Washington D.C. On September 11 an Al-Quida-led terrorist network struck at the heart of American financial and political centers, killing thousands, troubling a shaky economy, and for many, destroying the notion that America is immune from the grim art of the terrorist.
Much of the American citizenry, shocked and incensed by what Noam Chomsky called the "most devastating instant toll in history outside of war," looked to an inarticulate, Republican-led Supreme Court-installed president to implement measures to prevent the atrocity from recurring.
President George W. Bush’ s response–redeclared a "war on international terrorism" that bequeathed in a matter of weeks a death toll of innocent civilians in Afghanistan surpassing the Al-Quida attack–prompted an estimated 200,000 people to march on Washington D.C. on April 20th to demand that American foreign policy "stop the killing" of innocent civilians, end the occupation of Palestine and pursue social justice as an animating principle vis-a-vis an a ready administration willingness to potentially brand any country or individual a terrorist under the Bush Doctrine.
The marchers called for a domestic and foreign policy animated by social justice, libertarian concerns, with a heavy emphasis on immediately halting the offensive of the Israeli Defense Forces in the occupied territories–a bloody siege described in a widely-distributed pamphlet at the march as a "macabre saga of violence and methodical repression (Islamic Circle of North America)."
Organizers called the solidarity march for Palestine the largest in U.S. history.
The first major national protest against the war on terrorism, occurring some seven months after the September 11 attack, featured a wide coalition of citizen groups representing organizations addressing specific issues such as the Israeli "slaughter" of the Palestinians, the American war on terrorism, the domestic erosion of civil liberties, corporate domination of the global economic system and mass media, racism and racial profiling, and halting military aid to Columbia.
The march was planned months in advance and organizers claimed it represented an "unprecedented" coalition of peace, labor, and justice groups.
In a scene paradigmatically reflecting the apparent nature of the coalition, Wisconsin Green party organizer Ben Manski delivered a fiery speech against the war on terrorism through a bullhorn on a flatbed truck, sharing the horn and truck with eight young Palestinians as protesters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Despite intense propaganda efforts by the U.S. and Israeli governments and their military forces that systemically prevented press access to Afghanistan and the occupied territories, the stage-managed acts of American and Israeli aggression have drawn wide public condemnation in the United States culminating in the April 20th march displaying what marchers said is a common sentiment–that innocent civilians not be harmed in the pursuit of the Al-Quida network, and that U.S. foreign policy should advance social justice.
A virtual black-out exists in mass-media American reporting on popular opinion beyond carefully-framed polling questions, but organizers hope the rally was so large that their peace and justice message could be conveyed through mass-media news reports.
"Not in my name," and "Peace Is Patriotic" and "All War Is Terror" were common signs at the march, as an exuberant and diverse crowd shouted a variety of anti-war chants and slogans, with seemingly hundreds of individuals distributing pamphlets and other literature.
"I’m here out of a desire for peace and a belief that violence and revenge are not a way to peace. As the world’s only super power, we should be leading the way toward peace and justice in the world, and not creating the circumstances that lead to greater tension and terrorism," said Katherine Kurtz, of Philadelphia, who is an Associate Director of American Friends Service Committee.
"The war machine is about profit not about security and we are not going to have peace without justice. I believe that terrorism is terrorism whether it is raining down from U.S war planes or if it’s desperate people blowing themselves up," said Jennifer Atienofifatar, who is 29 years old and lives in Washington D.C.
Although the march seemed to be comprised largely of people from the east coast–New England, Washington, Philadelphia and New York–all regions of the United States appeared well represented.
"People just kept coming and coming, bus load after bus load," said Jackie Captain of Fitchburg, Wisconsin. "I wonder where all of the Palestinians were from, because there were just thousands of them, whole families."
"I met people form Illinois, Minnesota, California–young and old. Palestinians and Midwesterners alike, standing together for peace and justice. It was wonderful. Everybody was talking to everyone, you had to be there to feel the atmosphere, it was inspiring."
Ralliers mixed freely and openly with each other in an often-festive environment. A common scene was of Palestinians talking to a group of vocally supportive white questioners. One veteran of Vietnam-era peace marches remarked that the march was as open, community-oriented and good-natured, as he had ever seen.
The crowd, which assembled on the southwest side of the Washington Monument at Sylvan Theater on Saturday morning, converged with the Palestinian solidarity rally from the northwest side of the monument and by 3:00 p.m. with other protesters joining the march, the crowd had swelled to an estimated 200,000 as they marched toward Pennsylvania Avenue and then on toward the capitol, ending with a rally on the Mall.
Some press reports quoted D.C. officials who put the crowd size at 75,000, but Washington, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey–smiling and joking with passersby in a park off Pennsylvania Avenue–told this writer at approximately 3:30 p.m. that the crowd was well in excess of 100,000. Other sources said the crowd exceeded a 250,000.
Ramsey agreed with activists’ assessment of the atmosphere and peaceful nature of the march, calling the rally "an outstanding event."
Mike Leon is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org