On Saturday I was one of the estimated 100,000 people (or 20 million people if you beleive one protestor to whom I spoke) that converged on Washington, to protest against the war on Iraq. Though this particular person was probably unduly optimistic, the event had a vigor and optimism that has been all-too-rarely observed in the US antiwar movement.
I've been to a few vigils in my time as a young, conscientous person, and what's always striking, is the disparity of people choosing to protest. Saturday's protest outscored even the anti-foxhunting protest I attended in London last year. Pacifists rubbed shoulders with humanitarian interventionalists, Democrats with Republicans. I spoke with Vietnam veterans, and relics from the 1960s hippie era. Together, these mass of people somehow congealed into a group with direction; the direction was the White House, the pace a slow trudge.
Brad, a lifelong Republican from Iowa, confessed himself (perhaps unwisely in the circumstances) overall a fan of Bush, with Iraq the sole blot on his copy-book. But a big blot? "Sure - it's getting to the stage where I might consider revising my opinions of the guy in general. But you know, I'm really here for my wife, and out of interest, and because this is the first time in a while that there's been any movement to speak of - I think people have generally felt pretty detached from politics."
The obligatory banners and fancy-dress costumes pervade the march. To my left, a woman dressed in a full hijab carries a banner reading "US soldiers died, so that I could dress freely." The exact political implication of this was unclear to me. Around us, a bizarrely Bibilical (and not-quite-rhyming) chant goes up: "Matthew, John, Luke Mark / Were no friends of pre-emptive strike." The religious reference seems to upset more than a few: "Don't take the Gospels in vain", shouts one buff voice.
I manage to miss Joan Baez' performance by Washington Mounument, but am installed at the front row (or "mosh pit", as one young protestor remarks) for the appearance of Cindy Sheehan. Having interviewed Sheehan earlier in the week, it is a surprise to see her in the flesh, quite at odds with the somewhat hesitant voice that had reached me from Los Angeles. By far the biggest roar of the day greets her appearence. For a brief moment, the invariable distractions of an event like this are cast aside, as the crowd en masse, and almost in time, chant simply "Bring Them Back."
I glance over to my right, and Brad is chanting along. If only Drudge could see.
Following Sheehan's declamations, a certain amount of disorder prevails. A surge of seperate protestors, who have been assembled across the city outside the offices of the IMF, reaches us, and for a moment no-one is quite sure where, and what, to protest. But in keeping with the day as a whole, there is no discernable hint of violence. I am surprised, therefore, when the shout goes around that Cindy Sheehan has been arrested. But why? The reasons given are multiple: she spat on a policeman, she "loitered with intent" on a pavement.
Bizarrely, this latter explanation proves mst accurate, as Sheehan was - I later learn - staging an illegal sit-down, in an area where protestors must, under pain of legal recrimination, keep moving. I strain my neck, and can jst about make out what seems like the gentlest arrest ever - Sheehan being escorted by three burly officers with a gentle arm on her back, until she starts to do a little bit of passive resistance. But the whole event has a strangely playful air, evidenced by the protestors posing beside policemen to have their photographs taken.
So, what to conclude? Certainly, I'd take playful over violent, any day: the protestors managed not to obscure their cause by a cheap smashing of Starbucks. The importance of the event lies in its proof that the antiwar faciton can become more than a faction, and truly mobilise when necessary. What needs to now happen is a broad coalition of responsible individuals, such as were in evidence in Washington - actually exerting a political consensus in the weeks to follow. In the wake of Katrina, and with the nomination hearings of Judge Roberts, this is the most openly contentious period of American political discourse for a number of years. From the overall state of exasperated indifference I perceived toward party politics in general, this dialogue needs to occur outside of the standardised lines of Democrats and Republicans. It is for the peole to phrase their ideals, and only then to hope that a party reflects them.