This was a demonstration I had to attend. The madmen running the world were in a severe state of psychosis and threatening to take us all down with them. I’d made plans to be on one of the buses going to DC a few weeks ago. Then Ariel Sharon unleashed his military assault on the people in the Occupied Territories, killing civilians left and right, trashing their homes, schools, churches, marketplaces and anything else that his “moral” army felt like trashing in the name of colonial expansion. I knew I had to go and there was nothing short of a catastrophic illness that would prevent me. So I hopped on the bus the night of April 19th.
Speaking of the Israeli invasion of Palestine. Rumors of dissension in the organizers’ ranks of one of the primary organizations putting this protest together over Israel’s actions had filtered up to us in the northern lands. Supposedly, there were those in the A20Stop the War coalition who didn’t want to condemn Israel’s death and destruction, considering this violation of every human right justified. If this was true, it meant that once again the Zionist apologists in the peace movement were attempting to convince the rest of us that any war Israel fought was not to be considered a war. How this dynamic works I have never been certain. What’s good for the USA goose is also good for the Israeli gander if you ask me. Wars of expansion are wars of expansion. Israel is the US bulldog in the Middle East, no matter what we are told about it being the other way around. Israel is immorally occupying territories with US funds and support in violation of international law. If the situation were reversed, one could be damn certain that the US would be calling for war against the Palestinian invaders. To use Washington’s reasoning, Israel’s occupation of Palestine is as illegal as Iraq’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait. Yet, of course, US bombers are not bombing Tel Aviv.
On Friday the 19th of April, I showed up at the meeting place we had been given by the Burlington AntiWar Coalition. Dozens of other folks were there, as were two chartered buses and several vans. Young and old and representing a variety of concerns ranging from peace to opposition to capitalist globalization, we talked amongst ourselves until the drivers were ready. Then we boarded our vehicles and headed into the Vermont night. Our bus stopped at three more Vermont towns to pick up another three dozen protestors before we hit the open highway. All in all, close to two hundred Vermonters traveled in this set of arranged rides. Probably another hundred or so went down in their own vehicles or on other forms of transport.
After a ten hour ride that went smoothly except for a bit of a slowdown around New York City due to road work taking place on the George Washington Bridge, we disembarked at the New Carrolton Metro stop-a mere six stops from the Federal Triangle-a point almost in the center of where the four feeder rallies were to occur. Once out of the metro, I bought a coffee or two and headed over to the Ellipse with Will Miller and few other compatriots. This was where the largest of the scheduled opening rallies was to be held. It was sponsored by the ANSWER coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism)-a loose- knit coalition of antiwar, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and Palestinian support organizations organized under the auspices of the International Action Center.
The other three rallies were organized somewhat along these lines: A20Stop the War-a coalition of peace and youth groups originally called by the Youth and Student Mobilization for Peace and Justice, the Mobilization for Global Justice-an adhoc conglomeration of groups opposed to capitalist globalization featuring many of the folks and groups involved in every anti- capitalist rally from Seattle on, and the Palestine Solidarity Coalition- exactly what it sounds like, this rally was organized by groups in support of the liberation of Palestine from the Zionist government of Israel. Somewhat secular in nature, it espoused many of the same demands as those put forth at the ANSWER rally.
Anyhow, our group arrived at the ANSWER rally on the Ellipse and made plans to meet back up later. I headed off to make my rounds of the literature tables that were springing up on the edge of the growing crowd. When I first arrived I estimated approximately 3000 people had preceded me. As I wandered around, more and more protestors streamed into the sunny green just south of the White House. Some carried signs opposing the war on Afghanistan and Colombia. Other signs called for an end to the detention of the those rounded up in the wake of 911 and in Camp Xray in Cuba. Still others had buttons spoofing the idiocy of GW Bush and the Puritan fascism of John Ashcroft. The dominant symbol of the day, however, were the Palestinian flags, stickers, and t-shirts that simply said Free Palestine. It was becoming obvious that this day was going to be one of those times when the events in the world superseded any plans the organizers may have had-the demand for a liberated Palestine was going to be the order of the day. The blatant disregard for the humanity of the Palestinians by Israel’s army in the past weeks had finally been enough. People in the United States were going to address this issue and bring it home that the occupation and its terror would no longer be ignored.
The people just kept coming. Muslim families with the women in full burqa from Islamic centers and mosques around the country, young Arab and Arab- American men and women dressed in the current style of American teenagers with the red, black, green and white Palestinian flag tied around their neck like a cape, African-Americans wearing the red, black and green of Africa on their shirt and a small Palestinian flag stuck in their headgear, Asian-Americans, Latinos, members of Jewish congregations carrying signs opposing the occupation, and lots of white folk. They just kept streaming in, occasionally breaking out in chants, with the most popular being Free, Free Palestine and End the Occupation, Now! Occasionally one heard Allah Akbar-God is Great, or a modified version of one of the standard antiwar chants. The sound came and went like waves in the steamy heat. I think I can accurately state that I have never been at an antiwar rally in this country where there were so many shades of skin tone and cultures represented.
