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Go Back to Rockville"
a narrative of the march by Jim Macdonald
Looking at your watch
a third time waiting in the station for a bus
Going to a place that's far, so far away and if that's not enough
Going where nobody says hello, they don't talk to anybody they don't know
You'll wind up in some factory that's full time filth and nowhere left to go
Walk home to an empty house, sit around all by yourself
I know it might sound strange, but I believe
You'll be coming back before too long
Don't go back to Rockville
And waste another year
--from "(Don't go Back to) Rockville" by R.E.M.
The remarkable thing about today's ANSWER march against the war and occupation of Iraq was that the tragedies of the past month and the seeming defeat of the peace movement did not seem to dampen the spirit, the resolve, or even the numbers of demonstrators. When thousands have died, when so much human potential has been wasted, the spirit of the streets lives on despite all the metaphorical dark clouds all around us. And, yet, somehow one gets the sense that lean times are ahead for us in the peace movement. No one talked about the next rally. No one seemed to have a clear answer over what was next. Should we turn toward stopping potential wars in Iran and Syria? Should we work primarily on ending the occupation? Is the war in Iraq over? What is there still to react against? Should we just give up and go home until the next big thing happens? Here is my report of my day, which leaves me with very few answers to those questions. However, the one thing I am sure of is that these lovely days in the streets must continue to happen. People must continue to congregate. I hope strangers continue to come into our streets because I love meeting them so much.
For a long time, I have believed that many people have had too narrow a focus in their protests against the war in Iraq. Peace is an idea that isn't simply about Iraq. It is about you and me. It is about our homes, our jobs, our families, our friends, and even our personal enemies. War is the epidemic that divides us in too many ways. Iraq, where people have now died, where many lives and families were torn apart, represented an obvious urgency for us to act. However, the same peace we want for Iraq is something we should be working toward in other parts of our lives. Sometimes, it is easier for some people to care for lost children in Iraq than it is for them to care for someone who has hurt them in some way. It could be a cheating spouse or even something as simple as a poorly spoken word to a loved one. Sometimes, we simply want to retreat from that and into a world like Iraq where we somehow think we can make more of a difference. Yet, how do we expect to make a difference for the Iraqi people when we are so dysfunctional in so many respects in our own lives? Many grassroots groups have members at each other's throats for one reason or another. Many well-meaning organizations find it difficult to treat their own people as well as they treat others. The peace movement, reborn though it is, remains an infant. Infants need care and nurture in order to walk on their own. Now that we are feeling our first growing pains it seems to me that many people are giving up hope. There is a general malaise that has accompanied the war in Iraq. For one thing, so many people have died. Additionally, polls have shown less support both for peace and for the peace protests, and many wonder what the point of protesting is. Yet, now more than ever we need people to embrace the peace movement and to help us to get it walking.
How will we stop the next war if we go back to our homes today?
As I thought of all these issues throughout the week, I considered sign ideas for the rally. My eye was to the future and to the long road ahead. What was the best thing that we could do now in order to prevent wars in the future? The answer was obvious to me. The only thing that we can do is to forge new friendships, new dialogues with people. The more that we identify with people, the more we care about them. Try as we might, we have a great trouble understanding the feeling associated with the deaths of thousands of people. We do not truly appreciate the emotional horrors of the 50 million deaths in World War II, which was a supposedly "just" war. It is impossible to know that many people, care about them, and imagine them all gone. Yet, the more we learn to associate with new and different people, the easier it is to accept the notion that other lives matter an awful lot. People who are different than me matter so much to me now that I am no longer willing to accept their loss as simply another ugly fact of this dirty world. As a result, I believe that somehow we need to touch new people. Such a thought is very hard for me because I am an introverted, shy person in most aspects of my life. Some people who know me find that hard to believe, but it is extremely true. It was a little scary for me to create a sign that said, "Stop a FUTURE War: Hug a Stranger NOW," and it's complement, "Today? Peace. Tomorrow? Make a Friend." Still, with my eye toward peace, toward being slightly provocative and touching, those seemed to be natural choices to express what I was feeling.
