Exactly one month before voters head to the polls for the midterm elections, tens of thousands of progressive activists from across the country converged at the Lincoln Memorial Saturday to take part in the One Nation Working Together March on Washington.
They took buses from Philadelphia and carpooled from Santa Fe. They were old and young, black and white, Hispanic and Asian. The 400-plus groups in attendance represented agendas ranging from the environment to religion, unions to LGBT rights. But when Ed Schultz, the host of MSNBC’s The Ed Show, took the stage before what the event organizers estimate to have been 175,000 people and shouted, "Are you America?", he was answered with a resounding "Yes!"
"I am feeling the unity," said Philadelphian Hilary Chiz, who works in the civil rights department of the Steelworkers Union. "We are stressing the importance of togetherness and strength through the collection of people."
With hopes of countering the mass mobilization of the Tea Party movement and narrowing the enthusiasm gap, One Nation served as a liberal antidote to the Glenn Beck rally that took place at the Lincoln Memorial just five weeks prior. Organizers say that One Nation was planned in April, however, well before the Restoring Honor rally was announced.
The four hour program—made up of speeches, poetry, musical performances and readings of historical speeches—was broken into three segments, highlighting jobs, public education/ civil rights and justice. Headliners included Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, singer Harry Belafonte and activist leaders such as Richard Trumka. But for many, the rally began well before they arrived at the Mall. Activists filled the early morning metros, spouting excited rhetoric, blowing vuvuzelas (much to the chagrin of other DC commuters), clinging to signs and wearing colorful shirts denoting their group affiliation. These brightly colored tees later seemed to paint the periphery of the reflecting pool, as ralliers stood under a cloudless DC sky.
A massive peace mobilization gathered on the Old Folk Festival Ground on 14th St NW and Constitution at 10:30 am. Veterans for Peace was one of many organizations that made up the peace contingent, holding large banners reading "Mr. Obama: End these Fucking Wars!"—with the additional comment, "War is the obscenity."
The Vietnam vets even told war stories regarding their signs. Mike Hearington, 57, talked about how he and the other Veterans for Peace activists had unfurled three of the large banners the previous afternoon both in and outside of the Newseum. While the Newseum staff politely pointed out that the banners exceeded acceptable signage dimensions, the police—who were already out in full force because the Washington Ideas Forum was held at the Newseum that morning—were less pleased with the banner displayed outside the Newseum’s entrance. Hearington, coming from Phoenix, was chased down the street by police, banner trailing.
When the peace activists walked from the festival ground to the One Nation site—disrupted by confused looking tourists on Segway tours of the National Mall—some were met with resistance.
"Fucking hippies," said a passerby sporting a popped collar, pointing to a group of longhaired peaceniks carrying signs demanding job creation. "I bet they never had a job anyway."
At the Mall, however, the diverse array of activists coalesced into a united front.
When asked why they were there, 10-year-old Lawrence Leiva summed it up best. "We’re here to help, to get high paying jobs, better education and to fix up the immigration system," Lawrence said. "It’s all about the young kids—we want a better future." Lawrence and his family took three trains to get to the rally from Harlem.
The hunger for fundamental change rumbled throughout the Mall. "We need America to deal with the issue of jobs," said Rev. Al Sharpton, receiving perhaps the loudest cheers of the afternoon. "We bailed out the banks. We bailed out the insurance companies. And now it is time to bail out the American people."
Many of those at the rally had been affected personally by the plummeting economy and job market. Jean Descartes came to DC from Boston with a large contingent from the 1199th district of the SEIU. An immigrant from Haiti, Descartes has worked in a nursing home for the past decade. After a bitter battle to unionize, a union was finally formed this year giving all workers at the nursing home a 1 percent raise. This meager pay increase, however, took Descartes out of the income bracket that had qualified him for free public health services. When friends asked Descartes if he wanted to give up the raise in order to keep his public healthcare benefits, he said no.
"We worked too hard for a union and this raise," Descartes said with a heavy Haitian accent. "We must continue fighting."
Although some came in critical costumes—including a representation of Hillary Clinton as "Lady McDeath"—most people there were fueled by, as the signs read Hope Not Hate.
"The water is high for many communities around this country but you don’t drown from high water, you drown when you stop kicking," said NAACP president Benjamin Jealous in an interview with The Nation. "What we’re saying to people is you’ve got to keep on kicking. You’ve got to stay focused. We’ve come too far to turn back now. The way we keep on moving is to stay engaged."
"They say we’re apathetic, we’re not energized," Sharpton told the crowd. "In four weeks we’re going to have to take the midterm exams. We’ve got to go home and hit the pavement."