Got back from the D.C. trip early this morning (Sunday) and spent the day celebrating my youngest daughter’s fifth birthday. Good to be home. But, I have been needing to process the experience.
Saw Damnit Janet’s and Brother Feldspar’s photos of the event. Very cool. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I guess I would have to write a short novel to convey as much as their photo diaries do. I’ll just share a few random memories, after the flip.
I flew out of Detroit Metro on Friday morning. On my way to the gate, I came across a television camera. The cameraman was setting up a shot of the hallway by my gate. Naively, my mind jumped to the idea that he was filming anti-war protestors getting on the flight to Dulles. As it turned out, he was there filming a group of soldiers returning from Iraq. A strange way for me to start out my anti-war rally. Face-to-face with a group of soldiers.
Facing the soldiers made things immediately complex. They might be hurt or offended by my position on the war – end it now. They might feel attacked were I to scream, “At least 25,000 innocent Iraqis killed.” And, they don’t deserve that as individuals. “Love the warrior, hate the war,” I would read on a sign later in the weekend. That said, I would never applaud their return. I hate the militarization of our society. And I hate that these young men were illegally placed in situations where they needed to kill or be killed.
As I struggled with my own ideas, a Freeper leapt up from the lounge and approached the procession of soldiers. He was fat, white, old and loud. He was an audience of one, applauding the kids as if they were an opening act. “Great job guys,” he was saying. “Glad you were there. Thank you.” Seemed to me, he was someone for whom the phrase, “We need to fight them over there, or we’ll have to fight them here,” had some great resonance. He was slapping the boys on their backs, like they were filing back into a locker room for a halftime pep talk. The soldiers’ faces registered various reactions. Some pleased. Some annoyed. Some neutral. Hard to read, really. But, the spectacle of this guy cheering for death focused my anger. No one can celebrate a war and look dignified. Not a war like this. Not a war of choice, birthed with lies, reared on the blood of innocents. Not a war with no legitimate purpose. The war cheerleader was an ass. And that was focus enough for me. I could direct my anger at the assholes who elected this president. Those that allowed this war to start, and those that allow it to continue.
Things Have Changed In America (Part I)
I took a cab from Dulles to my hotel. It is about a thirty minute trip in, but I had the good luck to strike up a conversation with the cab driver. For someone like me, someone relatively provincial, talking to cabbies is like an international education.
The cab driver was an Indian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1995. As our conversation unfolded, I got around to asking him about how he liked it in the U.S. Frequently, it has been my experience that immigrants are among the most patriotic Americans. It seems that even if their new country gives them little, they support it because to admit the problems in America would be to undermine their own life’s decision to come.
But my cab driver was very candid in describing his unease at being a member of the U.S. He explained that prior to 9/11, he loved it. He had no difficulties. After 9/11, however, he said the country changed. Even though he is an Indian, he says the paranoia associated with the War on Terror has made him feel like a targeted citizen. He is looked on with suspicion by ordinary citizens. He is subjected to searches when white citizens are not. All this because he wears a headdress, a beard, and has skin the shade of caramel. He is somewhat bitter. And he openly wonders if life would not be better had he stayed in India.
Things Have Changed in America (Part II)
Friday afternoon. I get settled in my hotel room and set off on foot, to scout out tomorrow’s locations. I took no great care in finding a place to stay. I typed in something like “hotels Washington, D.C.” and called the first recognizable name. The clerk said they were close to the Capitol and had vacancies, which was good enough for me. But, as it turns out, the hotel is in a bit of a rough part of the city. It is run down. There are some buildings that look like unkept projects. Something that looks like a poorly maintained school. Some strip clubs a few blocks away, with printed handbills that have floated on the breeze and litter the sidewalks. And a self-made homeless shelter in an pedestrian underpass. I pass all these landmarks on my way to the Capitol building. Apparently the largesse that has rolled out of pork-barrel spending bills has not trickled down to this neighborhood.
I haven’t been to D.C. in six or seven years. The last time I was there, Ken Starr was investigating Clinton (was that really a grand jury proceeding I remember). I was impressed with the city on that last trip. I felt patriotic and proud.
I first see the change as I get within a few blocks of the Capitol. There are concrete barriers blocking traffic. There is a fortified checkpoint. I see a police vehicle entering. A metal gate is lowered. The car rolls in. I have a fleeting feeling that I am seeing something like “the Green Zone” writ small within the borders of my own country.
