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Man (Are You Ready?)"
a narrative of the march by Jim Macdonald
Well I heard about the spirit
of life is it flickering still
Yes I heard that the dark bellied angel's come running up the hill
Hold onto dreams, hold onto dreams tonight
Renaissance man are you
Renaissance man are you ready
See what a world that you can make
--from "Renaissance Man" by Midnight Oil
Where a nation demands that we conform blindly to the will of a President who is determined to make war on Iraq, I still managed to see a lot of scattered spirits being blown by the wind in very positive directions on a breezy March day in that same nation's capital. In the calm we have before the storm clouds of invasion come upon us, the reborn peace movement frolicked in the sun, beat on drums, sang some hymns, and continued to grow. Yet, around us, occasional reminders kept popping up showing us that the Renaissance men and women of this age had better be ready, or else.
Here is my report from the March 15, 2003, ANSWER peace march in Washington, DC, perhaps the last huge rally before a war in Iraq begins, a war that seems increasingly inevitable.
In the week before today's march, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do for it. Area residents know that early every autumn a Renaissance festival takes place in Crownsville, Maryland. At one of those festivals, I got so caught up in the spirit of the event that I acquired an expensive Renaissance outfit for my birthday. I am someone who almost never spends a dime on new clothes when I can help it, and so this was a very unusual expenditure for me. However, I simply love taking on different roles and characters. It's not that I desire to become someone else, but rather I believe that costumes help project different sides of who I really am, scattered soul that is me. Anyhow, the problem with acquiring such a costume was that I would rarely have occasion to aware it, and since I am a frugal Scotsman, I always look for opportunities to wear my outfit. I wore it twice for Halloween and once to a bachelor's party. Suddenly, the thought hit me that I should wear it again. So, I raised the idea with my friend Di, who I know through a site called Democrats.com, and she helped me figure out a way to tie the Renaissance outfit to the theme of peace. With her help, I figured out just the way to do it. Renaissance literally means "rebirth." In previous narratives, I had talked about the rebirth of the peace movement. Therefore, such a theme served perfectly as inspiration for a sign that would connect my outfit with the march. The original Renaissance was a "rebirth" of learning, at least to those who believed that the age before it was a Dark Age. In our time, we have witnessed the rebirth of the peace movement, which is a rebirth of what originally came to life during the Vietnam War era. With that in mind, I settled on two sign ideas. The first read, "The Peace Renaissance Begins With Us," and the second read, "Let the Spirit of Peace be Reborn." I chose those signs in part because they represented a positive message that tied my costume to the march, but I also chose those signs because people are missing the point of the peace movement. The peace movement is not simply about stopping this war in Iraq; it is a movement that is also interested in fostering peacefulness between people. In fact, our efforts will probably not be enough to stop this war, but that will not be the only measure of success for the movement. The more important measure of success is whether we have encouraged a greater number and quality of truly peaceful interactions than we have before. Do we have strangers becoming friends? Do we have more provocative music and dance in our lives? Do we share more warm moments with each other? To me, these are much more vital questions over the long run, although the real and tragic death of Iraqi people is indeed the short term urgency. Just as they are now, all of these thoughts dominated my mind before today's march.
One reason all those thoughts dominated my mind was the context of this march in light of other major marches that I have attended. On October 26, I attended the first major peace march against war in Iraq in Washington, DC. I attended that march alone and spoke to virtually no one except the light poles and the leaves on the ground. On January 18, at a similar march, I came with my wife Loree, and we saw the event through each other's perspective. On February 15, in New York, we saw firsthand how threatened the government could be by our presence, but we also met new friends who made our journey especially inspirational. One new friend in particular, Jamila Larson, has become a very good friend of Loree and I. In the last month, we have not only stayed in touch by e-mail, but also we have joined her for dinner with a small group of bus mates known as the "Otherwise Shy Peaceful People," we have joined her in attending the Code Pink march for peace on International Women's Day, and we had a great time that same day at her ice skating birthday party. Jamila also joined me for a short time at a small protest at the White House. Since the end of January, I have been an active member of the DC Anti-War Network (DAWN) and have done a fair amount of local activism on their behalf. Just this past Thursday, I was flyering with a couple of members from DAWN for today's event and a fundraiser on Tuesday . My point here is that in October I felt all alone, a voice for peace speaking in a vacuum. However, in the months since October, the wind has blown us together, has brought us into profound contact, and has given birth to an amazing new world of interactions that did not exist before.
