From the front lines

Surrounded by other peace marchers returning from the day-long rally, I stood before the slick, glossy poster in the Washington metro. My spirit sang as I looked at the photograph on the right-hand side and saw, underneath the word “DUMB,” a landmine nestled in a bed of tall grass. But the singing stopped when I looked at the left-hand side of the poster and saw, underneath the large letters “SMART,” a picture of a plane dropping a bomb. The lower right-hand corner identified the sponsors of this piece as the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Landmines that remain in the ground to wound innocent people long after a war is over are unconscionable, but I thought that anyone who had been through the hell of Vietnam would no longer sponsor ads for any type of aggression. I took out a pen and ineffectively defaced the thick plastic screening with the words “NOT SO” above the “SMART” and added the word “INCREDIBLY” over the “DUMB.”

It was Sunday, April 21, 2002 — the end of the second long day of marches and rallies for peace in Washington, D.C. I had spent 10 hours marching the day before — first in the hot sun, followed by drizzling rain, then six hours this day in the pouring rain.

The picture before me on the metro showed my tax dollars at work and the extent of my naive optimism. What would make the American public aware of the extent of its own terrorism?

We had met one another for the first time at 7:30 a.m. on the Friday before the march at our assembly point behind the West Asheville Bakery. The four-day event had been diligently arranged by telephone by our veteran local peace organizer, Kitty Boniske.

Saturday was a scheduled and permitted rally and march on the capital organized by three groups: those who opposed the war on terrorism, those who opposed the activities of the World Bank, and those who opposed the School of the Americas and the War in Columbia. Sunday was a rally for stopping the war in Columbia. On Monday, Kitty and some of the group were to meet with N.C. Senator John Edwards to voice opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste depository. Then we were to head back to Asheville.

Kitty stipulated that we were all to pledge non-violence and that it was not our intention to get arrested, but no one knew what awaited us in Washington. Our three cell phones were programmed with the 800 help line for Asheville, manned by the members of the WNC Peace Coalition that would keep us and the other 140 Ashevillians in Washington in touch with one another, our families and the designated legal teams in case of crisis.

We were a motley assortment of new and experienced activists, aged from 25 to 70, with service records ranging from Clare Hanrahan’s recent six-month incarceration for her peaceful School of the Americas protest to newcomers pressed into action by the retaliation following 9/11.

Ten of us drove in tandem in two vehicles, connected by walkie-talkies. The conversations were brief, mainly centered on which stops were necessary and acceptable. Were there available menus for vegetarians? Were there objections to the corporate policies of the restaurants?

We were grateful for the reserved rooms in the motel in Alexandria, and pleased and proud that we could reach consensus on both the sleeping arrangements and the pizza toppings before 9 p.m.

On Saturday at 10 a.m., we assembled on the corner of Constitution and 14th Street with a contingent of 30 from Boone. Then the Asheville 10 walked with brisk enthusiasm past the White House in search of the World Bank protest, only to find the street barricaded. Our route to the main protest was blocked, forcing us to walk back two miles.

The sun was out, the temperature rising, our packs and water bottles becoming heavy, our tempers a bit frayed and our feet regretting the extra two miles … even before the beginning of the rally. We were well-informed on the events by Internet maps, but our best map looked like we had snatched it from under a lunch plate at a local restaurant. The size of the city blocks in Washington expanded with the heat. We conserved our water and eyed the distance from the port-o-johns.

It had been an error to skip breakfast. The standard D.C. cart vendors, selling hot dogs and sausages, had not modified their menus for the predominately vegetarian crowd and so sold mainly their water and pretzels. Only the ice-cream vendors drew crowds.

We passed the large assemblage of Palestinians, who had a sophisticated back screen projecting magnified pictures of the speakers, amplified voices whipping up the crowd in march preparation. Tables selling books by Marx and Lenin lined the grass. (I guess they hadn’t heard the bad press about Stalin and the failure of the Soviet experiment.) Entrepreneurs wearing ponchos covered with buttons walked along the sidewalk. Leaflets, independent newspapers and flyers were passed into outstretched hands.

Having located the peace rally, we rested in the sun underneath the Washington Monument, under the watchful presence of eight motorcycle police. We strained to hear the speakers over the crackly sound system. Although we separated and converged for a time, we always kept a web between the 10 of us. We wandered close to the stage, searching the crowd of vaguely familiar faces for friends from far away.

Here were assembled the Greens; hippies, old and new; Quakers; a long line of Japanese school children handing out cards promoting peace; the Buddhist Peace Fellowship; the SOA contingent; and a general assortment of anti-war activists. T-shirts and hats proudly identified the bearer with past and ongoing actions. We waited with a hopeful anxiety. Would enough of us have arrived? Would we be a presence? We watched as our crowd swelled from a few hundred into the thousands, awaiting some signal to move. At 2 p.m., following some secret signal, the crowd rose to its feet.

We unfurled the blue batiked banner identifying us as the Asheville chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which two of us carried in the lead. We then circled the Washington Monument, coming to a halt on the hill, waiting for our turn to enter the procession to the Capitol. We looked down onto a mass of bodies flowing down the hill, seemingly emerging from nowhere. We were a presence. We had grown from a trickle to a creek to a stream to a river. Across the green grass, on the Avenue, another river flowed to meet us.

We paused and took our place behind a large group of African Americans from D.C., carrying signs that asked funding for social services, not weapons. Drummers sounded a beat. Laughter arose. Chanters offered a call-and-respond: “What do we want?” “Peace!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

An ongoing puppet show from the SOA protesters acted out American foreign policy in Latin America. Thirty across, we walked across the Mall to Constitution Avenue, carrying our signs for peace, our hopes for a different future than a never-ending war.

Our slow procession came to a halt at the corner as we merged with the Palestinians and the World Bank protesters. Our tie-dyes and tattoos were tempered by women covered from head to toe in black and young people dressed all in black, their faces covered with bandannas — the identifying Black Block World Bank protest uniform. We were now a hundred across.

Suddenly, the police presence was vivid. The route was flanked by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Force. They stood two feet apart, respectfully at ease, clubs in their hands, gas masks hanging from their belts.

The predominant flag was Palestinian. The most poignant sticker said, “We are all Palestinians.” Periodically, an ululating cry would flow through the crowd like a rising serpent.

Holding the right hand corner of the WILPF banner, I looked to my right to a line of seven Arab men walking behind a leader who was reciting a rather long chant to which they responded with another long chant. I tapped the shoulder of the man next to me and asked him what he was saying. He paused, then decided on the short translation for international understanding: “God is good.”

The estimates were that we were between 75,000 and 100,000 people that Saturday in April in Washington, expressing our hopes for peace, our outrage against the killing.

We were only a tiny percentage of the American people, but surely there are many more who know in their hearts that killing one another by any means is not “SMART.” Perhaps soon all the people will carry their testimony out of the churches and temples and mosques and into the streets. Perhaps the next march will stop on Constitution Avenue as the Moslems roll out their prayer rugs, face Mecca and pray.

Perhaps we will all join them.

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