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Personal Voice: Saving Our Troops, Saving Ourselves

A young African American woman shares her impressions of the recent anti-war march in Washington D.C.
On Sept. 24, an electrified mass of Americans from red and blue states moved toward the White House in the largest protest to date against the war in Iraq.

As the mass of an estimated 300,000 people pushed past the corner of Lafayette Park, waving signs, chanting, posing for pictures and singing, a lone woman stood waving her holy book, trembling, screaming into the crowd as if she were in a trance, "We must repent. We must repent. We're bombing children; we must repent."

Captured by her eerie presence, I shifted my attention from the moving crowd to her, an elderly African-American woman, hunched over a cart with a white scarf covering her hair and the Bible in her hand. She screamed repeatedly, "We must repent!"

Every time she uttered those words, a chill engulfed me. The woman wailed vociferously, clutching her Bible with work-worn hands, as if she was vulnerable and the Bible was her only protection from harm. Her screams shook me and for a moment, I really felt as if the sky would fall.

After many attempts to drown her out, I relented and listened to her words. I turned to my friends who were marching with me, and we were all struck by her words and her passion.

Like others who stood nearby, we stared, somewhat trancelike. We watched as children pointed, passersby laughed uncomfortably, and reporters photographed her.

This lone woman has reserved a place in my memory forever -- a reminder of the wretched conditions that exist in 21st century America.

She was fed-up with the American system -- a system
that had forsaken her and her kind. Her testimony was one of pain, which she shouted to anyone who would listen.

*****

After the march, my friends and I discussed why the screams of one "seemingly demented" woman left such an impression on us. I wondered how and why this woman grabbed my attention in a town where wandering, screaming, and proselytizing, as well as disenfranchised derelicts, are not uncommon.

I thought about this woman and realized that the essence of her being penetrated the deepest crevices of my soul, because I admired her. I thought about the many times I have wanted to scream at my fellow citizens, asking them to turn off their TV and fight against the increasing lack of democracy in America and our occupied territories.

*****

On Sept. 24, an estimated 300,000 people traveled to D.C. to take action. The march focused on a united message, protesting our continued deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The key message of the march was "Bring the troops home now!" But despite the focus on the war, marchers were united in their criticism of our current leadership.

Diverse affinity groups like "Republicans for Impeachment," "Black Voices for Peace," student groups, labor organizations, interfaith religious delegations, veterans groups, "Women in Black" and countless others rallied together to oppose the war and the negative economic, political and social problems that exist in our country.

The community of marchers expressed their resistance in a variety of ways: some carried signs, others chanted and others prayed. Protesters were motivated to march for a variety of reasons; however, they were unified in their demand for peace.

It was clear from their signs, conversations, chants and banners, that even though the protesters' overwhelming goal was to end the occupation of Iraq, many marched to promote peace in Palestine, Afghanistan, in the Gulf Coast, and for all of America's poor.

Participants in the rally also expressed their outrage at domestic problems that lacked funding and attention as a result of the war. Colorful signs with messages like "Renewable energy not war," "Books not Bombs," "Education not Deportation," "Make Levees Not War," and "Money for College Not Combat" created a mosaic of artistic dissent throughout the march route. Marchers demanded an end to occupation, imperialism, and racism in America and abroad. Many compared the war to Vietnam, questioning our motivations and our withdrawal plan.

I took notice when a family with three small children walked past me carrying signs that said "Red states, are you feeling safe yet?" I shuddered when I thought about just how unsafe the majority of Americans feel as a result of recent failures by our leadership with Hurricane Katrina.

At times during the march, I felt as if I stepped into a time machine. I was reminded of the often cyclical nature of history by seeing caskets covered in flags like marchers used in anti-Vietnam marches before my birth; a countless number of John Lennon shirts with slogans like "Nothing to kill or die for"; signs with Marvin Gaye's words "War is not the answer!"; or the now famous banner "War is not healthy for Children or other Living Things."

I felt compelled to mail the president a copy of A People's History of the United States just in case he had forgotten what happened in Vietnam. If, as I suspect, he might not be in an academic mood, I could simply mail him an Oliver Stone movie to refresh his memory.

En route to the National Mall, I encountered a group of Latino and African-American youth from New York City, who represented a community organization that promotes social justice through hip-hop. They recognized the need to look at history to prevent problems today.

Realities, a 20-something poet, activist and organizer, said, "The future is now, the past is a lesson learned. It started from the drug war on our blocks to New Orleans, to Iraq. I don't feel our troops should be in Iraq. They aren't used to defend people; they are used to defend property."

*****

As the day went on, I continued to meet people from across the nation who renewed my faith in humankind and in the mission of the march. Boudu Bingay captured my attention while he was reaching out to protesters to raise money for the organizations that sponsored the event. I approached him to ask why he thought so many people came to march on Washington.

Boudu, who recently moved from Boston to D.C. said, "Our stance is to bring the troops back home now. ... I know our work starts when troops come home. We're here to let them know their work is not in vain, and veterans will have our continued support."

As I marched down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House, I reflected on Boudu's words and wondered if Bush's Administration planned to support the troops when they came home through veterans' services.

A woman dressed in a bright red "Marines" shirt caught my eye as she walked with a sign showing her son in his Marine uniform. Her son was stationed in Afghanistan. I felt she personified the slogan I heard throughout the day, "Peace is patriotic."

BJ Dewey, a "Marine mom," stood with her companion, a woman in an American flag t-shirt. When I asked
her why she was marching she said, "I want them to bring my son home from Afghanistan. I support our military. They are doing the job they are trained to do."

She went on to explain how many in her family proudly served in the military. At the end of our conversation she expressed her opposition to the war saying, "At what time will we stop trying to play God? ... [Terrorism] has been going on for centuries over there and we can't stop it."

As I left her side, she repeated her phrase once again, "We need to quit playing God." Throughout the day I met many more like her who agreed that our greatest show of support for the troops would be an end to the war.

The peaceful energy of the march remained throughout the rallies during the day and throughout the Operation Ceasefire concert at night. The event provided a healing effect for me to see 300,000 other Americans who were fed-up, tired of being frustrated, and taking a collective stand.

I was proud that the world could see that many Americans support peace and justice. As we walked home from the march, I felt energized. I thought about all the interactions I had that day, with people from across the nation.

I was still haunted by the screams of the old woman whose message could not be ignored. The experience of the march reaffirmed what I already believed about social justice. I knew that if I was not a part of the solution, I was a part of the problem.

I decided that apathy was a curable disease that progressive people could solve if we all made our voices heard, supported independent media, organized in our communities, and tried to make a difference.

An older gentleman marched with a sign that read, "Fool America Once, Shame On Bush. Fool America Again, Again, and Again ... Shame on America!" His sign, and the screams of the woman at Lafayette Park made stronger impressions on me at the march than any thing else. I understood their anger, hurt and disappointment. I wanted to assure them that our peaceful army of 300,000 committed a collective civil service and served our patriotic duty.

We took responsibility for what atrocities were occurring in our name by expressing our outrage. Our opposition to a war based on lies and deception was just one of many actions Americans -- who really value freedom and democracy -- will undertake to save our country and save ourselves.

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Jamia Wilson is a progressive activist with a strong interest in social justice. She lives in Washington, D.C.