Good Signs

Living in Washington, I've come to expect poorly attended marches -- but this weekend proved to be a pleasant surprise. A consortium of antiwar groups, spearheaded by International A.N.S.W.E.R., brought thousands to town on Saturday to protest George W. Bush's Iraq policies. While the streets were peppered with the usual suspects -- black-clad anarchists, radical cheerleaders, giant puppets -- the collection of protesters at this march appeared larger and more diverse than the crowd at September's anti-globalization rallies. It was also more focused on a single message -- not to mention unencumbered by the sideshow of confrontation and mayhem that accompanied the September protests.

One of the most hopeful elements of the budding antiwar movement -- its multi-generational make-up -- was on full display Saturday. To Ellie Dorritie, a 60 year-old postal clerk from Buffalo, that in and of itself was a positive sign. "In the sixties, parents were pleading with their kids not to go out and oppose the government and be against this war that was halfway around the world," she said. "Now parents are buying bus tickets and saying to their kids, 'Well I'm going, are you?' " Another protester who had been active during the Vietnam era chuckled in recalling that era's slogan, "Don't trust anybody over 30." The generational politics of this antiwar movement appear to be different indeed.

Organizers and demonstrators believe the movement is strengthening, with opposition growing even before a single bomb falls on Iraq. "The Vietnam protest movement started very slowly and I think we'll grow faster," said Ann Hawkins, another demonstrator who was active in protesting the Vietnam War. On Saturday, busloads of demonstrators came from all over the country; meanwhile, protesters took to the streets of San Francisco, Seattle, Rome, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Mexico City in concert with the Washington protesters. They can all take heart in a recent Gallup poll showing that only 56 percent of Americans favor sending ground troops to Iraq to remove Saddam -- down significantly from earlier this year, when support for an invasion hovered above 70 percent.

The rally began around 11 a.m. on an overcast morning at Constitution Gardens, adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Demonstrators gathered to hear Jesse Jackson, singer Patti Smith, actress Susan Sarandon and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Many of the speakers invoked the Vietnam protests, and Jackson commented on the loss of Senator Paul Wellstone.

Meanwhile, a much smaller march organized by the Anti-Capitalist Convergence -- with no permit -- was underway. Among those involved were a few bare-breasted men and women with antiwar slogans written across their chests.

By the time the official march began, the skies had cleared. Protesters circled the White House banging on drums and plastic buckets -- and chanting "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, We Don't Want Your Oil War" and "No Justice, No Peace, U.S. Out of the Middle East." Some sang the lyrics to "Give Peace a Chance" and many carried signs reading "No More Blood for Oil." More ecletic signs like "Parents for Peace" and "Bombing Iraq Isn't Going to Make Your Penis Any Bigger" were sprinkled throughout the crowd as well. The president, of course, wasn't around to see any of this. He flew from his ranch in Texas on Saturday morning to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to attend the Asian Economic Cooperation forum -- where generating support for the administration's war plans is on his agenda.

Despite the president's absence, demonstrators are hopeful that their presence will make a difference inside the Beltway. Shannon Tyman, a student at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, said she hopes the march will force politicians in Washington to realize that there is popular opposition to waging war against Iraq. She urged Americans to consider the reasons Bush is interested in going to war, and specifically pointed to his oil interests. Along the same lines, Dorritie said, "They tell us that we're fighting a war on terror, but we're not -- I think that it's war for oil and for U.S. domination."

When the march reached an end, some demonstrators returned to Constitution Gardens to hear more speakers, while many others boarded buses and returned home with a sense that a movement is brewing.

"This march is important," Tyman said, "so that other like-minded people now know just how many of us there are out there."