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The MLK Rally for Peace

 

I almost didn’t go to the Martin Luther King week-end rally against the Iraq war planned by International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism.) Then, Friday morning, listening to a National Public Radio reporter tactfully interview some military officials about the Administration’s “reasons” for invading Iraq, I phoned home: “Let’s go down there today!” Jack and I left Boston at 4:30 Friday afternoon and arrived in DC at 2 Saturday morning.

Saturday A.M. In the 70s my parents used to live at Van Ness and Connecticut Avenue in Northwest DC, and now the metro has a stop there. There’s an upscale coffee shop smack at the metro entrance where we grab espressos and passion fruit smoothies and make our way towards several other other graying white people who say they’ve come for the rally from Wisconsin — three vans of parents, grand-parents and kids. The train turns out to be crowded with more of us: fanny and back-packs, worn hiking boots, anti-war buttons, more gray hair. The crowd gets younger at subsequent stops, people in their 30s with kids in tow; people in their 20s. We get off at Judiciary and walk towards the Mall. It’s freezing: I have two pairs of gloves on, but my hands are stuffed into the sleeves of my down coat, hood up, scarf over my mouth. On the way, I meet several women from Boston, colleagues in Israel-Palestine organizations: “I was hoping I wouldn’t see you guys!” I joke, “if we keep running into each other it’ll mean it’s the same-old same-olds!”

A cheerfully festive crowd–not the same-old-same-olds–is scattered in the plaza fronting the National Gallery. The first placards to catch my eye: “MY MOM SAYS FUCK BUSH!” “FIGHTING FOR PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY.” This month’s gallery exhibit is ironically apt: “Deceptions & Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting.” Inside, guards check the bags of a swarm of people who leave the rally for a little warmth, the restrooms, and the espresso-gelato cafe. Vast stretches of lovely marble floors; luxurious gift stores. The women’s rooms are jammed. A female group of 25 liberates one of the men’s rooms beside the museum’s ornamental waterfall. A lady who looks as if she just left Bergdorff-Goodman stiffens with pursed mouth and uncertain frown: “O! I don’t know . . . ” as red-faced men file by and press in at the urinals. From the men at the urinals: “C’mon ladies, this isn’t fair.” “They’re not impressed!” (laughter) Bergdorff then offers her opinion of the rally: “It doesn’t look like a big march to me. It isn’t congested towards the middle. I mean, having seen many others . . . ”

I go to one of the gift shops and buy a notebook. Outside, a group of kids are standing around a half-inflated bomb-shaped balloon that reads BOMB: FALSE SECURITY. A young woman stands at one end heaving over a bicycle pump. 20-year-old Kristin, fair-skinned with pale brown hair fanning her face under her ski cap, tells me that 26 University of Michigan students traveled ten hours in vans to get here. At U Michigan last spring, she says, “Two totally different groups of people”–Muslim students and students like Kristin–“came together and created this really great conference on the war in Iraq. There were 800 people.”

Beyond the U Michigan students, there’s a group of people in their 40s and 50s with the sort of white baggy clothes and Birkenstocks I associate with yoga and meditation types. Their sign says Global Coalition for Peace: indeed, they meditate and send people around to teach other people how to meditate for peace (“Check out our website,” says a man with a scraggy beard who looks in his 50s, “www dot global coalition for peace dot net.” ) “Eight-thousand people meditated for six years, then the Cold War ended and the Berlin wall fell,” he says and then, catching the irony in my gaze: “We may call it a coincidence . . . . ” I can’t fault their banner, though: “WOMEN PEACEMAKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! I will not raise my child to kill your child.” Nearby I find four teenagers from New York’s East Side Community High School with their teacher, Jeremy. Two of the kids are African-American, one looks Latina. Jeremy, who looks quite Caucasian, says his grandfather was national president of the NAACP in 1968. Beside him, 18-year-old Seekgu Marie, small, round-faced and dark-skinned, is carrying a hand-lettered placard that reads, “The Greatest Purveyor of Violence in the World Today–My Own Government–Martin Luther King.” A young Latina-looking woman student beside Jeremy has an American flag draped around her shoulders: instead of stars, there are corporation logos–ABC, Warner Brothers, etc. I walk past other placards–“GEORGE BUSH IS A WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION” “WE HAVE GUIDED MISSILES AND MISGUIDED MEN–.” to a school bus that’s been painted mainly black, with the warning, MR BUSH, AMERICA, FEAR GOD & REPENT. Inside are Paul Combs, 23, and Andrew Wilson, 33, very white and looking like the anti-abortion crusaders they are. They’re both from Lindale Texas and they represent the Church of God “with headquarters in heaven,” Paul says with ad-man panache. How many people in Church of God? “We have a regular attendance of about ten.” Why are they here? Missionary ad-speak starts again, hammering zealously away at me: “It’s inappropriate to say you’re going to rid the world of terror if you have 25,000 terroristic acts daily. Bush is fighting against God, and God’s getting ready to do a number on this nation.”

