DC March Produced Tangible Goals

First we thought the Metro sniper might keep people away from Washington. On Thursday, after news broke that suspects had been arrested, the Weather Service predicted torrential rains. Then came the tragic news on Friday that Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the 19 brave senators who had voted his conscience and said no to President Bush’s war, was killed in a plane crash with his wife and daughter and five staffers. I thought many would be too grief-stricken to make the trip. But in the end an estimated 100,000 people poured onto the streets of Washington, and so did the sunlight.

And so did the press, finally. C-Span recorded the nearly four-hour pre-march rally in its entirety. The New York Times was there (although they underreported the numbers), CNN was there, and the news caption on the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post was “100,000 Rally, March Against War in Iraq.” The Post also reported what I couldn’t see as one body in the crowd: that every spot in the 1.7 miles of marching area was full. In other words, we had the White House completely surrounded.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a D.C. organizer with the coalition Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), said that the excellent turnout “absolutely shows that when George Bush says America speaks with one voice, and it’s his voice, he’s wrong.”

Busloads and carloads of people drove in from as far away as North Dakota, Indiana, South Carolina and Illinois. Others traveled in on the Metro, filling the streets near the Foggy Bottom and Smithsonian stops carrying signs and rain gear, just in case.

The pre-march rally began at 11am at Constitution Gardens beside the Vietnam War Memorial. If anything, the plurality of voices represented among the speakers -- veterans of three wars, Islamic leaders, ANSWER organizers, civil rights attorneys, activists working to end U.N. sanctions in Iraq, Susan Sarandon, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Ben Cohen, trade union leaders and dozens total -- made it clear that this peace movement is about building bridges across many ethnic and racial divides.

A central message was that this particular chapter of the peace movement may have many new members but it isn’t new -- it is, as Jesse Jackson said, yet another instance of Americans “gathering in the name of non-violent resistance and taking our place in the long chain of historic change and struggle.”

Jennifer Helee, a graduate student at MIT, and her mother Joanna Rueter, an interior designer from Brattleboro, Vermont, met up in Washington to march together because they didn’t feel their “elected officials -- at least the ones outside Vermont -- are representing” their views.

Ms. Reuter said, “I’ve done lots of reading and we’re not doing the world a good turn,” she said, referring to the prospect of an attack on Iraq. “And even apart from that,” Ms. Helee said, “I don’t think it’s going to be effective. Our real problem is terrorism. All we’re doing is making enemies.”

Countless speakers and marchers evoked the memory of Paul Wellstone. Jesse Jackson said, “His seat may be filled, his principles and commitment and integrity and passion and purpose will not be so easily filled. Let us dedicate ourselves to the cause of peace and justice Paul always fought for. We thank God for his memory, for his purpose, and for that which he left in us. Amen.”

When I arrived at the march at 10:30am I saw a bus of marchers from Minnesota and indeed many of the peace protestors had added photographs of the late senator to their signs. Others had signs devoted just to him: “In Memoriam, Paul Wellstone,” “I dedicate this Day to Paul Wellstone,” and “Don’t Let Wellstone Die in Vein.”

Abigail Nichols, a 50-year-old woman from Minnesota and Carleton College graduate said, “I didn’t study with Paul Wellstone at Carleton but I always supported him. I liked the fact that he had been a professor from a good college and always worked for important causes. He believed knowledge is power. He liked to say that as a member of the Senate he had access to all the experts before he made his decision on how to vote. He voted no to a war in Iraq and I’m here to support that vote.”

A New Hampshire man named Gordon Clark whose sister had worked with Senator Wellstone on various causes was handing out pieces of paper with the number, 8643. “Eighty-six is what you say in the restaurant business when you want to get rid of something,” he said. “And 43 is the number of presidents we have had. Although Bush, of course, is not really our president. He didn’t really get elected.”

Among the many young people present was Daniel Katz, a 17-year-old senior from the Alternative Community School in Ithaca, New York. He was busy taping the rally for a radio program he and some fellow students plan to air at their school in December. Jules Bartkowski and Jonah Rabinbach, two 14-year-olds from Montclair, New Jersey, had taken the train from New York City.

“We wanted to add our bodies to the body count of those who don’t want to go war,” Jules said. He and Jonah said that it felt “exhilarating” to be part of something so big. “It was very interesting that there were about 25 to 50 counter-protestors and about 100,000 protestors. I truly believe we represent the majority of the country, including Republicans. They don’t want us to go to war.”

Despite people’s anger at Congress for their vote on Iraq and sorrow over Senator Wellstone, the mood on the streets was joyous and celebratory. I think one reason for people’s high spirits was the reminder that the war in Vietnam had been going strong for three years before protesters turned out in numbers that matched ours. It is unusual to see a movement this widespread and well-organized on the ground before a war has even started.

At 5:45pm, as the last people left for buses, the Metro and their cars, they carried with them a number of tangible goals.

The most pressing and timely demand is to turn out for the vote on November 5. The Senate, in particular, could become a Republican majority if even only one Democratic seat is lost. Also in November, Not in Our Name, which sponsored the Oct. 6 marches and rallies across the nation, is planning a number of teach-ins, including a national student/youth day of action on Nov. 20.

Another action people can take is to support the People’s Anti-War Referendum, which is part of a major grassroots nationwide initiative to fight the war drive.

By early January 2003, these anti-war votes will be brought to Washington, D.C., at the time of mass demonstrations on Jan. 18-19, timed to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. anniversary celebrations.

It will be a holiday weekend for many of us, and as long as there are no more snipers and no January blizzards, we should have no difficulty turning out for the event. I hope this next march on Washington will be a million-people strong and I hope George Bush will be in his office watching. Until then, we’ll be watching his every move.

Natalia Rachel Singer is an associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Her work has been published in Ms., Harper's, American Scholar and Creative Nonfiction among other publications.

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