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November 4, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 44
Nov. 6: I’m not marching anymore
By Phil Tracy
Well, it’s that time of year again. Crank up the old march machine, it’s time for our annual assault on Central Park and the pigeons. Stop the traffic, halt the buses, knock off playing frisbee in the Sheep Meadow, and get those goddamn bicycles out of the way — we’ve got a war to end. “People are still being killed over there! What are you going to do about it?”
Well, next Saturday I plan to watch the football game and dedicate my entire afternoon to peace. That should have about the same effect on Richard Nixon as all of us marching up Sixth Avenue.
In fact, if we all watched next Saturday’s game as a protest against the war it just might shake him up. Think of the poor bastard’s dilemma. He likes watching football just as much as the rest of us, but how can a President participate in a peace demonstration?
In a word, I have had it with peace marches. From everything one can gather, so have a good many other people. For the first time in memory the professional march organizers are putting out leaflets telling people why it’s so important to get their arises out in the street. That’s a sure sign of public disinterest. So if you’re planning to skip next Saturday’s processional you can take comfort from the fact that you’re not alone in your apostasy.
Blind religious faith is probably the only accurate way to describe the thinking behind the peace marches at this point. What other logical way is there to explain why so many apparently intelligent people continue to go on, year after year, doing something that obviously doesn’t work? It’s like Indians doing a rain dance in the desert. After a while you’d think they’d catch on.
Certainly Nixon doesn’t care. If all eight million New Yorkers were to get up Saturday morning and march on Central Park, Nixon wouldn’t bat an eye. He only counts votes, and on the little tote board they must keep in the White House basement, New York has already been written off in ’72. The only pragmatic arson for marching next Saturday is physical fitness.
There was a time when mass marches had a reasonable rationale. Prior to 1968 they were an instrument to make anti-war protest legitimate, in the hope that one day a majority of the country might turn against the war. That happened in ’68 and we found out it didn’t matter. The ’69 Moratorium was designed to embarrass the government into getting out. All it proved was the government was too gauche to be embarrassed. The Kent State march was really a funeral procession and needed no justification. Last spring’s veterans march was supposed to shame them into ending it. Now we know we can’t even mortify the fuckers. So why do it again?
One explanation is that the anti-war movement in this country is simply bankrupt. Having failed to come up with any viable alternative strategy, they just keep doing the same old thing.
After all, it is kind of tough trying to outflank your enemy when Tricky Dick keeps flashing peace signs and Muskie is busy imitating Honest Abe at Gettysburg. At times it must seem the only alternatives to hoofing it up and down Sixth Avenue twice a year are the Young Democrats or the bomb brigade. For those unwilling to enter either guild, the choices are indeed sparse. You can get arrested or maybe write your congressman, but beyond such futile gestures bitter cocktail wisecracks are all you’re left to fight with.
Still, stagnation is no excuse for stupidity. If there is a bankruptcy in the anti-war movement, that does not justify the mindless repetition of a sterile gesture. I have this fantasy of Jack McCarthy turning up some day on Channel 11 greeting his viewing audience with “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to our 23rd annual ‘End the War in Vietnam’ parade. We have contingents from the 101st Airborne, the Navy, the Air Force, and our own New York’s finest. One hundred and seven high school bands will be down the thin red line this afternoon as well as 37 floats fro as far away as Ohio. The Vice President is in the reviewing stand and we’ll be getting under way just as soon as we have a word from our local sponsor…” And somewhere in between commercials I’m sitting there trying to explain to my kids just what he fuck this “peace” parade is all about.
The truth is most people who go to peace marches don’t do so because they believe in their effectiveness. Instead they blackmail themselves into attending because they don’t think they’re doing enough to end the war. And they’re not. None of us are. None of us will.
A really effective action against the war would be to stop paying taxes entirely. I don’t’ mean holding back a certain percentage and then playing games with a tax lawyer, the bank, and the IRS, but stating flat out that we’re just not going to pay one red cent until the war ends. Of course that would mean the loss of credit, no more checking account or credit cards, possibly getting fired, and perhaps even jail.
Jail is another effective strategy. If all people who have marched in peace parades were to go to jail and stay there — refuse to make bail, refuse to even leave — it would paralyze the government. Imagine the cost of feeding, housing, clothing and guarding a million people, day in and day out.
Of course it won’t happen. There is a practical limit beyond which most people won’t go and certainly will never go by themselves. Since there is no apparent way to organize such a mass civil disobedience on any sustained basis, the leaders of the anti-war movement have compromised for periodic demonstrations of mass loyalty which cost the demonstrator nothing.
Unfortunately, the compromise itself carries a very stuff price. If annually produces a predictable number of wasted cynics and frustrated zealots who wreak havoc on themselves or those around them. It gobbles up huge amounts of movement money. A good guess at what it cost to run one of these extravaganzas is $20,000. For double that figure you could buy yourself most state legislatures. Thought of that way, two peace parades could buy an abortion bill in any one of half a dozen states.
Finally it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The leaders continue to persist in an ineffective action which produces no results and hence confirms the belief that the government is unresponsive, thereby requiring even further displays of unbelief in the government by bigger and better marches. Sound insane? Well now that you mention it, yes.
A less masochistic approach might be to admit that we really don’t have the slightest idea how to end the war and all lay low for a while. Of course that would curtail an awful lot of ego trips, all the groovy press conferences and long-distance phone calls, the gorgeous feeling of putting the government up against the wall.
For the peace people, laying low would be tantamount to accepting the circumstance that most of us live with each day — being powerless pawns the government doesn’t give a shit about, no matter what we think. I would like to believe the government taps my phone. I just know better. March organizers don’t have to live with that reality.
Rather than face the facts of our collective helplessness, the march organizers continue to grind on, like monks in a monastery following a liturgy no one can completely diving any longer. They do it for themselves as much as anybody. The marchers, the mass, come almost instinctively, hoping to expunge their guilt for being citizens of a country involved in an atrocity. They don’t believe it will end the war, and it certainly doesn’t salve the conscience since they’ll be back next year.
In any case, the marches are beginning to look more like a religious ceremony than a political act. And when it comes to praying I personally prefer making novenas. At least the Franciscans know better than to hold their services on Saturday afternoon during the football season.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 11, 2011