March on Washington, September 24, 2005
They came walking up in all sizes, a citizen’s army not ranked yet by height, an army of both sexes in numbers almost equal, and of all ages, although most were young. —Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night
We pulled into the parking lot at 5:50 a.m. and knew we were in the right place by the improbable clutch of people huddled together in the predawn darkness. Both sexes in almost equal numbers, with their Whole Foods bags and backpacks, but most were decidedly not young. A couple who drove all the way from Massachusetts the day before. A high school social studies teacher and his artist wife, homemade signs in tow. A New York City transit worker wearing a TWU Local 100 baseball cap. Another couple, in their sixties, with matching shirts that announced “Don’t Blame Me – I Didn’t Vote for That Idiot.”
A bus arrived as daybreak limned the clouds and we trundled aboard. The trip was organized by a retired schoolteacher who pulled $1800 from her savings to charter the bus. She posted it on the United for Peace and Justice website and then crossed her fingers that she wouldn’t end up as its sole passenger. Within two weeks she received enough inquiries to fill it three times over.
After four hours on the bus and a crowded Metro ride, we finally arrived at the Washington Monument and beneath it, Camp Casey. Tiny wooden crosses stretched across a wide swath of lawn leading to the campsite’s tent, as well as a memorial of empty combat boots. A barrel-chested man stood on the edge of the cemetery, surveying it in silence. An American flag emblazoned with corporate logos instead of stars hung across his shoulder.
The tent itself was adorned with portraits of the dead, including a large painting of Casey Sheehan. There was something almost transcendent about such a serendipitous encounter with the icons that revitalized the peace movement. People were drawn into the tent just to be there.
Outside, the scattered crowd lingered with uncertainty about what the next step should be. They didn’t seem to know when or where the speeches were being given or even which direction the march would be taking. Then, without an announcement or signal of any kind, groups began to coalesce on the street in perfect parade formation.
And then we waited. An utterly stoned folkie in a Toby Keith cowboy hat strummed and droned, “I hate war / I hate war / I hate war…” A Muslim couple huddled close, the woman veiled in black with a pink breast cancer ribbon, the man in shorts and sandals. Suburban women who could have been carrying Macys bags instead of picket signs. Teenage lesbians holding hands and identically dressed in their “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” tee-shirts. Veterans, disabled and otherwise, exercising their moral authority to make the most irrefutable arguments against the war. Social variables that could have been a source of rancorous divisions were melded into a sense of community powered by a single, overriding passion.
Two hours passed. More and more protesters showed up until the streets became dangerously congested. It started to drizzle. And then, again without warning, the crowd rippled, loosened and sluiced forward. We were off, massive and unstoppable, forging up Constitution Avenue toward 15th Street on our way to the White House.
Drums and tambourines, dancing and singing erupted all around us. Groups chanted merry taunts like “Bush / You liar / We’ll set your ass / On fire.” A sax-and-drum ensemble played sinuous lines of bluesy, heart-tugging melodies. Code Pink’s giant peace symbol made of pink balloons. The march became a carnival, an exultation of freedom in the face of the grimmest death mask the country has ever confronted. Because of what Cindy Sheehan had started, it felt as if something were actually possible. For one delirious moment, the monsters were on the run.
As the crowd turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, a teenager climbed atop a stanchion to take a photo. “Holy crap!” he blurted out when he saw the masses still trailing us on 15th Street, “There’s a hell of a lot of people here!” We were groundlings lost in an event much bigger than we could imagine. The next day we read the crowd estimates – 300,000 from the organizers, undisputed by the police. Unless you were aboard one of the helicopters incessantly buzzing overhead, there was no way to grasp the enormity of the numbers.
On the Metro ride back to our bus, a tall, scruffy young man caught our attention in the swirl of the crowd. Two Latin words were tattooed across his forearms: on his left was veritas – truth – and on his right was aequitas – justice. Twin human yearnings as indelible as the blue-black ink embedded in his skin cells. They’re also abstractions, eternally residing outside the stream of our own lives.
Earlier in the day, a 70 year old grandmother in a “Make Levees, Not War” tee-shirt, lamented, “The last time I marched in Washington was for the E.R.A. I hope I have better luck this time.”
Maybe our march to stop this stupid and ugly war was also in vain. But by connecting with an ideal beyond the span of our personal lives, we countered some of our helplessness in the face of monolithic power. Was it an act of faith or defiance to charter a 50-seat bus and then hope for the best? Or for an anguished mother to set off one day to have a simple question answered? Individuals who harnessed the power of one. Multiplied by tens or hundreds or thousands, that power can become a cascade of atoms endlessly slamming into one another to create unforeseen consequences, unpredictable futures.
MARGARET MICCHELLI is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.