I continue on to the steps of the Capitol building, where I am surprised to see a soldier. He is dressed in black and body armor, with an assault rifle poised for action in his hands. He is patrolling the steps of my Capitol – the place where my government makes laws. He is eyeing the small number of American pedestrians who are walking past, picnicking, taking pictures, and lounging on the lawn. I’m not sure what branch of service. Probably the Capitol police. But he is dressed like a soldier. And I am convinced I live in a police state. The last time I visited, I seem to remember security guards. But now we are at war, I guess.
I walk around the Capitol and head up Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the protest ground. On the way, I pass a rich man, in a rich suit, with his privileged family. Probably no special sight in Washington, D.C. But this man is wearing a ten-gallon hat. And he is for real. I just shake my head. There really is a new administration in town.
I make it to the Ellipse, where the protest will take place. The White House is barricaded more heavily than the Capitol. An Abrams tank might have a shot at getting through, but it would be no easy task. The protest site is a maze of cyclone fencing. It looks to me like our protest is going to take place in a specially constructed “Free Speech Zone.” I just don’t remember Washington this way. MLK, who I meet later, and who knows the city far better than I, tells me it was pretty much always this secure. She may be right. Maybe I have changed. Memory is a funny thing. But I just don’t remember it this way. (MLK – thanks so much for lugging around my gift bag all day. Sorry I didn’t get back with you to pick it up. Hope the purple bear ended up with a nice home. No worries here, as I got by the same shop and they had the same touristy crap for sale. Go figure).
Meeting up with the bloggers at the Capitol City Brewery was great. This place – this imaginary space called a blog – has become something like a home. It is a comfort zone. And the screen names are there in the diaries, and on the front page, and in the comments. And they become familiar to you. But to get to put a face with the name, and to share a beverage. To laugh. And to be able to talk like a liberal, loud and proud, to a whole roomful of people. Well, that was priceless.
Ever gawk at celebrities? I do. I am shameless. And though I know BooMan and Maryscott O’Connor probably don’t think of themselves as celebrities, they are in my book. And I met my first blog celebrity in this way. I see a guy with a Booman Shirt and say, “Hi, I’m Terry – BostonJoe.” And he says, “I’m BooMan.” And I am floored. I’m face to face with the BooMan. Very cool.
And Maryscott. She is like a force of nature or something. Like you would expect her to be. Blowing into the place like a summer storm.
And I get to talk to Susanhu on the cell phone. And she sounds like a professional anchor person. Taking whatever small amounts of info a babbling correspondent might have to say (I really was getting pretty blitzed by this time) calmly, to integrate them into the much larger story. Very, very cool.
And all the other regulars. Names you know and respect. People you’ve shared ideas with. Or just read their thoughts, where they said something you were thinking, more perfectly than you could have ever said it yourself. CabinGirl (and great kids – no lie – just too cool), Steven D, MLK, Salunga, RenaRF, Brother Feldspar, DamnitJanet (and brother Ryan – whom I called John for most of that part of the night after the inevitable point of inebriation – and who made an informal commitment to become a Tribber, and would be a welcome addition, I think). There were others. Lots of Kossacks I know I am forgetting (there was really a problem with my short term memory processing at some point).
But it was way cool. That’s all you can say. With people like this, you kind of feel like you can stand up to the most powerful forces in the world and stop something. Even if that feeling is just a temporary illusion. And that ain’t so bad.
Wasted, Pondering Race, and Howard Zinn
I got out at a good time. I got out just before that stage of the evening where you are going to end up “nonresponsive” on the floor of a strange hotel room, and someone is going to snap a photograph of you. (BooMan, I laughed my ass off seeing that picture the next morning, and I am sorry I didn’t get a chance to say “so long” on the day of the protest). Of course, the quality of my decision making was not unimpaired. Fortunately, the sudden loss of my ability to read subway maps (Salunga – I think this cognitive deficit was due to the last toasts of the evening – a fine send-off for which I am grateful) was offset by a lowered set of inhibitions that allowed me to shamelessly beg the subway attendant for detailed instructions on how to get back to my hotel room. Instructions which, though I repeated them in my head over and over, were quickly lost to this world.
I got off at the wrong subway station. I wandered about. And I was quickly lost. No idea where I was, let alone where my hotel was. Seemed like I was in the right neighborhood though – the neighborhood that Congress had apparently left behind. It looked a lot like other American cities I’ve come to know. Saginaw, Flint, Detroit. Probably much like New Orleans. Places where people have been abandoned. The neighborhood is predominantly, if not solely, African-American.
