The signs were good. Really good. Almost good enough, in some cases, to make you forget about the bitter, 24-degree cold that turned feet and hands into aching blocks of ice and froze the ink in pens.
The signs were folded and wedged between people on the bulging Metro trains that carried protesters from the suburbs into Washington, DC all morning. They popped up by the score from the swirling sea of humanity that filled the Mall four city blocks, from the Reflecting Pool in front of the Capitol halfway to the Washington Monument. They floated over the mile-long column that flowed down Pennsylvania Avenue, turned right on 8th and right again at Virginia to the Navy Yard.
And they were funny. They ranged from the Onionesque ("Drunk Frat Boy Drives Country Into Ditch, Starts War to Cover Up") to the slyly blasphemous ("Who Would Jesus Bomb?") to the exasperated ("Who Elected This Fucker?").
Another played the pop culture angle: "Frodo Failed! Bush Has The Ring!" Among the standard-issue "No Blood for Oil" signs were placards revealing the reach of this movement to stop a military juggernaut before it reaches Iraq ("Montanans for Peace," "Vermonters for Peace"). A host of them reflected the unofficial social justice theme of this event ("Drop Tuition, Not Bombs," "Liberate Health Care, Not Iraq").
And it wasn't just signs. Half the protesters, it seemed, had camcorders trained on some riveting thing at all times -- a ghoulish Nixon tossing a bloody globe, or oversized Bush and Cheney masks on two slouching gray-suited hippies.But even distracted by witty slogans and pressed in on all sides by the mass body heat of the throng as one speaker after another took to the PA system, it was impossible to forget the cold.
Which might have been why the question heard most often in the crowd was, "Do they have a count yet?" When you’re suffering, you at least want to know you’re making a difference.
No one knows for sure how many protesters were there; the National Park Service, which used to count crowds on the Mall, got out of that business after its estimate put the Million Man March at more like 400,000, prompting Louis Farrakhan to threaten a lawsuit. Nevertheless, at 11:45 a.m. a rally organizer exulted into the microphone that half the buses still had not arrived. (The buses were legion; according to one union member, New York's SEIU local 1199 alone was planning on bringing 27 buses.)
By noon organizers were estimating 200,000, based on guesses that the October march here drew 100,000 and that this one was twice as big. Tony Murphy, a spokesman for ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), said he'd heard someone estimate a half million -- "and no one was contradicting them."
More than 40 scheduled speakers took turns at the microphone. "It's not about peace, democracy and justice," declared former Labour Party MP Tony Benn. "It's about oil, and it will benefit the arms manufacturers who have benefited from so much misery for so long."
"We are here," said actress Jessica Lange, "making sure that our legacy to the next generation is not shame and greed and bloodshed."
"The war makes no sense," intoned Michigan Congressman John Conyers. "Its costs would be horrendous in lost lives, in an inflamed Middle East, in increased terrorism in our cities, in billions of dollars desperately needed here at home."
In keeping with the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday, it didn't take long for a strong social justice message to emerge from the podium. Rev. Jesse Jackson exhorted the crowd to "choose minds over missiles and negotiation over confrontation." Michael Letwin of NYC Labor Against the War started his speech by invoking the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial at the other end of the Mall, most of whom were working class young men. "Today the chicken hawks who didn't go to that war because they were wealthy enough to get out of it want to send us to war again!" he blared into the mic to spontaneous cheers.
"The poor and the homeless people are in need of some homeland security here in our own country," hollered Cheri Honkala of Pennsylvania's Kensington Welfare Rights Organization as the crowd erupted into applause.
"One-point-five million New Yorkers have to go to the food pantry for food to feed their families," said the International Action Center's Brian Becker. "We want the 200 billion dollars that's designed for war!"
About the time Patti Smith came on and started playing "People Have the Power," the crowd was starting to break up and head down Pennsylvania, where U.S. Capitol Police on parked motorcycles lined the route in some places and guys in S.W.A.T. gear stood stationed every so often to keep the marchers on the street.
For the most part, though, the police stayed out of the way. Only once was there real tension between cops and protesters, and that was on a stretch of 8th Street, close to the Navy Yard. A group of counter-protesters was enjoying a spacious and protected segment of sidewalk behind yellow tape and a line of cops, from where they shouted at protesters to "Get a job" and "Go home, hippie," etc. The cops started herding the marchers much more aggressively at that point; the lights came on, the sirens wailed, and people started getting very nervous.
Ultimately nothing came of it. The column turned down Virginia and continued to some vaguely defined place, and at that point things more or less broke apart. ANSWER had been denied a permit for a PA system, a last-minute glitch that effectively dismantled the plan to conduct a symbolic People's Inspection for weapons at the Navy Yard. With no loudspeaker to rally around, people more or less milled about for a while, then just drifted away to find their buses or to stand in block-long lines to get on the Metro. By then it was well after 4pm, and many of the protesters had been out in the sub-freezing weather for five or six hours.
And that's how it ended. A few streets away the buses idled, jammed two and three abreast on the streets in a hopeless gridlock, while protesters stood in groups and tried to figure out where their own buses were. The fumes from the diesel engines were suffocatingly thick. And the "No Blood for Oil" signs paraded up the steps of the buses and rested against the windows, ready to go home.
Traci Rae Hukill is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.