By Emily McNeill
I began the day of the protest on the 10th floor of an office building on H Street. By 9:30 a.m. I was on my third cup of coffee, sitting in an attractive conference room at the offices of Campus Progress, an affiliate of the liberal think tank, Center for American Progress.
I had traveled down to D.C. overnight on a bus with 50 other students from Ithaca, N.Y. The bus was just a little too cold, and I had slept fitfully for an hour or two, curled up with my knees on the seat in front of me and a scratchy wool turtleneck sweater pulled over my face.
We were passing through downtown Silver Spring when I woke up. The sky had just begun to lighten into a deep blue-gray, and the streetlights showed empty sidewalks and frozen, shadowy storefronts. It was before seven, more than two hours before I had to be downtown, and all I had wanted was to stretch out somewhere warm and go back to sleep.
But now, in the bright conference room, with the cheerful blue stripes on the front wall, the caffeine and a hopeful energy were overtaking my fatigue. I finished a bagel and my coffee, chatting with a couple friends about the Middle East and the miserable bus ride and waiting for the panel to begin.
About 100 of us – mostly students – were gathered to hear the Center’s position on the war. Many at the march would be calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. “Not another dime, not another day,” the slogan went. But the Center for American Progress – which, through Campus Progress, had helped to fund our trip – had brought us to their offices to give us a more sophisticated approach, one they hoped could counter claims that there was no viable alternative to “the surge.”
Larry Korb, former senior fellow and director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out the plan – a phased withdrawal over 18 months and negotiations with Iran and Syria. He was slim and bald, with round glasses, and he spoke calmly in a Brooklyn accent. It wasn’t a perfect plan, of course, but that was to be expected. There could be no satisfying conclusion to an unnecessary war based on lies and carried out incompetently.
Korb was followed by Lorelei Kelly and Joe Cirincione, national security experts at the White House Project, an organization promoting women in political leadership, and the Center for American Progress. They painted a grim picture of the circumstances that had brought us there.
All three had worked in Washington during the past dozen years, a time when their views were becoming increasingly marginalized. There was no constituency for progressive foreign policy, Kelly explained, and the neoconservative plan had been a stunning failure.
Cirincione, leaning forward into his microphone and, plowing through a speech impediment that swallowed his r’s, recounted the disaster. Every part of the neoconservative plan turned out to be wrong, he said, his voice animated with frustration – or perhaps disbelief. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to show the rest of the world – especially Iran and North Korea - that the United States would deal strongly with rogue regimes. That plan had backfired.
Behind me, someone chuckled cynically. It was jarring. Whatever satisfaction could be found in the neocons’ failure eluded me – the consequences were just too grave.
Still, none of the panelists sounded defeated. After all, the inherent flaws of neoconservative foreign policy had now been exposed, opening the way for something to replace it – maybe even the progressive, more diplomatically focused foreign policy Kelly described. But there was no jubilance either, because the damage had already been done. An end to the war was necessary and good, but all it could do was make things a little less awful.
Cirincione told us he was proud that we were there. The administration doesn’t care what we have to say, everyone agreed. But we were there to tell them anyway. “This is what America is all about,” he said. “The redress of grievances to our government.”
It was close to 11 a.m. when we left the Center for American Progress, and in the two hours we’d been inside, the sun had warmed the city. The day was perfect – spring-like and sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky.
Despite the weather, my mood was slightly deflated as I walked with three friends to the national mall. It wasn’t that anything the panel had said was new to me, and hearing Lorelei Kelly – an articulate, confident woman in the masculine field of national security – had even been inspiring. But the thought of what we were up against was overwhelming. Besides, the caffeine was wearing off, and I was feeling cranky.
By the time we reached the Capitol end of the mall, throngs of people were milling about as far as we could see. Some were yelling angrily about war crimes and impeachment, others passed out literature, and most wandered around or stood in groups. The speakers had started, and an attentive audience was gathered near the stage. It was impossible to see how many people filled the 11 blocks of the mall. By the end of the day, estimates would put the number in the tens of thousands – smaller than a similar march in September 2005, but large enough so that later, as we passed the Capitol building, we could see the procession extend all the way back to 3rd St., from which an endless stream of protesters flowed out onto Constitution Ave.
We made our way up to the stage in time to hear Reps. Maxine Waters and John Conyers call for a binding resolution in Congress to withdraw from Iraq within six months.
