Flashback: DC Protest, April 2002

I came across this in an old folder and thought I’d re-post it here. The experience definitely prepared me for my experiences at the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC. All a part of the continuing radicalization of Cairril.

Dear friends and family,

For those of you who are interested, here’s a long narrative of thoughts and impressions from the protest in DC which I attended this weekend. If you’re not interested, feel free to delete. If you are, print it out and get a cup of coffee. 🙂

It’s Sunday evening and I’m still processing the events of the past few days, and still very groggy from lack of sleep, so I don’t know how coherent any of this will be.

I flew into DC Friday night, arriving about 9:30 to an almost deserted National Airport. Those of you familiar with my design rants can probably predict my cry of “Bad signage!” and attendant fist-shaking at the powers that be. But got ensconced in my unbelievably overpriced hotel room ($225/night and they didn’t even have Kleenex! I’ve stayed in Motel 6s with bigger rooms! Bless Expedia.com for getting me a deal of $70/night!) and started prowling CNN for updates.

That’s when I found out there were actually 4 different protests going on that weekend: one at the IMF/World Bank meeting, one at the White House, one pro-Palestine/anti-Israeli occupation, and one anti-war. All were converging on Saturday afternoon. Reporters were shrill and had an edge of hysteria as they described how cops were removing trash cans from the streets so those darn protesters couldn’t use them as weapons, yadda yadda. The usual drumbeat. Was appalled by images coming out of Jenin refugee camp, site of some mysterious Israeli military action, possibly a massacre. Tried to find a map of DC so I could figure out where in the heck I was going and couldn’t (they only had 7 different tourist brochures in this hotel!—none of them with a Metro map! [Cairril shakes her fist at the offending parties]).

Saturday woke early and headed down to a Metro station where, once again, there was incredibly bad signage. DC is a tourist town, you’d think they’d have signs telling you where the main touristy things are, but I think they prefer to keep as many people employed as possible working as question-answerers. Full employment! One of the guys knew a sneaky way to get to the Lincoln Memorial (my destination), so I ended up at Arlington Cemetery and walked across the bridge that spans the Potomac. Had two really direct encounters with crows as I crossed the (long) bridge. Having thus been faced by both Thought and Memory so blatantly, I worked on strengthening my shields and being ready for anything.

Thought about all things the Potomac has witnessed, thought about the Revolution, felt sure that if the armies of Washington had failed, the colonists would eventually have turned to guerilla warfare and terrorism to get the British overlords out. Wondered how much of that actually went on back then that we just don’t learn about in history class. (BTW, there was much rumination on the topic of history, so prepare yourselves. ;-))

There are these massive bronze statues at the ends of the bridge, one is “Sacrifice” and I couldn’t read the other. Traditional “heroic” statues with horses and naked people. Wonder what Ayatollah Ashcroft has to say about those when he crosses the bridge. Gifts from Italy in the ’50s. Dripping with so much ideology and propaganda and bulging muscles it’s hard to believe they were made in the same world that held Brancusi and Henry Moore. Who says the Communists had all the propaganda art?

Almost died trying to cross the streets and finally dashed over to the back side of the Memorial and saw a fox frolicking in the grass! I’ve never seen one live out in the “wilds” like that. So darn cute! It was rolling around on its back in the sun and just enjoying itself. Sat up and looked at me for a while, then went sniffling around in the shrubs. Wonder what it lives on—stray children?

Coming around the Memorial was cool—seeing all the pictures just doesn’t prepare you for the size and effect of these buildings. Walking up the plaza and towards the steps, wondered if this is the closest I’ll ever get to a Greek temple (the architecture is based on Greek temples). Ruminated on why it’s based on a Greek temple. Wondered if the sounds and impressions of all the people going up and down the stairs was what it was like at the temples in ancient Greece and Rome. I suppose those would be dustier and smell a lot worse! 🙂 The building is lovely, the lines of the steps (horizontal) perfectly complementing the lines of the columns (vertical). And there in the recesses, shadowed with gravity and deep in thought and concern, sets not Athena or Apollo, but Abraham Lincoln. One of the coolest people ever, in my book.

Read the incredibly wrenching and inspiring words of the Second Inaugural (“with malice towards none, with charity towards all”) and the Gettysburg Address. The latter is especially moving, so heartfelt and plaintive. Cried all over myself and took some pictures. Went to the gift shop (standard for shrines everywhere, neh?—whether York Minster in England or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington) and found, oddly enough, that the only postcard of the Memorial was one showing them cleaning it. How inspiring.

