The Smiths Go to Washington

Article excerpt

My friend Ruth Rosen, who writes a terrific column for the San Francisco Chronicle, advised her readers to go to the antiwar marches organized by International ANSWER but to take their own signs. That's what I did when I went to the January 18 demonstration in Washington, except instead of an actual sign, which I was too disorganized to put together, I just carried my usual basket of mental reservations about the people in charge. But never mind them--it was a great day. The speakers left something to be desired--too many men, too many clerics, too much Ramsey Clark, unofficial totem of the Workers World Party, the weird pseudomarxist sect behind ANSWER--but nobody I could see looked like they were paying a lot of attention. They were having too much fun milling about and congratulating each other on the fine turnout despite the bitter cold.

I don't know how many people were there--somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000, depending on whom you asked; the media stuck to locutions like "tens of thousands," while the DC police estimate was "an awful lot." To me it felt like not the biggest demo I had ever been to, but still a good-sized crowd. More important than the numbers, though, was the broad spectrum of normal (for lack of a better word) people present. Although it was disproportionately white, this was the most mainstream rally against war I've seen since the Central Park nuclear freeze demo in 1982. There were card-carrying members of the AARP, high school and college-age kids--scads of them--and people in the middle with babies in strollers and preteens lagging behind; a number of self-identified Republicans; people carrying American flags; people marching with their church groups; people who had made the long trek from Mississippi, North Dakota or other distant states. "I'm with six buses from Syracuse, NY," read one sign. "Don't make me come back here again!"

Marchers had gone all-out with handmade signs. Lots of new questions: "What Would Jesus Bomb?" "What if Iraq's Main Export Was Broccoli?" "What Would President Bartlett Do?" (Here's a hint: While we were rallying on the Mall, Martin Sheen was speaking at the antiwar rally in San Francisco.) Some took the economic angle: "My son needs a job, not a gun." "Look, I'll pay more for gas." Others aimed at Bush himself: "Regime Change Begins at Home"; "Drop Bush Not Bombs." Patriotism was big: "It's My Flag Too"; "Peace Is Patriotic." I think my favorite was this one, though, carried by a bearded man in a huge sweater: "We have the knowledge to give everyone a great life and not exhaust the world's resources. Let's do that." Rarely has utopianism sounded so sensible.

Since activists started mobilizing against invasion, some people have pooh-poohed demonstrations: They're soooo twentieth century, the kids are too hip for that these days, can't they skateboard against the war instead, or hack somebody's computer? "It's just a feel-good exercise," a man on the train from New York told me, advising me to write my Congressperson. (Gee, I hadn't thought of that.) Well, feel-good exercises have their place--according to a recent British survey, participating in protests and demonstrations is excellent for one's physical and mental health. …