This is What Democracy Looks Like: Washington Protest January 27, 2007 (2)

[For photo album and slideshow for this entry, go here]

Sunday 2:35 P.M. United flight 0871 Dulles to SFO

img_0214.jpg The sun is shining when A. and E. arrive Saturday morning. Their Honda van is covered with a mural depicting kids in the city and fish, birds, and plants of the Chesapeake watershed along with a logo of a sailboat surrounded by the words “Living Classrooms Foundation¦Learning by Doing.”

While E. chats with S. about work, A. tells me about her program taking inner city kids on hikes and boat excursions to study their bioregion and get involved in restoration projects. I tell her that my University, Cal Poly’s motto, is “Learn by Doing,” and that I teach courses in Bioregional Place Study.img_0215.jpg

We park near Teism and hear a roar coming from a crowd with pink banners in front of the National archives across Pennsylvania Ave. On the sidewalk outside the teahouse, a circle of Grannies for Peace stand singing. The people I’m with seem to know everybody outside and in. Two young men at our table say they work for Campus Climate Challenge. I say I’m working on Focus the Nation at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. They say do you know Tyler Middlestadt, our charismatic student sustainability activist. I say let me take your picture for him.img_0219.jpg A. says that Washington is filled with young activists working for NGO’s. They last about five years before burn out.

When I mention the man on the cell phone yesterday, S. says yes there are a lot of those too. They stay longer. She went to a party recently where she talked to four girls working in the State Department. Their assignment was to figure out ways to influence the elections in Nicaragua. When S. asked how can you do that in good conscience, they replied that it was a benefit to the region to promote stability.

The code pink pre-rally is ending as we head for the mall, passing a dozen or so counter-demonstrators with bullhorns, signs calling us traitors and a body hung in effigy”is this Saddam or a protester? [image] I remember that old Dionysiac excitement of being caught up in a growing crowd, streams converging into tributaries, into rivers flowing toward the destination. [image] The last time I did this in Washington was 1967, the day we tried to levitate the Pentagon. And many people here today are as young as we were then. A reason for hope, since most young people I encounter are like those out on the town last night. A reason for sadness too. So little progress after 40 years. Here are also grannies and grampas, and parents with small children and middle easterners and latinos and lots of African Americans. Its not the sixties where you could immediately sense compadres by the insignia of long hair or beads or the fragrance of marijuana, but there seems to be a congenial something in the faces, the carriage of the bodies and the slogans on the signs that suggests a commonality: independence from the corporate culture, moral seriousness and a sense of humor.

We pass a table at the side of the mall offering thousands of free drinks in recyclable cups. Behind it is a big trailer with the legend Guayaki. My favorite beverage! The company founded in San Luis Obispo by Cal Poly students. Our friend S.S. the regional manager. This town is no longer enemy territory. I start having the sense that this demonstration will be larger than I expected, much larger. It will make a difference. They will have to listen.

We stop in a dense section of audience. Speeches have already started, though speakers are invisible. Clearly the air time has been brokered. There are spokespeople from labor unions, from the Socialist Workers Party, from the national organization of women. Jesse Jackson gets five minutes. The mayor of Salt Lake city, Rocky Anderson speaks with heartening passion about the corruption of American values, a soldier back from Iraq representing a thousand other service people tells how the recent Republican reduction of veterans benefits has created a three month wait for those needing psychological help. Another person tells of losing her job and job recommendation for whistle blowing, Jane Fonda, sure to draw the attention of the press, tells us she hasn’t spoken out for 34 years but cant wait any longer.

My phone buzzes and it’s Brian S., my elementary school friend with whom I’ve planned to rendezvous when I decided to come a few weeks ago. He’s taken the bus from Philadelphia along with a friend, and we find each other through a new kind of phone tag. He too was here in 1967. [image] We separate from S. and her friends. The crowd keeps growing. Police presence is minimal. John Conyers and Maxine Waters, the only two Congress people in attendance, say that the people have spoken in November but the government has not listened. The central point, shouted over and over and over: “This is what democracy looks like.”

The crowd starts slowly to move, out of the mall, across Pennsylvania Ave, up Constitution Ave. I mount the steps of the Labor Department to try to get a sense of its size”impossible because it fills the eye in every direction.[image] Excitement climbs as we climb Capitol Hill, everyone amazed at the number of people here and the intensity of their expression. We pass the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, the Capitol Buildings far to the north, but completely surrounded by a vast rectangular throng. [image] We’re surrounding the seat of power and shouting, “this is what democracy looks like.” I want us to go round and round and round till the walls come tumbling down.

My son calls from Idaho and I tell him this is a great historical event, a turning point, I think there are a million people here. My wife calls from the freeway to L.A. where she has to meet a dying client: “You’re all over the media, from Fox News to NPR.”

After turning the SE corner before heading back down the hill, we go up more steps and stand behind a stone rail to watch the parade go by in the golden afternoon sun. Large puppets, rhythm bands, grand pink pageants, a fifteen person set of joined vertebrae addressed to Congress and labelled “Get a Spine” and thousands of hand drawn signs: “Draft College Republicans,” “How come I know war is wrong, and I’m only 12?” “My uncle died in Iraq,” “At least in Vietnam, Bush had an exit strategy.”

We rejoin the parade after an hour’s watch and there’s still no tail end in sight. Heading down the hill, I look up and see hand written sheets going into the window of one of the Congressional Office Buildings: “U.S. out of Iraq.” At the base of the hill we pass a building labeled “Voice of America.”

The march peters out back where it started with no final rally, but rather with eager dashes to the lined up porta potties. We were probably not that far from the end after our hour-long watch. We head for a restaurant, not Teism, but a slick Tapas place in the middle of downtown, where some people were on the march but most were just merrymaking. The soundless TV over the crowded bar broadcasts Fox news. Jane Fonda is shown over and over again on a divided screen with a sneering talking head. The captions are all about Hanoi Jane and traitors.

After saying goodbye to Brian and S. I again walk through the throngs heading to the Verizon Center for the hockey game and to the adjoining multiplex. Will this crowd ever join our crowd? I ride the Metro, noticing the inwardness of most of the riders. This kind of traveling group meditation only happens on public transportation.

Back on Irving St. Susanna checks the internet. The Washington Post reports: “Thousands rally at Capitol; Jane Fonda addresses crowd.” No discussion of what was said either by speakers or by the participants and their signs. Another source says that organizers claimed 400,000 people marched, but there are no official estimates. To me it felt like a million.

On the trip back to Dulles on Sunday, I sat next to a young man carrying a bright pink notebook. I asked him if he was at the demonstration with code pink. He said no, he was a software engineer from Sweden heading to Minneapolis to work on a national mail sorting project for the Post Office. We agree on the criminal stupidity of the war anyway.

At the airport, the ticket agent apologized for giving me the seat in between window and aisle. But as I write, I sit flanked by two charming women with whom I’ve been conversing on and off for several hours. The one on my left, a very elegant executive with the cosmetics corporation, Sephora, called me “the cute guy in the middle” and paid for my sandwich because I didn’t have change. Her husband is a ship captain in the coast guard. The lady on the right is a senior consultant with the Educational Testing Service whose husband is an officer in the Navy. Both are traveling economy because no first class seats were available. After I told them about the march, they each said, “Thank you for going.”

In memoriam, Molly Ivins (August 30 1944-January 30 2007)
Her last column–about this event

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