Onward to the protest! Or so I thought. I couldn’t actually find where I was supposed to go (“Curse you, bad signage people!”). I kept attaching myself to likely looking groups only to find they were going to the Vietnam Memorial or whatever. Finally fell in with a group of kids who looked in their late teens. They had been chanting cheerfully, but as soon as I joined them they seemed to lose steam. Sigh. Everyone was suspicious and confused by me, since I definitely had the hair and T-shirt of a protestor but was carrying an American flag. Hm. Must be a saboteur.

We trudged down to the Washington Monument and saw an “anti-protest” going on that had attracted a hundred people or so awash in the US flag. The “Second Amendment Sisters” was one group over there. “Defending” America from all the “anti-American” criticism. Why is dissent evidence of hating America? Isn’t it evidence of loving America? Wanting it to live up to its ideals and its laws? But no, lobotomies for everyone, it’s the [only] American way!

The kids I was with were getting all jumped up on adrenalin and talking about going over to tangle with the Second Amendment folks, which made me very nervous for them, but their organizer kept them in line. We arrived at the Sylvan Theatre at the foot of the Egyptian Obelisk—oops, I mean Washington Monument. [Is this the closest I’ll ever get to an Egyptian obelisk? Why did they use an Egyptian form to commemorate George Washington? What is the message being sent about empire and stability and tradition? Why was that so important to a country so young and born in rebellion? Please open your blue books and begin. You have sixty minutes to compose your essays.] I was disappointed at the size of the crowd—a few thousand people at most. It was about 11am but things were underway.

Heard a series of speakers, some really good, some not so good. Philip Berrigan was there, brother of the famous Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan who did so much good in social justice movements in the ’60s. Philip has been as active as his brother—not a good speaker but he gets extra points for walking the talk and spending over 11 years total in jail for civil disobedience.

One guy was one of the peace witnesses that have gone to the occupied territories to act as a human shield at the refugee camps. He talked about what he had seen there. One story in particular really struck me. He watched as Israelis bombarded a house with tear gas. There was a family inside and they escaped, but carrying their baby, which had been killed by the Israeli attack. The father of the family met this witness and had with him an unexploded canister of tear gas. On the side it said “Made in New Jersey.” The father said, “Take this back to your country and show them what they’re paying for.”

Then this witness had a similar experience later, only this time it was a shell from a tank. I have heard many times that Arabs and Muslims have a problem with “U.S. support for Israel,” but this story gave me a visual to understand what that means. One speaker was a 15-year-old Palestinian girl from the refugee camps and she said, “I make no distinction between Bush and Sharon. I make no distinction between the United States and Israel. It may be an Israeli soldier, but his weapon is made in America.” Is it fair? No. But it’s not difficult to see how having a shell lobbed into your living room with “compliments of the U.S.” on it is going to lead people to that kind of conclusion.

Topics ranged all across the board: the School of the Americas, the Israeli occupation, the war in Afghanistan, the targeting of immigrants, the new bizarre first-strike nuclear policy, etc etc. What was slowly becoming clear to me was that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was becoming a central theme of the protest, which is not what I signed up for. I’m against the occupation and think the only sensible solution is a safe a secure state for Israel and a safe and secure state for the Palestinians, but I’m much more concerned about the libertarian issues at stake in the US than in the Palestinian question. I may have been in the minority there. I heard nothing about the shadow government, for instance. I heard very little, oddly enough, about the war in Afghanistan. I did learn a lot more about the coup in Venezuela last week, however, and how the US undersecretary of state seems to have been involved in supporting the military takeover. Why? Because the democratically elected leader is friendly with Fidel Castro—and is looking at raising oil prices. The military leaders who headed the coup were talking about handing over the country’s oil supplies to multinationals, particularly, you guessed it, US companies. Hm. How odd. Also some discussion of Vieques, which I understand is part of Puerto Rico that is trying to get rid of American “overlordship.” I think. This was the first I’d heard of it.

There was one speaker who was actually a terrific speaker in addition to having good things to say. Everyone got really energized by her. Wish I knew who she was. Anyway, the one thing she said that I loved was, “Bush tells us that anyone who’s not with him is with the terrorists. And I say, ‘I can’t tell the difference.'” Big cheers.

