Postcards From New York
Among the approximately 150,000 people who took to the streets of New York on March 22 to protest the US invasion of Iraq were six Nation interns. When they weren't busy passing out Nation buttons, distributing free copies of the mag or chanting and marching, they wrote the following "postcards" about what they saw.
The anti-Bush sentiment was thick. Signs showing George Herbert Walker Bush with a pint-sized W on his lap noted: "Junior needs a time-out!" Meanwhile, chanters complemented the images: "George Bush, we know you! Your daddy was a killer, too!" or the very popular, if not especially rhythmic: "George Bush! Pull out! Just like your daddy should have!"
Perched on her grandma's shoulders, an apple-cheeked 5-year-old flashes a peace sign. Squinting in the sunlight, she periodically switches arms so she doesn't get tired. Nearby, a prepubescent curly-haired boy proudly raises a sign reading "Murder Is Not Patriotic." He wears a tie-dyed shirt adorned with a peace sign fashioned from duct tape. ("He wore this at the last antiwar protest," says his mother. "Duct tape was the big thing then.")
I feel a tapping on my hip. A tiny, pigtailed child holds her hand out for one of the buttons I'm distributing. She wears a sign around her neck. "I'm Only Six, and I Know War Is Wrong" is written in her own scrawl. I give her the only button I have left. "Daddy, what does 'Leave no CEO Behind' mean?" she asks. "I'll explain that to you later, honey," says her father wryly. "We'll talk about that sometime soon."
* * * *
Creativity, sharp-edged humor and a profound sadness blended together in the spirited march that rolled down Broadway.
A woman dressed in a black veil carrying a sign reading "Today I Weep for My Country" stood in sharp contrast to the inspiring call of a conch shell emanating from a young girl standing on a fire escape near 11th Street.
In a sign of a truly modern-day peace movement, one group near the front of the march, the Uptown Youth for Peace and Justice, called out chants to hip-hop-style beats: "We got to beat, beat back the Bush attack." And later, another group called out "D-A-D-D-Y, we know how you got your job, your daddy, hey hey, your daddy."
At an island between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, a crowd gathered to watch a song-and-dance performance of the Missile Dick Chicks. Seven women dressed in red white and blue with large silver rockets protruding outside their pants parodied the Bush Administration and its hyper-capitalist ethos in a remade song, "Shop in the Name of Love." And the ladies showed nothing but love to police officers who hassled the women to leave the island and continue marching. They blew kisses at the men in uniform, fondled their missiles and called out, "I love you. I love you for being you," before rejoining the crowd that moved unimpeded toward Washington Square Park.
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The evening news only got it half right. Last Saturday in New York City, tens of thousands of people asked for peace. Marching from 42nd Street (the heart of the theater district) to Washington Square Park (the heart of Greenwich Village), crowds flowed down Broadway on a warm day in early spring. Later that evening, Tom Brokaw accurately referred to the protest as an antiwar march. He went on, however, to contrast it to "promilitary" counterdemonstrations held around the country. To the mainstream media, it seems, one is either antiwar or promilitary. Not so. On the streets of New York, signs and chants proclaimed several variations on "Support Our Troops! Bring Them Home." One demonstrator held a sign suggesting that Americans should "Sacrifice Our SUVs" rather than our country's young men and women. Some demonstrators carried American flags, while others held signs proclaiming themselves patriots. "Dissent," proclaimed one "Protects Democracy." Still other signs issued statements like "'Yee-Ha' Is Not a Foreign Policy" and "Mainstream Media--Pentagon Puppets."
As protesters neared Herald Square at 34th Street, where news trucks were parked, demonstrators broke out with a chorus of "Shame on the media!" and "Truth not lies!" Perched on the roof of an NBC news truck, a photographer snapped shots as marchers passed by. He was one of hundreds of photographers who lined the route, training their electronic eyes on the crowd. Surely some captured the out-of-season Santa Claus (sporting red shorts) who toted a sign advocating "Peace on Earth." And some the Easter Bunny, who suggested, "Spend the war billions healing America." And others the less polite but more pointed signs like: "Fuck Bush. Fuck Saddam. Fuck Empire." But the best photographers must have caught on film the excitement, anger and worry on the faces of the crowd as it marched south. Perhaps they even captured the comfort people gained in the company of others who so badly wanted peace.
