26 March 2008

'Number 64' -- Moving First-Person Heller Testimonial

Victoria Lloyd wrote me earlier today. In her email, she told me she wanted to share with people across the United States what it felt like to hang out in line outside the Supreme Court, and, to her surprise, finally be admitted to witness history unfold.

Here is her lead-in from the email she sent. Her essay, a moving account titled "Number 64," is below and describes her experiences in and around the High Court, and watching the oral arguments in District of Columbia v. Heller play out.

"Hi Brent. My name is Victoria Lloyd. As an avid hunter and shooter, I am a fan of your blog The Ready Line. I live in DC, and last week I actually camped on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court to attend the Heller arguments. I thought you and maybe your readers would enjoy the short write-up on my experience that so many of my friends and colleagues have. I have attached a photo of Dick Heller and myself for fun as well. I hope you enjoy the short summary and that it helps you as a Second Amendment supporter get a taste of the experience not many were able to have. All the best,Victoria F. Lloyd.

"It was six o’clock in the evening on the 17th of March when I drove by the United States Supreme Court to scout the line of people that had gathered on the sidewalk. They were strewn about in an unkempt line starting at the base of the marble steps of the court. I could see several people dining on Armand’s pizza and a delivery man with bags of Chinese food being paid by a young man bundled in a sweatshirt, jeans, and a North Face jacket. It was clear that these people were in for the long haul.

"After parking several blocks away, I gathered my bags of food, flashlights, pillows, tent stakes, and sleeping bag pads. Arriving on the corner of East Capitol and 1st street SE I could see where the line ended, and the patch of concrete that I would call home for what I assumed would be the next 15 hours. "Is this spot taken?" I asked the last man in line as he was fiddling with his Blackberry. "Well, number 62 is right here, but you can set-up right there." He went on to explain that everyone had been assigned a number and that I needed to find "Sarah" in the black coat at the front of the line.

"Sarah removed from her bag a small writing tablet with a list of names written by a very cold shaky hand. "You are number sixty-three" she said to me as she added my name to the second page of her unofficial list. She, like many others in line, was a law student that had come to that sidewalk with hopes of witnessing an historic Supreme Court argument in the morning.

"There was a calm deliberateness about those that had gathered to endure the cold for the evening. Many had come in groups of four or so, others had come with a single friend, and several had come alone to fulfill their duty as a gopher on Capitol Hill and line-sit for the Washington bigwig that they someday hoped to become. I came with a friend whose life experiences placed her on the opposite side of the issue than me. We both had reasons for wanting to be in that courtroom in the morning, but like many others in the crowd, kept the conversation to the weather, and other topics that our parents had raised us to politely engage in at cocktail parties and other social gatherings.

"You would almost forget that you and those around you had gathered to witness the first argument before the Supreme Court on the interpretation of the Second Amendment and Washington D.C.’s 32-year-old handgun ban. Yes, you would almost forget until you realized that it was in fact very cold, you were sitting on a rolled-up sleeping bag to guard your derrière from the hard and even colder concrete, and that you were in fact surrounded by an ever-growing herd of news teams brandishing lights, wires, cameras, and boom microphones.

"Almost everyone that was interviewed was composed and eloquent in their delivery, conveying beautifully and passionately their personal reasons for being there. It was clear that this impromptu assemblage of city campers was not typified by beer-guzzling marijuana smoking groupies lined-up for tickets to the rock concert of the century. Instead, it was like Woodstock for intellectuals. Many had traveled by plane from their hometown with only the clothes and blankets they sat swaddled in and a suit to don for their hopeful journey up the marble steps and into the doors of the court in the morning.

"At 11 pm, it felt as if it were daytime. The streetlights beamed, additional fluorescent lights hung high above me on the street corner, and the occasional cameraman would swoop in with a glaring light as he panned down the line of people. News teams were everywhere trying to capture the spirit of the city campers’ experience. As I began to unfold the tent I had brought and empty the metal poles from the tightly packed Gore-Tex bag, a cameraman appeared with a bright light and boom microphone. He began to document both the clumsy assembly and determination that my friend and I exuded as we frustratedly fumbled with the abundance of pieces and sheer physics of the task at hand. Nearly completed, our tent stood with wavering structural integrity and we divided between us the final tent stakes. Just then a Supreme Court officer approached us and in a deep authoritative voice exclaimed, "No tents allowed. Take it down."

