October 26, 2002
I love you 'cause I need to
Hold...on to love --from "Luminous Times" by U2
"Hold on to love," sang Bono in my ears. The song "Luminous Times," is about something desperate in relationships. Life is full of a lot of desperate passion, and it takes a lot of strength in all that desperation to believe that these are yet luminous times. Some of that feeling, that desperate desire to hold on to love came out in the peace march today, October 26, 2002, in Washington, DC. And, the luminous sun came out today as well.
I also came because I love peace, true peace--not
simply a world without bombs but a world of dialogue and interaction and
empathy. I came because I want to see evidence of a peace movement that's
not simply a reaction to the evils in Iraq but also a call for action
promoting justice among each other.
However, I almost didn't come to the march today.
Last year, I came out to the peace march protesting the war in Afghanistan sponsored by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), and I left that protest thoroughly unimpressed. While I was happy to see a fairly diverse group of people, I was dismayed by the lack of understanding of peace. In the middle of the march, we faced a small group of people supporting Bush's policy to go to war in Afghanistan, and the speaker on the "peace" side shouted them down, belittled them, and pointed an angry fist at them. Where was the love? The entire event, though very good in many ways, seemed like it was about using peace as a means to sell every other possible liberal cause under the sun. In fact, the march that year was hastily arranged, and many of the people who came were there to protest the World Bank meetings. Since those meetings were canceled by September 11, a lot of angry people decided that "peace" was the next best issue to rally around. However, in that climate, going to protest an extremely positive war (my grandfather called me a traitor), all that I felt in the air was war and angst. Peace seemed to be lost in the chaotic fracturing of the liberal agenda. It was just one more cause.
When I found out about this year's event, many people simply assumed that I would be going, but I had very mixed feelings about it because of what happened last year. I am entirely for peace, am a devout pacifist, but I wasn't sure that the people who said they were for peace weren't just using the issue like they have in the past, as part of their anti-capitalist, anti-corporate agenda. While they have many good points, and I'm not criticizing them on issues I myself often agree about, I, nevertheless, have great troubles with the idea that war in the world is simply a result of the evil that we as Americans have caused on other societies. I am not saying we have not caused evil on other societies; that's not at all my point. What I am saying is that the lack of peace in the world is a much harder thing to get at than that. Peace isn't just about avoiding military conflict or even for providing the economic structure where lack of military conflict becomes less likely. Peace is a much messier thing that involves a lot of very different people who don't always like each other who nevertheless find some way to trust each other and work through their issues. War on a large scale is little different than war on the small scale. In a society like the United States with a 50% divorce rate and a much higher unhappy marriage rate, where there is a growing isolation and mistrust in our society, a growing fear of each other, we are already on many different levels engaged in a great civil war. We may not all be killing each other--indeed, violent crime has dropped over the past decade--we are still not living peaceful lives. When someone hurts us, we hit back. When they anger us, we hate them. It's very hard for us to stay reasonable and caring when there is so much pain in our own worlds. When you extend what happens in microcosm in our own lives, it's not hard to understand at all what happens on a larger scale. It's even easier to understand when the deaths of other more distant people become so impersonal to us. So, in light of that, I have a lot of trouble with the oversimplification of the problem of peace that the current leaders of the so-called peace movement espouse. It lacks, in many cases, real depth. It likes to blame other people for the war of the world, and it does very little to point inward at itself.
I am not sure that much has changed, but I think that today's march in Washington was profoundly different, profoundly gentler in spirit, and profoundly more peaceful.
I had decided to come to the peace march only after other weekend plans fell through and after I was hit very hard by the death of the U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone. I wondered if maybe I might meet another spirit like Wellstone in the crowd. If not, I hoped at least that this would be a good way to focus my own thoughts and pay my respects to the man. And, when I saw who the man was, and what kind of passion he had, I became very upbeat about the possibility that there are other such souls out there and that such souls were most likely to be at a peace march. Wellstone's career in the Senate had two bookend votes, both times voting against authorizing the President to carry out military action in Iraq. It seemed only fitting that people who had this kind of passion, this kind of drive, this kind of compassion were going to be found at the march.
So, this morning I headed out to the peace march, and this is the chronicle of my day.
I headed toward the event walking down the streets of downtown Washington with music in my ear. I decided that I was not going to be without music today because I wanted those voices in my head, I wanted something to keep me from being calm. I didn't want to be that calm even if I portrayed calmness to the rest of the world. I wanted things constantly agitating me, constantly pushing me to think and get more perspective. Today, I chose to listen to some U2 b-side tracks in part because a lot of them had a kind of agitated darkness about them that were yet in their own strange way uplifting. Some were obsessive love songs, some just slow instrumentals, and some just tore at your heart. That may seem strange, but that's exactly what I wanted, and having that go on in me actually kept me smiling most of the day.
