My friend Ruth Rosen, who writes a terrific column for the San Francisco Chronicle, advised her readers to go to the antiwar marches organized by International ANSWER but to take their own signs. That’s what I did when I went to the January 18 demonstration in Washington, except instead of an actual sign, which I was too disorganized to put together, I just carried my usual basket of mental reservations about the people in charge. But never mind them–it was a great day. The speakers left something to be desired–too many men, too many clerics, too much Ramsey Clark, unofficial totem of the Workers World Party, the weird pseudomarxist sect behind ANSWER–but nobody I could see looked like they were paying a lot of attention. They were having too much fun milling about and congratulating each other on the fine turnout despite the bitter cold.
I don’t know how many people were there–somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000, depending on whom you asked; the media stuck to locutions like “tens of thousands,” while the DC police estimate was “an awful lot.” To me it felt like not the biggest demo I had ever been to, but still a good-sized crowd. More important than the numbers, though, was the broad spectrum of normal (for lack of a better word) people present. Although it was disproportionately white, this was the most mainstream rally against war I’ve seen since the Central Park nuclear freeze demo in 1982. There were card-carrying members of the AARP, high school and college-age kids–scads of them–and people in the middle with babies in strollers and preteens lagging behind; a number of self-identified Republicans; people carrying American flags; people marching with their church groups; people who had made the long trek from Mississippi, North Dakota or other distant states. “I’m with six buses from Syracuse, NY,” read one sign. “Don’t make me come back here again!”
Marchers had gone all-out with handmade signs. Lots of new questions: “What Would Jesus Bomb?” “What if Iraq’s Main Export Was Broccoli?” “What Would President Bartlett Do?” (Here’s a hint: While we were rallying on the Mall, Martin Sheen was speaking at the antiwar rally in San Francisco.) Some took the economic angle: “My son needs a job, not a gun.” “Look, I’ll pay more for gas.” Others aimed at Bush himself: “Regime Change Begins at Home”; “Drop Bush Not Bombs.” Patriotism was big: “It’s My Flag Too”; “Peace Is Patriotic.” I think my favorite was this one, though, carried by a bearded man in a huge sweater: “We have the knowledge to give everyone a great life and not exhaust the world’s resources. Let’s do that.” Rarely has utopianism sounded so sensible.
Since activists started mobilizing against invasion, some people have pooh-poohed demonstrations: They’re soooo twentieth century, the kids are too hip for that these days, can’t they skateboard against the war instead, or hack somebody’s computer? “It’s just a feel-good exercise,” a man on the train from New York told me, advising me to write my Congressperson. (Gee, I hadn’t thought of that.) Well, feel-good exercises have their place–according to a recent British survey, participating in protests and demonstrations is excellent for one’s physical and mental health. But speaking as one who has spent many an hour on Internet activism–signing ads and petitions, sending e-mails and faxes, forwarding forwards and nudging friends to do same–and many an hour (well, many a minute) writing letters and making phone calls too, I think last weekend’s demos show that mass protests really do matter. Not only do they draw people in by making them feel less alone and powerless, nothing beats just getting out there and making the movement visible. Even in the twenty-first century, there’s no better way to say: We’re here! Lots of us! And it seems to be working: Perhaps atoning for having missed the story on popular opposition back in October when Congress passed its blanket resolution authorizing an invasion of Iraq, and for seriously underestimating the size and significance of last fall’s demonstrations, the media gave the marches surprisingly good coverage, emphasizing the “cross-section of America” angle rather than taking its usual line of “Stalinists, potheads and, ooh look, a man in a dress!” CNN devoted several hours to both the Washington and San Francisco rallies.
When ANSWER called demonstrations back in the fall, there was quite a lot of controversy over their prominent role. For those who favor invasion, like Christopher Hitchens, ANSWER’s leadership clinches the argument that the antiwar movement consists of people who hate America and support “Islamofascism,” or who are the weak-minded dupes of those who do. Some who oppose invasion argued that ANSWER’s off-key Stalinism and refusal to condemn Saddam Hussein, not to mention its connection with the freakish WWP, risked turning off the broad mass of Americans and squelching the nascent peace movement. It always seemed to me that ANSWER spoke only for itself, that not many people were listening, and that if war was an unpopular plan, the movement against it would grow way beyond the capacity of ANSWER to control it or lead it. I think the march suggests that this process is well under way. In fact, ANSWER may have unintentionally spurred the rest of us to get busy and come up with alternatives like United for Peace and Justice or the Campaign for Peace and Democracy. Or at least to make our own signs.
The entire state of Kansas could march on Washington, though, and pro-war pundits would see it merely as proof of how many America-haters and Saddam-lovers and fans of Ramsey Clark there are hidden away in the heartland. In the Washington Post, Michael Kelly heaped scorn on the New York Times for referring to the demo in an editorial as “impressive for the obvious mainstream roots of the marchers” when it should have been inveighing against ANSWER and “the left,” which has “hardened itself around the core value of a furious, permanent, reactionary opposition to the devil-state America.” Wow. Kelly really should get out of the house more.
I’m certainly glad I did.