Home safe and sound following my Massachusetts trip, although my arrival was a bit later than expected. A threatened storm did hit Philadelphia, where I had a connecting flight, and it forced a number of delays. Despite a scheduled arrival time of 11:45 PM Sunday, my plane finally reached Baltimore-Washington International at nearly 1:30 Monday morning. Gone was the energetic, fired-up rabble-rousing activist from hours earlier; this kid was one whipped puppy.
Hence the delay in getting this posting online. After arriving home, I fell into a deep sleep, which was much needed. I woke up early this afternoon, got reacquainted with the spouse and son, and then went out to have my protest photos developed. That mission accomplished, it’s time to share:
The trip to Boston Common was a quick one — from my hotel in Cambridge, just two stops down the T’s inbound Red Line. Ten minutes after checking out of the Marriott, I was standing in the midst of the historic Common, established in 1634, and the adjacent Public Garden. The site is one of the oldest public parks in the nation and it is the starting point of Boston’s Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile-long path that links 16 of the city’s historic landmarks. Given the Common’s lauded place among the sites playing a part in the founding of the United States, it struck me as a perfect place for a rally promoting justice, peace, and liberty for all. Well, almost: March 20 was the first day of spring and while the weather was pleasantly mild, the park still bore the imprint of its last snowfall. Some white stuff was still present in places throughout the erstwhile “trayning ground” and cattle-feeding spot, but much of the snow had melted, leaving muddy patches galore. Moving from one spot to another, therefore, was messy — my sneaker-covered feet were soaked fairly quickly — but, hey, the place has a history of being rather swamplike. And ambulating in soggy sneakers was a small price to pay for being in such a hallowed place for such a righteous purpose.
When I arrived at Boston Common, it was not quite noon, meaning there was about an hour to go until the scheduled start of Boston Mobilization’s Global Day of Peace rally. Tooling about the site, I looked for likely co-conspirators for peace. It didn’t take long for me to encounter a determined young man holding a cool handmade poster:
After striking up a conversation, my new friend and I headed off together to the rally site. The teen told me a little about his life: He was a high school senior (and antiwar progressive anarchist) from a small town outside of Boston. His parents were divorced, he said, and though his father was pretty well-to-do, he and his mother were ensconced firmly within the ranks of the working poor. He was thrilled to have earned a full scholarship to college; much of his time was spent working to help his mother, a low-paid teachers’ aide, try to make ends meet. Activism, he said, was one of his regular passions, and he appeared excited about participating in a nonpermitted take-over-the-streets march following the city-approved rally. Dang, I thought, realizing that even if I had wanted to do so, taking the risk of getting arrested for being part of an illegal march was something I couldn’t do. On any other day, I would leap at the chance, but on this day, I had a plane to catch and a family awaiting my return. Dang.
Determined to make the most of the experience, I put aside my disappointment over the march. When we reached the giant domed pavilion serving as the rally stage, we met one of the event organizers. In no time at all, we were put to work. My traveling companion was enlisted to hand uut rally fliers to people walking down nearby Tremont Street. I was asked to serve as a peacekeeper, one of a group of people wearing bright orange armbands. Our job was to walk through the rally crowds, spread positive vibes, and help keep the peace. Which was perfect: The task gave me a chance to see everything and everyone, to bond with fellow peacekeepers Ty, Cooper, and Jen (and one other really cute guy who gave me a fabulously warm hug), to bask in peacenik camaraderie, to talk with some of the presenters and performers, to buy some new message buttons, and to get some exercise. I was proud to be part of the effort.
While walking about taking notes and admiring the gaggles of geese enjoying themselves in the warm sunshine illuminating the garden, I ran into a TV host, producer, and activist with the very well-known name of Ethan Allen. How could I not say something to him?
The bearded man had a kindly face. He was all too happy to talk about his enterprise, Just P.E.A.C.E. Productions, and its progressive-themed media projects. And I was all too happy to listen. Eventually, though, I had to bring up his historic moniker.
“That’s quite an impressive family you have, Mr. Allen.”
He grinned. “Yeah, we’ve been fighting conservatives since 1776.”
I was charmed thoroughly and completely won over. Oh yes, I mused, this is going to be a great day.
Just before the rally started, after ensuring that the orange-hued band was tied securely around my right arm, I began my peacekeeper duties. Ty, leader of our merry band, instructed us to focus on the crowd and be prepared to quash — peacefully and lovingly — any simmering tension that might develop. And yes, tensions can rise at a peace rally, particularly when combative ideological opponents decide to crash the party. Thankfully, all appeared copacetic.
