Last Saturday September 15th I went to an anti-war protest in Washington D.C. I went with a group of people from the Common Ground Collective, based out of New Orleans. I was assigned the task of writing about the event.
The organizers of the event (the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition) say that there were around 100,000 people present. The Associated Press says "several thousand". I feel as if I can only speak in integrity by writing about the experience as one individual, myself, who was also a part of a group, and was also joined in common cause with thousands of others.
First, let me say a bit about the context of the event. This context was certainly hanging over me the entire time, and perhaps it was also for many others there as well. This protest took place immediately after the commander of the U.S. military forces in Iraq, General Petraeus, presented a report to Congress about the status of the war in Iraq. Simultaneous with that are continuing stories and reports of increasing social deterioration and violent tensions. These come both from within Iraq, between the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Iraqi & U.S. governments, various different militias, terrorist, and insurgent groups, and other forces there, and outside of Iraq, within Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries. In the U.S. there is growing discontent around this war, with public support for the war falling, soldiers being sent out on far more tours than expected, and troops returning back to the U.S. injured or maimed at an unprecedented rate. Looming over all of this is the impending possibility of a new U.S. war with Iran, which could very easily set off a much larger pan-regional war across the Middle East.
Put together, this context lead me to see this event as potentially a turning-point of some sort. At the very least, it was a highly symbolic social experience, very much charged with meaning. This event meant a lot of different things to different people. I can only speak to what it meant for me, and guess at what is was for others.
The event officially began at noon, although myself and many others were there hours before, setting up and watching the population density increase. The pre-noon period was primarily an introduction to the rules and regulations of the area. No tables were allowed, no boxes allowed, no tying ropes around trees to hang things, no selling t-shirts or CDs, proper identification and screening required before entering the stage-area. People were also informed of the potential consequences of getting arrested at the nonviolence civil disobedience, "die-in", planned for later on that day. The crowd gathered at Lafayette Park, near the White House, and the arrangement of each group's display was carefully scrutinized by the proper authorities.
At noon, the protest began in full, with different family members of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan starting things off. Parents, children, spouses, and siblings, of different ages, races, hometowns. One-by-one they introduced themselves and their loved ones. Most people spoke in the monotone of fear, of addressing a crowd of strangers. But some people, they visibly had a point to make. These people added a something extra. They looked at the crowd, they paused, they had emotion in their voice. Be it sadness or anger, they wanted their loved one to be seen. That was why they were there. They wanted it to mean something.
After the family members introduced themselves, there was a long series of short speeches that took place on that stage in Lafayette Park. One person that stands out to me is this eight-year-old girl poet who spoke at about 1pm. She gave some political rants and recited some poetry that she wrote. The content of what she said did not stand out to me, most of the anti-war sentiment at this gathering seemed pretty similar and familiar to me. What stood out with this eight-year-old girl is that she had passion, that she cared. She believed in something and she was speaking about it. People all over the crowd were remarking about her.
At about 2pm a new element was visibly introduced to the gathering. A man got onto the stage and thanked the crowd for being there. He said that this was an unplanned speech, that he was moved to talk because he was so touched to see all these people there for their beliefs. He said that he personally has a bit of a different background - "I am an insurgent."
Immediately a scuffle broke out on the stage, as the organizers forced him away from the microphone, turning it off, and tried to drag him off-stage. The crowd protested, a chant arose: "Free speech, free speech!"
Begrudgingly, the organizers let him back on. The crowd cheered. He then spoke: "Now, we all agree that war is bad. But sometimes, that bad is our country's best defense."
Immediately a "boo" broke out from the crowd and the organizers took the guy off the stage.
The speeches continued as planned. Ralph Nader spoke, looking worn-down, yet earnest. Malik Rahim, a co-founder of Common Ground, spoke, elaborating on the diverse history of people "standing up" on that day of September 15th. At one point a fiery reverend spoke, referring to the corporate domination of mainstream media and the participatory nature of venues like You Tube, said "The revolution will not be televised, but it will be up-loaded!"
Eventually, a feeling of restlessness set through the crowd. A few people started chanting "enough talk, let's walk!" One of the organizers assured the crowd, "just a few more speeches left", the crowd acquiesced, and things went about as planned.
