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Smoke Signals

A smoke-less Friday night protest to Ban the anti-smoking Ban.

By 11.17.03

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WASHINGTON -- It was 7:49 Friday night at Millie & Al's, a pub on 18th Street in the Adams Morgan district, and it looked like any other night. A hockey game flickered on the small television screen; elk antlers hung near the back wall next to a string of M&M Christmas lights; behind the bar, the light that signaled $1 jello shooters was not yet activated; working stiffs, tired from the week, unwound at the bar while friends laughed and chatted at tables. I had a bottle of Guinness in front of me and a pizza on the way, but I kept glancing toward the entrance, and back at the patrons.

Right about 7:50, the door swung open and at least a dozen twentysomethings shuffled through. The thing that caught the customers' eyes was not so much the size of this crowd, but that they were all wearing the same white T-shirt with [BAN] THE [BAN] bracketed and in bold. The camera crew from Channel 7 that followed them, with a spotlight illuminating the room, also managed to turn a few heads. "Bet you didn't know you were going to be on TV tonight," said my waiter.

True, but I had an inkling. Ban the Ban is that old cliché, a genuine grassroots effort, with all of the weirdness that entails. These inactivists aim to convince the D.C. City Council to refrain from passing the Smokefree Workplaces Act of 2003, which will prohibit, among other things, smoking in restaurants and bars -- thus the group's unusual venue for a protest. Millie & Al's was only the first stop of the night in the first Ban the Ban Pub Crawl, and nobody -- protesters and observers alike -- was sure quite what to make of it.

While the Ban the Banners milled about the entrance and talked to themselves and occasional patron, and while the television crew tried to secure permission to film on the premises, I motioned for a few familiars to come over to my table. Catoistas Brooke Oberwetter and Gene Healy stopped by, as did blogger Joanne McNeil.

I decided to toss a few questions their way. What, I asked, did they hope to accomplish? Could they really convince the D.C. bigs to buck the petty spirit of the age and let people dine and puff in peace? Once the novelty had worn off, would they be able to get any media attention? And -- by the way -- why weren't the Ban the Banners lighting up?

"Very few of us are smokers," said Brooke, a little embarrassed. "Some of us are social smokers," she added, but apparently they weren't feeling very sociable that night. The laudable point of the protest was to speak up for the right to smoke; still, it was weird to watch a bunch of healthy-living twentysomethings stick up for the right to…die of emphysema and lung cancer.

Granted, it takes all kinds. And this may be one of those glass houses issues: I'm a second hand smoker only, though an avid one. However, a more in your face presentation would have been so much more satisfying. Just this once, one wanted a mass of youths dragging a cloud of smoke from bar to bar, defiant rhetoric, and plenty of sneers.

Instead, they were a group of mostly non-smoking young adults in new white T-shirts, passing out fliers that pointed up the number of D.C. restaurants that are "voluntarily smokefree" and asked readers to "help keep D.C. nightlife vibrant and diverse." In one conversation I took part in, two Ban the Banners debated the merits of lighting up; one opined that they didn't want to look like lobbyists for the tobacco companies.

Eventually, permission was granted to film in the bar, and most of the anti-anti-smoking activists followed the cameras to the other side of the room. The crew interviewed customers about the proposed smoking ban and elicited mostly positive (e.g., anti-ban) responses. Katherine Ruddy arrived with a few friends and the pizza finally came, so we dug in. Once the shooting finished, the bar crawl moved on to the next of six locations; Ban the Banners were kind enough to leave a nearly full pitcher of Sam Adams with us.

We ate and talked and swayed to songs such as "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Sweet Home Alabama" and told the waiter we'd pass on those jello shooters, really. When Kat lit up a cigarette, she explained that she was doing it "for the cause," and smiled.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.