I joined a group of people walking around and bowing their heads before a number of flag-draped mock coffins representing the more than 1.500 US soldiers killed in the two years of Dubya Bush’s assault on Iraq. Many sights moved me on this day, but these heartbreaking coffins along with a nearby wall that boasted the names and faces of fallen soldiers, was one of the most stirring.
The goal of today’s rally was to commemorate the two-year anniversary of Bush’s “war” by calling for peace, demanding an end to the US’s illegal and immoral Iraq occupation, and pointing out just how fucked up the US government is in general. Signs proudly waved by demonstrators made our positions clear: “Draft Bush voters first”; “Support the troops – bring them home now”; “No more corporate war”; “War doesn’t determine who’s right — only who’s left”; “Love your country, fear your government”; “How many deaths will it take before Bush knows that too many people have died?”; “Enough!”; “Wake up, America!”
Onstage, the show was under way. Jamaican funk-rock singer-guitarist Cedric Josey got things started on a thoughtful tip, reminding the assemblage of the reason for the rally being held in “the birthplace of American democracy,” the reason we took up the cross of socio-political activism and dissent: “It’s all about humanity.”
Socially conscious singer-songwriter Cool Breeze followed with a hilarious reworking of the children’s standard, “Old McDonald’s Farm.” In this version, the “CIA has got a training camp, E-I-E-I-O…” Encouraged by the performer, the enthusiastic audience sang along with verve and glee. As I watched the growing crowd — peacekeeper on duty, of course — the diversity of those filling the rally area was a sight to behold: dreadlocked hippies in Grateful Dead tees, mohawked teens, red and black-clad anarchists encased in leather, young parents with babes in strollers, white-haired seniors wielding anti-Bush signs. It was beautiful. They were beautiful.
What really struck me, though, was the number of people wearing military gear — camouflage, hats, full uniforms. How cool it was to have groups like Veterans for Peace on hand. These people saw war firsthand; they know the horror and devastation state-sanctioned killing causes. They know that war is inhumane, dangerous, and ultimtely futile. And they, like the rest of us, came out to call for peace. I gladly saluted them.
Military personnel and their families were highly visible throughout the event. A young representative from Military Families Speak Out offered the view of a teenager coping with having a parent stationed in Iraq. We heard from John Schuchardt, a former Marine-turned-peacemaker, lawyer, founder of Ipswich, MA’s House of Peace, and Veterans for Peace member who served time in prison for his role in the nonviolent activism of the legendary Plowshares Eight. From
the stage, Schuchardt slammed Dubya Bush and his followers in a powerful, resonant baritone: “War is the problem. Only the sick and ill of mind would consider it a solution.”
And as he railed against a system that seems determined to have the rich in power and the poor in prison, Schuchardt gave us good advice: “Don’t bear the shame. Don’t die for a lie” told by an America that is “bringing ruin at home and death and destruction abroad.”
Just as compelling was Shalom Keller, a 23-year-old man in Army gear who recently completed two stints in Iraq — or, as he described himself, “a pissed-off veteran telling it like it is.” Keller rued his decision to join the Death Brigade almost from the start. He blanched, he said, when he heard government leaders insisting that the US Army was fighting for Christ. Keller yanked off his hat to reveal a khaki-colored yarmulke underneath: “Hello? Do I look like I would be fighting for Christ?” He angrily noted the mock coffins on display and reminded us that military deaths are all too real. “I can rattle off the names of people I know who are dead, very fucking dead.” And his bitterness was audible when he talked of young people celebrating their 21st birthday by getting blasted in bars while his was spent “invading a country that had done me no harm.”
As for the Bush claim that the US military presence is in Iraq to bring democracy to the people there, Keller snorted. “How are we going to bring democracy to Iraq,” he asked, “when we don’t have democracy in the US?” Heads nodded and cheers went up throughout the park.
As the speeches went on, I continued to walk through the rally crowd, pausing to compliment clever signs, admire gorgeous children, pat dogs on their heads, and visit organizational tables scattered throughout the site. As you know, progressive groups are the very definition of diversity, so as you may imagine, there was much food for thought to be found on a wide variety of subjects.
