The march that wasn’t to be

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Sometimes I think that the demonstration numbers game is ridiculous. The police or, more vaguely, the “authorities” wildly under calculate (and most of the news sources accept their numbers); demonstration organizers in the glow of the moment tend to vastly inflate; and so you close your eyes and stick a finger somewhere in the middle — and, in the end, of course, no one ever knows. But when numbers grow so staggeringly large, so visibly overwhelming, the game almost ceases to matter and the numbers themselves, whatever they may be, come into their own. Such was the case yesterday. You could definitely say that something almost approximating the world voted “no” to an Iraqi war, or as CBS’s correspondent Tom Fenton said of Europe, at the end of quite a fine (and rare) lead story on the U.S. demonstrations (150 cities lit up on a map) and the global ones last night, “This is an entire continent that apparently does not want to go to war.”

So, if National Public Radio’s reporter tells you that the police estimated two million Italians turned out in Rome yesterday, while the organizers insist three million were there, and the Associated Press reports “only” a million plus, does it matter? Even a million is a staggering figure after all. If the organizers of the London demonstration say two million, and the Guardian says one million and still counting, the point is the same, even if most American papers give the figure at 750,000.

Having marched in the court-banned New York march yesterday (see my description below), I can testify that it was an energizing event. You could even feel it in the first New York Times piece that came out last night — on a day, by the way, in which the “paper of record” managed to lead its editorial page with a shameful editorial (“Disarming Iraq”) essentially endorsing the path to war which contained the unbelievable line, “The only way short of war to get Saddam Hussein to reverse course at this late our is to make clear that the Security Council is united in its determination to disarm him and is now ready to call in the cavalry to get the job done.” The cavalry? Well, I suppose it’s useful to know that the Times editorial page thinks it’s in the same classic Western that George W has no doubt he’s a part of. To read Disarming Iraq click here

In the giddiness of the moment, reporter Times Robert D. McFadden wrote,

“Crowd estimates are often little more than politically tinged guesses, and the police did not provide one. Organizers said that more than 400,000 people attended and, given the sea of faces extending for more than a mile up First Avenue and the ancillary crowds that were prevented from joining them, the claim did not appear to be wildly improbable.”

To read Mcfadden click here.

The updated version of this piece (“From New York to Melbourne, Cries for Peace, Vast, Far-Flung Protest Against War on Iraq”) appeared on the front page of the paper this morning with an imposing collage of photos. For a paper which had, until now, managed to bury all war protests inside, this was in itself a near-act of giddiness (or the journalistic equivalent of a concession speech). But we can perhaps glimpse the sorts of pressures that American journalists experience in this morning’s revised version of the paragraph quoted above — after the police, overwhelmed by a demonstration of staggering size and energy, offered a low-ball estimate:

“Crowd estimates are often little more than politically tinged guesses. The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, put the crowd at about 100,000, while the organizers said 400,000 people attended. Given the sea of faces extending more than a mile up First Avenue and the ancillary crowds that were prevented from joining them, it seemed that something in between was probable.”

To read Mcfadden (revised) click here

The Times, like the Los Angeles Times, also offered low figures on the demonstrations in London, where they claimed 500,000 to 750,000 people rallied, even though British papers of every stripe reported one million or more. See, for instance, the Daily Telegram‘s headline, “Over a Million Take to the Streets” To read Daily Telegram click here, or the Sunday Observer‘s “One Million and Still They Came” with the following moving opening:

“‘Are there any more coming, then?’

“There have been dafter questions, but not many. Half a mile away, round the corner in Piccadilly, the ground shook. An ocean, a perfect storm of people. Banners, a cherry blossom of banners, covered every inch back to the Circus – and for miles beyond, south to the river, north to Euston.

“Ahead of the marchers lay one remaining silent half-mile. The unprecedented turnout had shocked the organisers, shocked the marchers. And there at the end before them, high on top of the Wellington Arch, the four obsidian stallions and their vicious conquering chariot, the very Spirit of War, were stilled, rearing back – caught, and held, in the bare branches and bright chill of Piccadilly, London, on Saturday 15 February 2003.

“Are there any more coming? Yes, Mike. Yes, I think there are some more coming.”