Loree and I left to meet our otherwise shy friend Jamila on the Mall before the march; however, we got into a stupid little argument on our way there. She did something that annoyed me, and my reaction annoyed her. Before you know it, we are having an uncomfortably silent ride toward the Smithsonian. Such a start is always distressing because it makes you wonder how you can have any right to work for peace in another country when you cannot even have peace on a short ride downtown. There is always the fear that everything you ever wrote is nothing more than simple hypocrisy, the fanciful hopes of a self righteous, preachy individual. Yet, some of that fear soon subsided. I knew that this fight was not going to last for more than a few minutes. We knew that our relationship did not depend on the inevitable quibble. We can be annoyed with each other because we can trust that our relationship is essentially peaceful. That often contrasts sharply with other parts of our life. If we say one wrong thing, we jeopardize a mountain of work. If an organization does the wrong thing once or twice, how many people walk away for good? So often we require perfection of others and sometimes of ourselves, and we will not do anything until that impossible standard can be met. Often we fear the retribution of a misspoken word or an untimely act because we are so fearful of losing it all. Often, I have felt that today's peace movement has been held to this standard. Either people object to the acts of civil disobedience, or the source of the money, or the politics of certain individuals, or the ineffectual organization, or sometimes even just the music, drums, and fashion statements of people in the movement. If something is not just right with the peace movement, people stay at home or leave it for good. I wish I could be so trusting of the health of the movement as I could be of my own marriage.
On the last train to the Mall, we met a teenager named Miriam from Silver Spring, Maryland--another one of those suburbs. She was not on the train to join the ANSWER event but to join some other people on another march to block some streets. While we sat and waited for Jamila, I talked to her about her trip to Rome. Miriam had the great fortune of being in Rome with 2 million other people on February 15. I felt like I was talking to a specially privileged person. She told me about her favorite sculptures in Rome, and this led for some reason into a discussion into some of her favorite books. It was a nice talk with a stranger whom I'll probably never see again.
Soon Jamila rode in on her bicycle. As always, we were very happy to see the friend we made in February at the protest in New York. Whenever I found myself meeting strangers, I often find myself thinking of Jamila and how we got to know her. She was a stranger sitting by herself on a bus; now, she's a friend I write to several times a week. We talk about our frustrations in dealing with the social and political landscape, and a rally never seems complete anymore without her. As my new acquaintances have multiplied tenfold in recent months, I sometimes wonder whether that would have happened if we had not met someone like Jamila, who is so warm, funny, and yet so serious about her life. It is hard to know the answer to that question, but I think without a doubt her friendship has had a positive influence upon me.
On this beautiful sunny day with a temperature in the mid 60s, we walked over to a gathering of Code Pink people at 14th and Madison on the Mall not too far from today's rallying point at Freedom Plaza. Code Pink, as many know, is a women's group dedicated to the cause of peace.
While we met with Code Pink, we chose this time to have a little meeting to talk about our personal issues in respect to the question of peace in Iraq. Jamila has had something of a stressful time dealing with colleagues and acquaintances who are for the war. She had been personally deflated by the beginning of the war and felt that all the effort she had put into preventing the war had to some extent failed. This failure left her feeling changed, confused, and wondering how to react to the current situation. She wondered how motivated she could get to march for peace during war when everything she had worked for in preventing war was no longer possible. She was also frustrated with the peace movement, especially to the extent that many people out protesting seemed to be against war but didn't seem to have articulated an alternative way of dealing with a brutal dictator. How is she supposed to answer the concerns of her colleagues, who although they failed to convince her of the rightness of this war, left her grasping for a good answer? At another time and another place, I could give an exposition on all my thoughts on each of the many topics and concerns she raised. I began such an exposition as we sat on the grass, or as we walked to the march. Yet, while your mouth speaks one thing, the inside of your heart feels another. I could say something, and I would think that it came out all wrong. I wondered if I was a loud, boorish, know-it-all jerk who appeared crass, unsympathetic, and uncaring. You sometimes wish you could press the rewind button and say the same thing a different way two or three times and have each of those two or three things stick in the mind simultaneously. I have this way of being very confident about what I am saying while feeling extremely insecure inside that the way I am saying it is extremely alienating. I admit to having such a fear when I write a narrative like this. I think my point basically is that I just want this incredible love to envelope every part of my existence, but I feel so powerless at times to know the best way to express it. I often felt talking with Loree and Jamila on the grass that I could be doing a better job. The last thing I would want to do is alienate someone and have us all go our separate ways.
