A Tale of Two (or Three) Marches
Issue #63, April 2003
The 2/15/03 anti-war protest in New York was not supposed to be a march; its permit had been rejected. But as the crowds were funneled along Lexington Avenue, Third Avenue, Second Avenue, progressively denied eastward access to the stationary demonstration on First, it turned into just that, a march, spilling out of the sidewalks and into the street. In both its spontaneity and root cause, this walk in the empty streets hearkened back to another unplanned migration uptown — the long silent trek of thousands and thousands of New Yorkers heading away from lower Manhattan on 9/11/01.
I remember how strangely beautiful that day was. That morning — before the events that jolted America out of one reality and into another — I found myself walking toward Central Park thinking "this is an oddly beautiful day." Not like one of those familiar September mornings, warm and crisp with memories lurking beneath the crust, but oddly vivid and unique, as if Manhattan Island had floated overnight into the Caribbean.
A half hour or so later, I stood outside my workplace at Fifth Avenue and 34th and watched the towers burning as clearly as if I had suddenly developed telescopic eyesight.
By late morning, I was part of a silent procession of somber refugees calmly heading uptown away from the merged pillars of smoke and into an uncharted new world, one with no prior context. Instead, a new context transcended all others. Something terribly vast had happened to transform the very nature of reality, but it was all so ungraspable, incomprehensible, unimaginable... we were all extras in a surreal movie that was so surreal it had taken over reality itself, beyond fear, beyond panic, beyond rage, beyond understanding... void of the measurable references that give perspective. The light remained vivid, but odd now, as if God the director had suddenly decided to shift from Kodacolor to Fujichrome.
By contrast, the more recent march took place on a chilly winter day, yet the mood was exuberant, and terribly comprehensible — a spilling forth of opposition to the dangerously misguided, mislead, response to the cause of the first march. But there were significant similarities between the two. Day-to-day resilience is as necessary in New York as a wet suit in ice water, in part to deal with fractiousness of the city's own creation. New Yorkers have a way of confronting the outrageous with blasé nonchalance, but they summon that same resilience to unite in the face of disaster. Though the mood and goals were quite different on 9/11 and 2/15, the sense of community was the same. Although the anti-war march was certainly purposeful, energized and vocal, there was also, as on 9/11, a sense of quiet, self-containment within each individual. There was never a feeling in either crowd of mob mentality or impending loss of control.
Neither event was supposed to be a march in the first place — in one case an aberration of the day's homeward commute, in the other an inevitable outcome of the impractical, unenforceable, possibly unconstitutional stick-to-the-sidewalk rules. In each instance, the course flowed as naturally as a stream seeking gravity. Likewise, in each case, the police adjusted accordingly — allowing the stream to flow its course when practical and forming barriers when not. At one point, the police parted the human stream and channeled it through one half of a particular block, guiding us past yellow tape setting wider boundaries around a brick apartment building. "They're throwing things out of the windows at the marchers," explained a cop. "It's their way of protesting," he added sardonically.
"Isn't that illegal?" asked a protestor behind me in mock naiveté. "Shouldn't they be arrested?" The cop was stunned into silence. What is legal and what is not can be as much a matter of who is in charge of enforcement as what the laws are in the first place.
We stayed with the flow for a few hours, deliberately seeking the edges, wondering how far it would extend. We left after the crowd had filled First Avenue up to 68th Street. I found this number intriguing, my mind hearkening back to the events of 1968, a year filled with a lifetime's worth of personal transformations and a civilization's worth of crucibles. I also wondered if the opposite end of the gathering might be 46th Street, 1946 being the year of my own birth and the beginning of the baby boom itself.
Staring down at the sea of humanity swelling up from the core of the demonstration to 68th Street, I was struck by a contrast between the 2/15 protest and those of the Vietnam era. Back then we were bound by a sense of self-selected minority identity, sociological martyrs united in spirit against the misguided mainstream. The anti Iraq-attack demonstration, however, encompassed a much fuller demographic spectrum — all ages, incomes, ethnic groups... a slice of New York's full mosaic, along with those who traveled from their own corner of the mainstream to join in. Many veterans.
Unlike 1968, this march was overtly patriotic. These people were not marching in opposition to the United States, and certainly no one among the quarter million or so marchers was marching in support of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. There were flags and signs that read "Patriots for Peace."
More than any other particular target, the protest was aimed at Bush and his cronies. "Drop Bush, Not Bombs" or "Empty Warheads Found in White House." New Yorkers, if anyone on earth, want to get bin Laden; most, however, just do not think Iraq or collateral Iraqis should get in the way of that goal. Even if one agrees with the stated goals of the Iraq attack, one mistrusts the people stating them. This is an administration that has consistently hidden its radical right wing agenda behind Orwellian curveballs, conflating opportunity with opportunism; packaging pollution in "Clean Skies" decrees; shouting environmental protection while decreeing environmental destruction; belittling allies in the name of alliance; erasing constitutional rights in the name of freedom; punishing the poor in the name of compassion; preaching freedom of religion while practicing fundamentalist ideology; and sacrificing national security on the altar of outdated weaponry.
The 9/11 march was a flow of humanity seeking its level of relationship to the world. On 2/15, the marchers were protesting the trivialization of that profound relationship into an excuse for a far different agenda.
David Manning is a writer living in New York City. He was for many years co-director of the critically acclaimed Synergic Theater.