As I walked down the streets, I took a lot of notes of what was going on so I wouldn't forget. I don't usually do that because I find note taking to be very distracting. Yet, today, for some reason, I wanted to take notes. I think I decided that if I stood with a clipboard writing someone might take interest in what I was doing and strike up a conversation with me. You see, I love to meet people, but I'm painfully shy. So, I sometimes do subtle things that I hope will attract attention, but more often than not they don't. A lot of the peace I felt today was in spite of the loneliness that would sometimes creep in. I took my comfort as the day went on in other things and simply observing the joy in other people. Today was a day to listen and not to speak. Tonight is a time for me to speak in a medium where I am not at all shy.
Before getting there, lot's of other people obviously heading to the event were around. They had their college-looking, or hippy-like outfits. I hadn't shaved myself and was walking around in a green raincoat. The day began overcast. It was slightly chilly, but walking was keeping me warm. Music was in my ears constantly. As I walked, I saw a man drumming on buckets and a small glass square jar. He dropped his drumstick as I walked by, and I smiled. The rhythms around were a sign to come. The music and dance and art and drama around today was something greatly lacking the year before. Today, I saw street dancing, a lot of soulful singing, street performances, and a lot of festive people.
Approaching 20th and Constitution Avenue, I saw a lot of buses and large numbers of people. A tent city had been set up across the street, and the usual large numbers of people trying to give you their literature swarmed the place. You had Communists, Socialists, the free Mumia people, the Colombia people, the free Palestine people, and just about any cause that seemed remotely left of center under the sun. I avoided taking as much literature as I could this time because I knew I wasn't going to read it, and I didn't want to end up throwing it out. To be honest, having this be my first impression of the march was very discouraging. All around me were people with fliers and all these anti-materialistic liberal people talking on their cell phones. Cell phones were everywhere, and it did little for me. In the distance, I could hear people speaking, but though the crowd spread over the whole area, the sound was muffled after awhile. The ground beneath me was very muddy. You see, much of the National Mall is built on swamp or on what used to be the flow of the Potomac River. Look at the oldest maps, and you will realize that where we were standing not far from the Vietnam Memorial was actually water. Whenever it rains, it gets very muddy, and it rained heavily the night before. The reasons for these kinds of things are constantly cluttering up my mind. In any event, I wanted to get past the mud and closer to the main stage.
Fortunately, the large crowds had spread out quite a bit, and I was able to make my way to the back of the stage. I was looking around, noticing people, when my eye caught a kind of clownish version of Uncle Sam on stilts carrying anti-war signs. The anti-war movement that day constantly was talking about how we were in the majority. I don't pretend to know whether that is true; polling seems to suggest otherwise, but I live in liberal DC where it is very hard to get a sense of the national pulse. I think the idea behind this Uncle Sam was to suggest that even the icon of the war machine was on our side on this one.
As I was stumbling around looking for a place to take a picture of our enlarged Uncle Sam, I nearly backed into Jesse Jackson, who was giving a couple of interviews. I had a pretty good laugh at that one as I fumbled for my camera. Jesse Jackson hasn't exactly been my favorite character these days, especially since his silly tirade against the movie "Barbershop" where he complained about jokes directed at Rosa Parks, which were meant to be absurd. The pettiness seemed to have taken Jackson far from the soaring theory and soul of Dr. King's civil rights movement. We had gone from "I have a dream" to becoming petty movie critics. Still, Jesse Jackson has always been a very interesting man, who says more of the right things than the wrong things. Where a lot of people have seen him as a kind of demagogue, I have seen him as someone genuinely trying to do what is right and pursue policies, that if not quite in Dr. King's legacy, are much closer than the policies pursued by many others. It was great being that close to Jesse Jackson because it meant I could get a good picture. However, I don't think to many Washingtonians are too starstruck because we see these people all the time. You realize how small they are, how they aren't any bigger than you or I, though I think Jesse Jackson looks a good 3 inches taller than me. Still, I'm quite shy, and so I wasn't going to say to Jesse Jackson, "How's it going, bud?" Maybe, I should have, but probably not.
I worked my way to the side of the stage where I would stay for the next 4 or 5 hours, however long the endless stream of speeches went. The crowd was somewhat heavy but not so heavy that I couldn't sit down. Everyone else was standing, but I decided to sit to get a different perspective on the world I was in. I was desperate for something different from this day, and I looked for it in different places. On the ground, I noticed how green it was. It made me think of the green campaign signs of Senator Wellstone. It was like I was on a green carpet with everyone else bound together on it. That thought comforted me. I looked around, and I saw small dogs below the trees of jeans. Sitting down was also a way for me to listen to the speeches without being focused on all the visual aids around me. There were so many signs carried by all the people. They were the sort of signs you'd expect for the most part, some clever and amusing, and others more touching. I saw at least a dozen tributes to Paul Wellstone; there must have been many more. One of the more revealing signs was one that said, "F*ck Bush. Make Love not War." It was a picture of a vagina painted in green in a background of blue swirls reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh. I watched people watching signs. Like me, there were a lot of people curiously seeing who was joining them in this peace rally.
