Dispatches from the Peace Movement
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Yes, a Movement
There can be no doubt about it -- there is a peace movement. Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld and the armchair Chicken Hawks have provoked a full-fledged peace movement in just a few months, helped along greatly by the Internet.
In a funny way, the peace movement seems all there from 30 years ago; a lot grayer perhaps, yet filled in by a new generation of enthusiastic and playful young people. Even the sectarians looked the same, passing out leaflets, hawking their papers, which looked identical to those from 1970, except now, everyone has a Website. Street theater is alive and well, creative sign writing of high quality. In a funny way, at least in San Francisco, history seemed to have stood still.
Bombshells Not Bombs
We were near the head of the massive crowd of people, marching slowly down Market Street to the Civic Center, when I realized that something crucial was missing. Give me your lipstick, I said to Valerie, one of two girlfriends walking with me in Saturdays antiwar demonstration in San Francisco. Valerie, Traci and I hiked up our shirts and drew peace signs around our bellybuttons with Valeries dark purple MAC lipstick (long-wearing, as it turns out -- it still hasnt washed off). With a few strokes of color we had joined the spirit of the crowd -- what might be the largest peace march in SF since the Vietnam War.
We were walking in a sea of signs and placards: No Blood For Oil was the most common. Others read Drop Bush, Not Bombs; Bush, The Moron With the War On; Regime Change Begins at Home and Bombshells Not Bombs (the girl brandishing this sign was vamping for the crowd in a sexy cocktail dress). There were people carrying baguettes baked in the shape of peace signs; others pushing baby carriages and leading dogs.
Many of those present said they had never attended an antiwar rally before, or any other kind of rally, for that matter. Two teen-aged boys with mohawks and Punks for Peace emblazoned on their army jackets walked in solidarity with a group of elderly ladies toting a Grannies Against the War banner. There were several men in baseball caps with Giants Fans for Peace signs and a man with a sign that read Bush Lies had a long Pinocchio nose affixed to his face.
The legendary San Francisco fog cleared and the sun shone brightly, making it comfortable for those, like us, who had bare midriffs.
Crowd estimates vary (see "The Counting Game," below), but the march drew at least 40,000 to the streets of the city. The line of slowly walking marchers stretched more than a mile. Even when the rally at the Civic Center was well underway, walkers continued to pour into the plaza, making the speakers urge the crowd to make room for the newcomers. A line of police in riot gear stood at attention on the steps of the state building; other police cruised the perimeters, but this was a peaceful gathering, interested primarily in getting a single message across: that the American people do not want war in Iraq.
When one of the speakers called for a moment of silence in honor of Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash Friday, the wildly cheering and clapping crowd immediately quieted. Other speakers included Rep. Barbara Lee and actor Mike Farrell.
Speakers urged the media to point their cameras not at them but out at the full panorama of the crowd and to honestly portray the numbers present. "The news media won't be able to say 'Only a few hundred showed up,' " said one speaker.
On our way back to the East Bay that afternoon, crowds thronged the BART station, overtaxing the system, so station managers opened the turnstiles and let thousands of protesters ride for free. BART for peace, cried Valerie, as we boarded the peace train for home.
Even the Washington Post recognized the presence of a new peace movement. The lead graph in its Sunday story read: Tens of thousands of people marched in peaceful protest of any military strike against Iraq yesterday afternoon, in an antiwar demonstration that organizers and police suggested was likely Washington's largest since the Vietnam era.
And the article gave the day a broad international flavor: Demonstrations in other cities, including Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen, Denmark, Tokyo and Mexico City, were held to coincide with the Washington march, and in San Francisco, thousands marched through downtown.
The flavor of the D.C protest projected by the media was one of inclusion. They even reported that the message was clear: "Protesters arrived by the busload, by car and by Metro early yesterday morning, some carrying signs and later joining in chants that echoed a common theme: A war against Iraq would be unjustified, and there is no consensus for it.
Google News had articles from hundreds of newspapers across the country and text from dozens of TV stations. The one exception to the generally fair coverage was the New York Times, burying a very short story inside with a cranky lead that said that fewer people attended the demonstration than organizers expected. There is a long history of the Times disdaining peace protests -- hard to know exactly why.
The Counting Game
One of the most vexing elements of organizing and attending demonstrations is that often their success or failure is measured by the numbers game -- the competing estimates of how many people attend. Months of work and many thousands of peoples spirits have often been deflated because a cynical writer at, say, the New York Times -- as happened this year -- throws cold water on the parade.
So on Saturday I decided to take matters in my own hands. I was going to have my own count at the San Francisco demo just to see what the numbers game was about. I had heard that attempts to measure crowds depend on how many blocks they fill, or how long they take to pass a certain point. But those methods seemed less than accurate.
My system was simple. I stood at the beginning of the parade and counted that it took 25 people across to make one line. While a line rarely stayed as straight as those at the beginning, it became pretty easy to bunch a wiggly line or a couple of small groups into 25. So I started counting how many times 25 people passed me. Every so often I did a hard check of my grouping to see how accurate it was -- it usually came within two or three people either way.
The results? Standing at a fixed point at the beginning of the march, I counted an estimated 31,000 people. Given that the system could have been 10-20 percent inaccurate and given that other people joined the march along the way or showed up at the Civic Center, I calculated that the number probably was around 40,000, which is a very large collection of people. The march seemed to take forever to pass by me and stretched far down Market Street.
How did my numbers jibe with other estimates? The San Francisco Chronicle reported that official estimates said 42,000, while organizers claimed 80,000. I'm sorry to report that using my admittedly less than scientific method, my numbers were very much in sync with official estimates. Theres no way 80,000 people could have been at this march; not even close. The rosiest estimate that could be attached to the demo may have approached 50,000 but that would have been a stretch. And my memory of the march against the earlier Gulf War, 11 years ago (when I bought my "No Blood for Oil" sweatshirt, pulled out of my closet that morning in practically mint condition) was that it was slightly larger. I recall the numbers thrown around then to be 50,000.
The main point was this was a wonderful demonstration -- hugely attended, conducted with great spirit and imagination, and quite diverse by many measures. So why worry too much about the numbers game?
Don Hazen and Tai Moses are, respectively, executive editor and managing editor of AlterNet.org .