Conyers’ remarks reflected a nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s that was pervasive in the crowd, even among those of us not old enough to remember those days.
“Now we marched and protested and legislated against segregation and then against the Vietnam War,” Conyers shouted in a raspy, strained voice. “Today we march and protest and legislate against the war in Iraq, and we continue the great tradition of struggle of the people. Today’s march is a continuation of the vote on Nov. 7. History is clear. When our country is at a moral crossroads, it takes the cries and the outrage of the American people to force Washington to do the right thing. That’s why we’re here.”
The crowd cheered dutifully at the right moments. But it felt a little hesitant, a little forced, as though everyone were looking around for cues as to the code of conduct for this reincarnated antiwar movement. Many were new to the movement or out of practice – unsure, it seemed, of the line between righteous indignation and impetuous passion. And unsure even of which they preferred.
Conyers was followed by the mayor of Salt Lake City, and after that speech, I moved out of hearing range to meet some friends. Here, various groups had attracted small crowds. There was a group of anarchists in black and socialists holding signs denouncing imperialism and handing out a special issue of the International Socialist Worker.
The Hip-Hop Caucus, a group of mostly African-American and Hispanic young people, wore red T-shirts that read “Make Hip Hop, Not War.”
I listened to them for a while, impressed with their talent. The creativity of their lyrics was refreshing, especially compared to the repetitive chants found elsewhere in the crowd. A young man with long brown hair spat into the bullhorn: “We’re in a war we can never win. The world’s worse now than it’s ever been. And it’s evident. They never tried gettin’ Bin Laden. They could’ve had ‘im.”
He went on, summarizing in verse a familiar conspiracy-theory narrative, which blamed the CIA for the 9/11 attacks.
He finished with the refrain. “You don’t support the troops, you just send ‘em off to die. I support the troops, I’m tryin’ to keep ‘em alive.”
The small crowd joined in, all young people except for a thin old man wearing one of the red T-shirts and a crocheted kufi. The long-haired rapper finished and handed the bullhorn back to the leader, who rallied the group with another round of “Make hip-hop, not war” before moving on.
Finally, close to 2 p.m., the march got under way. Protesters slowly filtered into the street, and a few friends and I fell in with a group of students behind a banner for the Campus Anti-War Network. The crowd was loud, but not rowdy.
“A war of occupation will never bring liberation,” we chanted. “That’s bullshit! Get off it! This war is for profit!”
And then the familiar call and response: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
We circled the Capitol, passing by Congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. The usual players marched together in groups – the socialists, the labor unions, the anti-war groups, the anarchists, the feminists. But most had no apparent affiliation. Young and old, they marched alone or with friends and family carrying homemade signs. Hundreds lined the route of the march, gathered on the steps and front lawns of government buildings. The hill was crawling with people, and the march itself stretched in both directions as far as I could see.
This was what democracy looked like. But as I walked past the majestic buildings of Capitol Hill under a bright, warm late-afternoon sun, it all felt unsatisfying.
There was something sad about this gathering, though maybe not everyone felt it. “I’m not optimistic,” a middle-aged woman from Boston told me on the Metro after the march. “I’m hopeful but not optimistic.”
She was there not because she felt confident that the protest would change anything, but because “we’ve gotta do something.”
Another woman, a professor from Michigan State who’d protested at Berkeley in the ’60s, expressed the same sentiment. “This was much more sober, grimmer.”
In Berkeley 40 years ago, at protests that often ended with blood in the streets, there was a feeling that the antiwar movement could change things. In the end, it seems it did.
But this was different.
There was a frightening sense that we were gathering to protest something that had already been etched into history – that these were just louder echoes of a message whose failure to penetrate the administration had already doomed us. If the war ended, things would still be terrible. If not, they would be unthinkable. As Lorelei Kelly had said about the Bush administration before the march: “They remind me of the bullies who take your lunch money and still beat you up.”
The peacefulness of the march, while welcome, was a sign that no government force had been sent out to engage us. We were yelling at empty office buildings and shouting into the wind.
Still, this was what democracy looked like, and it was beautiful. It was a picture of the America that I believe in. But what brought tears to my eyes as, exhausted, I rode the Metro back to the bus was that it is also the America that, through bombs and bullets, factories and prisons scattered around the world, is being squandered.
Emily McNeill is a junior journalism major. Email her at emcneil1[at]ithaca.edu.
More on the protest in D.C. from Buzzsaw editor Karin Fleming.