Thus, today began with high hopes for helping this new reborn child find its first steps in this world. Loree and I woke up early to get ready. I got into my costume, and doing so brought a smile to my face. I remember walking into the kitchen where Loree was washing a few dishes and then giving her a peck on the cheek. She turned around, saw me, and smiled. I can get like a kid in the candy store when I'm excited, but I also get nervous about details. Did I remember this; did I remember that? Are we going to get this done? "Let's not be late; my God, we are actually running early; how will this extra time mess things up?" I move from here to there, never quite sure of where I am going, rambling to myself so that I don't forget a single detail. There is so much to keep track of, and yet this busy spirit makes me so happy. It all seems to be going for something these days. Soon, we were ready to go to Jamila's.
One of the traits in my family is that people tend to arrive early, and we managed to arrive 20 minutes too early at Jamila's cute townhouse apartment not far from the Capitol. But, when all was settled, and after a brief moment of panic when Jamila accidentally locked herself out of the townhouse, we began to head down to the Metro. Since I was all dressed up, I had a fair number of people look my way. What was interesting, however, was how absolutely normal I felt. People waved at us, and we waved back. It felt like we were the heroes going out to fight a new battle, but that truly is an untelling metaphor which doesn't really give you the sense of warmness that I felt as we walked past the Eastern Market. Jamila attracted a lot of attention with her very tall sign and her pink feathered boa. I told her at one point that she looked like a burnt out movie star living in Los Angeles in the 1950s. From anyone else, that might be an insult, but I meant it very fondly. It was good to have the company of such a warm, sincere, and spiritual person.
When we arrived at the Smithsonian at 11:30, we were supposed to meet a contingent of people from DAWN; however, we could not find anyone except one of our members. So, instead of waiting around indefinitely, we decided to wander through the crowds to check it out. The day was sunny, beautiful, and breezy. Jamila and I often had a great deal of trouble walking our signs into the wind. Our sticks repeatedly bent back, and our signs folded inside out. The wind was constantly on my mind in small ways throughout the day. I kept feeling like the wind was resisting our efforts to express ourselves, and yet when you let the wind blow you, it could be amazingly fun. So, there was an interesting ambivalence I felt about it. The slightly cool breeze felt wonderful on my face, but there was something deceptively antagonistic about that same wind all the same.
As we walked, we approached the Washington Monument, which gave us a fairly good perspective on the early crowd size. By day's end, I estimate that there were about 75,000 people, which was a good deal smaller than the New York rally in February and the Washington march in January. The reasons for this are many, but there was one which was primary. At the top of the peace movement in the United States, two large groups have sometimes competed and sometimes worked together at large protest events. ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) has put on most of the large events in Washington, DC, while United for Peace and Justice sponsored the large event in New York. By and large, the two groups have found ways to work together, but this time that didn't happen that well. Throughout the rally, many people for United for Peace and Justice were advertising a large rally in New York for next Saturday. So, with that in mind and few people able to commit to both weekends, the focus of attention has split between the two cities that are only 4 hours drive apart. Thus, all things considered, 75,000 is an impressive number. When you consider that many will be in town tomorrow evening for a candlelight peace vigil sponsored by Moveon.org, and that many others were in town last weekend for the Code Pink event, this is really an impressive turnout on the eve of a war. To the outsider, it might seem that the peace movement is losing steam since the numbers were a little off, but knowing the real reasons behind the forces at work shows us that the reborn peace movement is alive and growing.
