I wish I was on yonder hill
'Tis there I'd sit and cry my fill,
And every tear would turn a mill,
Johnny’s gone for a soldier.
--Siuil Agra 1688
So many have asked what it was like, the demonstration in Washington, DC on September 24, 2005. I was there. I was there in Chicago in 1968. I went to Chicago to participate. I went to DC to observe, for nearly forty years later I have learned something of great battles and survival and endurance. They say there were three hundred thousand present so recently in Washington. I only know what I witnessed. Unlike the panoramic spectacle of Gettysburg, it was more like the scattered struggle of Antietam.
I do not draw lightly the analogy between street-theatre slogans and the grim death-grip of battle. Less clear is the distinction between the fog of war and the haze of time. The role of witness and participant is more distinct when you remove the charge of mortal fear and add the element of choice. It was my luxury to choose to be an observer with the cushion of experience. Still, there are snapshots that strike at the heart, etched on the memory, the stuff of history and legend and myth. I saw those things.
By far the most striking snapshot was a young woman with a homemade sign that said, “My soldier is fighting for your freedom of speech.” She was all alone, seated on a small rise, and I passed her twice before I stopped to take her picture and ask about “her soldier.” I would never presume to argue about how any Iraqi threatened the free speech of anyone here. It was neither my place nor desire to try to slice what appeared to be a non sequitur. I only hoped she would one day marry, not bury “her soldier.”
The great “mall” in DC… and the irony of “mall” is not lost here… is becoming cluttered with solemn and ostentatious sculpture to the memory of “fallen heroes.” Add that to the irony of the handful of “counter-demonstrators,” all two dozen of them, soft and fat, holding up their parrot posters saying “freedom is not free.” Yeah right and salt is not salty. It’s a catchy meme but no substance, nice box, and no cereal. In the great sea of signs and signifiers, none cut to the heart like the words, “my soldier.”
We arrived at the home of Bob and Carol, complete strangers who opened their home to visitors who arrived at 3 am and departed that morning after four hours of sleep and an offer of breakfast, and we trusted each other in spite of all the crap and crime shows. We didn’t rage against the machine. We simply ignored it and took care of each other. Plunged into darkness on our journey home, you couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the impossibly jammed eight-lane metro area and the hinterlands like a darkened Siberia.
There were so few lights on the clustered buildings in rural Siberia, and what I swore were Christmas lights were what Diana called “Christian lights,” decorations in the darkness to show piety and ward off evil spirits. One isolated porch in the carpet of outland darkness was a blazing “support our troops” display, soon to be rotated, I imagine, with red-nosed Rudolph. Ponder now the link between the metro marble statuary and Lincoln’s “last, best hope,” between the leering, lit-up strip-mall Santas and the teachings of Christ.
I have digressed from the original question, “what was it like,” describing the personal journey instead of the specific experience. The demonstration in DC was like a convention. One lady my age touched my arm and asked, “Who would have ever thought we would have to do this again?” Then she vanished into the crowd. We all had to show up at this convention to convince ourselves that there were others in a nation of over 280 million people occupying half a continent who have not gone stark raving mad.
We were the others who gathered together at Washington DC on the 24 th of September, 2005 and at points all over the USA and all over the world. We move to gather again, to get to know each other. These are not “demonstrations,” because it is no longer possible to demonstrate the obvious. This was and will be a gathering of strength, of information, of momentum. It was like seeing hope. It was like seeing the future as it will be; green, whether in local sustainable communities or in recovering forests outside the ruins.
The tears of millions of poor and downhearted and oppressed have turned the mill, you know, the one that grinds exceeding fine. The pyramid hierarchy finished with the burst of petrochemical energy is now a stone tomb waiting to be looted by the workers who built it. Their labor unrewarded, their last hope is to trade the hoarded gold of the dead for water and bread. In our dying world where bankers replaced bakers, grain traded by takers who sh*t in fresh water, our children will wander the desert.
The tribes came to gather among the stone tombs of a crumbling empire. They whispered of a green and growing future, where the sickness of war and the stain of greed were washed away from a beautiful blue planet that never did betray the hearts of those who loved her. We will long be asleep in her tender arms before this comes to be. Some of us are old now, but we recognized each other from the gatherings in the past. We saw the vision in each other’s eyes; we heard the dream in the voices of our children who carry on.
That’s what it was like.