Natalia Rachel Singer

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.

Jules and Jonah March on Washington

I'm hoping to run into two new friends of mine at Saturday's anti-war march in D.C. They won't be there, though, if the sniper is still at large in the Capitol area because their mothers won't allow them to go. Jules Bartkowski and Jonah Rabinbach are the vocalist and drummer of a rock band called The Mad Dodgers. They are 14 years old.

The duo began their careers as peace activists only recently, on Sunday, Oct. 6, when they and I and their mothers -- friends of my old college roommate -- joined an estimated 25,000 people at a rally in the East Meadow of Central Park. As we drove in, the moms discussed Israel and potential routes to peace in the Middle East being proposed by various colleagues of theirs on the lecture circuit while the boys sat with me in the back discussing their rock influences (the Stones, and the girl band, Sleater-Kinney), favorite TV show (Britain's "Ali G," which they download from the Internet), and favorite book ("Stupid White Men" by Michael Moore).

Jonah was wearing the T-shirt he had recently designed himself with the words, "Middle School: Enjoy the Fruits of Conformity and Hypocrisy." He planned to wear it again that Monday at detention, where he had been sent for talking out of turn in class. "Teach me the words for 'We Shall Overcome,'" he asked his mother, and she, a veteran of dozens of Vietnam-era anti-war rallies and Civil Rights marches with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., did so, and all four updated the song with references to current events. Jonah put on the headband he'd bought for this occasion.

It was a clear, fall day but the slight chill in the air made it just cool enough for the boys to wear, during cloudy moments, their denim jackets, which gave them more cloth space to fill with the No War in Iraq buttons someone was selling inside the park. I thought they looked photo-worthy, decked out in their rally gear, but there was no one there to take their picture. The duo seemed more impressed with the slogans on people's homemade signs and placards: Our Grief is not a Cry for War; George Bush: You are an Army of One; War with Iraq is Bush's weapon of Mass Distraction; and No Blood for Oil. The mothers were drawn to one that said I Won't Let an Old Son of a Bush Send my Sons to War.

The rally was organized by Not in Our Name, which was founded in the spring of 2002 to send the message that "people in the U.S. will not be silent as this government wages wars around the world, detains immigrants, and strips civil liberties away."

When the speeches began, the boys listened intently to a mother of three whose husband had spent six months in a notorious detention cell nicknamed "the shoe" and was secretly deported by the INS back to Jordan for a minimum of 10 years even though they had no evidence that he had any connection to organized terror. "My children have lost their father," she said.

They were moved by the Afghan-American woman who lost 17 family members last fall in our air strikes there, and by the Iraqi-American man whose sisters died because of lack of medicine as a result of the UN embargo with Iraq. "Please," the man begged, sobbing, "Do not let them kill us," and I watched the boys blink to keep from crying.

Many of the boys' friends have parents who worked in the World Trade Center, including their band's 14-year-old sound man and manager, Teddy Handler, whose father Harry, a vice-president of Morgan Stanley, was featured on ABC last Thanksgiving for helping an asthmatic woman down the stairs of the South Tower only 20 minutes before it collapsed. (For the record, Teddy and his parents were for the war against Afghanistan but are very much against the war in Iraq which they see as, among other things, an Oedipal drama writ large.)

One speaker read the statement of Meg Bartlett, who spoke for a group of 9/11 Ground Zero rescue workers who feel they "have a responsibility to those [they] could not save" to do everything in their power "to make sure that no one, ever again, experiences such horror, here or abroad." A spokesperson from September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows named Colleen Kelly reminded listeners that her brother and the 3,000 who died that day in New York were killed by "nineteen people and their weapons of mass destruction -- box cutters." The boys liked that line and thought they could use it in a protest song.

The mothers and I were impressed by actor/director Tim Robbins, who spoke about the danger of fundamentalism in its various forms, how it hates all the things he loves: "art, a free press, and independent women," (the mothers laughed heartily at this) and how the pursuit of unfettered business -- "the spread of our economic interests throughout the world, profit at the expense of people" is another form of fundamentalism, a "distraction from Enron and Haliburton while giving power to oil men to expand their business and make new contracts forged with governments that do not allow democracy."

The boys and I kept scanning the crowd for TV cameras but we didn't see any. When Pacifica Radio's Leslie Hagan insisted that "the mainstream press must be forced to tell you the truth and to stop their disinformation and outright lies," what we wanted to say is they could just start by showing up. Rick Pearlstein wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times the other day that there is no significant anti-war movement in America right now. The truth is, there is no significant mainstream press coverage of the anti-war movement.

Before we left the rally, Jules and Jonah had memorized the phone number to the White House, which actress Susan Sarandon provided us when she spoke. "Don't forget to call!" they said to each other when they parted, energized by the events of the day.

But the week ahead brought the boys many disappointments. Jonah still had to face detention on Monday, and because his favorite teacher was presiding, he didn't want to sing his protest song lest she think he was, well, anti-her. Despite the ratio of nine-to-one calls against the war that Senate and Congress staffers received (as they admitted to Not in Our Name lobbyists), the vast majority voted with the President.

Then, when it seemed that it couldn't get any worse, the boys lost their bass player; his parents accused Jules and Jonah of being against God and Country, and forced him to resign. This was the first friend either boy had ever lost, and they never expected that to happen because of politics. They had left their first peace rally believing the central message: that dissent and criticism are the lifeblood of democracy.

But Jules and Jonah still look forward to joining what they hope will be many thousands of citizens marching on Oct. 26 in Washington DC. A simultaneous march is planned in San Francisco. The sponsor of the two events, the coalition Act Now to Stop War & Racism, is hoping to influence the mid-term elections. Buses will be traveling from 120 cities in 35 states to attend, and maybe, just maybe, the major TV networks and print media outlets might find it newsworthy.

And yet, if this activism fails, if the pro-war politicians gain more seats, and if the endless cycle of war and terrorist retaliation continues unabated for decades as those of us protesting this war predict, Jules and Jonah vow that four years from now when they reach draft age their band's name, The Mad Dodgers, will serve another purpose. By then they hope to have more members, at least someone who can play bass.

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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