We marched past the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue, to the Capitol Building's south lawn. At the permanent tent encampment for peace, which has been going on consecutively now for decades outside the White House, the guy staffing the tent was openly weeping. And so we marched, law enforcement on either side, a river of people flowing down the street. All manner of signs, banners, t-shirts, flowing in-and-out of each-other, changing configuration. Some were clever, some were funny, some thought-provoking. Others were pre-fabricated, uniform, and totally expected. Others were insulting. Some put the horrors of war right in everyone's faces.
We were all moving along a tossing, turning sea of messages and content. We were all generally there "to make a statement", and statements were there, everywhere, all around.
Closer to the Capitol Building, our eight-lane-wide river met with a current coming from another direction. These were the counter-protesters. We first met them as we walked by them on the side of the road, with metal or concrete barriers and police between us. They stood there, cold hardened faces, scowls, signs, chants. Some shouted insults at us, others prominently displayed their messages to us, some simply stood there, empty-handed, arms folded, glaring.
The dynamics of the march changed when confronted with the counter-protesters. What was once a steady-moving stream became a much much slower-moving clump around the areas where the counter-protesters were. Particularly the outspoken ones. Inside these clumps people were screaming at each-other, the content of which existed somewhere between debate-points and slurs. People didn't really go into it there, though, it was mainly just a series of conversational hit-and-runs.
On the lawns of the Capitol Building there was a massive act of nonviolent civil disobedience, a "die-in". This consisted of hundreds (some say thousands) of people lying down on the grass or the steps of the Capitol Building when one of the organizers sounded a siren. I believe that this is supposed to symbolize the enormous number of deaths that happen in Iraq everyday because of this war. It was kind of a life-sized visual representation of tragedy. The effect was a bit scattered, however, because not everyone wanted to lay down, out of fear of arrest.
No one was arrested for that act, so a new strategy was pursued. An anti-war message was to be hand-delivered to Congress. This would involve crossing the police line set up around the parameter of the building, and climbing up the massive number of stairs. What happened was that immediately upon crossing the police line, one was arrested, and then escorted in police custody up the massive number of stairs to be detained.
197 people were arrested crossing this line, usually one-by-one. Most people surrendered peacefully, others resisted. One guy was pepper-sprayed by the cops during this process. By and large it was a very solemn affair, lasting a number of hours, seeing people one-by-one being escorted up the massive stairs, high above us, for all the see. This kind of set the tone for the rest of the day - a kind of highly-visible perpetual sacrifice to the gods.
I wandered about through the gathered crowd. People were alternating between different chants, themes of pro-peace/anti-war, anti-cops/pro-good intentions. I was looking for something of interest to me, and I found it.
The counter-protesters had gone beyond the police barriers that were separating us from them, and a fight had broken out. There was yelling, chaos, and the police had swarmed in and arrested some people.
From what I gathered through talking with people there, apparently it started around an anti-war protester man who travels with a coffin that has an American flag draped over it. This is in honor of his son who was killed in Iraq. There was some kind of confrontation around this guy and the counter-protesters that were near him. Things got heated, and someone (it is unclear who) kicked the coffin. Upon seeing this, one of the counter-protesters lunged and beat the crap out of someone, and the fight began.
"Yeah, you peace people are all so god-damn peaceful!" a woman shouted at me as I approached the scene. To be honest, there was not that much that I could make of that situation while there, aside from raw emotion. Anger, rage, fear, panic, curiosity - all was on display on people's faces and in people's voices.
I continued walking around. I found another confrontation between protesters and counter-protesters. This exchange I found to be the most interesting, because it was the closest thing that I saw that resembled a public group conversation in that whole event. What it was was mainly a shouting matching, at times a shoving match, between mostly men. At one point a woman came in chanting something about how Bush & Cheney were damned by God.
What I liked about that situation is that strangers were there gathered in a circle, protesters & counter-protesters mixed together, people talking and responding to each-other. Things weren't just one-way anymore.
