Sunday, January 28, 2007

"I want dumb bombs and a smart president."

J27 march on Washington

One hundred people from the North Fork joined tens of thousands from across the country at a massive anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C. Saturday. North Fork People of Conscience coordinated the trip to the nation's capital for the march organized by United for Peace and Justice.

Click the image above to see pictures of the protest.

I signed myself and my two teenage daughters up for the trip because I just can't take it any more. The news every day of the bloodshed in Iraq, the chaos in Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of lives lost — to what end? There will be no good resolution of this mess, no "victory." (For how many years — and how many deaths — did the U.S. pursue "victory" in Vietnam?) The pointlessness of our continued occupation of Iraq seems perfectly clear to everyone but the Bush administration. Even Congress is catching on. Saturday's rally was intended to send the message to Congress that it must no longer fund Bush's war. As one speaker put it, you can't be opposed to the war and at the same time vote to fund it. Legislators are in a pickle. What happens if they refuse funding when the "surge" troops are already on the ground? Congressman Tim Bishop told me that by the time Congress votes on the funding, some of those 21,000 "surge" troops will already be over there. It's an ugly choice, but they have to make it.

We boarded two charter buses shortly after 5 a.m. on First Street in Riverhead. Gwen Schroeder and Pat Hovey of NFPOC checked everybody in on our bus, gathering cell phone numbers and providing information about where and when we'd meet up for the return trip home. It's a long ride to D.C. All the kids — I was heartened to see there was a good sized contingent of high school and college kids — slept most of the way down. We arrived at the Greenbelt Metro Station around 11 a.m. There were hundreds of charter buses in the lot and much excitement in the air. The train to the downtown Capital district was jammed.

So were the streets when we got there. And so was the National Mall, the staging area for the demonstration. The entire mall area for the length of three football fields (my rough "eyeball" estimate) was filled with people. Plus there were people scattered all around the periphery. The D.C. police, who have apparently discontinued their practice of giving official estimates of crowds, told the media "privately" that they thought fewer than 100,000 people attended. To borrow the vice president's favorite word, HOGWASH. It's unfortunate that there was no good place from which to take a good shot of the assembled masses. A couple of photographers climbed trees on the sidelines and took photos, but from where they were perched, they could shoot the crowd just in front of the stage. The masses of people jammed into the mall behind them weren't in their photos. The police or the federal government had a helicopter circling overhead the entire day. I bet they got some good crowd shots. And I bet we never get to see them.

I have a suggestion for protest organizers, if they are really interested in documenting attendance at these demonstrations. They should rent a bucket, or cherry-picker, the kind utilities use to access overhead lines. They can put a photographer/videographer up in the bucket just behind the stage and have an excellent vantage point for shooting the crowd — the whole crowd — as it assembles and marches. It's a relatively inexpensive and readily available piece of equipment to rent. And it would provide excellent documentation for refuting the typically ridiculously low official attendance estimates (private or otherwise.)

The sights and sounds at events like this are always pretty interesting. An "Uncle Sam" on stilts. People sporting "Buck Fush" t-shirts. Anarchists against the war. Republicans against the war. Veterans for Peace. Quakers. Socialists. People assembled in groups according to religious beliefs, political affiliations and sexual orientation. People hawking literature ranging advocating beliefs ranging from Christian pacifism to Communism. One guy who stood, simply, for "Free Hugs."

And signs, lots and lots of signs, with so many clever sayings and slogans. My favorite: "I want dumb bombs and a smart president."

My kids were wide-eyed, never having seen anything like this before.

We pushed as far forward toward the stage as we could get. We got to hear speeches by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jane Fonda. She said this was her first anti-war protest in 34 years. She has been reluctant to speak out against the war in Iraq, she said, because she was such a lightning rod for controversy during the Vietnam war (I had to explain to my daughters about "Hanoi Jane"). But, she told the crowd, "Silence is no longer an option." Fonda brought her daughter and two grandchildren on stage, noting that her daughter was just a baby at the last anti-war protest she attended.

My daughters had never been to Washington before, and I was determined that they should see both the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam War memorial while we were there. Both of those monuments provide rich historical context for what's going on right now in America. So we didn't stay with the march for its entire route. Instead, as marchers slowly made their way toward the Capitol, we bolted and hoofed toward the Lincoln Memorial. We stopped briefly at the Washington Monument and the World War Two Memorial, walked past a drained reflecting pool, and (not without some complaint from my teenagers) climbed the stairs of our temple of American democracy, dedicated to the memory of one of our nation's greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln. I am always moved to tears inside that space, reflecting on the immortal words of President Lincoln dedicating the battlefield at Gettysburg. Yesterday, the tears flowed more than they ever had before, with the backdrop of the protest, Iraq, the diminishment of our great nation on the world stage thanks to the failed foreign policy of the Bush administration. My kids thought I was nuts. Maybe I am. They read the words of the Gettysburg Address with me. It's familiar to them. I've read it to them and with them many times before. But they didn't share my emotion. They were more interested in how the words were carved in granite. We went to the small museum in the memorial and looked at a set of tools used by an Italian immigrant (the inscriptions were hand-carved by Italian immigrants — I allowed myself a moment of ethnic pride): a wooden mallet, four metal chisels and a pair of calipers. "No machines?" my daughter asked. Nope, all done by hand, painstakingly, perfectly. "Wow."

Yes, the Lincoln Memorial is a definite "wow" on many levels. And so is the Vietnam war memorial, with the nearly endless sea of names inscribed in marble, commemorating the 58,000+ American war dead. It is moving and a chilling reminder of how history really can repeat itself. There are so many parallels to Iraq.

We lingered at the wall, looking at the names inscribed in it, the laminated sheets depicting photos and brief bios of the soldiers "killed 40 years ago this weekend," the flowers and other memorials, including POW/MIA bracelets, placed at the foot of the wall by family, friends and comrades who have not forgotten the dead — men and women who really did die in vain, defending a failed foreign policy, fighting a war fought under false pretenses, sacrificing their lives in a war that could not be won.