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Peace Goes Public

A steady monologue of war fever has appeared in the pages of the press and on the screens of our television sets.

Jonathan Sterne

Sunday, September 30 2001, 2:30 PM

Thursday I got an email from a friend who is both a committed leftist and a very smart guy. He'd heard I was headed to yesterday's protest in D.C. and he wondered what my hopes were for the event. He was pessimistic. After all, media coverage of opposition to the war since September 11th has been slim and often (though not always) dismissive. Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect and a man paid to be controversial, was punished for voicing mild dissent. A steady monologue of war fever has appeared in the pages of the press and on the screens of our television sets. The Washington Post had already published a hostile and dismissive op-ed piece before the rally denouncing the protesters as "un-American." Would a protest do any good right now? Would it accomplish anything? Was it the right time? My answer to all these questions is an unequivocal "yes." If we are committed to peace, there is no other alternative to public demonstration. Public demonstrations can be people marching in the streets like Saturday the 29th, they can be in letters to newspapers and representatives, they can be on buttons and t-shirts, but they must be resolute, they must be compassionate, and they must be public. If we remain silent, it may indeed appear as if all Americans are in favor of killing innocent civilians in retaliation. ACT-UP said it best. This is a moment when silence equals death.

So my sense of duty and urgency brought me to the protest. There were thousands upon thousands of people there, representing a huge variety of causes that had come together around the issue of peace. Estimates from speakers ran over 20,000. I am sure that there were well over 10,000 people there. To get this many people together, you need a broad coalition, and that is exactly what this movement is shaping up to be.

On the whole, the sheer breadth and diversity of the coalition is astounding. The event began with a rally featuring many different speakers representing a wide array of causes. Speeches are necessary for these kinds of events they help energize the crowd, they help to show the breadth of the movement. The most moving speech came from a New York City firefighter who had lost colleagues in the rescue effort. Though clearly exhausted and sad, he was also firm in his resolve for peace after all, he knows what a war zone looks like.

Coalition movements often have problems managing the coalitions, and Saturday was no different: we listened to about three hours of speeches from representatives of different groups that had come together in a coalition for peace. Left groups need to learn to take turns and delegate to one another -- not everyone has to speak at every event. Three hours of speeches was too much. Speeches that motivate are short and powerful. By the end of the speeches, I felt as if that part of the rally had become about every group making sure that it got its own time instead of motivating us and getting us ready to march. Our power comes from our diversity, but if we are to work together, each group in the coalition will have to learn to trust other groups to represent their interests fairly.

We were ready to march, and the marching was effective where the speeches were not. The sheer mass of humanity moving together down Pennsylvania Avenue was a powerful experience -- here I was, among thousands of others who also felt as I did. People watched us from sidewalks and from inside buildings. For all the hype about there only being two ways -- war or support of terrorism -- here was a clear third way and a mass of people behind it. Mainstream media coverage of a protest rarely gets beyond slogans and broad themes to more basic or structural issues. Without any help from the news media, it's hard to move from the sloagans and broad statements of a protest to articulating a rational argument for our positions in the news. For that to happen, reporters would have to take the time to educate themselves on the issues; editors would have to allow the coverage to move beyond the event and into the issues. In a world where spectacle drives mainstream news coverage, the power of a protest is to show that large numbers of people have come together and put their bodies in the street because they believe in something. This is what we can do right now. We can show Americans and the world that we believe in a peaceful alternative to military retaliation against civilians. The march was a massive display of unity.

I saw little in the way of dramatic reactions from observers. There was the occasional "peace" sign from bystanders (including, to my pleasure, a police officer who appeared earnest). I saw one clearly disturbed woman screaming at protesters that all Arabs should be killed. Others stood by passively and watched us march. There was no visible counter-protest at all. It might have felt like we owned the street, but for one thing. . . .

Throughout the march, police in full riot gear also watched on from sidewalks they were clearly there to protect property and keep us on the right path. It is a rare thing for a white American to see what the threat of police violence looks like when it is directed at you. It was clear that the state was prepared to use violence if things went in a direction of which they disapproved. The rally was peaceful, though, and I saw no police action on any demonstrators. I merely saw the threat; but it was enough to remind me that the peace movement is fighting powerful opposition, opposition that has access to violent means and is willing to use them.

The most poignant part of the day came after the march ended and the rally wound down. I had a car parked near where the march started, and so I began back down Pennsylvania Ave. The last five blocks or so were off the path of the march. For these final few blocks, there were no other protesters near me -- I was a lone figure in the sidewalk traffic with an antiwar sign that read "war is not the answer, racism is not the answer." There was no mass of humanity to protect me or support me. I could not assume that I was surrounded by like-minded people. I carried the sign up the sidewalk and past chain restaurants, specialty shops, and department stores. As I walked past them, almost all the patrons by the windows looked at me. Granted, I'm a sight to see, but they were clearly interested in my sign. They smiled, and many gave me a "thumbs-up" sign or a peace sign. I could be wrong, but these people did not seem like they had just been at the march. As I went through a crosswalk, one stranger urged me to hold the sign higher so more people could see it. In the last crosswalk before I got to my car, I passed a young man in full sailor's garb. He held his companion's hand tightly, and neither of them were speaking to each other. An expression came over his face as he looked up at my sign. It was a look of fear. Another bit of white privilege -- I don't know if I have ever looked into another man's face and seen a real, honest, uncontrolled look of fear before in my life. But this was fear the real thing and in the flesh. In the last two weeks, I've had students speak to me of their fear of being drafted, but those discussions seemed somehow abstract in comparson with this moment.

This was concrete. The sailor had probably been called to active duty. As a protester, maybe I was a sign of war, a sign that this was serious business and that his life was really in danger. Maybe I was simply a sign of dischord or dissent that he found disturbing. I'll never know for sure. I couldn't think of the right thing to say, so I simply smiled at him and said "hi" as we passed each other. There is no appropriate way to say what I wanted to -- which was that we were both concerned about his life chances. I wanted to tell him not to worry: I was fighting to keep him home with his loved ones. I hope he comes out alright; I fear that he, or many others like him, will not.

In my walk back from the rally, I learned that as people see others taking up the cause of peace, they will feel empowered to express themselves, and they will be forced to confront the magnitude of what is about to happen. We cannot assume that mass media representations of war fever are accurate depictions of "what the public believes." We are the public as much as the warmongers. It is our political and ethical duty to presume that there are people out there who support our cause, and to go out and find them. This is our task and this is our hope.

It will not be easy. But dissent is only easy or comfortable in times when it does not really matter. It will take many rallies, many letters to the editor, many calls to our elected representatives, many buttons, slogans and t-shirts to even make a dent in the prevailing war fever. Many of us will have to carry signs for peace. It will interfere with our lives and make us uncomfortable. But if we are committed to peace and justice, we must take a public path. Even in those moments where we may feel most alone, there are others waiting to stand with us.

Jonathan Sterne co-directs the Bad Subjects Team.

Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.