The thing that instantly struck me about the people there were that they were much more diverse than any rally I had been to. Usually, many of these rallies that I've attended have a great racial gulf. During Bush's inauguration, for instance, there were protests mostly held by white people on one end of town and protests by blacks mostly held on the other. No one was very happy about this, but that was the fact of things. At this rally, there were all kinds of people there, with a heavy contingent of Arabs, but this was really quite a melting pot. It wasn't just young either. There were many families there, many people who looked like they came in from the suburbs, many people both young and old. In fact, there were large numbers of people over 50 and 60 at the rally. What I noticed, though, was that this had a much more mainstream look to it than I anticipated. While I was one of the 6% of Americans who opposed war in Afghanistan and that certainly suggested a crowd of fringe activists last year, this new war is not necessarily popular. However you count the numbers, larger numbers of people oppose war in Iraq, and so it draws a much more diverse crowd. It was great to see so many people. Before long, I couldn't sit down anymore. The crowds stretched much further than my eyes could see expanding all the way around the small lake that makes up the Memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Things started picking up a little when Susan Sarandon spoke. I've always been an admirer of the controversial activist actress, and I was delighted by what she said. Of all the things she said, this stuck out the most. She said, "Dialogue is the opposite of war. We are here in dialogue." This is exactly right, and my heart beamed. Often enough we don't think too much about what at essence peace is. For years, I have argued that peace is essentially a kind of dialogue. As a lover of Plato, who taught that the life of a philosopher, the best life we could live, was essentially dialogue, essentially the "vulgar art of talking," I have argued for years that talk isn't cheap, and that actions which don't talk don't speak loudly at all. Everything we do is for the sake of interaction somehow, our very steps interact with the air, our lips interact either with other lips or for the sake of speaking. We are constantly trying to find our right relationship with things and with ourselves, and that's all an interactive process. Dialogue, which aims at meaningful interaction, is the essence of peace. Where dialogue gets cut off, so also does peace, where interaction is self-defeating toward more interaction like we have in war, then it's not dialogue proper at all. Dialogue for me is the essence of peace, and I wish I could talk to Ms. Sarandon to see how she came to such a fascinating conclusion.
Dialogue is what I hoped to see in the crowd I was in, and you could see conversations start the closer the crowd was pushed together. You could sense a greater communal energy at work. And, yet, these were small steps. We did not know or care enough about each other as strangers. Jesse Jackson asked us to hold hands when he prayed for Paul Wellstone, but only a small minority did. Other speakers were right to challenge us to look at each other, and people looked, but we all had embarrassed grins on our face. Our walls were exposed, and I realized again how far we were from peace with each other. And, yet, I could sense in people's signs, in their eyes, in their passionate yells, in their facial expressions that there was so much potential just looking for someone to tap into it. People had traveled from all over the country to be here. As a resident of the District, I was definitely a minority. I had done this sort of thing before; for others, this was a once in a lifetime experience. And, in this melting pot beginning ever so slowly to melt just a little more, I felt good seeing these faces, seeing that there was something behind the mask. I just wish I could have gotten to know a couple of them.
The singer Patti Smith came out to speak and sing. I was amazed at how little reaction she got to her very moving and simple folk song that seemed to be entitled "People have the power." Around us all were people in trees who had climbed to get a view on things. It seemed like everyone wanted to get a sense of perspective on what exactly was happening. Patti Smith acknowledged the people in the trees by singing a couple times, "People in the trees have the power." We all turned around and acknowledged the people in the trees.
Speeches dragged on and on. Some were better than others. Highlights included Jesse Jackson's speech, where he spoke very eloquently and in characteristic rhyme when he said, "Without vision, we have division" and encouraged us not to act for peace out of fear but out of hope. He argued quite eloquently that fear is the root of division and war. Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General for Lyndon Johnson said aptly, "We know what's right' we just don't stand up for what's right!" That seemed to go along with a quote of Dr. King's that was presented which said, "There comes a time in someone's life when silence is betrayal." All of this suggested that we needed more moral courage, more need to act for peace, more need to speak up on its behalf and on behalf of good things. All these things can become a bit self righteous and a little trite, and yet I think in our hearts we know that we aren't living up to our own potential, that our lives need something more to drive us along, something that gives us that drive. We have it when we fall in love, when we are romantically enchanted. When the enchantment fades just a little, it is very hard to hold on to it, and yet losing it is the worst thing in the world. Yet, it's often easier not to hold on but to drift on, the desperate passions come to us only when someone drops a bomb on us or on someone we love. In this case, when the bombs are quite literal, that desperate drive finds us again, and we know that we haven't been outspoken enough, out in front enough. When those moments come, though, and that need to hold on, that need to speak out, that need for the love that drives peace, and we see it and we realize it and we begin to act on it, there is light.
