I am a creature of habit. My weekends are normally sacrosanct. After a full week of work, I have a hard time just getting up the energy to pay bills and shop for groceries. Nevertheless, yesterday I found myself drawn, as if by magnetism, out of my bed and into Washington, D.C. for the large antiwar march.
I had an idea what to expect. In 2000, I took a number of junior high students down to the National Mall to protest at a gay rights rally. We paraded down Constitution Avenue and proudly held up our Unitarian Universalist banner to the cheers of many and the jeers of a few. One man carried a large wooden cross across the Mall. He lectured us on the evils of homosexuality. Whom would Jesus hate? I wished him a good therapist and wondered what twisted upbringing had caused him to hate so many people.
Yesterday the weather looked chancy so I brought an umbrella. The Metrorail train was filled with antiwar protestors. Activists were busy handing out flyers on the train. An obviously very young communist was informing us that we needed a revolution. He went on to say that there were many good things about Josef Stalin. I bit my lip and wondered if this naïve man knew that Stalin had killed as many men as Hitler, and maybe more.
This rally was sponsored in part by International Answer. They had their own agenda, and getting troops out of Iraq was just one part of it. I do not know whether to loathe or love International Answer. Most likely, the rally would not have happened at all without them. Usually, it takes the energy of the fringe to organize massive rallies like this. For this, the antiwar people should be grateful. However, half of their rally consisted of speeches on causes having little to do with the war on Iraq. Yes, I want to end racism but no, I am not for socialism. I was definitely sympathetic to their call for Palestinian rights. Yes, I think we should end our subsidy of Israel, much of which is used to oppress Palestinians and confiscate their land and water. On the other hand, when they wanted us to chant “Intifada forever”, I decided I had been at the rally too long. While I understand why armed resistance occurs, I do not support violence as a solution to oppression.
However, most of the speakers were good, although they added little illumination to the issues. Antiwar rallies are not about articulating subtle aspects of foreign policy. They are about demonstrating political power. There were plenty of simple chants and lots of noise. I worked my way to within fifty feet of the stage. Among the celebrities who spoke were the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cindy Sheehan. The most coherent of the bunch was Ramsey Clark, our attorney general during the Johnson Administration. He called for Bush’s impeachment. Indeed, many in the crowd toted Impeach Bush! signs. Clark made a convincing case for impeachment. However, he was clearly pissing into the wind. Bush has no chance of being impeached by this Congress. In the unlikely event that Congress turns Democratic in 2006 then we can talk about it.
Amtrak trains from the northeast were delayed by suspiciously timed electrical problems. There were also delays on some of the Metrorail lines. Consequently, the organizers of the rally delayed the march, to the disgruntlement of many in the crowd. “We came here to march!” many of them hollered. Instead, we got one speaker after another from the increasingly lunatic fringes of ANSWER. The crowd at the rally began to notice that marchers were queuing up on Constitution Avenue. So eventually, most abandoned the rally and joined in the queue. All the while overhead, a Navy helicopter kept circling us. I am not sure what they feared. One speaker remarked that the helicopter should be down in Texas or New Orleans helping hurricane survivors rather than keeping a paranoid eye on a peaceful crowd. Indeed.
So the rally left something to be desired. I was beginning to wonder how many people would actually be in the march, because we had filled up The Ellipse but not much else. The clouds were getting darker and we occasionally were spattered with rain. It turned out that the rally itself was a sideshow, and the march was the main event.
My fears of an undersize crowd did not materialize. I do not know where all the protestors came from all of a sudden but they were everywhere. I waited for about an hour in a line just to get to a point where I could participate in the march. I picked up one of the many free signs and plunged in.
While the march was peaceful, it was still an angry crowd. I did not see anyone giving flowers out to the police officers. On the other hand, with no violence the police officers had little to do but observe. I got the feeling that, unlike during the days of the Vietnam protests, they were on our side. There were so many people that the march moved very slowly and often stopped altogether.
While we were certainly angry, there was still a lot of humor. Billionaires for Bush made a hilarious appearance on Pennsylvania Avenue. Many of the signs were not only barbed, but also funny. Some were even obscene. There were sideshows along the march route, which went up 15th Street and across Pennsylvania Avenue right in front of the White House. Where were all these people coming from? When we approached 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, I was able to look down Pennsylvania Avenue see other marchers going south on 12th Street, queuing up to protest. Buses lined the roads, but lots of others were coming from the Metro, or had walked in from Union Station.
The volume of marchers was truly staggering. D.C. Police Chief Ramsey said that he believed there were 100,000 marchers at least, and would not be surprised if there were 150,000 altogether. It could well have been more than this. It was hard to measure, but six hours of marching is a lot of marchers. The march continued into the night, long after I had returned home. Whatever the turnout, it was an awesome number of protestors.
The march was very much a cross section of America itself. From grandmothers to toddlers, from Buddhist monks to starry-eyed teens, they were all there. I was proudest of our youth, who were there in large numbers, vocal and full of energy. They needed to march in large numbers because unless policy changes they will be the ones most likely to pay with their lives for Bush’s lies.
Naturally, both our President and Vice President managed to stay out of town. However, our message was unmistakable: our war with Iraq is based on lies and has turned into an unwinnable disaster. It is not going to get better, so we need to bring home our troops home now before more lives are lost. As one sign put it, “Troops for the Gulf States, not the Persian Gulf!”
Our administration will, of course ignore this protest. Nevertheless, members of Congress had better wake up and smell the coffee. Reputedly, Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove calls the antiwar movement non-existent. If he still holds to this position, he is a fool. Even the few pro-war folks who stopped to heckle us must have left the march chagrined. Our overwhelming size and power can no longer be snippily dismissed. Moreover, we will keep at it until we have our troops home and our country back in the hands of people who have some clue how to govern.
I took my protest sign home with me. As I was exiting the Vienna Metro station, a middle aged pro-war protestor harassed me. “Do you know that you are helping Osama bin Laden kill American soldiers?” he lectured me. Goodness! Imagine that! That Bush would invade a country illegally and result in the deaths of nearly 2000 of our service members and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis did not seem to bother him at all. I guess our troops are safer in Iraq than they are in the United States. I did not engage him in conversation and he was soon onto heckling some other antiwar protestors.
This was a sad end to a day full of energy and excitement. If you were at the rally then the power of the people was palpable. We were one large unified mass and our beat rang out across Washington and the United States. Our current government is now riddled with major fissures, and we created another one yesterday. The people are already with us. It is inevitable that we will win. As the situation continues to devolve and the 2006 elections approach, congressional representatives will realize which side their bread is buttered on, and will find a way to end this pointless war.