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October 3, 2005

March on Washington: But Who is Listening?

Ailíse McMahon

      On Saturday September 24 2005, several hundred thousand people gathered in Washington DC to protest America's war in Iraq. At 12.30pm they set off down Constitution Ave, marched past the Ellipse, around the White House, down Pennsylvania Ave towards the United States Capitol and back down Constitution Ave. Thousands of protestors joined the march throughout the afternoon and there was a large collection of people in front of the White House at all times.

      Most protestors held up posters, some witty and some powerful: 'Practice Safe Politics: Abstain from Bush and Dick' and 'I didn't raise my child to kill another mother's child'. One asked Bush to 'Send the Twins to Iraq'. Others were blunt: 'Worst President Ever'. Another read 'One Gate took Nixon down, how many will it take to bring down Bush? Iraq, Katrina,       ?' and another: 'The Only Bush I Trust is My Own'.

      About 60 people marched with massive cardboard cutouts held in front of their bodies. The cutouts were of warped corpse ghosts that danced to the beat of numerous drums. Every ten minutes the drums beats would slay them like bullets and the dancers would fall on the ground. Then the drums would raise them up again. There was a field of small white crosses and a dozen pairs of army boots that soldiers had died in. Full sized coffins draped in American flags weaved though the crowds and pictures of dead American soldiers were strung across the streets. There was a notable absence of tallies and photos of dead Iraqis.

      A man wore a Bill Clinton mask and a pink tweed ladies suit and he held up a campaign poster that read: 'Bill Clinton for First Lady'. A large woman wept hopelessly as the protestors passed by her. A young man played a harmonica softly as he walked along the sidewalk against the current of the march. Grandmothers danced barefoot outside the White House. Multi coloured young people climbed trees, traffic lights and stone pillars. McDonald's avoided the possibility of confrontation at its 17th St restaurant by shutting down for both Saturday and Sunday. Subway, however, remained open.

      War veterans were stopped by fellow Americans who took photos of their 'Veterans Against the War' banner while others grabbed their arms and screamed 'Thank You! THANK YOU!' Most were veterans of the War in Vietnam but there were several others in their twenties who must have just been fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. People watched them as though waiting for them to fall apart.

      Small clusters of supporters of Bush had set themselves up at different points on the loop. Their counter protest was designed to enrage the liberal minded people into aggressive (and counter productive) reaction. Where they clashed, both sides lost control of themselves. Some Republicans had obvious intent: one over weight man with a buzz cut held a poster with a massive peace sign drawn on it and the word 'SUCKS' scrawled underneath. Another Republican shouted that the protesters should be true patriots and join in the war effort or they would go to hell. A Vietnam veteran sprinted straight over the person and began screaming into his face: 'YOU WEREN'T THERE! YOU HAVE NO IDEA ABOUT WAR! YOU KNOW NOTHING! NOTHING!'

      Seasoned protesters tried to hurry people past the 'Righties' but the Fundamentalist Christians angered many. These self proclaimed 'God Fearing' Christians stood behind waist high barricades and spoke into megaphones, damning the protestors. Both religious and non religious protestors reacted strongly and screaming matches over whom God would save ensued. The uselessness of these interactions was clear to me. I watched the eyes of both sides and was dumbed by the sheer belief that each person held. I wondered 'How can these people be so certain in what they are saying and yet be saying things that are so different?' The Fundamentalists pleaded with the protestors: 'You are going to hell. Repent your sins or you will spend eternity in hell.' The protesters chanted back: 'Who Would Jesus bomb? Who Would Jesus bomb?'

      The question I must ask, then, is what good does public protest and opposition do in the present American situation? This is a situation where Liberals stand at one end of the political spectrum and Conservatives stand at the other. Neither side will ever be convinced to join the other side. It is the idealist in me that seeks a way forward in such troubled times but to simply surrender all Republicans seems a bit hasty.

      True, recent polls of the American public show Bush's popularity to be at an all time low (40%, Gallup) no doubt due to the administration's handling of the Katrina crisis in New Orleans. But the fact that he was re-elected in November 2004 in the midst of a worsening war in Iraq shows that on the actual Election Day, Conservative and middle-of-the-spectrum Americans will still vote for the administration that promises to assert American dominance (or is it imperialism?). I asked a woman with a weathered face whether understanding the Republican side might be a step towards winning them over. She said, 'It's impossible to understand their thought because to understand you have to believe. And once you go over, there's no coming back.

      Anti-war protest from within America is very different from anti-war protest from without. I was in Montréal, Quebec, Canada when the American attacks on Iraq began in March 2003. Many thousands of Canadians, Americans, Arabs and people of other nationalities flooded the downtown of Montréal to try to halt the war in its early stages. Emotions were an incredible stew of shock, anger and grief and each person seemed to pass through each emotion over and over again throughout the day. The defacing of American flags was a visual representation of the global hatred for American foreign policy that would gain force over the following years. Even so, a protest against the actions of America is easier to stomach in Canada than in America. In Canada, anger can be directed in a definite direction, i.e. south. But Americans are in the unfortunate circumstance of having to direct their anger at their fellow Americans who are directing anger back at them.

      It seems to me that many protestors have adopted a disillusioned view of American politics whereby they show up to these protests with no real belief that change will come of it. It is as though after five years of fighting they have resigned themselves to waiting three more for another chance to change America. The Liberal aim is to convince the undecided Americans that a Democratic administration is better for everyone. It is these votes that decide who wins the Oval Office and I wonder what kind of Democratic image of the future will swing them away from the Republican side.

      Some people come for the spectacle of protest in the capital and the chance to wear tie dyed clothes and dance to drums. The more people the better, of course, but I did not find evidence of the deep hope that I sought. I am aware it is the 00s, not the 60s, but surely the Liberals can't have the let the man get them down?

      One woman has not. Cindy Sheehan is the mother of Casey Sheehan who was killed by Shiite insurgents on April 4th 2004. Cindy set up a campsite in a roadside ditch outside of Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas for the duration of Bush's holiday this August. She has repeatedly requested a meeting with President Bush to discuss the war in Iraq. It has been said that many parents of soldiers in Iraq support Bush because they can't bear to face the possibility that their children are risking and losing their lives for no reason. Cindy is very important, then, because she loudly claims Casey died for nothing. Obviously she does not want more parents to lose their children so she is calling for an end to the war. Many credit Cindy with rejuvenating anti-war America and hope that her work will convince uncertain Americans that Bush must leave office.

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