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Giving the President a Pink Slip in New York City

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Marching in New York City
By Tom Engelhardt

It's the perfect day for a march. Sunny, crisp, clear, spring-like. The sort of day that just gives you hope for no reason at all, though my own hopes are not high for New York's latest antiwar demonstration. I haven't received a single email about it. Many people I know hadn't realized it was happening. I fear the outreach has been minimal and despite all the signals of danger (of another war, this time with Iran) and of possibility (nosediving presidential approval polls, an administration in disarray, and the Republican Party in growing chaos), I approach this 30 block march with something of a sinking heart.

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This is only reinforced by the scene that meets the full staff of Tomdispatch.com -- Nick Turse and me -- as we leave the subway at 18th street and head east about an hour before the demonstrators are to step off. The streets are still largely empty of all but the police, gathered in knots at every corner. Their blue sawhorses ("police line do not cross") rim the sidewalks seemingly to the horizon and everywhere you can see stacks of the metal fencing with which the NYPD has become so expert at hemming in any demonstration. None of this inspires great confidence.

Sometimes, though, surprise is a wonderful thing. Who would have guessed that several hours later I would be standing on Broadway and Leonard Street looking back at perhaps 20 packed blocks of demonstrators -- bands, puppets, signs by the thousands, vets by the hundreds (if not the thousands), huge contingents of military families, congeries of the young, labor, women, the clergy, university and high school students, raging grannies, radical cheerleaders, and who knows who else -- an enormous mass of humanity as far as the eye can see and probably another 10 to 15 blocks beyond that. It was enough to make the heart leap. I had no way of counting, no way of knowing whether what I saw was the 300,000 the organizers claimed or merely the vague "tens of thousands" mentioned in most media reports. It was, to say the least though, a lot of people, mobilized on limited notice.

As someone who lived through the era of Vietnam protests, this demonstration had quite a different feel to it, and not just because of all the military families (and the surprising number of people I talked with who knew someone, or were related to someone, who had served in our all-volunteer military in Iraq), but because no one in this demonstration had the illusion that the White House was paying the slightest bit of attention to them. The same, by the way, might be said of the mainstream media. On the ABC and NBC prime time news this night, the reports on this huge demonstration, sandwiched between what would be billed as major stories, would zip by in quite literally a few seconds each. In each case, if you hadn't been there, it would be easy to believe from the reporting that this event had essentially never occurred.

As I often do, I spent as much time as I could prowling the crowd, talking to as many protesters as possible. A demonstration of this size is a complex beast, one I would hesitate to characterize. I've tried instead to offer below some of the voices I ran across -- or at least as much of each of them as my slow hand could madly scribble on a pad of paper. As modest as the cross-section I encountered was, I had the feeling that, while the march was calm, lively, and upbeat, many of the demonstrators had no illusions about what the future might hold. The ones I met were almost uniformly disappointed in, or disgusted with, the Democratic "opposition," fearful of a new war in Iran, realistic about how hard it will be to get the President's men (and so our troops) out of Iraq, and yet surprisingly determined that those troops should be brought home as soon as humanly possible.

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Perhaps such demonstrations are now not for the Bush administration, nor really for the mainstream media either, but only for us. Perhaps they are a reminder to all those who attend and to those numbering in their hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on the political Internet that we are here, alive, and humming. That is reason enough to demonstrate.

Throughout these years, signs -- individually made, hand-lettered, sometimes just scrawled (not to speak of masks, puppets, complex theatricals, elaborate visuals of every sort suitable for a world of special effects) -- are the signature aspect of such demonstrations. Here are some of the signs that caught my eye, not necessarily the wildest among them, but ones that give something of the flavor of the event:

"From Gulf to Gulf, George Bush, a category 5 disaster"
"Drop Bush, Not Bombs."
"Fermez La Bush"
"No ProLife in Iraq."
"1 was too many, 2400 is enough"
"War is terrorism with a bigger budget"
"Axis of Insanity" (with George, Condi, Don, and Dick dressed as an Elmer Fudd-style hunter)
"One Nation under Surveillance"
"G.O.P. George Orwell Party"
"How Many Lives per Gallon?"
"War Is Soooooo 20th Century"
"Civil War Accomplished in Iraq-Nam"
"Give Impeachment a Chance"
"I'm Already Against the Next War"
"Expose the lies, half-truths, cut and paste rationales for going to war"
"Mandatory Evacuation of the Bush White House"

And here are some of the voices that go with such signs:

The Soldier and the Machine

Demond Mullins is a 24 year-old student at Lehman College in New York. A handsome young man in wrap-around shades, he wears a desert camo jacket with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) on it. He tells me he was an infantryman in the Baghdad area from September 2004 to September 2005, part of a National Guard unit attached to the First Cavalry. He will be among a relatively modest IVAW group of perhaps 20 to 30 young men who will lead this demonstration.

"What got me here? I had just returned home and was having a lot of trouble transitioning back into civilian life. Then one day, a professor of mine gave me an email for an IVAW event. I met the vets against the war and it was my first time talking about my experience there. I felt easy with them.

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"I lost friends over there. Here's a bracelet." He briefly brings his wrist up so that, for a moment, I can see the black band, one of several bands. "Your unit makes these and the whole unit wears them. In my battalion, we lost twenty-five guys, but I wear this one because he was my closest friend there and he died six days before my birthday."

I ask him to let me have a closer look. On it, the band has rank, name ("I don't want you to use his name..."), and "December 1, 2004, KIA, Baghdad, Iraq" as well as the phrase, "Something to believe in."

"I ran all those missions and I don't know why. I don't know what their lives and the lives of Iraqi nationals were spent for. I thought they showed a blatant disregard for human life. I was just tired of being part of a machine destroying the Earth -- and I'm speaking of the military-industrial complex. I wanted to be part of a force saving the Earth."

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