Get on the Bus

For one fellow traveler, the road to an anti-war protest in Washington is paved with good intentions and bad politics

It's 7 a.m. and time for breakfast at McDonald's, much to the distress of Mark Smithhisler, a video director.

"Is it an anti-globalization thing?" I ask him.

"No, it's an anti-McDonald's thing," he admits. "I hate their food."

Mark Graham
Hadi Jawad is one of the coordinators of the Dallas 
Coalition Against War in Iraq, which has engaged in 
some questionable local coalition building with the 
Nation of Islam.
Mark Graham
Hadi Jawad is one of the coordinators of the Dallas Coalition Against War in Iraq, which has engaged in some questionable local coalition building with the Nation of Islam.

Stragglers from breakfast are beginning to try Maxwell's patience, and I wonder if he is as dedicated to pacifism as he says. Forty-five minutes later, we enter Washington, and Maxwell transforms himself into a tour guide, pointing out the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Watergate Hotel and the Washington Monument. It's odd, the childlike sense of awe a few monuments to freedom can inspire, even for this assortment of anti-authority types.

No way that 56 people can march together among a crowd that numbered anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000, depending on who's counting. "I don't know an attorney in Washington," Maxwell cautions us. "So don't embarrass me."

Exiting the bus, I see a large man standing by the wire fence, holding a sign high that bears a photo of Ariel Sharon and Adolf Hitler, a swastika and a Star of David. I tell him his sign is offensive and ask him if he is with ANSWER. He says he only represents himself, but then passes out half a dozen anti-war signs that bear the ANSWER Web site.

The Dallas peaceniks fight their way through the masses toward the main podium at the Washington mall. The crowd is relatively young, decidedly Anglo and primed to respond. Speakers include former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who urges us to impeach George Bush. Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran who inspired the movie Born on the Fourth of July, has us chant for health care, not warfare; the Reverend Al Sharpton asks us to wish Martin Luther King Jr. a happy birthday. And a pro-Palestinian speaker insists we stop American imperialism by standing up for the plight of the Palestinian people.

Signs proliferate, and many share a common theme: Bush-bashing. "Stop the Son of a Bush's War; Regime Change Starts at Home; and the crowd-pleasing, "Who elected this fucker anyway?"

After a dozen speeches we begin our three-mile march, glad to finally feel our feet again. Then one of the speakers announces that a 10-year-old boy is lost and asks if his mother would please come claim him at the Red Cross booth. Bill Maxwell can't believe it: It was the second time Brandon had been missing in an hour.

With the march came chanting and drumming: "One, two, three, four, we don't want your oil war; Bush, Cheney, Exxon, Shell. Take your war and go to hell." There are Buddhists for Peace, Raging Grannies for Peace, Greens for Peace, Okies for Peace.

Two miles into the march, I lose sight of everyone from Dallas, which is fine because it gives me the opportunity to duck inside a Starbucks and defrost. Of course, it isn't fine with anti-globalization protesters who shout "Down with Starbucks" as they parade by. I ask several people why Starbucks is such a lightning rod. One college kid from New York says it may be because the company refuses to divest from Israel. I buy another cup of coffee.

By 5 p.m., the rally is over and we return to the bus. Most don't know if they have made a difference, but it's enough that they tried. This rally marks the beginning of their activism, and they intend to march again, to volunteer at the Dallas Peace Center, to lobby their legislators, to do whatever they can to stop the war.

A few are put off by the moral absolutism of the protests: "I think we lose credibility as a movement if we resort to the same rhetoric that the administration uses in describing Saddam," Smithhisler says. "By saying Bush is this evil guy, so everything he does is evil, we seem too fringe. That misses the boat in trying to convince the bulk of Americans that this war is a bad idea."

Many Americans won't be convinced until we actually go to war and only then if it becomes clear that the costs are too great. These fresh peace recruits then may feel more comfortable with coalitions such as Win Without War, which are positioning themselves for more mainstream appeal.

Still, I admire the pacifists on the bus for their reverence and the leftists for their moral certainty, but it's 10-year-old Brandon--precocious and misplaced--who helps me resolve my own ambivalence.

Later at the motel lobby, I run into him as he peddles anti-war T-shirts for his mother. He is wearing pajamas and looks beat, but still wants to be interviewed.

"So why do you think we shouldn't invade Iraq?" I finally ask him.

"I just don't want to," he says.

"Well, why don't you want to?"

"I don't know. It just doesn't feel right."

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