The way that this conversation was carried out, however, was entirely unproductive. This sentiment was voiced by a crew-cut soon-to-be-a-Marine counter-protester who got into the middle of the circle and shouted: "Look! Look! If we all had met each-other in a bar, we would have been able to fuckin' talk to each-other! But because we are out here, with these fuckin' lines between us, we fuckin' hate each-other!"
People continued yelling at each-other. I decided to approach people one-on-one. I asked a reporter there if she had seen any interactions between protesters and counter-protesters that day where people were actually listening to each-other and understanding each-other. She said "no".
I asked a counter-protester dude why he was there. He gave me a bunch of jargon in return. I cut through the jargon. The crux of what he seemed to be saying hinged around how he and other Vietnam vets were spat on and disrespected upon returning home from war long ago. He said that he is there to make sure that returning soldiers are greeted with a "welcome home" kind of attitude, so that the past is not repeated.
Now, it is debated about whether soldiers were actually spat upon returning from Vietnam. Some say that that only happened in a movie. That is beside the point, for what I see that guy as saying is that returning soldiers are people who have just returned from a sustained life-threatening situation, that they have just gone through any number of different traumas & intensities, and that they can really use some respect, care, support, and help re-integrating back into a place that they call "home". "Some of us have been carrying around this pain for over 30 years. And here we are", he said.
I approached the counter-protester who made the comment previously about the "lines between us". I asked him to elaborate. He gave me patriotic jargon (Jargon-speech seems to be the default mode that people are in at these kinds of events). That wasn't what I wanted to be talking about, so I re-framed my question: "How do you think we can have better conversations among the different sides here, so that we can actually listen to each-other?" "Well," he said, "the first step is to get rid of all these signs. They get us all into a one-track mind."
I have my own thoughts on the situation. For me, it is imperative to find practical ways to have peace between people & groups in the public sphere. "Peace" being a way of relating that is the opposite of "war". At this event, I saw first-hand how social disintegration happens: People put themselves into different camps, and separate from each-other. People talk at each-other, and don't listen to each-other. Because they're not being heard by the other side, they lose hope in that being possible, and start insulting each-other. People then test each-other's boundaries, and push up against them. Someone then perceives some action as being an assault, and then retaliates in kind. A fight then begins, the aftermath of which leaves a lingering resentment-filled residue. This is carried over into future interactions, an element that sets the tone from the very beginning.
This is why I also see it as being imperative to find ways to support emotional healing and recovery from trauma. At the protest I saw Vietnam & Iraq war vets alike on both sides, protester & counter-protester. Both having gone through the same kind of brutalization, both there for the same reason - "Never Again!" This kind of screaming out for relief, while pointing to some really important needs, can create a frame of mind that is not conducive to everybody's needs being considered.
So much of what I saw at that protest was people trying to find ways to speak & be heard, and trying to find acknowledgment for the pain that they and/or others are in. What else is trying to send a message to congress and getting arrested in the process, trying to grab the microphone and being forced off-stage, carrying around blown-up pictures of victims of torture and bombings, shouting back-and-forth between complete strangers, introducing your loved one to everybody, along with the day that they died? So much, people want to be seen, want to be heard, want to be acknowledged - that here we are - we are doing things, we are feeling pain, and that this all matters.
The tragedy of that protest environment is that so much of that was said by so many people so intensely, all at once, that the meaning often got lost among the clatter.
I do not claim to have all of the answers, this is why I see public conversations as being important. I have faith in what people can accomplish together, if they really put their hearts & minds into it. This includes a peaceful & respectful way out of the mess in Iraq, and the Middle East.
But how do we get to that point of "together"-ness? We can start by having honest conversations with each-other where we gather. A different kind of conversation. Conversations where we try to cut past the jargon, and get to what is really important to us. This can be done at protests.
Especially protests. Protests are places where people get together because they are passionate about something, because they believe in something, because they feel something. And this something affects us all, so why not talk about it?
This kind of public conversation can be set up pretty easily. All that is needed are clearly marked spaces for people to gather to talk, a few people who are conscious about preserving the intentionality of the conversation, and skilled facilitators who can help guide the conversation towards personal meaning and away from ideological trappings.
The public talking together candidly in public about public issues - this is where grassroots democracy begins.