Public protest doesn't seem to affect policy, and when rallies and marches are acknowledged at all, the number of people is always so woefully underreported that we demonstrators might as well be whistling into the wind. I've spent many hours in Lafayette Park, some of them in the company of homeless veterans, looking across at the White House, wondering if our presence was making any impact at all. So why do I do it?
During the Vietnam War, President Nixon claimed he was unaffected by the demonstrators, that he didn't notice them because he was caught up watching football. Years later, people close to the administration said that the antiwar movement had Nixon gnashing his teeth and calling in advisers. So, regardless of how impervious our leadership appears, I like to think that my fellow protesters and I are having an impact (if only subliminally).
Truth be told, though, the main reason I turn up at rallies and make cross-country treks to take action is that the thought of my children and other people's children being sacrificed to our government's public neglect and growing militarism makes me sick -- and I couldn't live with myself if I didn't take some sort of stand.
At first, when I insisted on wearing pink, the color of choice for CODEPINK -- a women-initiated, grassroots movement to stop the war in Iraq -- my children were embarrassed. When I got arrested, they concluded that I was exercising an exhibitionist streak. As we started to talk about how passionately I felt about showing up and being heard, however, they started coming with me. Now I joke about how my quality parental time is at protests. I'm only half kidding.
In September 2005, one of my son Oliver's friends, Ezra, who is draft age, joined us in Washington. I volunteered the two of them for the pink-balloon-inflation assembly line. We worked tirelessly, tying so many balloons I ended up with a nasty blister. During the march, the sky was dotted with bright, vibrant specks of pink as far as we could see. I looked over at Ezra, who was beaming the way I remember him in elementary school. He gestured expansively: 'It feels pretty powerful. I probably touched half of them.'
One of my sons stayed up most of the night with Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey. He had volunteered for the security detail, and she couldn't sleep. Another of my boys was conscripted to take an aerial photo of antiwar protesters from atop the Washington Monument. They had lined their bodies up to spell 'Mom Says NO WAR,' and the picture made the newswire. Later that weekend, my youngest, a teenage musician and writer of peace songs, jammed until dawn in Lafayette Park.
In a sense, these are pilgrimages to an alternative cultural universe. On November 17, 2002, I went to D.C. for CODEPINK's first vigil and fast. When I got there, I found a small, grubby office with a window looking onto an airshaft, a phone line, some eye-catching buttons that said CODEPINK, and a handful of like-minded souls who had caught the scent of something that, at the time, I could not quite articulate. We were creating to_gether, sleeping on floors, in tents, on park benches, and two to a bed with new best friends. There was a spirit of play and celebration and an intention to, in Gandhi's words, 'be the change you want to see.'
Since then, CODEPINK (www.codepink4peace.org) has become a force with 300 chapters in 14 countries.
Whenever I wear that pink button, I have remarkable encounters with every kind of person imaginable. I end up having conversations that take unexpected paths and remind me how much kindness and decency there is in the world. And that's the real reward.
As Emma Goldman said, 'If I can't dance, it's not my revolution.' What I have discovered, as have my children, is that being around people who speak and act from the heart is a blast because they are imagining, improvising, and collaborating in service of a peaceful world that works for all. What better party could one hope to attend?
Nina Rothschild Utne is Utne Reader's editor at large.