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All Fired Up

The war protests in Washington showed that public outrage is a pretty good organizing principle -- but not enough to gel a popular movement.
 
 
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For me, the protest weekend began in New York City, when Amtrak suspended all train service to D.C. from Boston, New York City and Philadelphia, because (the man on the loudspeaker said) of "a switcher problem." At 7 a.m., scores of strangers -- stranded travelers -- swapped conspiratorial suspicions and tried to figure out what to do next. The rest of the day had much the same taste.

Organizers, including the AFL-CIO (which signed onto the call for action,) deserve credit for calling the largest anti-war demonstrations since the US-Iraq invasion. (Estimates of 300,000 to 500,00 in Washington don't seem outlandish. Thousands more took to the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and other cities in this country and in Europe.) But the crowds in D.C. didn't come because any group summoned them, nor did the majority of the participants march behind an institutional banner. They carried hand-made signs, or pictures, or no signs. They were fired up, but they were not necessarily hooked up with any group.

It's sometimes organizer spin, but on September 24, it was startling just how many people said this demonstration was their first against the Bush administration, or simply their first. United for Peace and Justice and the ANSWER Coalition attracted a long laundry list of virtuous demonstration co-sponsors, but in a solid hour of talking to the stream of passing marchers, I found none with any relationship to any formal organization, unless you count the "Raging Grannies" and Code Pink.

Tag Gornell from Vachon Island near Seattle told the Laura Flanders Show: "I heard about this march from Air America Radio and was thrilled, and made the decision, I'm just gonna come. ... I am part of no group. I just came as me. But I see that I'm apparently bigger than I thought I was. There's 300,000 of us.

"This is my first protest and I am very encouraged," said Pat Kunkell, of Detroit.

"I don't even know where I heard about the protest, but I decided now was the time to come to Washington. I came and I brought my mother, just the two of us," said Karyn Riedell, of Arizona. "It's my mother's first protest ever. She's a Republican but she hates Bush."

As in Crawford, at Camp Casey, at the heart of the crowd were military families. A nervous young man in full Marine uniform, walked alone. Someone attached the pictures of dead U.S. service-people onto an almost 2,000-photo-long string. State Senator Becky Lowry of Minnesota walked the line of with the headshot of her son, Matthew Lowry who was killed in Iraq on May 26. Just ahead of her in line walked her grandson Scot, at his first protest. "Uncle Matt went back to Iraq twice because he said his men needed him with them," said Scot, aged 10 or 11. "I still barely peek at the loss," said Lowry, "The day my daughter-in-law called to say "It's Matt." I couldn't believe it. ... The loss I feel is no different from the loss each Iraqi mother feels. It's the same."

Only one name came up time and again: Cindy Sheehan. She didn't call every protestor individually, but it was easy to get that impression.

There are advantages to the upsurge of individual determination: there is enough outraged energy on the loose to bring thousands of people to Washington without almost any help. Sunday saw some 300 organizers gather for a strategy session convened by Progressive Democrats of America to discuss building bridges between the grassroots and party politics. "We're progressive first and Democrats second," deputy director, actress/activist Mimi Kennedy told the LF Show. "We've got to take our party back."

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president & CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, a PDA board member, said "It's time to go beyond speaking truth to power, to speak truth to take power. ... It's time for a take." But there's work to do before that "take."

Rallies like the relentless kick-off rally on Saturday, are not going to bind newcomers to their fellows. Televised stage time was divvied up between the non-sectarian United for Peace and Justice, and the unscrupulous ANSWER Coalition who seemed to hog more than their fair half. The result was a dry nationally televised display that prompted at least one Air America listener to call in to complain about off-putting rhetoric.

At the Operation Ceasefire Concert later, speakers included Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), author/activist Jim Hightower, Etan Thomas (the Washington Wizards forward,) Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, Iraq war veterans and evacuated New Orleanians. They addressed the crowd in between performances by Joan Baez, Steve Earle, the Coup, Thievery Corporation, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Le Tigre.

The result was a patchwork of words, messages and music that called out the challenges: poverty, racism, militarism, environmental devastation. Somewhere in the mix lie the links that could gel a movement together, but -- from the John Roberts nomination to the slashing of funding for Louisiana flood control to the occupation of Iraq -- the crowd would have benefited from a smart, thoughtful tour-guide to help them follow the map and find their place.

As more than one commentator has quipped already, two kinds of storms buffeted the White House this September: deadly hurricanes on the Gulf coast and a blizzard of anti-war people in this nation's streets. I'd take the metaphor further. While Katrina and Rita scattered people in all directions, the Bush administration's policies are bringing them together. What progressive America needs now is some effective emergency management. The public response to the emergencies wrought by U.S. policy is becoming obvious: who or what is going to make a movement out of it is not.

Laura Flanders is the host of the Laura Flanders Show on Air America Radio and author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species .