If the truth be told, however, I dislike reporting the number of attendees to the event more than any other fact. No fact is more superficial or less relevant to the true strength and power of the peace movement. You can have 80,000 people attend a football game, and it means absolutely nothing. What were those 80,000 people doing? That's the important question. You can have two people, or two million people, and I fully believe that the two people can have a more powerful experience than the two million depending upon what was being done. At these marches, every side focuses on numbers. That question is extremely uninteresting and misses a much, much more important story. Friendships are being made. Smiles are being shared. People are having spiritual awakenings. These small gestures are being carried beyond the event into their lives. People who had never attended a protest in their lives are coming and being changed, and are discovering that the world can be much more melodic. How can you put a number on that? If 75,000 people stop war in Iraq, then that would be an amazing thing, and yet it would not be the most important thing. Iraqi families won't be ripped apart by death, our own troops won't have to face a pointless danger, and we won't have to pour money into a war that could be used to help the poor of our country. We won't shatter relationships with countries that count us as friends, and yet the lesson of peace put into practice into our lives is much grander and lasts much longer.
Of those countries that count us as friends, we saw many signs that showed support for France, Germany, and Russia, but especially signs in favor of France. Throughout the crowd, we saw signs that said, "Vive La France" and "J'aime les pommes frites" ("I love french fries"). Throughout the country, in recent weeks, there have been reports of restaurants changing the name of anything "French" because France has shown an uncharacteristic willingness to stand up against the United States push to war. Of course, France is hardly a peace-loving country and is a nuclear power in its own right, but people have either taken a stand in favor of France or against France. The House of Representatives this week chose to change the name of "french fries" in the House cafeteria to "freedom fries" and "french toast" to "freedom toast." It made me wonder aloud the other night whether we were going to change french kissing to "bulgarian kissing" in honor of one of our President's staunchest allies. These many signs praising France, however, also left me feeling slightly bewildered. What was really at stake in the American love/hate relationship with the French? Have we confused peace with a competition between two arrogant and proud nations? And, yet, when I saw a French woman in the crowd thanking someone for their sign sign, which was written in French, I realized that there was a more common sentiment at work. The United States was trying to punish a country for refusing to conform to its iron will, and people empathized with that situation. No one likes to be told what one absolutely must do, and a country that dared to risk the consequences of nonconformity held some kinship with members of the peace movement. Peace protesters risk social ridicule and sometimes much more in order to speak out against the stated policy of their country. To that extent, it only seems fitting that we loudly proclaim, "Long live the french fry!" Forget that french fries aren't even French in the first place; we all know what's at stake.
three of us spent much of the rally wandering through the crowd, and we
did not listen to many speeches. When you attend as many of these
events as Loree and I do, you grow tired of listening to the speeches.
They rarely say anything new, and many of the speeches are not actually
all that good. We only heard a few speeches as we wandered through
the crowd, the highlight being an eleven year-old boy who told Bush that
he needed to go back to "grade school" and learn a little bit about how
to treat other people. However, after him, a man got up with fiery
oratory in favor of Iraq. Whatever one thinks of that, he continued
by saying that Iraqis were prepared to fight to the death, and that if
guns were required, then he supported guns. I do not quite understand
how this bit of Iraqi propaganda had much to do with the peace movement,
and it was a rather unfitting way to follow up the provocative and wise
thoughts of an eleven year-old boy. Fortunately, this man's speech
got almost no applause, which tells me that people were listening.
Just because we did not spend the day listening to speeches, as so many others across the country did, it did not mean that we were not listening and interacting. As I have said many times, what goes on in your television set and what you read about in the newspapers are poor reflections of the reality on the ground. If the truth be told, most people probably could not hear the speeches. Most people were not in the area where speeches were being given. Even if they were in that area, most people were paying scant attention. Instead, people look at signs, take pictures, and share small moments with each other. In my case, I looked like a man transplanted from the Renaissance, or perhaps like the front of a bottle of Sam Adams beer, and I attracted a fair amount of attention. In conjunction with Jamila's feathered boa and provocative signs, one of which depicted a dead baby and the message "There's no future in war," we had many dozens of people take our pictures. In fact, both of us were interviewed by German radio and by an independent filmmaker. In my case, I tried to reiterate that I believed that while I thought war would probably happen that if you looked out into the crowd, you saw a different spirit. It is that spirit which should be making decisions in this world and represented a profoundly more beautiful way of life. Later, an Austrian journalist took my photograph and told me that many people in Austria had no idea that so many people in the United States were against this war and that he was going to be telling our story. This was all very exciting. However, besides journalists, we spoke to many people from out of town who were curious about my outfit and what it meant. Often I wondered whether they got it, whether they could see that this is not simply about Iraq, but about a much larger cultural concern. I really think that a few did, but I think that so many are still not ready to see that these marches and protests should be the norm rather than the exception.
