George was out of town, of course, in the “battle cab” at the U.S. Northern Command’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, checking out the latest in homeland-security technology and picking up photo ops; while White House aides, as the Washington Post wrote that morning, were attempting “to reestablish Bush’s swagger.” The Democrats had largely fled town as well, leaving hardly a trace behind. Another hurricane was blasting into Texas and the media was preoccupied, but nothing, it seemed, mattered.
Americans turned out in poll-like numbers for the Saturday antiwar demonstration in Washington and I was among them. So many of us were there, in fact, that my wife (with friends at the back of the march) spent over two hours as it officially “began,” moving next to nowhere at all.
This was, you might say, the “connection demonstration.” In the previous month, two hurricanes, one of them human, had blown through American life; and between them, they had, for many people, linked the previously unconnected — Bush administration policies and the war in Iraq to their own lives. So, in a sense, this might be thought of as the demonstration created by Hurricanes Cindy Sheehan and Katrina. It was, finally, a protest that, not just in its staggering turnout but in its make-up, reflected the changing opinion-polling figures in this country. This was a majority demonstration and the commonest statement I heard in the six hours I spent talking to as many protesters as I could was: “This is my first demonstration.”
In addition, there were sizeable contingents of military veterans and of the families of soldiers in Iraq, or of those who were killed in Iraq. No less important, scattered through the crowd were many, as I would discover, whose lives had been affected deeply by George Bush’s wars.
This was an America on very determined parade. Even though the march, while loud and energetic, had an air of relaxed calmness to it, the words that seemed to come most quickly to people’s lips were: infuriated, enraged, outraged, had it, had enough, fed up. In every sense, in fact, this was a demonstration of words. I have never seen such a sea of words — of signs, almost invariably handmade along with individually printed posters, T-shirts, labels, stickers. It often seemed that, other than myself, there wasn’t an individual in the crowd without a sign and that no two of them were quite the same.
The White House, which the massed protesters marched past, was in every sense the traffic accident of this event. The crowds gridlocked there; the noise rose to a roar; the signs waved, a veritable sea of them, and they all, essentially said, “No more, not me!”
Here’s just a modest sample of those that caught my eye, reflecting as they did humor, determination, and more than anything else, outrage: “Yeeha is not a foreign policy”; “Making a killing”; “Ex-Republican. Ask me why”; “Blind Faith in Bad Leadership is not Patriotism”; “Bush is a disaster!” (with the President’s face in the eye of a hurricane); “He’s a sick nut, my Grandma says” (with a photo of an old woman in blue with halo-like rays emanating from her); “Osama bin Forgotten”; “Cindy speaks for me”; “Make levees not war”; “W’s the Devil, One Degree of Separation”; “Dick Cheney Eats Kittens” (with a photo of five kittens); “Bush busy creating business for morticians worldwide”; “Liar, born liar, born-again liar”; “Dude — There’s a War Criminal in My White House!!!”; “Motivated moderates against Bush”; “Bored with Empire”; “Pro Whose Life?”; “War is Terrorism with a Bigger Budget.”
Because just about everybody had the urge to express him or herself, I largely followed the signs to my interviewees. People were unfailingly willing to talk (and no less unfailingly polite as I desperately tried to scribble down their words). The meetings were brief and, for me, remarkably moving, not least because Americans regularly turn out to be so articulate, even eloquent, and because so many people are thinking so hard about the complex political fix we find ourselves in today. I’ve done my level best to catch (sometimes in slightly telescoped form and hopefully without too many errors) just what people had to say and how open they were — the first-timers and the veterans of former demonstrations alike.
A day of walking and intensive talking still gave me only the smallest sampling of such a demonstration. To my amazement, on my way to the Metro heading back to New York at about 5:30 (almost seven hours after I first set out for the Mall), I was still passing people marching. So I can’t claim that what follows are the voices of the Washington demonstration, just that they’re the voices of my demonstration, some of the thirty-odd people to whom I managed to talk in the course of those hours. They are but a drop in the ocean of people who turned out in Washington, while the President was in absentia and the Democrats nowhere to be seen, to express in the most personal and yet collective way possible their upset over the path America has taken in the world. As far as I’m concerned, we seldom hear the voices of Americans in our media society very clearly.
Visit TomDispatch to view photographs of protesters and the stories about them.
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