Notes from a rookie antiwar protester

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When it comes to Sunday’s demonstrations, my favorite headline was from the British Independent, “A World Against the War”; my favorite image, the “Human peace sign from Antarctica” (“Today people from McMurdo Station in Antarctica joined with the millions of others around the world in calling for peace not war. With the Antarctic Mt Range in the background we laid on the ice in a symbolic call for peace. Seven continents united.” Click here to see these images
My least favorite “question” was on CNN’s call-in Sunday night ten o’clock news: “Are antiwar protests unpatriotic?”

It’s all a matter of how you frame things, after all. My hometown paper, the New York Times, had a front-page photo, “Antiwar Rally in Washington,” but the actual story was on page 12, headlined “Thousands Converge in Capital to Protest Plans for War,” even though paragraph one made it clear that “tens of thousands” were there. Perhaps it’s understandable that the editors tucked the article on the largest peace march since the late 1960s (maybe larger) away inside, what with “Gains on Heart Disease Leave More Survivors, and Questions” or “Fearful Saudis Seek a Way to Budge Hussein” panting for front-page attention. Imagine, however, this front-page headline: “Fearful Americans Seek a Way to Budge Bush.” (Nor, by the way, was there an editorial about the demonstrations, though on the editorial page was “Along With a Super Bowl, the N.F.L. Needs a Farewell Bowl.”)

You would expect National Public Radio to be better, but here’s an interesting comment off the website: “While Pacifica radio devoted the entire day to coverage of the antiwar protests in DC and SF, “listener-supported” NPR spent exactly 2 minutes of its evening news coverage on the story. What did they cover instead? 10 minutes of idle transatlantic chitchat with a British journalist about the Queen’s shocking public appearance in slacks following knee surgery. Send your complaints to [email protected], and tell them you’ll remember at pitch time.”

The demonstration’s hometown papers did do better: The San Francisco Chronicle actually claimed a staggering 500,000 demonstrators for Washington and 55,000 to 200,000 (depending on whether you believed the police or the organizers) for San Francisco. And the Washington Post quoted the Metropolitan Police Chief as saying that the local march was “bigger than October’s,” which was estimated by the same paper at 100,000. Police pegged a demonstration in Portland, Oregon at 20,000, “far above the 12,000 who turned out to protest the Persian Gulf War in January of 1991.”

I grant the Post the best opening paragraph: “Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters converged on Washington today, braving the bitter cold in thunderous numbers and assembling in the shadow of the Capitol dome to voice their opposition to a U.S. military strike against Iraq.” To read more of this Washington Post piece click here

Those “thunderous numbers” and the “bitter cold” told part of the story. A nice slice of the rest is offered below by historian Chris Appy, author of a fine book on the American GI in the Vietnam era, Working Class War, and of a monumental upcoming oral history of the war, Patriots, The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides. Tom

Notes From a Rookie Antiwar Protester
By Chris Appy

By Chris Appy

I bought my “ticket” from Bill Bateman on Friday afternoon in the parking lot of a Super Stop and Shop off Exit 24 in Providence, Rhode Island. He scribbled “$50 – one seat” on a scrap of paper and handed it to me in his “office,” the front seat of his blue, beat-up, Chevy van. He’d been running around like a madman arranging charter buses to Washington, D.C. where, the following day, January 18, 2003, perhaps two hundred thousand people would converge in the winter cold to protest a war in Iraq that hadn’t officially begun — a preemptive demonstration against a preemptive war.

Bill, a forty-two year old construction worker, has a body and voice that might have been provided by central casting. Nothing in our recent history or culture has prepared us for the image of a beefy construction worker encouraging a forty-seven year old historian with a Harvard Ph.D. to join him on the front lines of a rapidly growing antiwar movement. Popular memory of the Vietnam War leaves many Americans with the idea that construction workers are the guys in hardhats who show up at antiwar rallies to harass, even attack, privileged protesters from college campuses.

