The Streets of San Francisco

This was my third Anti-War march here in San Francisco for the current conflict. It differed from the others–it was darker, grimmer– more serious. The war was palpably close. Police estimates said at least 200,000 people made their way into San Francisco under threatening skies on a Sunday morning to take a patriotic, public stand against the Bushies’ relentless drive for war.

I used a more streamlined method for building signs this time. I bought green garden stakes–$1.99 for a bag of 18–and connected two matching 8.5×11 sheets with some clear packing tape, wrapping it around the top of the stake. I also wrapped the bottom 8 inches or so of the stake–with a strip wrapped lengthwise–to protect from splinters. The signs look more like flags this way, and they’re lighter and easier to grip than my last set.

I made a lot of scripts, all with the same style–black Futura Bold type on white paper. Some of my messages included: America Rocks– Bush Doesn’t, Another Majority Against Bush, Anti-War Anti-Bush, Anti-War Majority, Anti-War Patriot, Proud American Despite Bush, Bush Has Flipped Out, Bush Is Ruining Everything, Empty Warhead, Idiots Love War, He Was Not Elected For This, 9/11 Was Not Iraq, War for the Poor–Break$ for the Rich, Bush Ended America Don’t Let Him End The World, War Kills the Poor, and my favorite, No War For Daddy. I made up 45 two-sided banners on three-foot stakes, put ’em in a bag, and Sunday morning, cb gave me a ride down to BART.

For some reason, I was feeling a little shy, so I wasn’t offering the signs to people right away. The more serious mood was evident even on the train. The BART train was filling with marchers as we approached downtown. Finally, a middle aged guy asked if I was meeting people downtown I was giving the signs to, I said, No, I’m hoping to give them out on the way down. I said, Here, take a look at the signs, and if you like one, help yourself. Suddenly, a half a dozen people stood up, and started leafing through the banners. They were smiling, laughing, pulling the signs out, passing them around to their friends, trading back and forth. And the thing I didn’t expect, they all were really grateful, thanking me profusely. They were grateful that somebody had made signs, so that they could carry them and be counted and be seen and make a statement.

I got off at the next stop, and spread the signs out on a bench, and within minutes, they were all gone, grabbed by people coming into the station, looking over the signs, picking out a slogan they wanted to carry all day.

When I came up out of the Montgomery station to walk the last few blocks to the rally point, I was surprised to see the sidewalks full of people streaming towards downtown. This was at 10:45, the rally was supposed to start at 11 and the march at 1. But Market Street was already steadily filling with people, from the plaza at the head of the street down towards the main part of the financial district.

The crowd was growing so fast, and filling the street so quickly, it almost seemed like the march had started itself, as the crowd surged towards downtown, ready to get it on. I ran down into BART and took it one stop back, to get ahead of the start of the march so I could see it come by. Finally, the speeches at the plaza winded down, and the headliners gathered at the front banner to lead the stately charge. Danny Glover, Joan Baez, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, Bonnie Raitt, Rev. Cecil Williams, and others took the big sign up front and kicked off the march. I moved along behind this crowd for a while, and the crowd began the eerie howl–a random cry that periodically moved down the length of the crowd, building and bouncing down the walls of the skyscrapers along the route. Drummers in various groupings were scattered throughout the crowd, and rhythms ebbed and flowed as I found a spot on an island in mid-street and watched the quarter million people flow around me. Lots of parents with strollers, college kids, every race, teenagers, lots of grey-hairs, but more women than last time. More African-American faces, Asians, Filipinos, more hipsters and high schoolers, just–more. On the ground, the crowd felt huge, filling the giant street for 20 blocks, filing past for nearly three hours, overflowing the Civic Center plaza at the march’s end.

Like the last march, the crowd lets loose with the random howls still– but this time, there’s an edge, an anger to the roar. This crowd is crying out to be heard, and feels like no one in Washington is listening. One chant rang out on a bullhorn, call-and-response, ”George Bush has Lost His Mind, Talks about Killin’ All the Time” There was a gang of 50- and 60-somethings, winding through the crowd in full psychedelic farmer garb, strumming guitars, singing, ”Oh when the bombers rest in peace” to the tune of ”When the Saints Go Marching In.”

A block of old union dudes–their tour jackets say they’re an ILWU drill team–stomps down the middle of the street in a measured, menacing crouch, stepping in time with their heavy black leather shoes–with taps! They walk along, taking tiny 16-inch steps in perfect sync, the metal taps going CLACK… CLACK… CLACK…, with the lead dancer going, HUH… HUH… HUH… A-HEY!… HUH… HUH…, and then on some cryptic signal, they all switched to double time, CLACK clack CLACK clack CLACK clack and on down the street, leading a loud unified labor group behind them. The union marchers cheer loudly as the drill team, (which I now see has a couple of women as well) hunkers down and sets a new beat, picking up the pace and heading on towards Civic Center, the clacking growing louder as they pass over the steel grate in the street over the BART line below.