Went to get some food and cruise the literature tables. The usual gamut of leftist, anarchist, and progressive causes. Even the Communists, bless their hearts. They just keep on trying. Picked up a variety of free pubs and had such a good time reading everyone’s T-shirts. I have never seen a more diverse group of causes in one place. Everybody was pushing something different: moms against guns, people for Palestinian statehood, people for socialism, people for class warfare, people against all war, people for non-violent civil disobedience, people saying unions are the answer, people against nukes, people on the SOA watch, on and on and on. Even one geeky looking Witch with “Freedom of religions means ALL religions” on her shirt. [I was wearing my black T with the ankh made up of skeletons—sort of a textured message for a crowd made up of slogans….] The usual stuff you’d find at an event like this, but more diverse. And a third or a half of the crowd was people of color, very unusual.

Read this disturbing leaflet against Israel while eating my very non-PC hot dog. That was my first taste of an undercurrent for the day—anti-Semitism masquerading as Palestinian patriotism. Made me uneasy.

In line for the bathroom I got into conversation with two older women, one from Florida, one from Maryland. It was wonderful to talk freely about our concerns and feel this instant understanding. Not the self-censorship I experience here, never knowing if the person I’m talking to is going to think my opinions too “radical” or “anti-American.” Another woman in front of us turned around at one point and joined in, and we were cruising along comfortably, talking about the bias and selective reporting in the media, when this new woman says, “Well, you just have to look at who runs these media companies—the Washington Post, the BBC, [we’re all nodding our heads, thinking “those darn capitalist pig-dogs,” when she says] they’re all Jews. What do you expect?” And there was the internal freeze and intake of breath. Her speech was heavily accented and we found out soon enough she was from Bosnia-Herzegovnia. As tactfully yet strongly as I could, I say, “I don’t think it’s so much an issue of ethnicity as it is of money.” She didn’t seem to understand what I said. She then went on some kind of diatribe that I could only catch parts of. It seemed like she was blaming Jews somehow for what the Serbs did in Bosnia. And then she says, “I lost my brother, I lost my mother, I lost my sister—in 15 days I lost my family!” She went on to talk about blood in the streets and people’s throats being cut—hard to describe what I was feeling. One of those moments when your privilege and your comfort and your utter dumb luck in living this safe, middle class life is so blatantly pointed out to you. And yet all her suffering doesn’t make her anti-Semitism okay or true. It was one of those moments that give me pause, when all my ranting and theorizing runs into someone’s actual life experience, an experience so different and horrifying from my own. One of my companions tried to engage her in dialogue further (she was a Green party member and a traditional non-violent Leftie activist), but gave up. Another indication of the diversity of the crowd.

I had decided beforehand that I was going to be wherever the noise was in the march itself, so I settled myself by the drummers and puppeteers. Also the folks from Vermont, whom I’ve long felt a kinship with (those damn Independents!). By this time the crowd had swelled by thousands and the buzz of excitement was in the air. The puppeteers I was closest to had these big papier-mache figures that I thought looked like potato people. Not sure exactly what they were supposed to represent. Also a very tall pole that had to be carried by 3 people, on the top of which was a papier-mache figure of a mother-and-child-lookin’ thing. They were practicing maneuvers and the drummers were jamming, along with AN ACCORDION PLAYER. Exactly what I would be bringing to a protest—my accordion. And of course, no march is complete without hearing “We shall overcome” played on accordion. The accordion, instrument of liberty.

The march finally got underway around 1:30 or 2. I planted myself near the “potato posse” since their vibe, message, and philosophy seemed in line with mine and they were easy to spot. They also clearly were well-trained for the event and I figured if anything “untoward” happened, I’d be in good company.

We started out well, cheerfully yelling slogans and waving signs, me waving my little American flag for all it was worth. Let’s see, we chanted the good old “The people, united, will never be defeated,” but then that changed to “The people, united, will never be divided,” which I didn’t think was nearly as cogent an idea (BTW, Rob and LC, I was keeping up a continual running commentary for you in my head). I learned a new one; “Ain’ no power like the power o’ the people, cos the power o’ the people don’ stop.” I liked it cos it had a funk to it and my god these white people need it. The tried and true “1-2-3-4, we don’t want your racist war! 5-6-7-8, no more violence, no more hate!” It felt awesome to be able to let loose and yell all this stuff after all these months of seething impotently behind a computer screen or having low-level rants in Opie’s. Every once in a while the leaders of the potato posse would turn these noisemaker thingees and they would shake the puppets and then drop them. The leaders would yell, “Stop U.S. funding” and we would all respond “of Israeli terror!” Then “U.S. out” and we’d respond “of Afghanistan!” Much wooing afterwards and banging of drums. One of the drummers looked a lot like Ingrid Bergman, so she was a good Joan of Arc figure for us to follow.