But here was Bill, who recently got fired from a nearby building site for spending too much time organizing against the war, patiently reassuring me that everything would be “cool” and I would be back home within thirty hours. Despite a cell phone interruption from a local church group (“Of course we can get you to Washington”), he actually drove me around the corner to show me exactly where the seven buses would line up at eleven that night.

As a rookie antiwar protester, I appreciated the guidance of an obvious pro. Almost everything I knew about mass demonstrations came from reading books and interviewing people about the Vietnam War. So before falling asleep on the overnight bus to Washington, I found myself thinking about my second-hand impressions of the first major Vietnam protest almost thirty-eight years ago. It had been a beautiful spring day in April, 1965. Most of the 25,000 people in the crowd were young, white, college students who arrived in dresses and sport jackets and sat on the grass near the Washington Monument listening to music and speeches. “It looked like a prom,” organizer Todd Gitlin remembered.

That initial “major” demonstration, it’s worth recalling, began more than ten years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower first sent US military advisers to Vietnam, four years after the start of (officially denied) US engagement in combat, after hundreds of American deaths, and after the beginning of systematic daily bombing of both South and North Vietnam.

With time, of course, the Vietnam era antiwar movement grew immensely larger, angrier, less formally dressed, and came to encompass representatives from every imaginable category of American life. On Saturday morning, however, as our bus pulled up to the ice-spotted quadrangles of the Washington Mall, it seemed obvious that we were stepping into a movement already not only staggering in size, but more diverse than any protest produced by the 1960s.

Of course, the crowd included many veterans of the sixties antiwar movement, including a contingent of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Ron Kovic, the paraplegic veteran who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, was one of the featured speakers.) But brief conversations with a few dozen people quickly convinced me that I was surrounded by thousands of other rookie protesters of all ages and classes. The crowd was predominately white, but the number of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians did not seem far off their proportions in the population and the majority of rally speakers were people of color. Perhaps most striking to me were the number of people over sixty willing to endure eight hours on their feet in bitter weather. Within an hour I met a grandmother from Louisville, Kentucky, a seventy-five year old World War II vet from North Carolina, and a handful of “gray Panthers” from Minnesota.

It will take weeks to weigh the impact of this day of sensory overload. Mostly it seemed like a kind of blurry pageant, full of color, chants, and overheard conversation all in competition for attention. Maybe the easiest memories to isolate came from the sea of posters, many of them hand-made, some incredibly elaborate. They ranged from the obvious (“No War in Iraq”), to the provocative (“No More Weapons of Mass Distraction”), to the pointedly rhetorical (“Regime Change Begins at Home”), to one hilarious send-up of fashion and shortsightedness held by a young woman standing on a sidewalk as thousands marched by: “War on Iraq is So Ten Years Ago.”

Yet what stays with me most vividly are memories of Bill, the organizer, and my seatmate on the bus. Quiet at first, Dave turned out to be a truck driver who suffers from inoperable lung cancer. What I most enjoyed about meeting Dave had nothing to do with Iraq, although he had many smart and funny things to say about George Bush’s administration. Instead I wanted to know what it was like to drive an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer. He did not disappoint.

As we cruised down the New Jersey turnpike, Dave regaled me with stories about restaurants, (he had once been a cook), weigh stations, and truck-stops (including one where bold prostitutes climb right into your cab to solicit). From there it was on to more painful subjects. At one point, at maybe six in the morning, he expressed surprise that we had talked so much. “I thought you’d be a snob,” he said. In the 1960s there was a lot of sincere thought and energy devoted to the creation of cross-class alliances between, as it was sometimes put, “workers” and “intellectuals.” Such bonds may yet prove as strained and ephemeral as they did then, but this moment in history offers as many surprises as horrors, not least of which is the opportunity to ride on a bus with people we might never come to know except for the fact that we share one very important commonality-a shred of hope that somehow, together, we might avert this apparently inevitable bloodshed.

Chris Appy is the author of Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993) and the forthcoming Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides (Viking, May 2003)

Copyright Chris Appy