Goodbye, Paul and Andrew. I pass my favorite placard so far — HOW DID OUR OIL GET UNDER THEIR SAND? Not far from it, I notice a cross pierced by a bomb, carried by a man who turns out to be one of a group of Pennsylvania Mennonites. Their posters: “WHO WOULD JESUS DEFEND?” “WHAT YOU HAVE DONE TO THE LEAST OF THESE YOU HAVE DONE TO ME–Jesus.” Over the loudspeakers Mahdi Bray, one of ANSWER’S main organizers, is saying, “Jesus Christ didn’t say, ‘Blessed are the warmongers . . . the oil . . . Enron . . . he said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.” Just beyond the Mennonites is the demo’s most dramatic figure, 28-year-old Jeffry Bueschler from Blacksburg Virginia, a live poster, naked except for a bikini brief and swim shoes, and he’s handing out magic markers so people can write the peace sign on his skin. His head is shaved with a small tuft of hair on the top like a bird crest. He denies he’s cold even though his arms, hands and legs are shimmying: “I gotta do some exposure for this cause!”

My eye is caught by a placard with a photo of Hitler underscored with the legend, EIN VOLK, EIN REICH, EIN FUHRER! But the face isn’t Hitler’s: it’s George Bush’s. DON’T LET HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF, reads the lettering beside the photo. The hand holding the poster is 24-year-old Rosen Trinidad’s. Born in the Philippines, he was brought to the US by his parents who emigrated here in 1984. His friend, Noreen Tiangco, 25, small, with beautiful, delicate features, and a kuffiyeh wrapped around her neck, is also Philippina (her parents are still there.) She says she wants to go to Palestine, maybe with the International Solidarity Movement, even though both she and Rosen are trying to get into med school (they’re about to leave DC for Boston to look into Boston University.) In fact it seems that a lot of people in the crowd identify with Palestine: take, for instance, Conor O’Grady, an Irish artist in his 20s, with a thick brogue, who lives in New York City. He wears a kuffiyeh, carries a Palestinian flag, and he’s with two men who look Arab. He also wants to go to Palestine to help: “Basically it’s very similar to Ireland, Palestine, though the worst days of our colonization were 400 years ago.”

The loudspeakers are carrying Jesse Jackson’s speech, he’s saying, “Don’t let them work your spirit . . . here we stand, red, brown, black and white, we’re all precious in God’s sight. Can I get a witness?” The crowd roars: “YAAAAAYYYYY!!!” “Can I get a witness?” “YAYYYYYYY!!” “It’s healing time!” says Jesse. “It’s hope time! It’s peace time! Keep hope alive!” “KEEP HOPE ALIVE! KEEP HOPE ALIVE! KEEP HOPE ALIVE!”

Terry, 64, looks as if he’s just about to visit his local VFW. He’s wearing a baseball cap with stars and stripes (bill forward, not backwards), and he carries a hand-scrawled sign: PATRIOT FOR PEACE. Has he been to many demos in his life? A granite-jawed denial: “Never.” This is his first demonstration? He nods. “Why did you come?” “Because I love my country. That’s all, I’m talking too much.” Over the P.A. system the next speaker says, “You people–you are the real patriots,” and I’m startled to see Terry’s eyes fill with tears and overflow. He turns away from me, embarrassed, but I pat his shoulder: “You just keep this up, what you’re doing is important, it’s great!” and now Terry smiles and pats my shoulder in return.

Bergdorff’s analysis is way off the mark. Whatever “congested towards the middle” means, I guess I’m in it, but actually the whole rally seems to be the “congested middle,” I can scarcely move, the crush of people is like a subway rush-hour extending as far as I can see down the mall towards the Capitol. I notice two more delegations that aren’t the same-old-same-olds, “YELLOW SPRINGS HIGH SCHOOL, OHIO–STOP THE WAR” and “COLUMBIA THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: CHRISTIANS FOR PEACE.” Beside me Cecilia, from Chile, small, bent, walks with a cane, carrying a placard that says, “Children play with each other. Why don’t grownups learn to do the same?” She seems older than her 62 years; she’s from Chile but not, she says, one of the grandmothers who fought Pinochet “even though,” she smiles, “I’m a grandmother.” This is far from her first demonstration, she says. She’s here today because “you have to act on your beliefs. What good is it to believe and not to act?” Just a little forward in the crush there’s a young woman in a sweatshirt that says “National Youth Summit” and a “HELLO MY NAME IS” badge. In the name-space she’s written, CIVILIAN CASUALTY. Beyond her there’s a joyous din of improvised percussion instruments, a sort of Latin rhythm is issuing from waste-baskets, spoons, spring water containers and a cow-bell, and at the end of each rhythmic chorus everyone yells, “DROP BUSH, NOT BOMBS!” I start jumping up and down and yelling till I decide to move forward, and now I’m behind someone with a hooded black sweatshirt decorated with safety pins and the logo FUCKEN URBAN PIRATES. She’s 21, from North Carolina; a knit cap under the hood is pulled down to her eyebrows, a bandana hides her mouth and nose, so all I see are two hazel eyes, one of them oddly two-toned. She won’t give her name, which seems to be the point of being with fucken urban pirates. Who are fucken urban pirates? “Everyone.” “So I could be a fucken urban pirate, too?” “Yeah.”