One scene I remember–standing on some raised steps along the route, a grey-haired lady guitarist, backed by a mixed-age choir, croons into her pinned-on mic, ”This land is your land, this land is my land,” Guthrie?s old populist national anthem. A crowd is gathered around, and out of the crowd comes one of those guys you see on the streets of San Francisco–between 50 and 70 years old, long, wild, frizzy hair, bare, calloused feet, ill-fitting dirty clothes, skin showing signs of exposure…and as the folkie ripped into the third verse of the song, very obscure, words you never hear sung–the street guy closes his eyes in bliss and sings along with every word, and you can tell he knows the whole song by heart and could go on as long as they did. What’s his back story? How many of these marches has he seen? And here we are, marching again…

It’s a bigger march, but somehow the signs and groupings of people are more granular, more individual and particulate. A bigger percentage of the signs this time were made by individuals, at home, or around the church picnic tables, or in the campus cafeteria. People seem to really be saying things that are on their minds, pressing their questions, and demands, and warnings, right out into the air, hoping the eyes of someone, somewhere, who can stop this madness will see them, be moved by them–or at least know that they exist.

Near Montgomery Street, a guy on a bullhorn says, ”Okay, I?m counting down from 10 to zero, and at zero, let’s all pretend a bomb has dropped on us, so people know what we’re getting into when we bomb somebody.” And he counted down, and when he hit zero, the whole street full of people, all the way across and as far off as his horn could be heard, suddenly dropped to the street. Everybody, just boom. And it really was eerie, seing all those bodies laid out, like a little daisy-cutter had dropped from the top of Wells Fargo.

There were lots of college kids, and a big contingent of them marched behind a united campus peace network banner. You could see they were surprised at the power they felt booming around them. There was a pair of Chinese dragon dancers, leaping and shaking and winding down the street, perhaps showing gratitude for the march organizers’ having moved the parade date so as not to conflict with the city’s giant Chinese New Year’s parade that went down the night before in a steady rainfall. Gung Hay Fat Choy!

The spooky Women in Black walked by in silence, their dark visage a reminder of war’s reality. There were lots of other organized groups present, too. One thing I’ll always give to those Socialists: They may attract bad press, and they certainly back some loopy world leaders, but they make about the best dang protest march signs you’ll see anywhere. The more ”left” you get, the better art design you have.

I saw several of the signs I’d made scattered throughout the crowd. That always made me feel good, like I’d contributed, and helped some people raise their voices. But then I had my proudest moment yet as a polemicist. Some fellow had taken a poster I had made and distributed at the January 18 march–it said, ”The Real Drug Is Oil”– and had trimmed it out of its tape-and coat-hanger frame, and had re-applied it to a big, bright piece of cardboard and brought it to this march. That was cool.

It was a big, mad crowd. I mean, people were happy, smiling, laughing, singing–but at the heart of it, we were worried. Worried that our government is doing something in our name that many, many of us feel is shameful, and small-minded, and counterproductive, and a mistake. The corporate media don’t carry our voices–the Fox affiliate here spent more TV time on the breakaway gang of ”black bloc” anarchists and flag-burners than they did on the peaceful march with 1000 times more people. They report, we decide, right? Well, we’ve decided that our congress is not listening, our party is not responding, our executive has gone dangerously insane, and our world is on the brink of havoc unimagined.

This war is going to come on slow, and it’s going to drag on a bit, and it’s never going to go completely away. There will be times for other marches, even if the bombs start to fall tonight. When the time comes again in your city, get up, make a sign, and get on out there. Show yourself in the street. Exercise your liberties while you have them. Even the corporate media reports here had to acknowledge that this was the biggest, most diverse, and most mainstream crowd yet of these three marches, and each was larger than the last. We really are an anti-war majority. I know this administration has shown little for the concern of the majority, from their illegitimate installation, through their ongoing efforts to pack the federal courts with radical right-wing judges. But they can’t fudge the vote-count when the whole world gets in their face.

Our hearts are with the poor soldiers–from everywhere–who will be facing the flying metal and sickening chemicals and the poisonous radioactivity. I heard a sailor commenting on the protests, saying he loved them, that ”That?s why we?re out here fighting, so people can have free speech.” Their civilian leaders are not worthy of their spirits, but these grunts deserve only our respect. Honor the troops– use your freedoms, petition your government, and when your chance comes, take a stand.