The Joy of Freezing for Peace
David McReynolds, staff emeritus of War Resisters League and Socialist Party candidate for US President in 2000, reports on the huge anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC last weekend.
I don't know how many people were at the rally in Washington on Saturday. The organizers said a half million - that seems too large. But certainly over 100,000. Maybe the best thing to be said is there were "enough" - more than enough.
As a veteran of demonstrations, including the March on Washington in August 1963 (where I heard King's historic speech), this demonstration was one of the largest I've been to. And not in spring or autumn, when the weather is pleasant and the marching is easy, but in the dead center of January. I had thought I might skip this one, telling myself that age must surely have some advantages and if, at 73, I could go to movies for a cut rate, maybe I could skip the long ride to Washington.
But in the end I went and am delighted I did. Those of us going from New York City had to be up by 5 a.m. if we were to catch our buses leaving at 6 a.m. The sky was bereft of any touch of dawn, the streets empty, and the temperature somewhere in the teens.
We got to Washington by 11 a.m. and it was chaos of the happiest kind. There was a speakers platform on the "mall" near the capitol building and the speakers were speaking when I arrived. The sound system wasn't first rate, and I caught little of the speeches. But I wasn't interested in who was speaking - I was interested in the crowd. The sheer numbers were overwhelming, filling the mall, swirling in little freezing groups, some beating drums, most carrying signs.
Of course one expected New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania but Mississippi was there. And South Carolina, Wisconsin, Illinois, Montana, Vermont (the folks from Vermont said the weather was a bit warm). I'm only taking note of the few signs I jotted down that indicated the states - I think almost every state in the Union was there. Including Alaska!
I ran into Ellen Barfield, a veteran who joined the War Resisters League when she got out of service, and had just gotten back from five weeks in Iraq where, she said, it was very hard to leave, as the people there were terrified of the coming war. Two of Phil Berrigan's daughters were there, handing out antiwar tags.
Thinking about the demonstration as I came home on the bus, what struck me first was the goodwill of the crowd. Then, the wide range of ages - with the majority being quite young. The youth we have told are not into politics were there by the tens of thousands. And those of us who have seen many marches were there, bald or gray haired, with our wool caps and mittens. There were an unusual number of handicapped there, some on their own motorized scooters, others being helped along in their wheel chairs by friends. There were dogs, often wearing special banners of their own. And carefully bundled babies.
Black, white, brown - all were there. Some of us had questions about the organizers of the demonstration, but our misgivings proved irrelevant. The primary organizer, ANSWER, is pretty much run by a small group of Marxist/Leninists who belong to the tiny Workers World Party. This fact has been used by some, including such pompous nitpicking academics as Michael Walzer, coeditor of Dissent and at the moment the Establishment's favorite
"leftist," as a reason not to take part. (Workers World was set up in 1956 as a split from the Trotskyists - to support the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Later it supported the "coup" against Gorbachev, and the Chinese suppression of students at Tiananmen Square). Workers World probably wouldn't have had the success it has had without the help of Ramsey Clark, a former Attorney General, who has acted as the public face for ANSWER. But, for the tens of thousands of people who came, including me, the issue wasn't who did the backbreaking work of organizing the demonstration - it was who was in the White House! And I want to say, for the record, as a long time opponent of the politics of Workers World, they deserve a lot of credit for the work they put in, and their key public figure, Brian Becker, has certainly earned his right to be heard. (Many peace and justice groups, including War Resisters League, not happy with ANSWER's monopoly of the organizing, have formed our own coalition - United for Peace and Justice, with a website: www.unitedforpeace.org. This coalition is planning a major demonstration in New York City on February 15th - If Washington is any indication, the numbers will continue to surge).
There were nuns, priests, rabbis. Various religious orders had their own banners. Peace Action, the Green Party, all the various socialist groups, all were there. But most people seemed to be marching to their own drummer, with their own very individual signs. It was almost as if there was a powerful "central committee" which had issued the order: "Appear spontaneous". Yes, there were the standard black and white signs, machine made, from one left group or another. But they were lost in a sea of banners and handmade posters. Here are a few: Regime Change Begins At Home // I Love This Country, I Won't Let This Happen // Who Would Jesus Bomb // Get The Empty Warheads Out of the White House // Axis of Evil - Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld // Dissent is Patriotic // and, from a young member of the Socialist Party, No War but the Class War. Several people were seen carrying nothing but olive branches.
There were strange white birds made of cloth, which floated above us, held high on stilts. At one intersection people were taking turns lying on a large spread of white cloth while someone painted a black line around their bodies, so when they stood up, you could see the outline of the victim.
The tens of thousands spent from 11 in the morning until 5 or 6 in the afternoon in weather which, while sunny, never once got as high as freezing. At one point, when our line of march was going down Pennsylvania Avenue, I heard a burst of shouting "It's Our Flag Too!" and walked over to see what had happened. A group of Republicans in an apartment building across the street had put up signs mocking the marchers, and, of course, a large American flag. After the firm chant of "It's Our Flag Too" the group continued marching with the chant "Dissent is Patriotic."
For those of you in other countries, you should know that peace demonstrations have been occurring steadily, and in increasing numbers, even as the members of Congress have been afraid of opposing Bush. In my lifetime I have not seen so massive a divide in "active public opinion" between those in the government, who continue to announce their plans to invade Iraq, and the people in the small towns and the larger cities all across this country.
Washington DC is a world of its own, and it may be that Congress doesn't yet understand how deep is the active opposition to this war. Many of us expect some "Gulf of Tonkin" incident to help try to sell the public, but distrust is very deep. People remember this President was not elected. The media is finally beginning to cover the demonstrations - a coverage that reflects a genuine division within the Establishment. Never has the White House been more deeply isolated as it is today, with world opinion profoundly opposed to this military adventure. Tony Blair may speak, but he no longer speaks for Great Britain, nor even for the Labour Party. Bush may speak, but he has lost his mandate to speak for America.
We should take hope that our actions will reinforce each other. The war is not a "done deal." Bush is on a serious collision course with the moderate ordinary Americans that turned out on a bitter cold day, not only in Washington, DC but in San Francisco and cities all across the country. (And across the world). The hope of ordinary people around the world rests in mass demonstrations such as those we have seen. Those in power need to take note, or the acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, which have already begun, will deepen and spread as Bush's illegitimate abuse of power faces a serious confrontation from the citizens.
David McReynolds is a former member of staff of the War Resisters League and was Socialist Party candidate for US President in 2000. Just like Dubya, he didn’t win, but David had the good grace to concede.