The Usual Suspects—and Beyond

100,000 Flood Washington for What May Be the Biggest American Antiwar March Since Viet Nam

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s true, the longshoremen’s drill team, with its sharp black uniforms and tightly rehearsed moves, did attract attention, as did the tuneful warbling of Rochester’s Raging Grannies. And the paparazzi couldn’t help but trail Rockers Against the War, a gaggle of glam rock retro-protesters from New York City who pranced with stylish profanity in platform shoes, boas, and glitter. But Saturday’s D.C. march against war on Iraq, likely the largest antiwar protest here since the Viet Nam era, was not really an assembly of unions and community groups, of mosques, churches, and campuses—it was not a march of contingents at all. Rather, it was a sprawling mass of 100,000 individuals, families, and batches of friends who, to paraphrase Spike Lee, just got on the bus.

Even most flashes of seeming organization turned out to be spontaneous—the 50 percussionists who assembled "out of the air," according to one, and the 60 Muslim men, strangers to each other, who paused for prayer at 4:30 alongside the march route, which led from a rally near the Vietnam Memorial around the White House and back. The International ANSWER Coalition, a/k/a the International Action Center, a/k/a the Workers World Party, may have gained infamy during Gulf War I for defying a national peace coalition by calling for a separate march one week earlier, but the group yet again proved its ability to fill buses to Washington. IAC co-director Brian Becker spoke of trying to spark "a firestorm of opposition at the grass roots," and this march had that feel.


photo: Julia Xanthos
The D.C. march aimed to spark "a firestorm of opposition at the grass roots."
photo: Julia Xanthos
The D.C. march aimed to spark "a firestorm of opposition at the grass roots."

Homemade signs ruled the day, from the sarcastic ("At least we didn’t elect him") to the earnestly pissed ("Congress, killing Iraqis for votes is pathetic!") to the tabloid-inspired ("Drunk frat boy drives country into ditch, starts war to cover up"). Thirtysomething Rebecca Hergatt’s read "Sunday School Teachers Against the War." Hergatt, who traveled from what she calls the "little Republican town" of Mansfield, Ohio, said this wasn’t only her first political march, but her "first time east of Pittsburgh." She said she’s been in turmoil since September 11, plagued by a nagging sense that "we had it coming." When the president proposed a new, preemptive war, she said, "I just felt like it was immoral to keep my mouth shut." Ruth Zalph, from Carrboro, North Carolina, had never protested a war before, either—and at 72, she’s lived through a few. What brought her in on the five-hour bus ride was a sense that "if the U.S. were economically okay, there wouldn’t be a call for war," that what’s at stake is nothing less than "whether we’ll survive as a democratic nation." Polls show that 60 percent of Americans believe the country is seriously off track, and the streets of Washington vibrated with that unease.

While Zalph was struck by how young most marchers were, University of Illinois freshman Roz Ruiz, 18, who had also joined in September’s anti-IMF protest, was excited by the presence of the grandparent set. "Here the crowd is people from a lot of different political perspectives, not just leftists," she said approvingly. The crowd wasn’t as racially mixed as polls suggest antiwar sentiment is; the river of white marchers was interrupted only by scattered clumps of African Americans or Latinos, the occasional Puerto Rican or Korean group, concerned about other U.S. military adventures, and a fairly significant Arab American presence, such as a block from the Palestine AID Society of Chicago, which packed 10 buses.


photo: Julia Xanthos

Gulf War vet Charles Sheehan-Miles was one of the rally’s many not-so-usual suspects, and an opening speaker. "My father is a Viet Nam vet, my grandfather is a World War II vet, and I didn’t question when I was sent to the Gulf," he told the Voice. "But when my division wiped out a retreating Iraqi division two days after the ceasefire, it started me questioning." He says virtually every Gulf vet he’s talked to has "grave concerns," including those on active duty. A month ago he founded Veterans for Common Sense to oppose the new war drive, and got 10,000 Web hits in the first three days. More than 170 Gulf vets have already signed his statement.

Reverend Herbert Daughtry of House of the Lords Church in Brooklyn, one of the handful of clergy who addressed the rally (Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton also spoke), said that while many in the black church "oppose this mad rush to war, knowing it is our sons and daughters who will be fodder for their cannons, the churches were late to oppose Viet Nam, and we’re late today." Likewise, only slim sectors of labor have taken official positions against the war—the San Francisco, Albany, and Washington State labor councils, along with some important locals such as 1199 in New York. Yet Ray LaForest, a senior organizer with AFSCME District Council 1707 in New York and a march-bus captain, is convinced that "if the leadership were willing to take a risk, union members would come together against this war."

New York City activist Leslie Cagan, who was a national student leader of the movement against the Viet Nam War, said that her guess is ANSWER’s load-up-the-buses strategy has just scratched the surface of public dissent. She and Bill Fletcher, the former John Sweeney lieutenant who now heads TransAfrica, convened a meeting the day before the march to take, said Cagan, "the very initial steps toward bringing greater coordination and cohesion to this antiwar movement." Representatives from NOW, the National Council of Churches, Global Exchange, and a who’s who of progressive Beltway advocates were present at the launch of a new national antiwar network. "A broader effort," Cagan called it, "that could finally tap into churches, trade unions, and campuses—where we could really get the numbers."

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