Then there was this shift in energy and things got scary. A large stream of Palestinian supporters joined our section of the march. The core of this group was a large group of Palestinian men in their early 20s or so. Lots of signs equating Sharon with Hitler, the Star of David with the swastika, that sort of thing. The shouting took on a very different tone—much more militant. The folks I’d been surrounded by, the traditional non-violent peace activist types, were replaced by these more militant folks. There was about a half-hour stretch or so where I got increasingly concerned and starting plotting escape routes. Realized just how alone I was, by myself in a strange city with no one really knowing where I was. Tension and energy was rising—you could just feel the build-up of anger and desperation feeding off itself. Soon no one else was chanting or yelling except for these folks. I felt like the march was being hijacked.

On top of that, the police presence was, shall we say, “significant.” Cops on horses, on motorcycles, on foot, in choppers circling continually overhead; cops on the street, cops on the sidewalk, cops on the rooftops. Cops with billy clubs at the ready. Surveillance cameras everywhere. Felt like I was walking into an ambush. Tried to distract myself with sightseeing of the various buildings we were passing. Amused myself by giggling at the horses’ riot gear, which included these wraparound sunglasses.

Eventually some of that militant energy seemed to dissipate, but for me the march never regained the original positive energy. It was intensely hot and very humid, and eventually rained a bit too. Really couldn’t see anything farther away than 10 feet or so on any side—not exactly a safe feeling. Visions of the civil rights marches of the ’60s and how the crowds look when the water cannons and the dogs and the cops are turned loose on them—the ones in the middle would have no warning at all. They wouldn’t even know what was going on, except the sudden press of frantic, screaming people. One difference between then and now: cell phones. Lots of people in the march talking to people on the sidelines or at home, getting updates as their allies are watching coverage on TV.

I eventually allowed myself to get drawn into holding one of the potato people and chanting along with everyone else in the potato posse. I was aware of some intense yelling going on behind me at one point, which I found out later was an altercation between some Palestinians and some Orthodox Jews on the sidelines. One cool thing was that as we were marching down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol Building, we could look up a side street and see a huge mass of people pouring down it—the IMF protestors coming to meet up with us.

We ended up at an art gallery of some sort (National Museum of Art?). Turned in my potato person and collapsed for some much-needed rest. Could hardly walk at this point. I’d never been able to find an agenda for the day or anything, so I didn’t know what was going on. I knew there was supposed to be a rally, but thought it was supposed to be at the Capitol dome itself. Had to wander around before I found the soundstage behind the museum, probably a city block away from the Dome. Settled in for the speakers. On my way, saw a sign that said “JIHAD: The only answer. Palestine for Palestinians.” Needless to say, was very disturbed by that. Not sure how these kinds of messages end up at a peace rally.

The first was Sen Barbara Lee, the only senator to vote against the congressional resolution supporting Bush’s war after Sept 11. She had a lot of good things to say, drawing connections between all these disparate causes and rooting them in concern for justice and fairness. Got big cheers for how this incessant focus on militarism takes money and attention away from domestic concerns, particularly the environment.

Some preacher got up and said a few good things, like making a distinction between criticizing Israeli colonial militarism and supporting Israel’s right to exist. Definitely a message this crowd needed to hear. Then he went on to make some completely idiotic statements about Cuba, saying it’s the world’s only true democracy and there’s no hunger, no homelessness, no unemployment, and “everyone is equal.” Except some are more equal than others.

From there the speakers went downhill. One young woman was the nadir of the whole thing for me, screeching in a shrill voice and speaking for all Palestinians, though she’s American and I doubt anyone elected her Junior Arafat. She whipped people up into an anti-Israeli fervor, ending up by saying we all had to pledge unconditional support to the Intifada because who are we to judge how Palestinians defend themselves. Really irritating. I don’t know how anyone in a post-Gandhi, post-MLK world can think that suicide bombers and armed resistance are the only options. I left early.