This gets me thinking about what I have been reading in Zinn’s book. About how elites have worked to keep poor blacks and poor whites at odds, so that they cannot share in the solidarity that they should have. And, Zinn’s philosophy, along with the magnificent buzz I have, is making me feel pretty good.
I come across a guy standing by a car. He is within talking distance. I’m not sure what he is doing, but the sense of brotherly love that has been inspired by the alcohol and by Zinn is still with me. I walk right up to him, intending to ask for directions. Now, I probably look like the most out of place, tight-assed, white dude that this guy has ever seen. He looks up at me. His eyes get wide. I ask, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” And this guy starts backing away from me like I was the devil. He says “No, no, man. No.” And takes off. I am puzzled. What the fuck? Did I scare him away? I thought I was the person who had thoughts of being mugged in a strange city in the back of my mind.
I walk on. I’m still feeling pretty good. A little confused. After a while, I come upon three black kids. Seems like they sport gang ware to me. But, hey. What the fuck do I know? It is probably just normal hip-hop attire. They are talking amongst themselves. Sound pretty happy. Might be as wasted as me. So I go with my good feeling. Walk up and say, “Hey, can I ask you guys a question? Do you know how to get to ‘this hotel?’ ” “Aw man, you gotta go back that way, man. ‘Til you come to ‘such and such’ a street,” one of the kids says. “But you’re going through the hood, man. You gotta watch yourself.” “I’ll be all right,” I say. “Thanks.”
He and I are from the same class. I’ve gotten lucky enough to buy my way up a few rungs. If you can ever buy your way up. But Zinn is right. All the bullshit fear and bad feeling based on race are a distraction. And I have never been more sure of it than tonight.
I walk through “the hood.” I can’t say I’m not nervous. I am. But I put on a brave face. And it is an uneventful walk back to the hotel.
More Tribbers arrive in the morning. Military Tracy is there. Someone who knows a thing or two about the need to stop this war. And Supersoling. He’s got the American flag, and that makes me feel good. It is my flag. I fought for it. Well, to be honest, I clerked for it – I was a lowly Army clerk. But I swore the oath before it. And I swore to uphold the Constitution, for which that damn flag is supposed to stand. And I am glad the flag is coming to the protest.
More Kossacks, too. Bloggers look like a pretty decent sized contingent. And it is not just bloggers who are allies now. The whole city is a walking ally it seems. Many people have passed me in the street and applauded my anti-war shirt. Code pink folks pass and are befriended by Damnit Janet. People are waiving at anti-war signs. Cheering each other on. It is a good place to be.
We all march over to the Ellipse, and rally around the Kossack orange flag. I don’t get a count. But there are dozens of us now. Tribbers, Wingers, and Kossacks. Maybe other bloggers, too. I don’t know. All like some strange tribal alliance from the Internet.
Gooseflesh (Part I)
The hair raises up on my arms and the back of my neck. Gooseflesh. It won’t be the last time today. As we are walking into the staging area on the Ellipse, they announce from the stage that the trains from New York and Boston have been closed. It sounds like some conspiracy. The “man” is trying to shut this beautiful protest down. I’m pissed. I want more people than have ever protested. I want people to hear us. This war – my country’s foreign policy – is the stupidest thing I have ever seen implemented. Real people are fucking dying every single day. Their faces are hung on a long string which has been set up on the parade grounds. Lots and lots of dead young people. There are white crosses which represent each and every one of them, planted in the ground across 15th street. There are fake coffins draped in real American flags to remind us all that they are dead. I’ve been elated to be with all these like minded individuals. But as I start to think about it, I’m getting kind of sad. Because these people are dead. And more people are going to die if we can’t stop our government.
A Mass of Humanity
We are waiting off to the side of the staging area on the Ellipse. Milling about. Mingling. More Kossacks now. They have planted the Orange Kos flag as a rallying point. A super idea. And they’ve brought orange handkerchiefs for everyone. Another great idea. Identity. A way to stick together in the crowd. Not unlike handkerchiefs brandished by my gang friends from the night before. We are all tribes of a sort, I guess.
The crowd is growing. It is getting bigger all the time, but it is hard to say just how large this protest will be. Music is playing on the stage. Speakers are breaking in. Cindy Sheehan says a few words.
I take off and wander around through the crowd, taking in the vibe. It is really an unbelievable collection of humanity. White and black and Latin and Asian and Indian and Native. Every shade of human skin seems represented. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhist. All are represented, it seems. Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Anarchists and Socialists. All convinced Bush is a fucking idiot, and that our country is seriously off track. Pacifists and activists. Rich folk and poor. The crowd is a swirling mixture of America. And I get the feeling that the country itself is pissed, or horrified. I am not alone. Not by a long shot.
