washington, dc -- let me lay it on the line. Then you can tell me if this is depressing or hopeful. I'm here in Washington because it's obvious that only Americans have any power to affect U.S. military madness. For Bush, only domestic America counts. So this is what democracy looks like, to steal a popular protest chant. There are 100,000 to 200,000 gathered beside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at last Saturday's, October 26, giant anti-war rally. And they are the planet's best bet against a dangerous and deadly new war game.Later, I get chills when Reverend Jesse Jackson quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: "When young America moves, the whole world moves." I hope he's right.
Because there are a lot of young ones here. Students and their profs. It's very all-ages, actually. Intelligent, varied, very individual, gentle people. Lined and dread-lined.
But in the days before this giant rally, I feel worried.
I'm thinking there is some strange cosmic irony going on. Unbelievable billions of dollars are committed to the rights-busting war on terrorism. Yet the senseless violence of a sniper has transformed the heart of America into a war zone for real. And news-wise, in Television World, nothing else matters.
Will anyone in their right mind show up for a demo in Washington right now? Add the fact that Bush has just toned down his "regime change" rhetoric. Maybe everyone will think Bush has been contained and it's all going to go away.
And then, horrible, cruel fate. Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife, his child, his campaigners, die the day before the protest in a tragic plane crash. Not only does the heart ache over the sadness and loss, but the Democrats' razor-thin edge in the Senate could be a further casualty. The hand of God, it seems, has struck an inexplicable blow.
But I'm here in DC nonetheless, even if my spirits are a little low. It's cloudy and cold. I may not have brought warm enough clothes.
As I near the rallying point, I join a streaming mass. It's going to be big after all.
I love the signs and messages people have decorated themselves with. "Drop Bush not bombs" and "Regime change begins at home" are hand-made with obvious conviction by many. I laugh at "Bush, a bad beer, a worse president"and "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography." I feel a tug for the "One world, one love" signs.
I make my way to the park thinking no one can hijack the politics of a movement if everyone comes with their own personal statement. The way this ethos naturally pervades the gathering is gratifying -- an evolved cultural foundation that has grown, especially over the last decade of anti-global activism.
Not to say that there aren't lots of standard-issue signs -- the powerful No Blood For Oil statement beside the image of an Iraqi child is the most widely circulated. There are others, of course. Peace Patriot, No War and Start Seeing Iraqi Children.
I'm thinking about this because one reason why I'm here is to sniff out a feel for the politics convening this mass gathering. I'm sure, at least in part, we have the revolutionary old left to thank for pushing the kick-ass, hard-hitting No Blood For Oil statement. The Workers World Party, an early splinter off the Trotskyist family tree, is a major player in the International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now To Stop War and End Racism) coalition that has pulled off this demo in just six weeks of organizing. Hats off, I say. No blood for oil. You bet.
Lots of what is about to happen is pretty old-school. In the Vietnam era, the old left played a huge role in building the movement.
The anti-Vietnam movement hangs palpably in the ether in other ways. We are gathering adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, for god's sake. For the first time, I really get the sanctity of ancestral burial ground. There's a feeling here of being accountable to our dead beloveds. And to their great credit, the organizers make the most of it by beginning the proceedings with a spate of veterans.
"The reason you're here is the same reason I joined the military. I love my country," says Gulf War vet Charles Sheehan-Miles, co-founder of Vets for Common Sense. They will be sending our boys "using the same lousy equipment that brought 150,000 sick veterans home from the last Gulf War."
The speeches are mainly short and punchy. But there are lots of coalition bases to cover. So they go on and on. And major initiatives are launched, most notably a people's anti-war referendum (www.votenowar.org) that aims for millions of signatures world-wide, to culminate in a Washington Peace Congress that will take place January 18 and 19, timed in honour of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Also announced are peace initiatives to take place around Remembrance Day, November 11. There's "work a day for peace" on December 4. And of course, the critical November 5 election day.
Ahmed al-Azzawa, a U.S. citizen born in Iraq, talks about the conversation he had with his mother back home. "People don't know what it means to have nothing to give your crying child but sewage water," he says.
Powerful. It's 1:30 before I look at my watch. By now, it's getting kind of painful since the muddy ground beneath our feet precludes any sitting down. But the sun has come out -- my new green peace button has been unpinned and repinned through several layers. Now it's on my tank top. "It doesn't rain on the righteous," says Reverend Graylan Hagler.
Then the glamorous Susan Sarandon hits the podium. "Mr. Bush," she says, "you have hijacked our pain, our loss, our fear. It is time to resist fundamentalism that leads to violence -- in all its guises.
"Our fundamentalism is business -- our insistence on profit at the cost of human life. Oil men are ready to expand their contracts on soil our bombs have plowed."
Pain disappears again while 70s icon Patti Smith sings a song she wrote inspired by the words of Jesse Jackson in 1980. "People have the power," rocks the chorus, "to redeem the work of fools."
And soon after, the Reverend himself. "Dr. King would be so happy to see so many young people launching this peace movement," says Jesse Jackson.
"Say no to war, but don't stop there. Our movement must reflect the healing and the values that we seek.
"Saddam should be accountable for his sins. That's a good argument for the International Criminal Court, not for bombing."
It's my first Jackson live and a great speech. It's like he's brought the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. with him to the rally.
Reverend Al Sharpton does it, too. "We march because it took us from the back of the bus into the government. If we had not marched, Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice would have had to stay in a segregated motel.
"Look outside," he tells Bush. "These are Martin Luther King's children."
And as one of my new marching friends from Vermont puts it at the end of the long march that follows, "What people don't realize is that this is just the launch."