The speeches began around 11 AM and, after a few of them, I decided to go check out the other rallies. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to hear at least some of the speakers, especially Pakistani writer and activist Tariq Ali, but because I had vowed to attend as many of the feeder rallies as possible. So I headed over to the Sylvan Theatre near the Washington Monument, which is where the rally sponsored by the A20 Stop the War Coalition was going on. As I ambled over in that direction I noticed a stage with perhaps 500 people gathered around it. This was the so-called Patriot’s rally. It was sponsored by a right-wing group calling itself the Free Republic and, from what I could hear, spent most of its time labeling the antiwar/anti-capitalist protestors “parasites” and quoting George Washington and Tom Paine in a context that gave new and most likely unintended meaning to these men’s words.
Interestingly enough, as I had moved out of hearing distance of the ANSWER rally, I heard George Washington being quoted there, too. The ANSWER speaker was referring to Washington’s warnings against the potential for tyranny by government. At day’s end, the only thing one could honestly say about this so- called Patriot’s rally was that it had the best sound system and the smallest crowd.
Walking past the lines of tourists waiting to get into the Washington Monument and the new concrete barriers all around the structure, I began to hear a reggae beat emanating from the A20 Stop the War Coalition stage. Upon reaching the rally site, I was struck immediately by two things-the smell of burning sage and the difference in the rally’s makeup. There was a much higher percentage of young people, which stood to make sense since one the original members of the coalition was a nationwide youth and student organization founded in the wake of 911 and devoted to opposing war and terrorism. In addition, there were many older pacifists in the crowd, at the tables around the edges and on the stage. This was a more traditional US peace rally-mostly white-skinned, mostly younger, and mostly middle-class. Nothing wrong with that, for sure, but a remarkable contrast to the gathering a few hundred meters away. I wandered the crowd of 20,000 or so looking for familiar faces and listening to the music for another 30 minutes. Then I headed towards the Palestine Solidarity Rally. This rally was about a mile further on near Dupont Circle, which is in the Georgetown District of DC. Unfortunately I never made it to the rally, for, as I was heading that way, I saw a march leaving from the rally site and headed towards the A20 Stop the War rally. Apparently, these two groups were to meet up there and then converge with the ANSWER rally on Pennsylvania Avenue. Assuming that since I had missed one feeder rally already and that I would probably miss the other one called by the anti-capitalist demonstrators who were in town to protest the war and the IMF/World Bank spring meetings occurring that weekend, I headed back to the ANSWER rally, hoping to catch the last few speakers.
When I got back to this rally it had more than doubled in size. There were easily 50,000 people in the Ellipse and more were still streaming in. As buses from all over the country parked and their passengers disembarked, the crowd grew larger and louder. It was pretty much impossible to hear the speakers. Too bad we couldn’t have ripped off the sound system from the right- winger’s rally across the way. From my vantage point near the southeast corner of the Ellipse, I could see both the ANSWER and the A20 Stop the War rallies. As I listened to clerics from Islamic, Jewish and Christian churches, temples and mosques express solidarity and support for Palestine and offer a prayer to the God of Abraham, I watched marchers from the anti-capitalist and Palestinian solidarity march converge with the participants of the A20 Stop the War rally. As these folks begin to line up in 14th street, the clerics held their joined hands together in a jubilant celebration of humanity’s possibilities. Then, we began to line up on 14th Street ourselves. By the time all the marches had converged near the corner of 14th and Pennsylvania, the march itself stood forty abreast and several city blocks long. The chants of Free Palestine! End the Occupation! and with calls for an end to the terrorism of the US “war on terrorism” and money for social services and rebuilding instead of war were heard throughout Washington, DC. Each corner where the march turned was guarded by police two rows deep, some on horses and some on motorcycles-all of them in full riot gear, yet with their visors back and many with smiles on their faces. It was loud, it was large and it was amazing. I had not been at a demonstration this spirited and large since one I attended in 1974 demanding Richard Nixon’s impeachment.
I stood on a small hill for ten minutes watching the parade. I never saw the beginning or the end of it while on that perch. I figured there were easily 75,000 to 100,000 participants. There were probably more, since the mainstream media and park police put in estimates of 70,000 and they are notorious for underestimating crowds of this nature. Either way, the events of this day marked a turning point in the history of the Palestinian and American peoples. Never again will the Palestinians wonder if they have friends in the United States. This march and others like it around the country have proven to them that they do. Furthermore, the tremendous diversity of philosophies- political and religious-amongst the people who participated (and those that were there in spirit) showed the world that Washington’s war on the world is not popular here either. As a young friend and organizer summed it up on the bus back to Vermont: “This was an awesome beginning to what can be an awesome movement for freedom and justice.” I say, “Let’s roll.”
Mr. Ron Jacobs is the author of “The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground” (Verso, 1997).