As I walk throughout the staging area, people are scattered and camped everywhere. And streams of people are pouring in down 15th and down Constitution, and over the mall near the monument. It is epic in scale. People are pouring in. They are still spread out, but it looks so good.
I made my way back to the orange flag in the nick of time. In a tactical maneuver that I’m sure will be favorably compared to Pickett’s charge, RenaRF takes up a bullhorn and orders all bloggers into a formation known as “up against the fence.” She takes up the orange flag and marches us out, in a straggling formation, through the sea of humanity, and to what is believed to be the headwaters of the march itself.
Stopping along the way, the group stays as collected as possible. Bloggers, apparently, are not bothered with the square formations favored by pre-Civil War armies. We are a snaking line. And the march is successful, as we seem pre-positioned to get on to marching. Sadly, some Tribbers are left behind. It is the way of the Tribber, I suppose. We seem to march to the beat of our own drummer sometimes.
Gooseflesh (Part II)
The bloggers are positioned on the corner of 15th and Constitution. Space is starting to look scarce. People are crowding together. Many banners leading many tribes. All pressing together. People seem to be coming from every direction. The crowd spreads out for as far as you can see in any direction. Young people are perched on the marble statue bases that stand on the street corners.
A chant – This is what democracy looks like – breaks out in the crowd. I get a wave of gooseflesh for the second time in the day. This really is what democracy looks like. And I am charged. This is why I flew here. To be a part of this moment. And I am proud to stand up and say, at least, that this war must end.
Democracy, Zinn, and Angry Crowds
Things are looking crazy. There is really not enough space to move much. People everywhere, and nobody really seems to know which way to march, or when to do so. A woman gets sick ahead of us, and someone asks the crowd to make way, so she can make her way to a place with more space. Someone else suggests that everyone in the crowd take a step back. But, any movement causes you to bang into someone else. You suddenly realize that the crowd is like a body larger than yourself. You are no longer independent of it. You are not leaving until the crowd lets you go.
And for the second time of the weekend, I am reminded of my recent reading of Howard Zinn. He talks about the early colonial leaders, and the tightrope they walked in inflaming the passions of the colonial peasant class. On the one hand, the colonial leaders (elites, themselves) needed to incite the peasants to revolt. And on the other, the elites were completely fearful that if they incited the peasants too much, the peasants might not only throw out the English, but they might also rise up against the landed gentry in the colonies.
Looking at this massive crowd, I get a sense for how such a mass of people could be dangerous. There were few, if any, bad intentions I encountered during the day. But the sheer power of the crowd was obvious. If the crowd was directed in any way, it would be like an elephant. No man could stop it.
Once the march starts, the pressure of the crowd lets up. Movement opens up space. And we roll forward like a river. I’m just looking out at the mass of people with us. And the lines of people crowded on the parade route, with signs and effigies. All hating Bush and the war. Creative and funny and angry protests about where we are. Bush was wise to be in Colorado, I think. He would not have fared well with these folks. I remember leaders from the past, who were people’s leaders. Kennedy. Gorbachev. Clinton. Leaders who could mingle with the masses. Not just screened audiences, I think. Bush is no leader. I don’t think he’s strong. I think he may be craven.
Gooseflesh (Part III)
Up the march route a stretch, Rena calls the bloggers together. Why, I don’t know? And then, in the march behind us there is a ruckus of some sort. The crowd is massing. There is cheering. There are media types walking backward, leading a group in the march. And as this trailing group gains on us, we can all see the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cindy Sheehan, marching arm and arm, right up on our position. I don’t know where they came from, or how they came to be so near us. But, much like there is power in meeting celebrity bloggers, I am in awe now in the presence of these two historic personalities.
I walk along, staring at them. My mouth slightly agape, I think. I am perhaps ten to fifteen feet from Jesse Jackson. He looks at me. A man who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. He is serious. Looking at his face, I don’t get the sense that this is just some photo opportunity. I get the sense that he actually cares about ending the war. And looking at Cindy Sheenan, I am again reminded that real people are dying. And they are leaving behind real mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and friends. Real bombs are being dropped on real children.
In addition to the gooseflesh which is again creeping on my arms and neck, my eyes sting slightly. Being a man, I am not about to cry. Not with so many cameras around. But if we don’t succeed in stopping this war somehow, more human beings are going to die for no reason.
