Cover Story

Witness to history

Issue: "Mad Dash," Dec. 16, 2000

Thursday, Nov. 30, 7:30 p.m. "This is do-able," I reassure myself, stepping into the queue of hopefuls anticipating a glimpse of Friday's U.S. Supreme Court proceedings. "It's 38 degrees; I'll be inside in 15 hours. No problem." "You gotta number yet?" barks a voice. It comes from the direction of two men in their late twenties, one suit-clad and rosy-cheeked, the other pale in blue jeans and a parka. They're sitting on the bone-cold cement just up the line from me, handing small pieces of paper back and forth and scribbling furiously. The rosy-cheeked fellow (Joel, by name) pushes a bit of paper into my hand. It has the number 125 and a signature. "That's your number," Joel says, then motions to his accomplice: "and the signature is John here." Joel explains that John is No. 1 in line, having shown up over 15 hours before, at 3:59 a.m. John, in good with the court security guards, is policing the line for squatters. Only ticket holders with John's signature will get in, Joel says. By 9 p.m. the card games are well under way. I am playing with Nos. 118, 126, and 127: Tom, Brooke, and Jaycee. Tom is a young, well-spoken Democrat; Brooke and Jaycee are Republican congressional staffers. It's hard to tell who's who in line. Everybody talks about the case, but nobody pushes. As the evening wears on, pizza delivery cars halt at the curb and the driver steps out, calling a number (representing the place in line that ordered the pizza). A few Florida election celebrities stop for a visit. Judge Charles Burton of the Palm Beach canvassing board signs autographs. A Japanese tourist videotapes line-standers as she quizzes them about the Electoral College. At 2 a.m. almost all of us are huddled in sleeping bags or under blankets. The sidewalk from 1st to 2nd Streets is a row of oblong lumps. A kind soul walks the line, pouring coffee for the still-awake. It becomes very quiet and very, very cold, but down the line I hear strains of Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3. Shortly before 5 a.m. our wakeup call comes: TV trucks are flanking the courthouse. Cameramen in bright parkas pour out and set to work. Then the early morning network anchors step in front of the cameras, and placard-laden demonstrators ("NOW Fight the Radical Right" or "I'm a GOP Thug") assemble in front of the courthouse steps. In the gray morning, Joel and John make arrangements with a new shift of security guards, reiterating the importance of their numbering system. The weary emerge from their sidewalk-beds and pack up their blankets as TV crews film the disheveled 250 who spent the night in line in hopes of witnessing the hearings. By 8:30 demonstrators are coming from every direction, and soon it is standing room only in front of the courthouse steps. Protesters fill the street and overflow onto the Capitol lawn. The chants are deafening. At 10 a.m., the line snakes forward as the first line-standers are led into the courthouse. A squatter elbows in but is rebuffed by guards who require tickets bearing No. 1 John's signature. The numbering system worked! A news reporter asks for an interview, but just then I hear the question I nearly froze for: "Your ticket please, sir?"

-by World Journalism Institute student Owen Leimbach

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