I came to Washington today to march for peace. The good news is that it was the biggest peace rally I've attended since the world-wide attempt to assert some sanity in advance of the invasion of Iraq, February 15, 2003. There were easily 100,000 attendees, spread out before the Lincoln Memorial perhaps several hundred thousand. The bad news is that the event wasn't really a peace march, lacked a focused message, and drew a fairly clueless crowd. People knew there was something wrong, but didn't have a clear idea what they wanted; and to the extent they did, the message wasn't unified or even consistent.
The event was organized by One Nation Working Together, an impressively broad coalition of groups like the Steel Workers Union, with traditional liberal messages, and others like Code Pink with a more radical social critique. The crowd, about half black and half white, seemed to be dominated by union members and civil rights advocates.
The danger here is milquetoast. The lead speaker pulled the crowd together by calling out, "Are we one nation?" "YES!!!" A team of speakers repeated MLK's "I have a Dream" speech from 1963 in its entirety, from a teleprompter, and still - can you imagine? - the crowd wasn't electrified. I listened to pabulum for nearly two hours before I heard a speaker connect the Mideast wars with the dismal state of the US economy it was 83-year-old Harry Belafonte, bless his heart.
Donning my "Press" hat (which may have looked to the uninitiated like an ordinary bicycle helmet) I walked through the crowd, asking two dozen people, "What are you marching for today?" Sample answers:
"I got laid off last month."
"I'm here with my Mom."
"You know - jobs. This economy stinks for everybody except the fat cats."
"It's time they listened to the little guy." (I did follow up, asking him what the little guy would say once he had their ear, but he was already walking away.)
Several people responded by asking me what I was marching for, and when I replied, "peace" there was universal acknowledgment that that was a good cause, too.
There were lots of union T-shirts, a strong gay rights contingent, and recognition that if we don't organize in anticipation of Social Security privatization and medicare cuts, we could be blindsided in the coming Lame Duck session. Perhaps a tenth of the signs people carried mentioned peace a quite considerable number, for which I am genuinely grateful.
One African-American nurse from Los Angeles had been flown East for this event, in conjunction with a union meeting. She confided in me that she had tried a Tea Party rally this summer, and was disappointed with the way it was covered in the press. "Are there many people of color at those events?" I ventured to ask her. "I was the only one, and someone called me a f*** jigger and told me to get the hell out."
The most depressing answer, IMHO: "I'm here to get out the vote you know, the Democrats."
I was almost back at my bicycle, ready to depart when I asked a middle-aged black man in a CWA union T-shirt, "Why are you marching today." He looked me over and began tentatively to deliver the litany. He began with obvious ills: the President is not doing what he was elected to do; the Congress won't oppose the corporations; the growing institutional barriers to labor organization. He educated me on the Employee Free Choice Act which, he noted, sounds like it might be a right-to-work law , but this one is really for the good guys.
"You know," I said, "I've talked to at least twenty people in this crowd, and you're the first one who has a coherent vision of what we're struggling for." He relaxed, opened up to me, and tested the waters for more radical stuff. When he dropped the key word "conspiracy theory" I responded with the secret handshake, "That's where I live," I said, and he let me know what he had figured out: the War on Terror is fabrication of the Bush Administration, conjured to justify perpetual war, executive secrecy and suspension of the Bill of Rights.