Of course, many of these thoughts lay dormant while many other things were there to distract me. Many tourists walked by as we sat there. A lot of them heckled us, and sometimes vice versa. We were called "faggots," perhaps because of all the pink around. A few others shared with us their favorite pro-war slam against the patriotism of peace protesters, usually some statement about needing to appreciate the people who fought for our freedom or things to that effect. When it wasn't the tense interaction between tourists and the people with Code Pink, I was distracted by taking pictures and filming. Sometimes, the hot sun on my neck hurt or the weight of my backpack proved to be bothersome.
Before we knew it, we walked over to Freedom Plaza and the rally before the march. Freedom Plaza, a few blocks from the White House, is not an especially large place, and it was somewhat surprising that a major peace rally would take place there. It suggested to many of us that the rally was going to be relatively small. In fact, it sure looked to be that way at first. I suspect that Freedom Plaza can hold no more than 15,000 people, and while that space eventually filled up to capacity and beyond, it was a little dejecting at first to see so few people. We had reached a peak in New York, and the failure of that large event to deliver much of a punch left so many dejected. The beginning of the war and the fall of Baghdad left many others wondering what the point was of protesting a war that was now or soon to be over. Sure, we could still protest the fact that we undertook this war. We could protest that our government was now occupying a foreign land with our troops. More than that, we could remind people what had happened, what false pretexts the Administration used to justify the war, and insist that it was not in our name. We could speak out to make sure that our government does not think it has a blank check to invade countries like Syria and Iran. However, being at Freedom Plaza suggested that those messages were not motivating enough to bring people out and that the organizers suspected as much. The demonstrators had gone home back to their comfortable existence until the next thing ticks them off enough to come back.
Nevertheless, for those who were there at Freedom Plaza, the scene was amazingly upbeat.
Loree carried the signs that I made, and soon strangers were hugging her repeatedly. Over the day, more than 30 strangers hugged her, and several hugged me as well. It was so uplifting and empowering for Loree to be able to hug complete strangers from all over the country. She loved carrying the sign, and I loved watching her, although a part of me felt like I was taking the easy way out letting her make all the contact. She is naturally more affectionate than I am, and I sometimes think I settled for convenience by holding the camera. And, yet, she needed to make these connections, too. While the message of hugging a stranger may seem naive to many, I think it depends upon how you look at it. If we are trying to stop the next war, hugs will not stop the bombs. However, if we see the peace movement as a long project that lasts lifetimes much the way that the women's movement has, then a hug does just fine. It helps in its small way to plant new cultural seeds. People have been taught their whole lives to be afraid of strangers. We are all taught to keep to ourselves as well. That isolation has had no small part in creating a culture where we think the highest value is protecting our space, protecting our way of life, and protecting ourselves from each other. Anything which helps to overcome that I think is a good thing. We need to touch each other again. If we are going to be thoughtful in the way we approach human politics, it is completely consistent with that that we learn to feel each other, and that feeling is often something quite tangible. What a warm thing it is to take the first steps in a long-term, global peace movement.