One booth manned by activist union school-bus drivers offered information regarding the People’s Struggle in Colombia and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Among their projects: boycotting Coca-Cola, getting US troops out of Colombia, and stopping repression by the Uribe regime.
A number of socialist and communist organizations were on hand to pass out fliers and newsletters and to call for a socialist revolution. Smashing capitalism, they contend, is the only way to achieve any sort of economic justice in the US. Ruth Kiefson, whose son is stationed now in Iraq, spelled out her cure for the world’s ills.
“Capitalism and imperialism are driving world events. The system always leads to imperialist war,” she warned from the rally stage. “We need rule by the masses. Profit must be outlawed; wealth must be shared.” From where I stood in a soggy spot of the Public Garden, I could hear the more moderate participants cringe.
Kiefson called on progressives to fight “racism, sexism, and homophobia” and to work for a “socialist-egalitarian revolution.” One specific plan she endorsed — an idea also pushed by college-age rally speakers — was one I would like to see implemented here in Baltimore. Kiefson says it is time to follow in the footsteps of university and high school activists who engage in anti-recruitment: targeting ROTC and JROTC programs that seek to recruit low-income and working-class young men and women to join the Death Brigade. Additonally, she said, “We must inspire soldiers to resist and rebel from being murderers in an unjust war.”
As is the wont of progressive protest rallies, there were activists calling for vegetarianism, promoting future No Nukes events, and passing along action alerts — one handed to me was a postcard produced by the World Society for the Protection of Animals demanding that China stop bear farming. (You can take action and see the postcard copy here.) One do-gooder promoted an exceedingly timely issue: the right-to-die case of brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo. And this guy gave me a lot to think about.
The media have split those with opinions on the Schiavo situation into two camps — liberals who side with the patient’s husband, who wants her to be able to die with dignity and conservatives who side with the patient’s parents, who insist that their daughter is alive and should be allowed to live on. But at the rally, a wheelchair-bound disability-rights activist from the group Not Dead Yet offered what he called a progressive approach to opposing those who agree with Schiavo’s spouse.
Don’t believe the hype that this is just another Right-Left battle over “life” vs. “choice.” Terri Schiavo is above all a disabled woman who can not speak for herself. If you believe in disability rights, if you believe in women’s rights, and if you believe in the basic right of habeas corpus, you should be cheering for what Congress [did]: interrupt the starvation now being executed by an estranged husband and a prejudiced judge.
—from the save terri flier
The presentation of an alternate progressive view gave me something to think about: Consider Terri Schiavo for a moment as a helpless woman whose fate is under control by a man claiming to know what is best for her while he is living and raising kids with another woman. To this point, I have been siding with Terri’s husband, but I am giving the disability-rights groups’ arguments serious consideration. And I give the activist a lot of credit. Surely he knew that he would be pushing a minority position among a leftist crowd. But, as was said from the Boston Common stage, “What good is freedom if we are afraid of speaking our conscience?” Obviously, the speaker was talking to the choir: This peacekeeper noticed that everyone treated the young man with respect even if they disagreed with him.
Thankfully, I noticed very little disturbance of the peace. The rally did get its share of disapproving visitors: A number of pro-Bushies came by, as did a contingent of brown-shirted Neo-Nazis. Peacekeepers were able to keep rallygoers away from those opposing our cause and, in fact, it appeared the right-wingers and Nazis wanted to keep their profile low. Neither group seemed interested in doing anything other than wave anti-liberal or pro-Dubya signs. Which was cool: This is America, after all.
Meanwhile, women’s culture was celebrated through spoken word. A female artist playing the role of the Great Mother spoke to faraway troops:
Come home, little brother
Come home alive…
We birthed you in love…
We did not birth you to murder and rape
Again, I walked past the collection of coffins on display. A father stood there with his four-year-old son. I couldn’t help but hear the conversation that followed the boy’s question about what the boxes were for. The dad explained that when soldiers went to war, sometimes they ended up being killed and that the bodies of the dead were placed in boxes and covered with American flags.
“Are these dead soldiers, Daddy?” The little boy’s face was drained of color.
“No, buddy,” his father said, reassuringly. “These boxes are empty. They are here to show that we are sad about the ones who died.”
“I am sad, Daddy,” the boy said.
To these eyes, they both looked miserable. Father and son stood side-by-side in solemn silence for what felt like long minutes. Suddenly, the boy sniffled and spoke up again: “Daddy?”
“War kills people. It’s bad.”
“I know, son,” the man replied, as he placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “I know.”