The one message in that second batch of speakers that hit home for me was when one guy said “what we’re protesting is the idea that the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ is the only possible future for our country.” I was wearing these stickers: “Stop the War! No police state! Another world is possible—refuse and resist!” And that summed it up for me—another world is possible. Shadow governments and racial profiling and an undefined, unending, unwinnable “war” is not the future I want for myself and for my tribe. This does not count as “leadership” in my book.

So I was disgusted and disappointed and walked over to the Capitol building, which was all blocked off in case we radical protesters decided to stampede and take over the government. Gave some change to these adorable little Mexican girls for them to throw in the fountain and make a wish. Pagan heritage everywhere. Some guy came up and asked me about my stickers and we ended up in a long conversation about the protest, the war, and what the scene was like in New York where he lives. I think I was desperate for intelligent conversation at this point. 🙂

Limped around the building to view it from all angles—again, a truly lovely piece of architecture, pretty and interesting from every angle. Some beautiful landscaping around it too. Walked by the Supreme Court and other beautiful buildings on my way to the Metro station. Wondered what a Roman centurion is doing hanging out outside the Capitol’s front door. Everywhere you look, there were depictions of Roman soldiers and Roman gods and goddesses. The Roman arch is everywhere, even in the train station. Ruminating about the message that sends. Not so much Greece (birthplace of democracy) but Rome (attendant messages of Empire). Wondering what an ancient Roman would think if you dropped her in the center of DC today. Almost 2000 years later, all roads still lead to Rome.

Went back to the hotel and got dinner and about 12 gallons of milk (I was in serious milk-deprivation mode) and settled in for the news. Not surprisingly, reporting focused on the fact that the demonstration was peaceful rather than mentioning any of the issues being raised. The anti-war demonstration was characterized as a pro-Palestinian rally, which was precisely why I thought focusing on that was a bad idea strategically. It takes all that energy, all that dissent about the “””PATRIOT””” Act and the war in Afghanistan (and pending war in Iraq) and the shadow government—serious questions about American liberty and American Empire—and turns it into concern for this essentially external issue between Israel and Palestine. Yes, U.S. support/funding of Israel is an issue, but that’s not what a lot of these folks came to talk about. So the message about our civil rights is blunted by this focus on Palestinian civil rights. Not that they shouldn’t have rights, too, but I think this plays into the Administration’s hands. Not that anyone asked me.

This morning (had to get up at 3:30 to catch my flight—augh!) linked up with a woman named Sam who had come from Dallas. Had a nice talk with her. What was interesting was how so many people, regardless of where they come from, all talked about how little organized resistance there was to what was going on. It confirmed my suspicions that as yet there has been no emergence of national leadership for resistance to the war and what I call the Empire. And that feeling of futility that so many of us have had is shared by people all over the country.

I understand estimates of the crowd were reported at 20,000—at the march itself I heard estimates between 30,000 and 110,000. My guess is about 70,000. I think it’s still early, and if we continue to see crackdowns on civil liberties and ridiculous military expansionism, that number is going to grow. [BTW, in terms of racial profiling, about 80% of the people I saw pulled aside for random security checks at the airport were people of color. If someone was a male who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, he was guaranteed to be yanked and patted down. They also pulled me over in Indy, and confiscated my water bottle as a potential weapon of terror. Or maybe they just forgot to re-pack it—angry me was determined to view it otherwise.]

As disappointed as I was by the march’s organization and especially the militant and anti-Semitic currents, I am really glad I went. It was an interesting way to see the sights, if nothing else. 😉 No, I really enjoyed going and feel like it’s one of those “building block” experiences that will lead to something else. It felt wonderful to be able to get out and do something to express my frustration with current policies, rather than just sending cranky e-mails. I feel like I was absorbing a lot of things that will come to fruition in time—I don’t even know what they all are, but I’m glad they’re there. It also gave me the opportunity to face some questions I haven’t had to face in a long time—the nature of resistance, what I would do in the face of police violence, how to associate/disassociate with people who perhaps share similar goals but definitely not the same strategies, what methods of resistance are effective, what leadership really is, etc. I think there’s a lot of value in standing up and being counted, but even if no one else counts me, I feel better having spoken out for myself.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this long ramble through my experience—thanks for listening.

– Cairril

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One Response to Flashback: DC Protest, April 2002

  1. […] my previous post about a D.C. protest I went to years ago, this is a post that just transfers something written on […]

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