"I lay there on the sidewalk in my mummy sleeping bag with the hood pulled over my head to shield the fluorescent light cascading down from above. As I peeked out at the corner, I could see a reporter from The Washington Times with a camera lens that must have been a foot long, taking pictures of me from every possible angle. Behind me I could hear the young man, who had been droning on from his soapbox for what seemed like hours. He spouted his "expertise" about tax brackets, healthcare, foreign policy, and any and every other issue he felt was his forte. An old man leaned over me asking if I was spending the night here. I replied yes, and the bag of throat lozenges he had in his hand began to crinkle. He handed me two flavors, said "thank you," and moved on to the next person. I giggled to myself, placed the lozenges aside, and knew that as long as I could hear my corner’s "talking head" outside discussing the next "hot topic," all was safe on the other side of my dark sleeping bag. I drifted into a vigilant sleep.

"Hey…hey," I heard from above, "your Gatorade is spilling." It was freezing, and somehow the Gatorade that sat between my sleeping bag and my friend’s had toppled over, drenched the foot of her sleeping bag, and was now trickling down the sidewalk to the curb. A quick shake and scoot of the cold and wet sleeping bag was all she needed, nothing was going to send us home to the warmth and comfort of our beds… we had become street corner camping warriors. Not even the rain which started in the wee hours of the morning was going to deter us or anyone in our sidewalk tribe from the possibility of having our "Rocky moment" on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I awoke at 6 am to the same view of the Capitol that had been so moving ever since I had arrived on that corner and been deemed "number sixty-three." People were starting to rustle, and Sarah, the list holder, made one more pass down the line, accounting for everyone. There had been concerns about a rogue line forming while the original line of sidewalk inhabitants slept. Surprisingly, the line held and no such formation was present at dawn. Everyone not only knew their own number, but they could account for typically five numbers to both their right and left in line. Those that were previously strangers had become a kind of memo board. If one went in search of a bathroom they were always accounted for by someone else incase Sarah made another pass down the line. The father with his teenage son that were the bend in the line at the corner, accounted for me and my friend as we went to pack away the camping gear in the car and embark on our quest for coffee.

"The sidewalk tribe was standing with anticipating looks in their eyes when we returned. They faced the steps of the Court, and had amongst them some new faces. Line-sitters had been relieved by their sharp-dressed bigwigs and I could see one of the original plaintiffs in the case at the front of the line. It was obvious who had had a night’s sleep in a bed and a shower in the morning and who was an original out there. Number 62, like several others, returned from a local establishment’s "bathroom turned dressing room" sporting a suit and tie. But most just washed their hands and faces, and ran their fingers through their hair, it was apparent that the sidewalk warriors wore their sleepy faces and dirty clothes with pride. We deserved to be inside the court to hear these historic arguments.

"It had been discussed throughout the night how many seats would be available for the public. Rumors had started with 10 to 50, then the father with his teenage son that slept behind me on the street corner said 70 to 75. Nobody knew. We all just hoped that it would be our number, I was hoping for 63.

"We were told to form a single-file line on the steps of the court which when it reached the last step, bent to the left and followed the edge across the last marble riser. We were each handed a green ticket with a number written on the front, a picture of lady liberty, and a disclaimer on the back which said that the ticket does not guarantee entrance. The pieces of paper were about the size of a note card and were numbered one through 75. I had somehow become number 64. There was a sense of camaraderie amongst the sidewalk sleepers and the fact that the line only went up one person throughout the night was a true testament to that. Interviews continued as the press caught sight of the cards being handed out. One gentleman when being asked what he was holding by a news crew shouted "I got a ticket, I’m going to Hollywood!"

"Protestors, who were strangely absent throughout the night, began to appear in small numbers. The Second Amendment Sisters arrived from all over the Country and unrolled a 15- foot banner, people held handmade signs with scribbled statistics and slogans, town cars unloaded men and women dressed in their best suits, the media swarmed, flashes went off incessantly but in no particular rhythm, and the line steadily grew with those that were hoping to witness three to five minutes of history being made.

