle, a student from Philadelphia who had come to the protest with his family, said of the NSA, "they're reading my emails, they're watching the porn I watch! It's ridiculous."