If we had wanted to, we could have listened to every speech, but we have become accustomed to tuning them out most of the time. We listen to the beats of the day and each other. However, it has been several rallies now since I have spent much time listening to the speeches, and I think that maybe I need to reconnect with that aspect of things again. Nevertheless, today, we did not. Instead, much like our rally in March, we wandered around for awhile. People handed us every kind of socialist literature imaginable several times over, while ANSWER hit us up for donations constantly. All around the perimeter, people sold buttons. At several spots, people sold some of the neatest buttons from past events that I have ever seen. Others sold t-shirts or bumper stickers. The usual sounds of drums and occasional singing filled the air. Much like last time, I ran into several people I had gotten to know recently. Sometimes, we stopped and talked, and other times I felt comforted just to spot someone who was a perfect stranger just a couple months before. Of course, there were large numbers of provocative signs, and I stopped repeatedly to take pictures of them all. Many of them made us stop and think. The ones that always made me happiest were the ones that very eloquently said something that I also found myself thinking. In the last month, I have found myself mourning every blast I saw on television hitting Baghdad, every shell hitting one of our own troop positions, and every firsthand report of death from that region. In war, there are a lot of losers, and it was hard to be hopeful for any of the possible outcomes of the war. Repeatedly, I thought of the forgotten men who had died in Iraq, whether they be civilians or soldiers. So much has been made of the women and children, especially that picture many of us have seen of the boy who lost his limbs. Yet, little has been made of the men. They had families who loved them, too. They were no less human beings, and so even though all life is precious, I found myself trying a little harder to remember the men of Iraq who had died. Yet, in all this mourning, I have been extremely active, more active now than ever trying to help the local peace movement organize. As an active participant in the DC Anti-War Network, I have felt determined to help us create a movement that continues to do its darndest to fight the tide of warfare that has dominated every era of human history. If women could be discriminated against in most places and in most times in human history and yet rise to the level they have today, there is no reason that the same cannot happen for something that makes as much sense as peace. If ages of slavery could go by the wayside, why not also the human propensity to maim and kill each other? When I think about it all, I became more convinced that no one should be giving up on the peace movement for any reason. Peace is too important. There is nothing of any worth in our comfortable lives that can compare to the profound joy of peace. There isn't an exercise regimen, a designer clothing store, or a Baskin Robbins that has the soulful power, beautiful color, or sweet flavor of two people or two nations who trust each other enough never to let violence be the means of solving their problems. I know that some of the speakers were saying things much like I was thinking and much like some of the signs that we were reading. I just wonder how much we believe in what we say and how many of us will be willing to stay and commit to this extremely long road.
Of course, we spent a lot of time talking with each other, interacting with friends and strangers, looking at signs, wondering about the numbers and details of the rally, discussing the ins and outs of groups like the anarchists, and having a few unusual experiences. We saw many of the anarchists there, and having met one recently, I have a revised perspective that has changed how I feel toward them. They are as diverse and muddled up as everyone else, and many of them truly are for peaceful solutions. However, when we saw some climbing street poles, it began to feel somewhat cliché. It's not about the image that projects to our press, however. I have given up worrying what the press feels about the peace movement. I always cared about it marginally, anyhow, and I care even less now. Typically, cameras follow the oddest of people and those up to the most deviant of activities, and I have become so cynical about it that seeing it like I did today made me somewhat numb. I am so much happier that we could have a rally with such a wide tent than I am of people who will let any petty thing keep them from congregating. They can banish themselves to their sanitized shopping malls, but the invitation for them to join us is open. If they will not accept the firsthand accounts of people like me and others of the genuinely warm spirit of the crowd, then let them remain strangers until they are ready. They are truly missing out on some wonderful moments. Soon after watching the anarchists climb and dangle off poles with some sense of boredom, we ran into a woman who worked for German radio. It was the second consecutive march where we found ourselves talking with someone from German radio. We talked to her for about five minutes about the German perspective on America and how delighted she was to get a fresh perspective on American opinion on the war. She said that many Germans were very confused by the American perspective on the war in Iraq and why our press was not covering our demonstrations more fairly and completely. For a country that valued freedom of expression, she said many Germans wondered why so many in the United States wished to suppress that expression. Of course, Germans may be working with a myth of the United States. Our country has never been as accepting of freedom of expression as it might project to the rest of the world. Dissent has never been particularly tolerated, and Gulf War 2 is hardly the first jingoistic war. We have made a practice of jingoism for quite some time. Does anyone remember the Maine?