"Finally, the time had come. The guards whispered to each other and then began to count down the line. Fifty people were told to proceed up the steps and into the court, which they did victoriously. The rest of the line stood eagerly, awaiting word of how many additional people were to be admitted. At 9:45 am, fifteen minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin, the final twelve people were admitted, making number sixty-two the last camper inside. Number 63 turned to me, with a look of despair in his eyes, but proceeded to say how happy he was that his friend who flew from California, and was number fifty-one, was admitted. He himself had flown from Milwaukee. Hearts sank and the look of disbelief in these exhausted people’s eyes was gut-wrenching.

"The next 10 people in line were told they could enter the building to hear three to five minutes of the arguments. After removing all outerwear, and placing keys, cell phones, cameras, and metal objects in lockers, we were escorted to the door of the courtroom. As we walked down the marble hall, the gentleman in front of me, number 63, was told there was one more seat, and was whisked away for what was going to be the most amazing 75 minutes of his life.

"There I stood, at the front of the line, number 64. Feeling slightly defeated, I turned to the usher outside of the courtroom and asked her if there was just one more seat. She then said something that would change my March 18th forever. In a dismissive and slightly pugnacious tone, she said, "The people that got in [the courtroom] have been here since Sunday." She then dismissed me with her eyes, and her implication was clear, "they" deserved to see the arguments, and I did not. How could a woman be so insensitive to someone that represented an entire community of passionate people that slept on a concrete sidewalk in 33 degree weather and rain?

"The doors opened, and we were escorted into the back gallery of the court and seated for our three to five minutes of glory. The Courtroom was humbling. In front of a crimson velvet curtain in high-backed black leather chairs, behind an elevated mahogany bench that stretched the length of the lofty room, sat the nine justices. The gallery was filled with mahogany pews that held press on one side, attorneys on another, friends of the Justices, members of the Supreme Court Bar, and the 63 seats for the public. The coffered ceiling appeared to be hand-carved, along with the bold moldings that skirted around the room above the fantastic marble columns.

"Three attorneys were sworn in to the Supreme Court bar, including a son of one of the Chief Justice’s. The case was then called to order, and Solicitor General Paul D. Clement began to share with the court, the government’s view of the case. History was being made. Just then we were asked to stand and leave, our four minutes were over, or so I thought.

"As I walked out of the courtroom, I was reminded of the usher who had been so rude. Offended to my core, as a member of the city campers, I asked where the Marshall’s office was. My friend and I entered the office in our tattered and dirty clothes, holding our green cards which said numbers 64 and 65, and were received by a very nice gentleman. He apologized for the usher’s insensitive comment, and promptly said he would find us two seats in the courtroom. He escorted us into our seats amongst the attorneys, and we remained in utter disbelief as we passed the offending usher, who looked as shocked as we did.

"The arguments ensued in what I would consider to be the format of the most grueling oral defense I have ever seen. Chief Justice Kennedy, who is typically the swing vote in the Court, seemed to be in favor of overturning the D.C gun ban. Several of the other Justices seemed to almost argue Gura’s case for him. However, it was not all "sugar and spice" for either of the lawyers. The Justices were quick to find any error in an argument and ruthless in twisting each attorney until they had both faulted their own logic several times. To say Gura and Dellinger had to stay on their toes, would be the understatement of the century.

"After the gavel struck the bench and the case was dismissed, we stood as the justices exited. As I exited the courtroom I felt as if I was emerging from a long battle victoriously. I was there. I slept on the concrete sidewalk. I shivered all night. I talked my way back into the courtroom. I was exhausted, dirty, and hungry, but it felt good. As I was reminding myself of the experience that I had just been through I caught sight of Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox who were also coming out of the courtroom. I said hello and shook hands with both of them. Although I wish I had looked slightly more presentable, I was pleased that I could share a second of that magical moment in their company.

"I walked down the marble steps of the Supreme Court amidst the camera crews, interviews, protestors, police, and lines… and felt victorious. As I passed through the crowd, I overheard a fellow sidewalk warrior and learned something very special. The old man that was bundled beyond recognition, passing out lozenges late at night was a man that cared very much for the cold campers and was indeed grateful for them. Dick Heller. I myself am grateful for the Supreme Court usher, for without her, my long journey to witness history being made may have ended after a four-minute peek."

Victoria, thank you for sharing your story from March 18. Your writing makes me feel like we were right there with you.

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