The numbers and diversity of the April 20 protests in Washington represented a giant step forward for the antiwar movement. The weekend’s events dealt a lethal blow to the notion–stoked by media and government alike–that all Americans uncritically support George W. Bush’s policies and value Israeli lives more than those of Palestinians.
That morning activists held two antiwar rallies, each of which drew thousands, almost within sight of each other. One, organized by ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), was on the Ellipse, near the White House. The other, sponsored by the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC), among others, and perhaps misnamed “United We March,” was held at the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, the Committee in Solidarity for the People of Palestine protested the meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at the Washington Hilton, while the Mobilization for Global Justice and numerous anarchists protested the IMF/World Bank meetings.
In the afternoon, all the morning rallies converged in a march. “In the end,” said Erica Smiley of the Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus, “we realized we were all fighting the same thing.” That march ended in a rally by the Capitol of 50,000 to 80,000 protesters by several organizers’ estimates, the largest pro-Palestinian gathering ever in the United States. Middle Eastern families–women in headscarves, strollers in tow–marched alongside pink-haired, pierced 19-year-olds. Samir Haleem, a Palestinian-American veteran who wore a Palestinian kaffiyeh and carried an American flag, said, “We have never seen so much support for Palestine in this country. Today is a beautiful day.”
The afternoon’s unity was a triumph over deep divisions, which at first glance looked like symptoms of that old left affliction, the narcissism of small differences. While the various groups had originally been planning events on different days in April, ANSWER moved its event to April 20 to avoid the turnout disaster of competing marches. Why not, then, hold one big rally and march? Student organizers cited many reasons for their desire to maintain independence from ANSWER, including the group’s politics (it is closely related to the Workers World Party), its undemocratic structure and its reputation for unattractive behavior, including taking credit for work done by others. ANSWER organizers, for their part, felt the student coalition was too slow to take up the Palestinian cause.
Jessie Duvall, a recent Wesleyan graduate who was organizing the NYSPC rally, said diplomatically that the separation of the two rallies was “important for the integrity of both coalitions.” ANSWER’s rally–and pre-rally publicity–focused entirely on Palestinian solidarity, and it drew thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants, many of whom came on buses sponsored by their mosques. By contrast, while most speakers at United We March addressed the plight of the Palestinians, the pre-rally publicity emphasized the coalition’s founding concerns: Bush’s “war on the world” and its effects at home, particularly on students and young people, who dominated the crowd.