Which Side Are You On?

All honor to those early American political leaders who would not ratify the U.S. Constitution until it included a Bill of Rights. And a special "right on" to James Madison and the others who drafted those remarkable 10 amendments, especially the first one that gives us the right of free speech, a free press, freedom of religion and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Friday at 10:00 p.m. I board one of two buses from Brattleboro to Washington, bound for Saturday’s anti-war demonstration. We drive all night, attend the rally during the day, and then get back on the buses for the return trip to Brattleboro. I’ve never liked going to demonstrations in Washington and this is my first one since 1968. But people have to stand up and be counted.

The opponents of the proposed war on Iraq represent majority opinion. The Bush Administration and the government of Britain’s Tony Blair stand alone in the world in pushing for a go-it-alone military action. The Bush Doctrine of American world dominance, backed by overwhelming military force and a self-proclaimed right to use it whenever and wherever we like, is so abhorrent and misguided as to incite worldwide protest -- which it has!

In Britain, Blair faces serious opposition even within his own Labor Party. Though the Bush Administration won the endorsement of Congress, many congressional supporters, like Senators Kerry, Daschle and Feinstein, have expressed disquiet. This is not to excuse their votes; given their criticisms, it represents a collective act of cowardice and an abrogation of leadership that they will surely regret.

In this vacuum of leadership, a coalition calling itself ANSWER (for "Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), composed of a myriad of anti-war and progressive organizations, has come together to plan this demonstration. The right wing, when it rallies in Washington, does so with a unitary voice and a singular focus that Vladimir Ilich Lenin would have admired.

The anti-war movement, on the other hand, speaks with many, and often contradictory, voices. I’m grateful that ANSWER took the initiative in calling this demonstration. But most people going to Washington will not have heard of the organizations in the ANSWER coalition and will likely disagree with the rhetoric of some of the speakers. No matter! Like me, they’ll be protesting out of their own personal politics and outrage.

Americans have been marching on Washington to petition for a redress of grievances for more than 100 years. In 1894, during one of America’s cyclical economic depressions (this one brought about by corporate corruption, stock market speculation, low farm prices and non-livable wages -- sound familiar?), unemployed workers, led by Jacob Coxey and thus dubbed "Coxey’s Army," marched on Washington to demand federal funding for public works. Coxey was arrested and the marchers were dispersed.

It took 40 years and FDR’s New Deal for the idea of public job creation to become public policy. Public investment, except for war, has little support within the current administration. Those of us rallying in Washington on Saturday, Oct. 26, embody the spirit of Coxey’s Army.

The 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream Speech," was a defining moment for the civil rights movement. But it took nonviolent sit-ins and civil disobedience, people putting themselves into dangerous situations, to win legal civil and voting rights for all African Americans.

The Vietnam War saw numerous anti-war demonstrations in Washington. Some included civil disobedience. A few, especially the later ones, were compromised by splinter-group violence. Demonstrators who come to a nonviolent march or rally and commit acts of violence are doing the work of agent provocateurs no matter what their intention.

Great speeches and inspiring moments are rare at demonstrations. In 1966, at a rally in front of the White House, Carl Oglesby, the new and then unknown president of Students for a Democratic Society, gave an oration titled "Let Us Shape The Future" that galvanized the audience, brought people cheering and to their feet. In it he made the distinction between corporate liberals who serve the corporate state and humanistic liberals who profess higher ideals. The details of the speech are bound up in history, but Oglesby’s distinction directly addresses the problems of the Democratic Party today.

The only other inspiring moment I remember was at the Washington Monument in 1969 when Dr. Spock, the beloved baby doctor, and Pete Seeger led more than a million people in John Lennon’s "Give Peace A Chance." The astonishing size of that demonstration had a profound effect on government policy, encouraging wavering politicians to decisively break with the Vietnam policy of the Johnson Administration.

A huge turnout at tomorrow’s demonstration could have a similar effect. That’s the main reason I’m going: to be a number. If there are enough of us in Washington, politicians may be emboldened to say what they’re thinking.

My first anti-war demonstration was a 1965 march down New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the war in Vietnam. I had already written members of Congress and my then liberal hero, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Now it was time to act. The New York newspapers had red-baited the parade, claiming it had been organized by Communists. It was very uncomfortable, that first time, publicly protesting the policies of my country. But I knew we were in the right, and I felt emboldened by our numbers.

"Which side are you on"? an old labor song asks. You study an issue, discuss it with people you trust, question the assumptions of both the advocates and the dissenters, consult your conscience and then, when you make your decision, you act.

That’s what the patriots who pushed for and conceived the Bill of Rights were thinking. Americans have the right to dissent, directly to our government. Protest is patriotic, and this protest, most especially this protest, is essential for the soul and safety of the country.

Marty Jezer's books include “Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel.” He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net.

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