Marches Can Change American Politics

marchA hundred years ago, when the first group of Americans organized a march on Washington, D.C., many politicians and opinion makers feared that this action would forever change the nation. And they weren't happy about the prospect. One newspaper editor called the 1894 march a symptom of "blood poisoning in the republic."

In a way they were right: Marches have changed American politics over the past century. At a time when commercial media and big money dominate national politics, the act of marching on Washington is more important than ever -- for individuals and the nation.

In the past century, marches have become so common that today we sometimes take them for granted. This Saturday, opponents of a U.S. war against Iraq will gather on the Mall below the Capitol, as well as in San Francisco and other cities around the country. A few days later, people who deplore the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1973 to allow some abortions will march from the court building, by the Capitol and gather at the Mall.

Other groups will come after them. And some will wonder: Why do these people bother? Do these marches do any good? Aren't there better ways to influence policy than by spending all that time, money and bother getting to Washington? I understand these questions, even after spending years of my life researching the history of marches on Washington.

One time, I even went all the way to Washington for a demonstration and ended up going shopping instead. That was a mistake. If you're considering whether to march this weekend or sometime later this year, go ahead. That we can march on Washington is central to our claim to being a democratic country, because it is democracies that welcome engaged peaceful debate. There is nothing like assembling with thousands of others who share your political views to energize your own commitment to a cause. Being an activist on any issue is often a lonely business and it is important to take the time to look around and see that you are not alone.

And, taking your place in the streets and open spaces of Washington or San Francisco reminds you and all those who observe you that it is the people of this nation who determine what happens in the country. Whether you gaze at the Lincoln Memorial, march down Pennsylvania Avenue or assemble near the Capitol, wherever you go in Washington for your march, your presence shows that ordinary citizens -- not just politicians or bureaucrats -- belong there.

In the 1800s, politicians did not want the "people" in the capital as political actors. They were supposed to accept that their representatives in Congress would make the right decisions for them on national issues. But organizers for suffrage, for veteran's rights, for civil rights, for peace have changed this view. Their marches on Washington transformed the capital into a stage on which the American people can participate directly in national politics. This changed politics, and taking part can change your view of national politics.

Of course, you may not win what you want. Huge turnouts against an invasion of Iraq this Saturday won't change the Bush administration's plans overnight. But those of you who do go will feel inspired. And those of us who don't go will have more reasons to think seriously about opposition to the proposed war, and likewise when other groups march in the coming months.

So whatever your issue, the next time you can march on Washington, do it. And if you don't march, take seriously those people who do. Think about why they are there. Marching on Washington might change you and it might change the nation.

Lucy G. Barber of Sacramento is the author of "Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition" (University of California Press, 2002);

This piece originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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