Our time is one of cynicism. With the wake of postmodernism despairing even the assurance that what we experience is real, a middle-class apathy toward social problems has driven organized dissent to the hands of aging hippies and radical young extremists. With a generally high standard of suburban living isolated from the bitter and dismal experience of America’s underclass by lines physical, societal, and mental, the suffering of millions domestic and abroad goes under the radar. Conglomerate media sources focus mass attention on issues that purvey fear, steering mass opinion with the sharp stick of terror instead of addressing the deep social wrongs that let these injustices exist in the first place. Even those who are lucid enough to see that the government is a disorganized regime of disinformation generally relegate their “fightin’ words” to discussions over Starbucks coffee. Even in art, a sense of unfocused rage usually degenerates into an incoherent, self-pitying catharsis. It is a world of irony and apathy, where war and suffering is inevitable.
Or so I thought.
On Tuesday, Jan. 14, I heard about buses going to an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. Being a whimsical sort of guy, I immediately called Peace Action Maine, the group organizing the transportation and asked for a seat. I was surprised to be put on a waiting list, but then again their Website said they were chartering only two buses. Imagine the surprise when I, moved off the waiting list on Thursday thinking someone had decided to turn back, saw four buses arriving at Marginal Way in Portland. And they didn’t stop there. Later I would find out that at least eleven buses came down from Maine. And this didn’t account for the people who decided to drive, of whom I met at least a dozen. This much of a draw, just from Maine? Now I was getting excited. But this had hardly prepared me for what was to come.
After the ten-hour drive, I stumbled off the bus laden with a bag full of food, cameras, extra clothing, and emergency protest supplies (megaphone and gasmask). It was only eight in the morning, but already a huge crowd was amassing for the 11 a.m. rally. Most of the buses from Maine had arrived, as well as some from Vermont and New Jersey. In the still blue of the morning, a huge potential of energy hung in the air. A few people were out marching with signs, a massive P.A. system was being prepared, and vanloads of police were setting up to patrol the perimeter. Busloads of people continued to pour in and I reunited with four USM friends of mine who were on a different bus for the journey. We cheered for the video cameras, had a group hug, pulled out our anti-war signs, and got our legs moving.
It was bitter cold but, having layered clothes, being from Maine, and getting energized by the goodwill in the air, it was negligible. I’d only been to D.C. once before to do the tourist walk, so being here with a sense of purpose was strange and exciting. I walked with USM. sophomore Asher Platts with his sign, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” which prompted amused response from protesters, joggers, and police officers. Later, we circulated senior Andy Goodman’s image of George Bush with a Hitler-esque mustache, the backdrop a swastika-emblazoned American flag, “A Vision of the Future?” This image made it into the hands of an audacious Vermonter with a huge “FUCK YOU BUSH” sign who was interviewed by ABC. Andy Goodman, we may have made you famous.
By the time the rally started, it was nigh impossible to move around on the Mall. Fences that had blocked off grassy areas closed for construction (to keep the homeless off the heat vents) had to be removed to fit the crowd stretching out from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument. And yet buses continued to pour in. Texas, New York, Minnesota. The energy of the crowd began to ignite. Cheers from deep within the soul began to resonate in response to speakers’ anti-war, anti-hatred, anti-racist speeches. The cold was gone.
The march started at 1:30 p.m. as first a lurch, a crawl, but soon it became a tidal wave of movement. It is impossible to reproduce in words the energy of that march. I can only continue to relate it to something monumentous, like an unbridled force of nature. Imagine an unending lightning bolt, a tsunami, a hurricane, an unleashed dam. The energy came from the soul, from a deep part of the human identity that reaches beyond rhetoric, culture, and walk of life. The crowd was not a homogenous group of hippies. It was a truly a walk of all humanity. Men, women, children. Veterans, the disabled, and those in the prime of life. Homeless, hippies, housewives, high school and college students, white collar, blue collar. Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist. Black, white, yellow, red–whatever color you like. A woman in the crowd joked to me, “The only demographic not represented here are the claustrophobics.” That very well may be.
The opposition was swamped in this oncoming wave. A group of businesspeople at the Republican National Committee at 600 Pennsylvania Ave. held out a sign that said “Hippies go home” and passed around a bottle of champagne. We screamed out the defiant cry, “We are home.”
An hour into the walk we realized we were very near the front: the end of the crowd was just leaving the Mall. Yet as far as I could see ahead there were people shoulder to shoulder, walking in the street. A rhythm echoed through the crowd, spurred by groups beating drums and others initiating chants: “We the people shall never be defeated” and “This is what democracy looks like.” A girl behind me sang to herself, “you can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb the world to peace,” until it caught on and all of us sang along with her. A Muslim daughter, on her father’s shoulders, chanted with us: “NO BLOOD FOR OIL.” The police, though they lined the streets, were armed with no clubs, no riot gear. It was as if they realized that no weapons, no shields could stop this. And they weren’t necessary. There was no violence and nothing but peaceful confrontation between protesters and the handful of anti-protesters.
When it was all through, when hours had passed, and I was back on the bus and rumbling along back on the long road to Maine, the experience continued to echo in my mind. My body was tired past exhaustion–a night of no sleep, followed by a day walking for miles, encumbered and in the cold–yet still energized. No number counts, no photographs can account for the power of the humanity I felt that day. In a world where it is all too easy to become depressed, frustrated, and apathetic, a cry rose up in a resonance to the clouds that no one, whatever their face, could ignore. People who might on any other day quibble over issues, disagree on politics, or avoid the other because of skin color, united for a cry that was echoed across the world so that the heavens could hear the yearning of her children: peace.
May our leaders, who were not around that day, feel the tremors in the soil.
Fred Greenhalgh can be contacted at [email protected]