WASHINGTON, DC– A dazzling sun beamed down on peace activists from around the countrywho gathered on the National Mall Saturday to demand an end to the Iraq War. Beneath this benevolent sky, the event read as much like a victory parade as a protest march. These were not the angry demonstrators who took to the streets of New York City in February 2003 in an attempt to avert a war, or the beaten-down and beleaguered ones who marched through US cities in March 2005 to protest US occupation of Iraq, or the slightly bedraggled group who last Spring tied US spending on the Iraq occupation to mismanagment of the crisis as they traced Hurricane Katrina’s path in a three-state “March to New Orleans”.
Estimates of the crowd size vary–CNN put it at “tens of thousands” and event organizers insist nearly half a million showed, DC police declined to speculate–one thing is certain: Today’s marchers were as satisfied as cats who stole the cream, cats who were almost…celebrating.
“Before, we were a minority marching to convince a majority that occupying Iraq was a terrible idea,” says Hany Khalil, spokesperson for march organizers, United for Peace and Justice. “But today, for the first time we are out in force representing a majority of Americans who want us to get out of Iraq.”
United for Peace and Justice, a coalition representing 1,400 national and local groups, has orchestrated protests since before the war begin in March 2003. Today, its lineup of speakers ranged from celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins to political familiars like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). Standing beside a flag-draped coffin, the speakers were almost uniformly optimistic. “It’s healing time. It’s hope time,” the Reverend Jesse Jackson said, exhorting the crowd to “keep hope alive.”
For this day anyway, the peace movement seemed to have called a cease-fire in its ongoing debate over how to allocate its limited resources: Is it better to work in electoral politics and propel antiwar representatives to Congress or take to the streets with shows of grassroots power? Saturday’s protest organizers apppeared to concede these are complementary tactics: grassroots organizing has indeed shifted public opinion against the war; this shift in public opinion, coupled with some strategic work to get antiwar politicians into office has clearly paid off.
Conyers acknowledged the impact of the November elections. “[George Bush] is the commander of the military but he’s not the commander of the citizens of this country,” he said, to roars of approval. “Not only is it in our power to stop George Bush, but it’s our obligation.”
“The women of this nation spoke loud and clear in November,” Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal reminded the crowd. “They said ‘no’ to this war.”
Speaker after speaker referred to the elections as a referendum on the war and insisted the American people had sent a clear mandate to Congress: End US occupation of Iraq.