Moving on, I ran into several women I had met at the Women and Media conference, which had ended earlier that day. We were thrilled, though not surprised, to see feminist activists at a peace rally. Then we had an even bigger thrill: Noted progressive professor, historian, activist, and author Howard Zinn walked by. Camera in hand, I took off to snap a shot of the great man (and, as you can see, got one). After he spoke, I was able to shake his hand and briefly chat with him. But what he said during his brief time onstage is what matters.
Zinn noted that more than 600 US cities, including Boston, hosted peace rallies over the weekend to mark the second anniversary of the US invasion. And the events pointed to then need for us to do important work.
“Iraq has been occupied for two years now. What have we brought to the people of Iraq? Death and destruction,” Zinn said. “And it’s four years since we’ve been occupied by the Bush Administration. It is time to end both occupations.”
Just in time, the progressive movement in the US is on the rise, the historian said, adding, “More of us are realizing we’ve been lied to.” He pointed to proposed cuts to programs aimed at helping America’s poor; to the Shrub’s Social Security plan, which would remove much of the safety net for elderly citizens; to education and housing initiatives. “Bush is stealing money from the people and giving it to war.”
Zinn continued: “He lies to soldiers, telling them that they are fighting for liberty. … You don’t bring liberty with napalm and cluster bombs. You don’t bring liberty by breaking into homes. You don’t bring liberty by terrorizing families. War is terrorism! And Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, and Bechtel are not worth dying for.”
The crowd applauded wildly, but the progressive icon wasn’t quite finished. “For every person here, there are 100 people who don’t go to demonstrations but know someting rotten is happening,” he said. During the Vietnam war, as time passed and soldiers came back with their stories from the front, Zinn said Americans realized that it was time for the war to end. The same thing will happen soon, he predicted.
“A point will come when the public will demand that the government stop this war. [And, as in Vietnam,] it will end,” he said. “Then we can work to end the occupation in this country.”
By now, the cheers and applause from the audience, estimated at about 2,000 strong by organizers, seemed deafening.
A street-theater troupe featuring papier-mache characters including a giant gun, an evil capitalist, and moaning faces representing the tortured souls of those held captive — economically and otherwise — by the policies of the Bush Administration moved throughout the site. A line of cheerleaders with pom poms entertaied rallygoers with high kicks and spirited anti-Bush rhymes. And, foreshadowing the threatened nonpermitted march, a pack of anarchists began pacing through the site and imploring the crowd, “Out of the rally and into the streets.”
The time was just after 3 PM, the time the police had set as the closing time for the event. No one was ready to budge quite yet; thankfully, the police allowed the remaining speakers and performers to address the assembled. I stayed a little longer to soak up the spirit of progressive unity, again bemoaning that I couldn’t risk arrest, but soon it was time for me to head back to Cambridge and grab my bags for the trip to Logan International Airport. Later, I learned that the anarchists did entice some rallygoers to march through Boston’s streets. One stop they made was at a nearby armed-forces recruitment office. The staff — knowing that an antiwar and anti-recruitment was taking place — wisely chose to remain closed for the day. Boston Mobilization counted the closing a success. So do I, but then, I consider the entire affair to be rousingly successful.
There is nothing like the heady feeling of combined power, joy, and resolve that comes from taking part in a mass demonstration. But, as was said at Boston Common, demos alone are meaningless. Let’s hope everyone who attended — and everyone who reads this account of the event or any other — will demonstrate however many times is necessary. But more importantly, I pray they — and you — will go on to do the necessary work: organizing, strategizing, and transforming society.
“Scatter thou the people who delight in war,” says a passage from Psalms. Conversely, I believe, peaceful people — the peace-seekers and peacekeepers — are called to gather for a noble cause. It is time for good people to denounce the hysteria of Bush’s “war on terror.” It is time to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, teach the young, protect the planet, and aid the sick. It is time to stand up to a government that knows more about torture than it does about true justice or decency or human dignity.
This is our goal as a progressive movement: We must work for justice and equality, stand for peace, and end all war. And we must be prepared to do whatever is moral to make this goal reality. My weekend at the WAM conference and at Boston’s Global Day of Peace rally gave me inspiration and energy to focus on the hard work that lies ahead. I pray you can feel that inspiration and energy too. Victory will require work and commitment from us all. As Cedric Josey sang, it’s all about humanity. And as I will add, it’s all about peace.