It was pouring rain on Saturday when my alarm clock went off at five o'clock in the morning. The buses were leaving 13th Street at six o'clock sharp.

I headed out into the rain and stopped at the 24-hour deli on 14th street to pick up some coffee. About a dozen other New Yorkers – damp and groggy like me – were inside getting their morning fix and some supplies for the day. Some were young, some old. One was carrying a placard – I couldn't read what it said because it was wrapped in a plastic garbage bag. In our sensible shoes and raingear, we greeted each other with knowing smiles that we were all headed to the same place, for the same purpose at this ungodly hour. We were all heading to the anti-war demonstration in Washington DC to protest going to war against Iraq.

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up to go to rally. Like many in the United States over the past few years, I had become disillusioned with the anti-war protestors and the American left wing. I had spent the better part of the decade covering the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo where I learned all too well what happens when aggression goes unchecked. The Balkans taught me that there are times when the use of force is justified, necessary and right. I supported the NATO bombing over Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. Similarly, I didn't oppose the US-led bombing campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Iraq, however, is different.

Without any evidence tying Sadaam Hussein to the September 11 Al Qaeda attacks, launching a war in Iraq – which just happens to contain the world's second largest oil reserve – seemed precipitous. But in a time marked by apathy, I wondered how many people would turn out for an anti-war rally. I wondered too, who they would be. Would they be a smattering of fringe leftists? Perhaps activists from the Vietnam era? Would all of the diffuse interests at the anti-globalization rallies be present?

Organizers of the rally – a coalition of anti-war groups called International ANSWER, which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism – said they were hoping to attract 75,000 demonstrators. Photographer Joseph Rodriguez and I had our doubts. Neither of us had heard much about the demonstration beforehand. I wouldn't have known about it until they day before when the New York Times ran a tiny article on an inside page announcing it, had a friend not sent an e-mail about the protest.

Our bus – and a half dozen others – was packed, and although the passengers said they too were pessimistic that protesters would turn out in the number the organizers were hoping for, they seemed determined that the anti-war movement had to start somewhere. "If we can get the numbers," said 45-year-old Bill Kravitz from Brooklyn, "the government will have to listen." As a copy of the morning's New York Times was passed around the bus, passengers shook their heads in disappointment about an article reporting that President Bush was out of the country at an economic summit.

As we headed south into the darkness, the storm began to break. By the time we arrived in the Capitol at eleven o'clock, it had cleared and the sun had peeked out. I looked out the window and saw a couple of hundred protestors carrying signs that read, "No Blood for Oil" and "Drop Sanctions, Not bombs." Vincent Valenti, the assistant dean at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute who had been lamenting the lack of enthusiasm among his students, looked out the window forlornly. "It looks pretty small," he said. Perhaps it was just as well that the President was away.

But as our bus turned onto Constitution Avenue and neared the Constitution Gardens, Vincent's face lit up. There before us was a throng of humanity – tens of thousands of people of all ages and colors were gathered in the park waving placards and chanting, "This is democracy!" They came from places like North Carolina and Michigan and they included seasoned Vietnam activists, members of the armed forces, church groups, students and retirees, many who had never before attended a political protest.

Silver-haired couples from the Washington suburbs strolled casually next to man on stilts who was dressed as Uncle Sam with a Pinocchio nose. A woman waved a sign with a picture of a young man that read, "My son is a Marine." A mother pushing a stroller with one hand held a sign with the other that read, "No blood for oil." A group of Palestinian-American women in headscarves watched in amusement as two cross-dressers with giant missiles attached to their genitals grabbed their weapons and proclaimed, "We'd like to stick this into Iraq."

Standing on the grass along Constitution Avenue, five women from the Catholic Sisters, a group founded in 1843 to educate women and girls around the world, said that in September, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to President Bush stating that they believed a pre-emptive military strike would be immoral. "Catholics throughout the world are concerned that we'll strike pre-emptively and I believe this goes against the principals of democracy," said Sister Anne Marie Gardiner, 59, of Maryland.

Behind the Catholic Sisters, a group of New Yorkers in flowered dresses, boas, go-go boots and beehive wigs in green, blue, pink and orange held a blue-sequined banner that read, "An Absurd Response to an Absurd War." They were accompanied by a dog in a plaid jacket and tie and a master of ceremonies who banged on a drum labeled, "oil." To the tune of "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" they sang:

If you're greedy and you known it, bomb Iraq.
If you're greedy and you know it, then George Bush will surely show it
If you're greedy and you know it, bomb Iraq.

As the crowd roared with laughter, the group broke into another song. Drawing from the civil rights ballad, "We shall overcome," they sang: "We shall over-bomb, we shall over-bomb Iraq."

On a stage in Constitutional Gardens, not far from the Vietnam Veterans memorial, many of the usual suspects took the stage. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson both condemned the Bush Administration's intent to wage war. Members of Socialist International, the World Socialist organization, the League of Revolutionaries for New America and other groups on the leftist fringe waved banners. Copies of the People's Daily and the Workers Vanguard were plentiful. And of course, many of those in attendance used the anti-war rally to stump for other causes. Among the banners and placards in the crowd were: "Free Palestine," "Fight AIDS, Not War," "Stop the Death Penalty Now," and a host of other issues.

And there was an array of messages that were sure to offend the large number of Americans who remain ambivalent about waging a war in Iraq. The placard "Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft – Axis of Evil," and the chant, "George Bush, You can't hide, We charge you with genocide," were sure to offend administration supporters who might otherwise oppose the war. These weren't the messages I hoped the anti-war rally would send, but they did not reflect the overall sentiment of the crowd. Our informal survey of the demonstration showed that most of those in attendance didn't have a radical or ulterior agenda. They came to the rally because they oppose launching a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq.

Owen Roth, a 28-year-old network engineer from New York City, had gone to only one other protest in his life – the Presidential inauguration of George W. Bush. This was one he was not going to miss. "I don't think Bush won the election," he said. "He has no mandate to lead us and now he wants to start a war in our name."

Tom Mulrine, a retired Colonel in the US Army, had come up from Delaware with his dog, a feisty Hungarian Vizsla, to voice his opposition. "War is a serious business and to go into it without evidence at this point is just precipitous." He added, "I'm not sure that our leaders are vested in this war. Jen and Barbara [the Bush daughters] aren't going to be the ones fighting this war. It's other people's kids."

Three busloads of students from Penn State arrived from Philadelphia, among them a group of Muslim students. "We're here not only because we don't want a war in Iraq, but we want sanctions to be ended as well," said Monika, a 20-year-old student studying behavioral health.

Along Constitution Avenue, part of the route the protestors would take in their march to the White House, Rick Jones, 41-year-old from New Jersey who makes a living refurbishing houses, was holding a giant sign that read, "The Emperor Has no Brain." He said he knew his sign would be offensive to supporters of the administration, but he said, "Someone has to say it," Jones said. "I think everyone knows it. I mean, they won't even let him [President Bush] give a press conference on his own."

At 17th St, Graham Hill, a 32-year-old environmental entrepreneur from Manhattan, and Tara Sutton, a 32-year-old producer and writer from Brooklyn, were wearing T-shirts that read "Evil Doer." Both left-handed, the duo had designed the shirts, which they called Leftyware, to make a statement against the Bush Administration. "Get your evil here," Hill yelled to passers-by as he hawked the shirts from his backpack. The two said they had been inspired to make the trip to Washington for the rally after attending an anti-war protest in New York's Central Park a couple of weeks earlier.