Prior to the marching, Jamila decided to use the bathroom. So, Loree and I sat down and talked about the day. She admitted to me, "It feels weird." She had trouble explaining what she meant, but I think I had some sense that it was a weird day for reasons besides the fact that I was wearing a costume. The day was so festive, but in some ways, it was easy to feel like a spectator rather than a participant. Our experience in New York had police pressing us together under such close quarters and forcing us into some uncomfortable situations. It brought out the very best and the very worst in people, but it was always like we were integrally parts of a huge, meaningful event. In the long green expanses of the National Mall, it is easy to find space even in the biggest of crowds. You can lay out and be to yourself. You don't have to interact if you don't want to. You need not bump into strangers, you need not have your conversations overheard, and you need not let down your natural walls to every stranger who approaches you. I am not sure that this is a good thing. When you find yourself in your own little world and doing your own little thing, it is easy to feel very disconnected. That sense of space may be less stressful, but it is not necessarily more meaningful. When people in their own lives create such space for themselves, they often become distrustful and afraid. Even when things are as festive as they were during this peace march, there can be an uneasy feeling about it. Was this what Loree meant? I cannot say, and neither could she. However, it was in some ways what I was feeling. Occasionally, I felt too separated and uninvolved in the moment, and that would remind me that at heart I'm as scared and distrustful as the next person, in some ways maybe more so. When I don't feel confident to bump into people or to say "hello" or to ask a question, sometimes I feel it's because I have too much space. Many might find that thought unusual, and I suppose it is. Nevertheless, I think wars start not so much because resources are scarce or because there simply is not enough room for us all, but because we have not taken the opportunity to share the same room together. I think that's just as true about the wars between nations as it is true about each other.
Thus, when we went to observe the march, and when we met up with Jamila's friend Phil, whom we had briefly met at her birthday party, I began to feel somewhat disconnected at times and somewhat windblown. Prior to the march, Jamila had expressed an interest in not joining the march right away in order to see more of it. However, by the time we reached the march starting point, it had already begun. So, we stood at the corner of 15th and Constitution, fighting the wind, and viewing a steady but dwindling stream of numbers make their way from the rally point. The view was not very good, besides. So, after Jamila had no luck getting information from the police on the precise parade route, we headed up 15th street and around a police line (going over a partially knocked down fence) to a spot where we believed that the parade would be heading. Along the way, we passed a group of people who were in favor of war in Iraq. This small group of fifty or so demonstrators were being watched by nearly an equal number of policemen. It was really a striking contrast to our group to see these people, whom most activists call Freepers. The name refers to Free Republic, which is a rightwing activist group, and thus people who follow Free Republic are called Freepers. So, anyone who generally espouses their views, whether they belong to Free Republic or not, gets that unflattering name. I always thought it was invented by leftwingers as a derogatory name, but I discovered a couple weeks ago that www.freeper.org will take you right to the Free Republic website. Anyhow, as we walked by, I noticed many flags and many angry people who had signs which most commonly said, "Support our troops." Others also said things like "Luvya Dubya" and things of that sort. A woman walked by us with a bumper stick that said, "Proud to be a Republican." The sticker was attached just above her butt. Loree quipped, "That's the only good place for it." And yet, at the peace rally, I saw a sign that clearly said, "Republicans for Peace." In fact, you would be surprised how many Republicans are against this war, but you would not know it from television accounts. In any event, we were now away from the main march, walking by the small group of Freepers, and it no longer felt like we were in the event at all. Part of me regretted this strategy, but much of me still didn't. It is always wonderful to see rallies like this from new perspectives. There is a side that wants to see things up close and personal, a side that wants to hear every speech, a side that wants to fly in the sky above it all, a side that wants to be on the podium giving speeches, and a side that simply wants to dance and sing in the streets. One side never changes. I always want intimate and meaningful interactions with my friends, and no amount of incentive would have been enough to carry me away from that. So, while I felt somewhat disconnected, I felt this much greater bond and connection that only seemed to grow stronger.
