I arrived in Washington late last night, and stayed with my friend Elizabeth, who is a lawyer, a Quaker, and a yoga teacher (not in that order). Got a call on my cell phone as we were headed over to the peace march and rally — the rest of the contingent from First Unitarian could not make it down due to a mix-up on their bus seats.
Got to the Ellipse for the rally a little before noon. An interesting group of speakers and not the usual suspects — not many aging (white) activists from the sixties, no leftover (white) hippies — instead, more people of color speaking, and a fair number of younger speakers.
The march around the White House and up and down the streets just north of the Mall was supposed to step off at 12:30. The speakers were still going strong, but Elizabeth and I wandered over towards where the march was supposed to start off. I saw a blonde woman walking quickly in the other direction, surrounded by a small coterie, who were surrounded by photographers and videographers. People around us started following here: “Cindy Sheehan! Cindy…”
The crowd kept getting thicker and thicker. Elizabeth, a long-time resident of Washington, said, “There’s a lot of people here.” I had figured there would be maybe fifty thousand people, the march organizers got a permit for a hundred thousand — but Elizabeth’s best guess was that it was more than hundred thousand, based on seeing past events in and around the Mall.
We finally wormed our way through the crowd and got to where the march was supposed to be starting, but all we saw was people just standing there on the street waiting to start walking. I began to think that the sheer numbers of people who showed up had overwhelmed the logistics of the march. We tried to skirt around the beginning of the march route, and after an hour of working our way through the crowd, and taking a wrong turn here or there, we wound up where we could see the marchers coming down the street towards us. Elizabeth has been having back problems, so she kept heading north and caught a bus home. I joined the march.
The marchers were heading along at a good clip, a steady stream of people through the streets of Washington. I looked around to see what kind of people were marching. For the large part, they were stunningly normal-looking. Yes, I saw a few college kids in dreadlocks, a few anarchists dressed in red and black, someone on stilts. But mostly I saw normal, ordinary people. Many middle-aged people, quite a few elders, quite a few younger adults — and a fair number of children and teens.
Being a minister, I noticed the people who announced their religious affiliations: Methodists for Peace, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Quakers for Peace and Justice, Church of the Brethren, Unitarian Universalists for Economic Justice, an Episcopalian group, Ethical Culture Society — in other words, lots of liberal Christians and other religious liberals. A fair number of Muslims, too. One tiny contingent of Buddhists.
I got to the end of the march by three thirty or so — the people Elizabeth and I had seen waiting to start marching were still standing in the same place where we had left them — the pre-march speakers were still going strong. I wandered over to where the post-march “Operation Ceasefire” concert was supposed to happen.
A band called Living Things was playing some pretty good hardcore with a peace and justice message. A far cry from the folk singers you might have heard at rallies in the late seventies, when I first demonstrated in Washington for peace (we were trying to end the Cold War and the nuclear arms race back then) — much hipper, far more upbeat. Living Things were followed by some speakers, including Maxine Waters who gave the best speech I heard all day. Although her speech was clearly a partisan Democratic speech, and al though she didn’t get into religious or moral reasons for ending the war in Iraq, it was still an excellent summary of reasons for getting out of Iraq now.
Maxine Waters was followed by a young woman from Louisiana Peace network — I missed her name — but she made the obvious link between what happened in New Orleans, and the fact that we’ve committed too much money and personnel to Iraq. Two dynamic African American women in a row. For me they were the highlight of the whole event. One of the organizers of the event came on next and announced three hundred thousand people at the march and rally. Then Joan Baez came onstage. It sounded like she hadn’t warmed up her voice — her famous vibrato was not happening, her intonation was way off, her voice cracked — it was past four, so I decided to leave.
So how many people were actually there? The New York Times did its usual weak coverage of Washington political rallies including their trademark statement, “The National Park Service no longer gives estimates of crowd size.” A good reporter could have gotten a crowd estimate from another source — with modern satellite images, no doubt someone has come up with a pretty accurate estimate of how many people were there — but the New York Times wasn’t interested. We’re on our own to come up with a guess. I’d guess more than the hundred thousand that had been planned for, but less than the three hundred claimed — somewhere in that range. A lot of people. A lot of people who are praying for true peace now.
The Washington Post had good solid coverage of the march in a cover story yesterday. Reporter Petula Dvorak wrote in part:
Protest organizers estimated that 300,000 people participated, triple their original target. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who walked the march route, said the protesters achieved the goal of 100,000 and probably exceeded it. Asked whether at least 150,000 showed up, the chief said, ‘That’s as good a guess as any. It’s their protest, not mine. It was peaceful — that’s all I care about….’
There were more Americans at the march than we have sent to Iraq. Dvorak goes on to report that,
Roughly 147,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq. Since the war began in March 2003, 1,911 U.S. members of the military have been killed and 14,641 have been wounded.