Soon we began a very long march that snaked for miles, a march we did not finish because we became exhausted. The aim of the march was to take us past some of the groups that many in the peace movement considered villains of the war. Thus, along the march, we walked past the FBI and Justice Department. We walked by the White House. We also walked by the Washington Post, the offices of Halliburton, and also Fox News (or as many called it, Faux News). In fact, the vitriol that people felt toward Fox News was incredible. Many signs singled out Fox News as the propaganda arm of the Bush Administration, one sign likening Fox to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Those unaware of the purpose of the route were confused by the way it snaked through Washington streets, however.
As we marched, we became more aware of the fairly heavy police presence. Policemen on bicycles and motorcycles followed along the side of the route. I think the fact that this march coincided with protests against the World Bank left the police more wary of these marches. A few years ago, a World Bank march turned into a riot. That we were directing our protest against some large corporations made the DC police abnormally cautious. The police on motorcycles were especially rude. They drove on sidewalks often pushing protesters and other people out of their way. We saw several people visibly shoved without warning by approaching police. Loree suggested to me that the police on the motorcycles were being so careless with how they were riding that they were going to cause an accident amongst themselves. In fact, this might have happened soon after she said that, although we remain confused about what happened. As we approached one intersection, we heard a lot of motorcycles backfiring. A crowd of police were running around chasing people while another group of police a block away began running toward the intersection. As we tried to cross along the march route, a whole group of police began running clubs in hand right at us. I thought they were going to beat me; however, they kept running. No one was quite sure what happened, and our first suspicion was that some anarchists got out of control. However, a man near us said that he saw the whole thing. He claimed that the first crowd of police ran into the fast moving motorcycles. Some of the police on foot accidentally knocked over a motorcycle. Seeing this, the other police ran toward the spectacle from a block away thinking the crowd had knocked the policeman off his motorcycle. This led to a short scuffle with members of the crowd who were confused why they were being targeted all of the sudden by police. In short, the whole thing happened because the motorcycles were driving carelessly and accidentally hit another group of police. Is this what really happened? I cannot say. The whole scene was confusing. All I know was that it suddenly felt very dangerous for a minute and that heavily armed police were running right at me. I can also say that the police on motorcycles were not well behaved and helped to make the situation more volatile. However, it would be ironic if this all happened because the police ran into the police.
Soon this was over, and we continued to march. We could hear the loud, rhythmic chants coming from one of the ANSWER trucks. At this point, we had no sense of how large the crowd was. We were close to the front at this point, and so we assumed that we were with only about 15,000 other people. Yet, we were tightly packed, and for some reason whenever we could look back, we could not see the end of the crowd. Soon, we walked by Lafayette Park, which the government in its paranoia put up large chain fences to keep everyone out of the park. It was hard to know what they could be scared of from peace activists. All these thoughts brought to mind how much fear dominates people and dominates the polices of our government. We attacked Iraq because we feared some day that they would use weapons of mass destruction against us or sell them to people who might use them against us. The whole pretext of the war was a fear of some potential future event that no one is all that sure was that plausible. And, yet supposing that were to happen--since surely somebody may really be out to get you--one wonders what sort of world it must be where our antidote for the poison is locking ourselves up inside chained fences or home security systems. What sort of antidote is a handgun or our own bigger and badder nuclear weapons program? They might as well kill us all than to have to live like that. We might as well go down trusting each other than go down with nothing better to look at than our perfectly manicured lawns and fingernails.
