The Alaskans for Peace didn’t mind the weather; not only are they used to bitter cold, but one of them was wearing a polar bear costume. Don Muller, and his friend “Brian the Polar Bear” had traveled from Sitka, Alaska to join a mass protest on Washington, DC’s National Mall on Saturday, to honor Martin Luther King and protest the Bush Administration’s rush to war.

Despite the freezing temperatures (which hovered in the mid-20s throughout the day), the energetic protest drew over 200,000 people, by far the largest US demonstration organized by the post-September 11 antiwar movement. (Organizers placed the number at half a million, while the DC police estimated 100,000.) The event was called by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a national coalition, and turnout was orchestrated by countless grassroots organizations and individuals.

As the protest showed, the movement is growing so steadily that controversies over the politics of national organizations like ANSWER are increasingly irrelevant. (While the two major national antiwar coalitions, United for Peace and ANSWER, have different politics, sensibilities and organizing styles, they endorse each other’s events. United for Peace has called a national rally in New York City on February 15.) At Saturday’s demonstrations, it was the demonstrators, not the organizers, that set the tone.

Some of those demonstrators were middle-aged, longtime peace and justice activists like Kansas protesters Bill and Angela Douglas, who had, in recent years, been busy with other aspects of their lives. This war had drawn them back into the movement. “The situation in the United States now is so disturbing,” said Douglas, “it kind of woke us up.” Ann Marevis, of Alapine, Alabama, said quietly, “It felt important this time.”

Many protesters looked like mainstream Americans: soccer moms, teenagers with Nintendo sweatshirts, cleancut yuppies, union members. If you’d seen them in a rest stop on the way to Washington that morning, you’d never have guessed where they were going. They carried American flags, and signs that read “Peace is Patriotic.” Countless other signs quoted Martin Luther King, or advertised church affiliations.

Yet the day had an invigoratingly confrontational mood, thanks to the large contingent of young people and global justice activists. Many of the signs–and marching chants–were as much anti-Bush, as antiwar. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were colorfully depicted as puppet versions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Entertainers included Patti Smith, who has been a regular at recent antiwar events, as well as the British band Chumbawumba, who performed for the first time in four years. Speakers–including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jessica Lange, Rep. John Conyers and former Rep. Cynthia McKinney–were livelier and had more popular appeal than speakers at some past ANSWER events. Most focused on issues directly related to Martin Luther King Day–economic oppression and racism–and to the impending war on Iraq. But it didn’t much matter what they said; the sound system was poor, and in any case, most people had come to express their own opposition, and were largely uninterested in the blaring podium.

Unfortunately, however, far too many people spoke–all saying essentially the same thing–and the rally endured for over two hours. This, particularly given the weather, showed little regard for the demonstrators. No one I interviewed complained about ANSWER’s politics, but except for the Alaskans, just about everybody–irrespective of age, race or political affiliation–complained about standing around in the cold for too long. Fortunately the demonstrators took it upon themselves to start marching long before the rally ended.

While many of the rally speakers were people of color, the demonstrators were mostly white, even though the event was held in Washington, DC, and in honor of Martin Luther King, and blacks oppose the war by a significantly greater margin than whites. Bruce Tabbs, owner of Soul Brothers, a Harlem store, had filled a bus with his neighbors and customers. Though Tabbs has participated in mass protests–including the Million Man March and the Million Woman March–he’d never been to an antiwar rally before, and was startled by his fellow demonstrators: “I expected they’d be about 50 percent white, but 80 percent white surprised me.”

In addition to the DC protests, tens of thousands demonstrated in San Francisco and Portland, and solidarity rallies were also held in more than two dozen other US cities and towns, including Fayetteville (Arkansas), Oklahoma City, Columbia (Missouri), Rockford (Illinois), Menominee (Wisconsin) and Yorba Linda, California (this last at the Richard Nixon Library). Saturday demonstrations were also held in more than thirty countries, including Japan, Ireland, Egypt, Argentina, South Africa, Jordan, Sweden, Pakistan, Russia, Germany and England.

Back in DC, American protesters were united by a sense that US world domination isn’t right–and isn’t in their interest. Said Bill Douglas, “We want to be part of a democracy, not an empire.”