* * * *
It had been a dispiriting week, when it felt like the massive worldwide appeal for peace had been dismissed. Still, more than 100,000 people marched to remind the Bush Administration that war was still not wise, just or even legal. From 42nd Street all the way down Broadway, people stood as far as the eye could see. Periodic cheers rippled like waves up the length of the street. Standing in Times Square, the blaring billboards for the Gap, Coke and DreamWorks seemed oddly out of place for a brief moment, rendered temporarily irrelevant by a crowd intent only on stopping war.
At last, after a long wait, the peace train left the station at 42nd Street, bound for Washington Square. As with the previous march on February 15, the protest was an outlet not only for feelings of solidarity, anger and hope but also for creativity, irony and satire. Cheerleaders for Peace danced and shouted antiwar cheers, a man dressed as Cupid urged Bush to have a heart, a woman posed topless with strategically placed duct tape inscribed with the words "NBC, do we have your attention now?" As the demonstration reached 14th Street, increasing numbers of people lined Broadway, cheering on the marchers. There were notably few police officers.
At West Fourth Street, the march turned into Washington Square Park; it was a study in contrasts. In the heart of the park, percussionists formed a circle; trumpets, flutes and saxophones appeared and people danced and sang. Meanwhile, growing numbers of police officers on foot and horseback massed around the park with the intent of dispersing protesters. You've had your protest; now go home quietly, they told people. A group of about 200 protesters wasn't ready to do so, and at around 5 PM, after the official demonstration was over, they began marching up University Place. They walked a few blocks before running into a surging wall of blue, which pushed them back. As the crowd turned to run the other way, a second wave of police came charging toward them from the opposite direction. With batons cocked and a few shots of mace, police officers quickly broke up the crowd. There were ninety-one arrests.
* * * *
At the tail-end of Saturday's demonstration against the war, crowds waited impatiently to begin the march down Broadway. As intermittent cheers coursed through the throng, small squares of paper rained from above. "God Is Not an American," they read, and "Drop Bush, Not Bombs." "I am shocked and awed," a woman joked.
Many had prepared for the march in humorous ways, printing bumper stickers ("Stop Mad Cowboy Disease"), fake dollar bills in denominations of "deception," and amusing signs: "Oh George, Get Elected!" One protester donned an Easter Bunny suit for the occasion, while a few blocks ahead marched a Santa Claus in surf shorts. Noisemakers and musical instruments were in abundance, and onlookers lined the streets, taking a break, cheering marchers on or simply observing the event.
But despite the festive air and high energy, Saturday's event displayed many signs of a seriousness related not only to the cause that had brought thousands to the streets but also the sense of purpose that comes with the sustainment of collective action. One group of protesters conducted a survey, to counteract the mainstream media's marginalization and radicalization of the peace movement. "We wanted to gain a more representative sense of who was coming out to these protests, and their political beliefs," said one surveyor. Meanwhile, United for Peace and Justice volunteers spanned a stretch of Broadway, collecting donations for future organizing. "We might need to plan another day," said one. "Who knows?"
* * * *
It was the kind of early spring weather that you daydream about all through February. The sun was shining, and we were out in force. Although I was pleased that the City would respect our right to assemble and march, I wondered what would become of the groundswell that took over eastern Manhattan on February 15th.
As expected, there was plenty of anger and resignation. My optimism that police would take a less adversarial stance toward the peaceful protesters mostly held true, until things got ugly at Washington Square Park. Signs with slogans like "Bush--Iraqi Children Will Haunt Your Dreams" and "Death Is Not Liberation" (over the objections of many French existentialists) gave voice to many helpless feelings that the die is already cast.
The protest also had a rambunctious vitality, though. There were dancers and noisemakers and tank tops, and the antiwar crowd struck its characteristic balance between anger and jubilation. A raucous handful of prowar counterprotesters were outnumbered by the cameramen filming them, while a solitary figure with a "Texan for Peace" sign trudged along nearby. A group of people in wheelchairs held their posters high as their attendants pushed them along. One heartfelt but enigmatic sign read, "Ben Affleck Is an Asshole!" Another asked: "Monica Lewinsky, Where Are You? We Need Your Help!" These are strange days.