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It was relatively early on Saturday the 27th of January when I got to the Mall in Washington DC. The bus ride from Asheville had been bearable–I even got a few hours of sleep. The early morning crowd was small–in fact it wasn’t even a crowd.; just a bunch of folks setting up tables and sound technicians fiddling with wires and knobs on stage. Oh yeah, there were a few police congregating as they do before an event sipping coffee and listening to their commander tell them what to do.
The weather was warming up to the eventual 55 degrees it would peak at that day. I chose a bench to sit on near 5th and Pennsylvania to watch the morning unfold. By 10 o’clock the crowd had grown to at least thirty or forty thousand. One of the several squares that gravel foot paths divide the mall into was about one-half full. Over the years I’ve figured out that each square holds about 100,000 people when they are packed in. Multiple newspapers were being distributed representing the multitude of views represented. Socialists to Stalinists to pray-for-peace groups. Left Democrats, libertarians and pacifists. The usual suspects and pretty much everyone with a smile on their face. By the time the speeches began around 11:00 one and a half squares were full of people. In other words, there were around 150,000 folks at the rally by then. And they continued to pour in from the subway stops and every single side street that feeds into the Mall. The speakers began with a few prayers and spiritual suggestions. From there they built to a finale from representatives of a number of antiwar veterans groups, Jesse Jackson and some movie actors, including Jane Fonda.
Delegations that chose to represent their towns and cities on their banners and signs included folks from Fulton County, PA, Tampa, FL, Des Moines, Detroit, MI, and Chicago, to name just a few. Elderly couples walked with handmade signs while young children ran between their legs. Teens and young adults shared their message of peace not war through a variety of signs, colorful at times in design and sometimes even language. Multitudes of middle-aged men and women exchanged war stories from protests past while enjoying and appreciating the presence of the tens of thousands of people younger then themselves.
The politics from the stage were primarily from the left liberal side of the spectrum. Let’s push the Democrats to keep their word was the general tone of the voices behind the microphone. Impeachment calls were also quite popular. Occasionally the message was a little stronger, as in let’s hold these suckers’ feet to the fire. After all, we voted for them because we want them to end the war. Among the anti-imperialists the conversation ranged from a probably correct cynical view that the Democrats would fail to produce anything but a series of non-binding resolutions to the view that even those resolutions would be so watered down that their intention would be unclear at best. Back on the stage, the strongest statements of the anti-imperialist type came from the vets and military families, specifically the Iraq Vets Against the War. "I thought I was fighting for justice…when all I was fighting for was Halliburton and oil…is the line I recall. Of course, it’s not new, but it had a particularly strong resonance that afternoon when spoken by a young man who has seen more than his share of bloodshed for reasons only the greediest of humanity could believe in. And still the people kept coming from the subways and the streets.
As the organizers announced the logistics of the march I walked down to where the veterans groups and others were lining up to form its front lines. I joined thousands of people making their way to Third and Jefferson. The idea was to line up behind the front of the parade. However, since there were so many people and such a small space for them to line up, the situation became confused. Police had closed off several parking lots and grassy areas near the march starting point for some reason known only to them. They patrolled the areas they had closed off with chain link and those yellow plastic ribbons they use with dogs. Eventually, people took matters into their own hands and created other ways to join in the march without waiting. As I waited, a woman walked by with a sign reading "Another Management Consultant for Peace." The reflecting pool had a thin layer of ice on it and hundreds of people sitting and standing around it as they wait for a place opens where they can join in the march.
After about a half hour I made it into the march near the Senate Office Building. Hundreds of protesters were sitting on the balcony and stairs of the building and some had hung their banners there. Police sat nervously in their cars. Given the amount of confusion and the size of the crowds, it’s too bad that the protest didn’t take place on a work day. If it had, official Washington would have been shut down for a bit. That’s something to think about. I left the balcony of the Senate Office Building and headed further up the hill. It became apparent that the march route circled the Capitol. While I wandered in and out of a drum corps and dancers, I got into a conversation with a fellow marcher about the number of Dylan quotes I had seen on placards. She then pointed to a banner that a group was carrying just ahead of our position that had the most relevant one of them all: "Come Senators, congressmen, please heed the call…." I nodded, wished her well, and walked on ahead, the next line of the song playing in my head…"Don’t stand in the doorways, Don’t block up the hall…."
I’m not sure why, but every other building after the Senate Office Building on the march route was guarded by police who refused to let people even get on the steps. The Supreme Court Building had a group of folks dressed in prison jumpsuits performing a skit about Gitmo. Around the corner a Dixieland band played jazz and Pete Seeger songs. As I headed into the final stretch of my walk I looked at the quarter of a million people all around me and remembered the words of one of the speakers (and I paraphrase): This can not be the culmination of our efforts, it must be the beginning." Amen, I thought, Amen. After all, it’s the movement that has put people in the streets and every other pressure point in our fragile republic that forced Congress to even consider challenging Mr. Bush’s escalation. It also that movement that’s going to get the troops out of there. The focus was on the Capitol January 27th. It will be on the Pentagon on March 17th.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org