Spontaneous Expressions of Rage
The march turned on Pennsylvania Avenue. I am still staring at Jesse and Cindy as we approach the front of the White House. There are lots of police and soldiers guarding the People’s house. And barricades. There will be no party on this lawn. As the crowd makes it as close as it will get to the White House, a chant breaks out. “Out of our house.” “Out of our house.” And, when the chant breaks down, “Fuck Bush” or words to that effect.
Though my manner of protest up until this point has been best described as a “hands in pocket” protest, I take out the sign from Chocolate Ink and silently tell the administration to “Go Cheney” themselves. I think some media got a picture of it. (Everybody pretty much signed the sign CI).
Damnit Janet Takes a Stand
Damnit Janet, Ryan and myself break off from the blogger group. We’re headed back to see some Tribbers. As we get near the end of the march route, we come across the first pro-war protestors that I have seen. There are maybe 25-50 of them tops. I don’t even know what they said, but one of them got Janet’s attention.
If the blogger unit was some type of military brigade, I would suggest that Damnit Janet might be something like the special forces. As an enemy, I would just as soon not invoke her wrath. The Freepers didn’t realize this, though. They said something to her, and she pretty much got in their face and told them point blank, “Shut up or sign up.” They started to give her some shit. And the “Shut up or sign up” thing sounded so good, that Janet, Ryan myself and a bunch of strangers started to shout the Freepers down.
I’m pretty sure we won that battle, though, how many insurgents were killed is hard to say.
Just How Big Was This, Anyway
I really don’t know how many people were there. The MSM seems to say up to 100,000. The organizers said 300,000. Some bloggers have said up to 600,000. I don’t really know. But it was fucking big.
As we passed the parade starting route, about two hours or so after we started, there were still massive groups of people just starting out on the march. I mean a steady stream of people starting out on a five lane road. Filling it. Non-stop for two hours. That is a lot of people.
I have been to University of Michigan games. The stadium holds a hundred thousand. I’ve walked with that crowd, into the stadium. Through spaces as large as the street where this march started. And it doesn’t take anywhere near two hours to get 100,000 into or out of the stadium. Also, when you look at the 100,000 football fans tailgating, it doesn’t look anything like it looked on Saturday in your Capitol. I would say there were hundreds of thousands there. How many I’m not sure, but it was absolutely huge. It dwarfed game day at the University of Michigan.
Got back to the concert area, and was privileged to hear a couple of crowd pleasing speeches. Maxine Waters. She just calls Bush a big fat liar. Convincingly. Why don’t all Democrats call him a big fat liar? What is wrong with this party? Get with it. He is a fucking liar. And, really, a fucking murderer. I don’t think we should mince words anymore. And, apparently, neither does Maxine.
The Reverend Al Sharpton laid into Bush, too. Excellent little rabble rousing speech. He finished with something like this, and it was great: “This war was wrong to start, and it is wrong now.” He turned a great phrase, though I can’t nail it from memory.
I think the Dems need to nominate anti-war candidates across the board. I am going to have a real hard time voting for any candidate who comes to me and says, I voted to support the war, and I don’t think we should beat a hasty retreat in Iraq.
I was kind of done after Joan Baez sang. A hard rain is gonna fall. I was walking in the rain on the night before I left, singing that line. I didn’t even really know it was her song. But I think a hard rain has to fall. Let it rain.
Just How Big Was This, Anyway (Part II)
Walking out past the starting point of the parade, maybe six hours after the march started, people were still marching out. That is a lot of fucking people marching. Many people like me were leaving, and others were still arriving. There were lines out of the subway station. You had to wait to get on the escalator down. Wait to get a ticket. And wait to step up to the platform. It was huge.
Just How Big Was This, Anyway (Part III)
Got up on Sunday morning and read the New York Times. I was searching for coverage of this monumental event I attended. On the front page the protest was given four lines of text in the “Inside” section. It says “thousands of protesters gathered on the south lawn of the White House.” Sounds quaint, doesn’t it? And it references readers to page 14. The story is actually on page 12.
I’m reminded of something I’ve read or heard from Chomsky. He always acknowledges that the U.S. is one of the best places for people to have the freedom to say what they want. You don’t get arrested, for the most part, for saying what you want. And he celebrates that. But, he also points out that there is a great distinction between the Freedom of Speech, and the Freedom to be Heard. I think we were screaming as loud as we could yesterday, and to read about it in the paper, it was an insignificant little blip of a protest. Who heard us calling?
But I was there. I feel energized and good. I know something about the truth. I bore witness.
Good to meet you all.