As tens of thousands gathered in Washington, D.C.'s National Mall on Saturday, calling on Congress to take action against President Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, the comparisons to the civil rights movement and Vietnam era seemed inevitable. So did some pointed questions. Could the current movement to end the war sustain any momentum without the catalyst of a draft -- the crucial element that had brought a sense of urgency to ending the Vietnam war? Was this march on Washington really necessary, considering that the American public had just used the political process to voice its opinion during the last election? And how successful could this rally be, given that the president remains resolute on his Iraq policy even as his approval rating has plummeted to 30 percent?
This was my first antiwar march. My wife Anna and I drove down from Philly in a stale-smelling rental van full of aging activists, including Anna's parents. While Anna and I -- the children of Boomers -- often feel as though we missed out on the great social movements of our parents' generation, nearly all of our traveling companions were graybeards when it came to political rallies.
Dan Piser, a social worker in his fifties, proudly recalled attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, during which Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. "Physical confrontation like this not only has the symbolic value of taking issues to the center of power," Dan told me, "but it also personalizes the numbers that are usually only found in the polls."
As we discussed the importance of such events, Joy Schless, a member of the Granny Peace Brigade, said she felt this march (organized by United for Peace and Justice) was coming at a crucial time: "There's a feeling of cautiousness among our congressional representatives. They need our support to go out on a limb." (The Granny Peace Brigade was formed in October 2005, when a group of eighteen women, ages 59 to 91, were arrested while attempting to enlist at an army recruitment center. They were later acquitted of all charges, and the group has since spread nationwide.)
Joy's stated reason for marching on Washington proved to be a rallying cry shared by the politicians, actors, and veterans who addressed the crowd with the Capitol building as a backdrop. Before taking the stage, longtime celebrity activist couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon casually made their way through the makeshift press area. "There are a growing number of people who are fed up with this war," Robbins said. "We're here in Washington to give Congress the courage to bring our troops home now."
On stage, where a coffin was covered by the American flag and a pair of military boots, the message was equally clear. Every speaker, from Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kucinich to the families of military men and women currently serving in Iraq, urged Congress to bring the troops home. Congressman John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, received a rousing applause when he told the crowd in a hoarse voice, "Bush is the Commander-in-Chief of our military, but not the Commander-in-Chief of its citizens." Meanwhile, Representative Lynn Woolsey of California got the crowd chanting "Pass H.R. 508," her alternative plan to troop escalation.
One final note from Robbins -- a news flash that Karl Rove had been subpoenaed -- really got the masses fired up and ready to march. We then started out along Third Street on the side of the Reflecting Pool opposite the Capitol, marching with people who'd traveled here from over 40 states. Nearly everyone carried signs, ranging from "Out of Iraq" and "Congress, No Money for the Surge," to "Impeachment, It's Not Just for Blowjobs Anymore!"
We marched behind a man dressed as a missile, and we made way for another man on stilts, who donned a Bush mask and monstrous rubber hands covered in fake blood. We marched with a labor union and dusted off some old songs of protest. At one point, we marched with the Hip Hop Caucus, where Zack Leacock, a sophomore from Howard University, told me, "Our generation is dying in this war. A lot of minorities are being sent over … and hopefully the people on the other side of those walls in that building hear us."
When we got to the top of Capitol Hill, we stood off to the side and watched the throng of protestors behind us making their way up from the Mall. This was a true cross-section of America: people of all ages, nationalities, religions, economic backgrounds, even political beliefs, all marching past the Capitol building to deliver a common message. The sight alone gave credence to our cause; the spirit embodied by the crowd would have been enough to silence any skeptic and prove once and for all that an antiwar movement thrives in this country.
Zack Pelta-Heller is a graduate student at The New School and a regular contributor to AlterNet.
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