Finally, the marchers approached, and we waved at them and took their pictures, and they waved back and took ours. I found myself saying thank you to compliments of my costume at almost every turn. I felt my warm smile return brightly. It was so wonderful to be swept up by the spirit of the crowd. Before we knew it, we were marching with them back down along 15th Street toward the Freepers. I felt the spirit of life strongly. There were the joyous faces around us. There were the sounds of singing, chanting, drumbeats, and bagpipes. There were the colorful costumes, and the people on stilts. Different languages filled the air, kindness abounded, and it was easy to feel a collective sense of humor. This was the rebirth I was hoping for and talking about. When we were going against the wind, it could feel like there was no place for us. When we let it sweep us up, it felt like we could go everywhere all at once, and yet be swept with purpose and resolve.
Nothing was more evident about this renewed spirit than when our many thousands passed the fifty Freepers. As we looked at their angry fists waving at us, we waved back at them with peace signs. There were many hateful signs among them. They were either anti-hippie, or suggested that we were all Communists who should relocate to Cuba, or in one case told us to fuck ourselves because the man had enough friends. The positive signs were signs in support of the troops. Between us was a line of police, which brought back to mind our time in New York when we were constantly faced with the worlds that were divided by the blue line of cops. However, today, the police were an afterthought who played a minimal role. Our minds were turned to the people on the other side, each of whom apparently had no understanding of our side or vice versa. So, in the spirit of our side, I yelled repeatedly, "We love you! We love you!" I got laughs from people on our side, but I was sincere. I hope these people really know that they are loved in spite of the hate they breathe on us, and that love and hate is truly the difference between what should rule the world and what in fact does rule the world. Many of them may not be as hateful as they appeared, but I was in no mood to appear hateful. So, while they looked angry, we looked joyous. When they started shouting, "Support our troops!" we drowned them out with, "Bring them home!" However, this is when it got really interesting. Soon after, a group around us spontaneously shouted their favorite lines, "U - S - A! U - S - A!" back at them. Of course, our point was that we were the true patriots, we who exercise our freedoms and speak for what is just and democratic. They were so confused by this that they didn't know how to respond. Perhaps, it never crossed their minds that people they saw as Communists and as pro-Iraqi, anti-American sympathizers were really and truly so in love with their own country that they would speak up rather than see it go down the wrong road. So, our chant was more than appropriate, and I hope it made at least one think that we were pro-American, indeed more pro-American than any of them understand how to be.
The wind stopped blowing for awhile as we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Throughout the day, I continued to see people I knew or recognized. To me, that is the biggest sign that I have become more connected with the movement. Whether it was seeing Michael at the Smithsonian, or Kevin along Pennsylvania avenue, I saw at least a dozen people that I knew throughout the day. When I wasn't seeing people I knew, I saw people who I recognized from other parts of life. So, instead of the young woman who works at the Borders Bookstore music and dvd section, I saw the young woman who was that and a marcher for peace as well. It was really intriguing in a crowd of so many faces from out of town to realize that they were not all complete strangers anymore. Jamila repeatedly ran into people she knew. In some cases we met up with them, as we did as we continued to march. That sense of disconnection quickly disappears when around every corner there is someone new to say "Hi" to. That's not bad for a shy kid who can have a lot of trouble speaking up at all. That's the sort of thing that gives me hope. And, yet, I would never have been able to recognize and meet these people without the chain of events connected with the peace movement. Where would Jamila have been? Where would the DAWN people be? The only thing profoundly sad about this is that it probably would never have happened without the ruthless intentions of our Administration against Iraq, and that fact repeatedly saddens me. Where will all these people go once the war ends? Even if the United States wins, will it make our war right? Will we always have to depend upon the evil of the world to mobilize and make friendships? I get sick inside writing this because I fear that the answer is that we won't be able to stay connected, that we won't see that this new rebirth is something that must continue after the war ends (whether that war happens or not). Peace does not come simply because a single war is either averted or over. That is merely a symptom of a much larger problem that extends all the way to our own homes. We cannot simply make this about a place somewhere out there, even though that place somewhere out there is truly important. Nevertheless, it must be more than that. We must make this about more than that. Why can't we have such a festive spirit as part of our entire routine, as an integral part of our economy? Instead, we set up safeguards at every place, worried to death about who is screwing us over next. And, they are screwing us over, but what has the culture of safeguards, protectionism, and pre-emptive antagonism gotten us in our lives? Has it protected us, has it made us happier, has it shown us any noticeable reduction in the number of ways we get screwed over? We might as well die trusting than die deeply afraid. To see so many people that I was beginning to know and trust was so inspiring to me that I don't think I need the threat of war to keep me motivated in order to continue pursuing it. Unfortunately, I do not trust that that is true for many people who are too scared to look past Iraq and into the mirror.
