In Dulles airport, on the morning of the September 24 antiwar protest, alongside the Washington Monument fridge magnets, a gift shop hawked a curious sign of the times: a T-shirt bearing the slogan DON’T BLAME ME–I VOTED FOR KERRY. There was no pro-Bush T-shirt offering political “balance,” and the item was the most prominent in the store. Given Kerry’s own failure to vote against the war, of course, the T-shirt reflected the dearth, within the political establishment, of true opponents of war and mayhem. But it was just another sign of how mainstream anti-Bush sentiment has become, along with the President’s low approval ratings and the fact that more than half of Americans now oppose the war on Iraq. In such a climate, especially in the aftermath of the Administration’s disgraceful response to Hurricane Katrina, it seemed that the day’s march should have drawn at least a million people.
But organizing is never as simple as that. The two major coalitions behind the day’s events, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), had spent much of the summer fighting with each other. ANSWER attracts criticism wherever it goes, for such problems as a lack of political nuance (on issues ranging from Israel to North Korea) and a bullying attitude toward other antiwar groups. Many UFPJ activists had been reluctant to co-sponsor Saturday’s events with ANSWER, arguing that the disagreements between the groups were real and that political alliances should not be forged out of fear (in this case, the well-founded fear that unless the groups joined forces, ANSWER would sabotage UFPJ). Others countered that the general protesting public doesn’t care about the differences between antiwar groups and is annoyed and confused when two protests occur on the same day, an inevitable outcome of refusing to join forces. Besides, these big-tent advocates insisted, when the movement’s divisions are exposed so plainly, everyone looks weak.
The success of the day proved that those in the latter camp were right. While some liberals were scared away by ANSWER’s participation, a huge number of Americans–at least 100,000, probably many more–did attend. They traveled from places as divergent as Louisville, Kentucky, and Orange County, California. The march included many more families with children than usual and was more racially diverse. Plenty of clean-cut suburbanites turned out, some still proudly carrying a torch for the Kerry or Dean campaign. For the first time in history, a labor delegation assembled at the AFL-CIO headquarters, where it joined the march, a sizable and vocal crew.
In contrast with past ANSWER-sponsored protests, which have had a sterile, McLeftist feel and aired a laundry list of grievances of interest to only a tiny minority, this one expressed–through the marchers’ own messages, scrawled on thousands of handmade signs, and in the speakers’ exhortations from the podium–a unified, clear and eloquent opposition to the war on the Iraqi people and its toll on domestic priorities, especially as exemplified by the tragedy in the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf. Speakers like Jesse Jackson, George Galloway and Cindy Sheehan were inspiring and succinct. Sheehan said, “Not one person should have died, and not one more person should die.”
New Orleans was on everyone’s lips, as a clear example of this Administration’s callous indifference toward people on its own shores, and the most omnipresent–and best–slogan of the day was MAKE LEVEES NOT WAR. The march expressed strong values, not just about war and peace but about the proper role of government and who pays the price for Bush’s policies. Marching toward the White House, students from Manhattan’s Vanguard High School chanted, “Bush is a terrorist!” They were angry, they explained, that Bush was spending money on the war and had done so little to help the hurricane victims in Louisiana. “It’s just wrong! And it’s so retarded,” said Thays Barcelos, a tenth grader. “It’s so retarded I can’t even believe it!”
As we passed the White House, another group of young people shouted, “Move, Bush! Get out of the way!” That chant, in its impatient spirit, sounded just right. Bush and his war are obstacles to human progress, a distraction from problems that need to–and can–be solved, like inequality and global warming. Yet where is the supposed opposition party? No major Democratic leader spoke at the march, or even attended, despite the growing majority of the public that is against the war. Many marchers–including members of Camp Casey, the group that has been traveling with Cindy Sheehan–have been lobbying their Democratic Representatives to speak out against the war and at least set forth a timetable for withdrawal. Bush’s presidency probably can’t be resuscitated from the twin crises of Iraq and Katrina, but it’s not clear the Democrats have the vision or gusto to step over its corpse. Let’s hope a growing movement will leave them no other choice.