As we walked by the Washington Post and encountered a half dozen pro-war demonstrators, it crossed my mind repeatedly that I had no idea what to write. I found myself surprised by how good I felt on such a sad occasion for our movement. It seemed that our crowd was larger than I had expected, and it seemed as well that I was enjoying myself and the protest today more than I anticipated. The people we met were glorious. Furthermore, it seemed we had so much more strength than we imagined, and so expecting the worst before the march, I was at a loss for what to write. Only as I sat down to construct this narrative did I discover that the song that had been in my head all week was truly the most appropriate. I have found myself in love with marching, in love with all the new people I meet, and intoxicated by the energy I get. I love observing conversations and sensing my own being observed. Yet, in my heart of hearts, I felt that this was a last hoorah before our hard-built networking fades into the sunset. Nevertheless, in me, a large voice in me keeps screaming, "Don't go back home! Stay outside where it is warm and where you can build something truly beautiful. And, for goodness sake, please don't go back to your pretty little house shut off from the rest of the world. And, please, don't go back to Rockville! Don't waste another year, another day, another second! The media might not have gotten it, but I do. I get you. I understand and appreciate you. I felt we had something, a connection, something to grow from, build with, embrace, kiss and caress. Please don't go!"
Perhaps, that's why I was reluctant to leave although Jamila and Loree were getting extremely tired.
However, before we were done marching, we had a chance to get more perspective on the crowd itself. As we walked down M Street, we looked back down 16th Street to H and I, which was about 10 to 12 blocks behind our route. There the crowd was still thick marching behind. This suggested that the crowd somehow got much larger than it was at Freedom Plaza. In fact, the ironic thing is that at this event ANSWER estimated only 25,000 participants whereas the police estimated 30,000. I wonder how that happened, and by the time I left, I was convinced that the crowd was equal in size to the approximately 75,000 people who were at the rally in March. I cannot say for sure, but we never did see the end of a very large crowd. However, like the loaves and the fishes, I am not particularly sure where all the people came from. How did such a small plaza produce so many marchers walking fairly thickly condensed for such a long route?
In any event, after watching the crowd march by for awhile, we drifted away well before the end of the march. It is hard to know how many stories we missed, but we had plenty to think and wonder about. So, soon we parted Jamila and headed back to our home in the city, not so far and yet not so close to Rockville. Where we go from here is still an open question, but I know where I want to go.
On this April day, we proved that the peace movement is not dead by a long shot, that the baby is still alive and kicking. What is not so clear is where people will go now that they see that this baby is not going to grow up right away. The baby spits up all over the place and cries and seems to be in a lot of pain. Might we be better off for ourselves and the baby leaving it to die on some hillside? While the thought is obviously horrifying, we all know how empty analogies can feel. Few of us think of the peace movement as our baby; few of us feel much stake in whether it lives or dies in the coming months. However, if you look at the stories I have shared over the past 6 months, you will see that the potential is there for truly amazing things. My life has changed, and others lives have changed. I believe we care about each other just a little more, and we have moved ever so slightly in a direction that will erase thousands of years of needless bloodshed. How will we ever stop wars if we go our separate ways now? How will we go if we cannot learn to overcome our annoyance and disapproval of the whole process of working with people we do not like who do things differently than we might like? Is the sterile alternative of a seemingly safe existence really all that appealing? That safe existence comes at a steep price. In obvious ways, our consumption has made us that much more likely to go to war in exotic places. In less obvious ways, our safe existence has closed the tap of our potential. We are not yet fully living. There is just too much beauty I have seen in perfect strangers ever to turn back. I want to embrace them all, and while I know that I cannot physically embrace every stranger, I think we can embrace enough to stop the madness.
Now, the choice is yours. Are you going back to Rockville to waste
another year? Or, shall we continue this love dance we have started?
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