To read One Million click here

In Australia, to leap the globe, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “Organisers of a Sydney march today claimed at least 250,000 people had turned out to protest against US threats of military action in Iraq Yesterday an estimated 150,000 people marched in Melbourne in protest against US threats to strike Iraq.” To read the Sydney Morning Herald click here

And similar reports flooded in from all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Only China, where demonstrations were evidently forbidden and the Middle East, where they were few and far between, would have been dark spots on the global demonstration map. In the United States, while the huge demos were to be in New York and, today, San Francisco, impressive smaller demonstrations took place almost literally everywhere from Bangor, Maine (several hundred) to the Los Angeles area, where an LA Times piece with low-ball figures on other demos countrywide reported (or under-reported): “In Southern California, about 30,000 people marched peacefully down Hollywood Boulevard to listen to actor Martin Sheen, while others staged a group meditation on the beach in Santa Monica and chanted peace slogans at smaller gatherings in Long Beach, Orange, Brea and Laguna Beach.” To read the LA Times piece click here

To take a look at the range of stories or figures yourself: you can check out the always useful and scroll down, or Indymedia, both of which are updating reports worldwide. The folks at offer this summary of Indymedia’s figures:

“IndyMedia reports the following numbers of protesters: “London: 1.5 million; Rome: 1.5 million; Barcelona: 1 million; Madrid: 1 million; New York City 500,000; Berlin: 500,000; Melbourne: 200,000; Athens, Greece: 200,000; Dublin, Ireland: 100,000+; Belgium: 100,000; Paris: 100,000; Sweden: 100,000; Jakarta: 100,000; Amsterdam: 80,000; Montevideo, Uruguay: 50,000; Thessaloniki, Greece: 40,000; Sao Paulo, Brazil: 30,000; Bern, Switzerland: 30,000; Budapest, Hungary: 20,000; Buenos Aires, Argentina: 15,000; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: 15,000; Auckland, NZ: 8-10,000.” That’s 7 million and counting! Plus, there will be more on Sunday – especially in San Francisco!”

While Yahoo claims, “The unprecedented wave of demonstrations, involving eight million to 11.5 million people, according to various estimates, further clouded US war plans a day after they suffered a diplomatic setback at the United Nations.” To check out the Yahoo report click here

Not so far off the Guardian‘s pre-event estimate of 10 million demonstrators worldwide. And I haven’t even mentioned the possibly half million demonstrators in Berlin, the Observer-estimated 40,000 that brought Dublin to a halt, and who knows what else that the media missed entirely.

But enough of that. Now, humor me, or rather my enthusiasm, for a while. Of the 150 demonstrations that CBS claimed took place yesterday from Minneapolis to New Orleans, San Diego to Philadelphia, I attended only one — the march-that-was-not-to-be-a-march in New York, and I want to offer a report and some thoughts on the experience. Tom

The march that wasn’t to be
By Tom Engelhardt

From the moment I looked across the aisle in the subway and saw the woman with the upside-down, hand-painted sign — an anguished face, blood, and “no war” on it — and she noted my sign, also resting against my knees but modestly turned away from view, and gave me the thumbs up sign, I knew things would be okay. As my wife, a friend, and I exited the subway at the 50th Street station on the west side of New York, I noted three college-age women bent over a subway bench magic-marking in messages on their blank sign boards, a signal that we were heading for some special do-it-yourself event.

We stopped to meet friends from Boston at the Donnell Library on 53rd just off Fifth Avenue and there again, people at the library’s large, round tables were silently penning in signs. We left a little late from the library, the Boston train having been delayed. As we headed east for the court-sanctioned “stationary” rally a few blocks from the United Nations building and all the way across town, I must admit at first the human traffic seemed to be heading in the direction. I caught sight of people going about their normal (or touristic) lives, which left me with a twinge of worry, but by Park Avenue, we were building mass and two blocks later at Third, I tell you my heart leaped. There in the march-less city was a vast mass of people, signs, giant white doves, and Saddam-Bush heads, an enthusiastic, chanting, drumming, multi-everything flow of young and old heading like a tide up Third Avenue — in the wrong direction, no less — and I knew. Without further ado, not even caring where we were going, we let ourselves be swept into it in the bitter cold of a New York winter’s day.

Admittedly, we were several blocks above and two avenues away from our destination and heading uptown and the masses of police (remarkably good-humored in our experience, but not everywhere evidently) had cordoned off the side streets leading toward First Avenue. They still had us more or less confined to the sidewalk and a bit of the street on one side of the avenue, and cars were still crawling by. But already demonstrators were moving the orange police cones quickly set up for this unexpected crowd on an unexpectedly occupied avenue ever farther out into the traffic. Soon, to relieve pressure, the police opened a side street and with a great cheer our section of the rolling non-march burst through up to Second where we found ourselves in an even greater mass of humanity, heading north on our own avenue without a single car, truck, or bus.

A few blocks ahead we gridlocked at a police blockade that we couldn’t even see and, for an hour, as the crowd pressure built and crowd grew ever thicker, we went nowhere in remarkable good humor, chanting from time to time, “The streets are ours” and “Let us through” (along with the normal peace and antiwar chants), and catching bits of the rally, perhaps fifteen blocks away on radios. When our group grew claustrophobic, we slipped across the packed avenue, down a side street, back to Third Avenue and into what one demonstrator called the event’s “official antiwar café” — a Starbucks packed to the ceiling. By then Third was also car-less.

