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