When the march eventually ended around 14th and Constitution, our day of Renaissance and demonstration was not over. Reminders would continue to litter the rest of our time until we parted company with Jamila. They were reminders that we need to be ready to face a world that is not as profoundly peaceful as our march. It was impossible to leave the demonstration when one is dressed up like he's from the 16th century, is carrying a peace sign, and is with a friend in a pink boa with her own very tall and provocative sign. So, the further we went from the march, the more we became obvious to locals on the street. Many of the locals pointed to us approvingly and gave us words of encouragement, and some simply made fun of us. In any event, after we had a nice dinner at a Salvadoran restaurant not far from Jamila's home, we decided to walk back. A group of loud marines drove by in a truck. They saw us and screamed, "We're going to kill you, you motherfuckers!" Fortunately, they kept going the opposite direction from us. That's an ominous thought, for sure. I wish them all well and hope they are safe. As we continued to walk, we came across a man who was drunk. He saw our signs and seemed to give us a compliment, and then told us that he hoped we'd go to church. Then, he started telling us how Bush was only going to war in Iraq because of what the terrorists did during 9/11, and that he was right to do so, that no one should allow someone to play you for a chump. He went on about Kennedy and Reagan doing the same thing. While I raise this point warily, it might shock your stereotypes to know this man was an African American, and he was defending Bush, while holding an open container and wreaking of alcohol. Loree tried to speak several times, but he kept saying he wasn't finished. So, he continued his ignorant argument that this was to get back for 9/11, as if war in Iraq was really about the terrorist attack. In any event, he was not someone you could talk to, and despite Loree's best efforts to challenge his premises, he finally finished and wandered off into the night. You learn from events like these that not everyone is so happy that you are out there speaking out on behalf of peace, that some people are downright angry with you, and that others are willing to express it to you in sometimes threatening and violent ways. Let's hope those marines aren't serious about killing peace protesters, although I doubt they were.
Soon after, we parted ways with Jamila, though not for long. Tomorrow evening there is a candlelight vigil at the Lincoln Memorial, and we are all meeting there to have a solemn night of peace--yet another new way to experience the power of the peace movement. Peter, Paul, and Mary will be playing, and it should prove to be something worthy of a narrative. While I do not plan one, you never know if it will be worthy of an addendum or not. However, besides the idea of the vigil itself, I am most looking forward to the peace I get being with Loree and being with friends who mean something to me. Candles and quiet won't bring peace, but when you have candles, quiet, and loved ones, peace is alive and well.
I began this narrative, I mentioned that my mother considered herself a
Renaissance woman, who has many particular talents but has trouble focusing
on one particular thing. Well, I am a Renaissance man, and in an
age that doesn't bode well for people who are complicated and who stretch
in many different directions, the world seems ripe for a change, ripe to
have its fruit swept from the tree and blown by the wind into many different
pastures. The question that matters in this time when rebirth is
happening is whether I and others are ready for it. When the dark
angel of death has its eyes fixed where it doesn't belong, we have to be
ready for anything. The winds that are changing me in positive ways
are also the winds that seem to be destroying so many others. Can
we prepare ourselves for it? Perhaps, but like so many things, the
answer is blowing in the wind.