Reflections on the September 24 antiwar mobilization and the spiritual power of protest
On the Peace Bus
"Welcome peace warriooors!" shouts Sara Williams into the bus's tinny microphone. A 55 year-old healthcare worker from Saint Cloud, MN, Williams is one of our 'bus captains.' Her green tie-dyed t-shirt reads "Peace is Patriotic" and her powerful voice bubbles with excitement through a thick drawl from her native South Carolina, setting the mood for the grueling 25-hour bus ride ahead of us.
My brother Sam and I decided at the last minute to join a group of Minnesota activists on a bus chartered by Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) headed for the September 24 peace march on Washington, DC. Drawing upwards of 300,000 people, this would turn out to be the largest antiwar demonstration since before the war.
While I have attended many local antiwar events in the "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, I had stayed home for all of the big demonstrations in New York and Washington since the Bush administration began its march to war four years ago. We decided to take the bus in part because we couldn't afford to fly, but also because we wanted to find out what kind of people are so committed that they would spend nearly 50 hours sitting upright, cramped and sleep-deprived, just to spend barely ten hours marching and chanting in the streets of DC.
Of the 45 people on our bus, some are seasoned activists, but half are under 30 and even more are headed to a national protest for their first time. Alex, a student from Saint Cloud, is one of the first-timers. He lived near Washington in 2003 but skipped the large prewar protests because "the invasion was a foregone conclusion." This time, he says, "I can't not go."
"This is a watershed moment in the history of our movement," says Marv Davidov, 74, visibly moved by the number of new protesters on the bus. Considered the "father of the movement" by many local activists, he joked Saturday to a reporter from the Minneapolis StarTribune that he had "picketed Abraham Lincoln." Over the years, Davidov has taught the techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience to thousands of laborers, students, immigrants, and other social justice activists. Now, he teaches courses on nonviolent political action at a local college.
On the March
We roll into Washington at 10:30 AM Saturday and join the rally on the lawn south of the White House. Like the mood on the bus, the feeling on the streets of DC is remarkably more upbeat than at protests before the war started. Anger at the Bush administration and remorse over the loss of life on both sides is everywhere, to be sure. "What noble cause did my son die for?" says Cindy Sheehan, the Vacaville, CA, mother of slain soldier Casey Sheehan, whose encampment in Crawford, TX, drew national attention last summer and helped reinvigorate the antiwar movement. Images of fallen soldiers and Iraqi civilians are everywhere, and there is a large contingent of military families and Iraq war veterans. A lone woman holds a sign that reads, "Bring my son home now."
Inspired by Cindy Sheehan, angered by the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and bolstered by recent polls showing a majority of Americans now oppose the war, there is a sense of impending victory here; unlike the resignation that reigned at prewar protests. Many of the signs, banners, and chants have switched from angry slogans to positive, even humorous ones, like "Make levees not war," and "God IM'ed [Instant Messaged] me. She said 'Peace not war.'" Many contingents in the march are dancing and singing. But the most common message, eleven words printed on signs everywhere, comes through loud and clear: "End the War on Iraq and Bring the Troops Home Now."
As the march snakes past the White House, Sam and I fall in with the CodePink contingent, easily 1,000 women dressed in hot pink and carrying pink balloons, led by several pink-clad cheerleaders. We stop in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the presidential mansion and watch as the march comes to a brief halt while Cindy Sheehan and Jesse Jackson attempt to approach the gates of the White House. The crowd chants "Jesse, Jesse," and "We love you, Cindy." This time, it's a photo op, but Sheehan and several hundred others would return to the same spot on Monday to be arrested in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
The march route loops through downtown and spills out onto the Mall, next to the Washington Monument, where Sheehan's group Gold Star Families for Peace has set up "Camp Casey East," a somber memorial with over 1,900 white crosses representing each of the fallen US soldiers. Many of the soldiers' relatives have placed their boots and dogtags there as well. Some include photos and obituaries of the deceased. Everywhere, teary-eyed demonstrators who, just a few blocks earlier, were chanting and railing loudly against the war, walk silently among the crosses.
We continue down the Mall past the Monument to the "Operation Ceasefire" concert stage, where bands ranging from Sweet Honey in the Rock to Steve Earle to Thievery Corporation help the crowd celebrate and release the energy of the day. Backstage, I ask Ysaye Barnwell, of Sweet Honey in the Rock, why she came today. "I'm here because I want to be one in the number to stand against this war," she says, "and to stand for peace, and for bringing our troops home, and for using the money that we pay in our taxes in some more constructive ways, because I feel like the president of the United States is deconstructing this country. That's why I'm here."
"And to sing a song or two," she adds with a smile, summing up perfectly the feeling of this entire event.
The Road Ahead
Back on the WAMM bus, the Minnesota contingent is exhausted but buzzing. Sunday morning, after a long, deep, if uncomfortable sleep, people share stories about their favorite signs and slogans from the march, trade email addresses, and make announcements about upcoming antiwar events back home. Taking the microphone again, Marv Davidov puts it in context for us. "The Bush administration is watching," he says. Comparing it to the effect of the Vietnam War protests, he continues, "They're watching. They're counting the numbers. They're looking at the spirit. No matter what they say to us, all our words and actions count. This has been a great weekend, and we'll go forward until all our objectives have been reached."
As Ysaye Barnwell sings, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."