The Marine at the Youth March
I arrived at Columbus Circle for the Youth and Student Feeder March organized by the Youth RNC Welcoming Committee at 9:15 AM. This was to be one of the many feeder marches converging in Union square for the massive anti-Republican National Convention march planned by United for Peace and Justice. On my way to the meeting point I had memories of the Youth and Student Feeder March in February of 2003, which was organized by an unnamed coalition of students from a multitude of schools in New York. At the time I was studying at a small liberal arts college with a student body of only a thousand students in upstate New York and we organized over 200 students to attend the anti-war actions in the city.
The recollection of the day still sends a chill down my spine. We, the students and young people numbering over a thousand, were full of rage and defiance against an administration which was about to send our peers over to kill innocent Iraqis over geopolitical domination. We weren't intimidated. And we took the streets in open refusal of police orders.
Sunday's march had a much smaller crowd, about three hundred. This was in part because most schools haven't started their fall semesters, but also because the war now feels less present in our lives. Our hopes of stopping the War from starting energized and inspired people to take action a year and a half ago. The media's spotty coverage of the ongoing atrocities in Iraq further the public's increasing sense of detachment about our military endeavors abroad.
The organizers of the march were easy to identify by their red t-shirts and gold armbands. Two young women were negotiating with the police with the help of a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild. Lieutenant O'Brien finally caved into Monique and Leah's assertive negotiation and allowed them to take up one lane on 5th Avenue for their un-permitted march.
While all the negotiations were going on, Jared, 23, from Parsons School of Design was leading chants for the other young marchers. He said his plan for the week was to "make sure that the delegates have a shitty time" and to drive out the Republicans responsible for �the war on Iraq." He thinks that the police are being "ridiculous in their militarization of the convention.� Jared also said he believed that such a show of force �can only become provocative."
A big factor during large-scale protests is the pens that the police use to limit the movement of dissenters. For Jared, these pens are a great source of intimidation and he believes they keep many immigrants and people of color from participating. Since once you are within a pen you cannot get out without the permission of the police, those without an ID and those vulnerable within what he calls �the racist system� are taking a great risk just to be there. He echoes the frustration that many young people in the United States have with the two-party system and tells me that he plans to vote for Ralph Nader on November 2nd.
As people slowly line up, getting ready to march, someone whom I had noticed watching the congregation from a distance walks up to us and asks for a cigarette. He is dressed all black and a shining cross hangs from his neck. I feel a sudden gravitation towards this young man and follow him to the side of the park where he sits glaring at the protesters. He is clearly uneasy speaking with me, one of the protesters, and it takes a while and a few more cigarettes until we are able to speak comfortably.
Mike tells me he joined the Marines when he was 17. Now he is 24 and lives in Central Park. While Jared represented the radical end of the political spectrum of youth (he is a member of the International Socialist Organization), Mike is a perfect example of how serious the alienation of many American youth has become.
Mike is not just any young person but, he tells me he is a young soldier who has served both in Afganistan (in the Tora Bora region) and in Iraq as a sniper with one of the Infantry divisions. He says he is not going to vote because he doesn't think it matters. He says he is afraid that the Democrats will bring some soldiers back and leave the rest there, further out-numbered. He believes that they should all be brought back. All he can think about when he sees the anti-war protesters is his friends still fighting in Iraq.
I asked Mike whether or not the military helps him out at all. First he replies "When I came back I ripped my dog-tags off" and then he corrects himself, "I mean, I locked them away." Mike tells me he is, essentially, a fugitive. He has not reported back to his unit and is hoping for an honorable discharge at some point in the future. He also tells me he is conflicted about the war, the military and politics. He is angry at the president but he thinks that he must be respected. He feels that it is OK to protest ("It's the first amendment, right?") but it is definitely not OK to disrespect the president, and it is unacceptable to cuss at him. "After all, he is the President," Mike says.
I am intrigued by both the vast differences and the incredible similarities between Mike with the hundreds who have already marched off leaving me behind to converse further with him. He has respect for the police and feels for the officers who won't be able to go home to their families on time. Most radical young people regard the institution of law enforcement as the �unrelenting iron fist of the State.� And only some of them are able to see that policemen and women are also being exploited and used against should-be allies.
Mike is a soldier but he is also aware that the military did not allow him his first amendment rights, which he clearly values. While he was serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, he would send back four page letters to his family only to hear later that they had arrived drastically shortened and censored.
After about half an hour of talking with Mike I am sure that he wants to join the marchers, but he decides against it. He says it is because of his fugitive military status and his fear that the protests could get violent. But I understand it is also because of the political fence he is sitting on. I say goodbye and get on my bicycle, completely bewildered by our conversation. This was not what I expected, coming to the �Bush-bashing event of the year.�
By the time I reach the march, it has had grown and stretched for about a street block. The chants are electrifying all of 5th Ave and bystanders are stopping to watch the protests they have heard so much about on the news. When they see that we are not violent, nor hostile, most people give the thumbs-up and applaud in support.
The crowd chanted: "Books Not Bombs!" "While You're Shopping, Bombs Are Dropping!" "Hey Hey! Ho Ho! The RNC Has Got to go!" and "No Justice! No Peace! US Out of The Middle East!" I was chanting, as well, but my mind was still in Central Park with the young Marine. The Youth and Student March was energetic and lively but I asked myself, �What about the youth and the students who are still in Iraq? Would these young people come back and stage their own feeder marches to anti-war demonstrations and repeat the history of the Vietnam War? Would this be the mass movement necessary to stopping this war and to changing the system? Or would they end up alienated, outside the system like Mike?
After marching for 40 blocks we finally arrived to join the tens of thousands of protestors at Union Square. Confronted with the liberals holding Kerry/Edwards signs I remembered Mike's reaction when I asked who he voted for in 2000. First he snickered, then he replied, "I voted for Bush... in Florida."