Hazel, 78, and Bill, 73, are part of the group of 100 people who came here from Yellow Springs, Ohio. She’s four months out of surgery, she says cheerfully, as she shuffles along behind her walker. She has four children, eight grandchildren, one of whom runs up to her and takes her arm while she smiles radiantly at him, “Hello, Sweetie!” They’re Quakers, veterans of nonviolent civil disobedience. She’s been in jail at least three times for civil disobedience. She tells me the name of her first penitentiary: Alderston. She was there a month. Bill was in jail in Kentucky for six months. A nonviolent civil disobedience at the School of the Americas was just one of their actions. She’s so cheerful I ask, “So did you enjoy prison?” “Well, you learn a lot. I was with women of three different races. The worst thing was meeting the minimally guilty–women who were taking a drug rap for things other people did.” Just beyond Hazel and Bill, who are white, I find Charles, 47, and Jeanie, 46, who are black, from Ashville, North Carolina. He’s a doctor, she’s a teacher. His parents were factory workers, hers, farmers. Both originally came from Mississippi. It’s their first demonstration: “We don’t believe in the war. We have a son to go and relatives.” Their son is 18: “He represents all the eighteen-year-olds. You should know what you’re fighting for. It should be something real,” says Charles, “not something contrived.”

Now the crowd is chanting, “Osama, Saddam, Pinochet, all created by the CIA!” We’re moving past the Botanical Gardens; the demo planners intended that the march proceed to the Navy Yard to carry out a symbolic search for weapons of mass destruction, but the sound system wasn’t approved; still, the crowd is wending its slow way there. Cops stand on the Botanical Garden wall, blue-helmeted, faces hidden by skimobile masks. The cops watch the crowd impassively, some people around me train videos on the cops. In front of me there’s a 13-year-old named Lynn Fonda (“Yeah, like Jane,” she says unsmilingly) who carries a sign, “There’s a Terrorist Behind Every Bush.” She came from upstate New York with her mother, father, brother, and a few friends. It’s her second demo. She was here last October. The Fondas, I, Jack, and the mass of people around us are now moving past a bank of upscale restaurants. On the roof of Hunan Dynasty ten people are waving excitedly and giving us the peace sign; the crowd starts screaming WHAT DO WE WANT, PEACE, WHEN DO WE WANT IT, NOW, PEACENOWPEACE NOWPEACENOWPEACENOW! As we pass Starbucks the crowd yells, “OUT OF THE STARBUCKS, INTO THE STREETS!” An Asian woman leans out of the third-storey window of Tammy’s Nails, waving at the crowd, and it roars back at her: “TaMMY! TaMMY! TaMMY!” In front of me there’s a scrawled sign that reads, “There Is No Flag Big Enough to Cover the Shame of Killing Innocent People.”

Now I’m walking beside Paul, 65, and Mary, 62, both African-American, both retired school-teachers. No, they don’t generally do this sort of thing. Paul came “because I dislike the whole notion of war.” “This war in particular?” “This war in particular,” says Paul, “It makes no sense.” The street we’re on goes uphill. I look back: there’s a carpet of people stretching back for blocks as far as my eye can see. This thing is enormous: people around me make guesstimates–200,000 for sure. Jack, who used to be a cop and has a good eye for numbers, supposes that there are as many as 500,000. “You’re only seeing to the point where they’re making the turn. When we were back at the turn I looked up to here where we are and the road was completely full of people. Now we’re looking back and they’re still coming around the corner.”

Finally my part of the march reaches the Navy Yard. Standing all by herself on one corner there’s a woman who turns out to be 64, Ann Dykstra. She’s small, grim-faced, and totally straight-looking, the government and United Nations worker she has been all her life. The placard she’s holding is a personal outcry:

NO WAR! 6 GRANDSONS. I worked: 5 YEARS: Asian refugees. 18 YEARS UN–Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. COLD WAR: WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE.

Everyone’s eyes drift towards Ann with a mixture of curiosity and the nervousness some people feel when they see a lone older woman who could maybe be a little dotty. Ann isn’t dotty in the least, on the contrary. She says she grew up in Linda Vista, California; her parents, aircraft workers, “made bombers.” White Sands Missile Range was her first job at 19: secretary. She worked for the State Department, then for the UN Border Relief Organization, then, for nine years, for UNICEF. All-told, she worked fourteen years in Southeast Asia refugee programs. This is only her second demonstration. Bush, she says, “has eroded our civil rights, he’s brought us to the brink of war.” It’s the worst time she can recall in her life: “How can you sit at home and watch this just happen? You have to do something. It’s time for the people to take back their government and not let this happen!”

ELLEN CANTAROW plays jazz piano professionally in Boston and New England. She can be reached at: ecantarow@attbi.com

 

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Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.

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