Finally, more than two hours (one misto and a few bits of bagel) after we had begun, we found ourselves at 69th street, perhaps twenty blocks above the rally, setting foot on “liberated” First Avenue and creeping downtown under the white wings, in my case, of a giant puppet dove held aloft by three demonstrators. (When I thanked them for the shelter, one handler said, “But watch out for the droppings.”) There on First Avenue where, the “pens” at least uptown had been dismantled by the police, you could see the endless stream of us, signage aloft, cheers literally rolling like thunder.

Here, then, was “the people” in its newest incarnation, whom both our city government and our national government considered a danger, whose numbers they tried to limit, whose legs they tried to still. And so the planned single march, which would have wended its way past the UN, across 42nd Street, and up to Central Park, banned by city and court (with Bush administration support), had become — under the press of numbers, under the urgency of the moment, given the desire to stop a war that our President is dying to have, that the New York Times more or less endorsed that very day — many marches, downtown, uptown, across town.

Here’s just a little selection from a much larger list of “feeder marches” that came my way yesterday. I think it explains how the east side got emptied of traffic and what strange breadth of support exists even in the United States for an antiwar movement: NYC LABOR AGAINST THE WAR, CONTINGENT INTERFAITH MINISTERS FOR PEACE, TIBETANS AND SUPPORTERS AGAINST THE WAR, NYC PEOPLE OF COLOR, MASSACHUSETTS FEEDER MARCH, BREAD & PUPPET FEEDER MARCH, WBAI LISTENERS CONTINGENT, IRISH AMERICAN CONTINGENT, MILITANT MOTHERS BLOCK – M.A.M.A. SAYS NO TO WAR!!!, KIDS AND SIGNIFICANT OTHERS CONTINGENT, UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS FOR PEACE, FILIPINO AMERICAN CONTINGENT, GLAMERICANS MARCH (my vote for most amusing sign — “foreplay not warplay”), ANTI-CAPITALIST BLOC, BRONX FEEDER MARCH, JEWISH CONTINGENT, CHICAGO HUMANIST FEEDER MARCH and so on and so forth. It was a remarkable demonstration of what can come into being when faced with a government as extreme as our present one.

At one point as we headed in the wrong direction, and the police clearly had no idea when, or where, or how we would ever reach First Avenue, someone asked, “But when are we going to get there?” The truth was we were “there.” Yes, a rally was happening farther downtown, and on our radios we caught snippets of Desmond Tutu (shouting “Yes!” and “No!” to his various questions) and the always impressive Julian Bond, but in truth the only “there” throughout the east side of our city (as many motorists undoubtedly discovered to their dismay) was wherever we were and wherever we were going. Perhaps nothing says more about the moment, or its size and weight, than the fact that both my children were at the demonstration (my daughter in one of the “pens” on First Avenue, and my son marching with friends from farther downtown, and I never managed (despite cell phone conversations) to get within ten blocks of either of them.

Excuse my enthusiasm — but it must have felt similarly in Rome, London, Sydney, Berlin, Madrid, and on and on. As with our crowd, the largest I’ve ever experienced and I was at two marches on the Pentagon in the 1960s, every reporter or commentator I’ve read has noted the unexpected range of people by age, race, occupation, and political conviction who turned out globally.

I’m not a total fool. I know — as I’ve long been writing in these dispatches — that this administration is hell-bent for a war. The build-up in the Gulf during these days of demonstrations has been unceasing. I still expect that war to come, and soon. Nonetheless, I find myself amazed by the variegated mass of humanity that turned out yesterday. It felt wonderful. A mass truly, but each part of it, each individually made sign and human gesture of it, spoke to its deeply spontaneous nature. That is the statement of the moment. The world has actually spoken and largely in words of its own. It has issued a warning to our leaders, which, given the history of “the people” and the countless demonstrations of the people’s many (sometimes frightening) powers from 1776 on, is to be ignored at the administration’s peril.

Believe me, whatever happens, this matters. Our rulers don’t believe in the power of the people even in their own republican land and neither largely does our media. And yet, however emotional French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s recent speech at the UN may have been, only six weeks ago, Jacques Chirac was warning his military to prepare for war. The French people, to use our President’s phrase, “stiffened his spine.” Perhaps the English, ninety percent of whom now do not want a war not sanctioned by the UN, may sooner or later have an effect in England, on the Labor Party, if not Tony Blair.

And while we, in the heart of empire, in the heat of an imperial moment, not surprisingly remain a minority, we now know — we’ve told the world, and will again today in San Francisco — that we are a minority to be reckoned with, that we can’t be scared into silence, as in the 1950s, by governmental hysterias or new, draconian Patriot Acts. We may be a majority one day. And in the meantime, the weight of the people out there in the rest of the world, leaves this administration on the road to war in a more perilous situation than it’s ever likely to admit — the loss of just one of those “willing” allies in the President’s “coalition of the willing” — of Australia, or Turkey, or Spain, or Italy, or even Great Britain under the pressure of events and everything becomes harder here. This is what being on one small planet really means.

Copyright 2003 Tom Engelhardt