By now, it was sunny. One of the speakers boomed out, "It does not rain on the righteous!" We laughed.
One of the last speakers was the Rev. Al Sharpton, about as divisive a figure in Democratic Party politics as there gets. I have never thought much of Al Sharpton, but I was glad he was there. I was glad to hear so many different voices, although there were way too many speakers to stay perfectly strong. Still, the challenge of building coalitions is learning to deal with different voices. We love openness often enough only so long as it isn't something that ticks us off, and then we don't want anything to do with it. Sharpton's speech was fiery, but what struck me about it most was the dynamic with the crowd itself. Sharpton received a very lukewarm response from the crowd upon being announced. When Sharpton got fired up, more people began getting fired up with him. When he told us that Bush was simply trying to scare us like our parents sometimes scared us into believing in the "Boogeyman," the crowd was in a frenzy. He completely won them over when he proclaimed, "When the cowboys go forward [with war], they won't go forward IN OUR NAME!" Sometimes, it seemed that the hatred for the Bush Administration was the only thing that brought everyone together, and yet looking around proved that the people there weren't simply consumed with their anger at the war hawks and oil tycoons. Incense occasionally filled the air with sweet smells, smiles abounded, contentment with the atmosphere permeated the place. The weather was pleasant, the light was out, and all the war in the world wasn't going to make this gathering a downer. The mood grew more and more festive. People were anxious to get out on the streets marching. As I took pictures and notes and listened and felt a million emotions run through me, I felt more a part of the crowd even though I was there by myself. I found myself spontaneously shouting and dancing in my spot more. You could sense that musical movements were okay here, even though most people remained quite reserved.
There's much more to tell and looking at my notes reminds me that there were many other speakers and many other stories of interest, both positive and negative, but let's move on.
We moved on by beginning to unravel toward Constitution Avenue. We were supposed to march around the White House, but with security having been much heavier since September 11, the best that you can do is make a very long perimeter around the White House between 15th and 17th Sts. In any event, it was extremely crowded and slow moving. Drums beat and people began very beautiful chants. My legs were tired from standing and I had a slight headache. I was interested in seeing all the different people as I marched from all over the world, seeing what chants or songs would develop spontaneously in the crowd, and listening to people. As we made our way toward the road, we went past the large army of people handing out literature and trying like mad to get people to care about their own individual causes. My own cause in the last year has been Yellowstone buffalo. As an avid lover of Yellowstone, the land where romance never dies and dreams come true today, I'm drawn to all Yellowstone issues but especially Yellowstone buffalo. Yet, I can't imagine that if I was there trying to get people interested in that that I would seem more than a nasty little pest using a big event as a way to sell my cause. I heard an older man lament after finally making it to Constitution Avenue, "I wish there weren't so many other causes here. There should just be the anti-war cause." And, then it struck me how wrong he was. I understood very well how peace can be made as a kind of commodity with which we buy access to other causes, but all these people, all these vast and diverse and often conflicting causes were just trying to find some sort of voice, the voice denied many people during the 2000 elections, denied to many of us in our every day lives, denied to many others throughout the world. We just want a voice and to be heard and to make a difference in the world, to make a mark on it. In a world of 6 billion people, it's very hard to make a mark on it, stand out, and do something. I remembered how that great city of voices was what let me enjoy the previous year's anti-war event at all. I could identify with them trying to get people to care about things humans can't always care about because the world is too large. Somehow, if not all of these causes, most of them have great need for some sort of coordination, some sort of overriding vision that ties each cause to the other. Dr. King's civil rights movement had that way about it, making a singular issues (segregation in the South) a universal rallying cry, tied to a particular spiritual worldview, a view that informed and gave life to many diverse other causes. I thought how we needed that again, how we needed somebody to stand up and bring people together under a common vision, in this case a common vision of the merits and strength of interaction, of the fruits of the dialogue that Sarandon hinted at but didn't explicate in her short speech.
All around was festivity and chanting
and song. When the chant "No blood for oil!" broke out, I
overheard somebody else lament to a friend that the slogan was a little
misleading, "They give us their blood and their oil." It's
not as though we've fought too many wars recently where we have lost
much life. The United States has an unbelievable air superiority and
has used its Air Force in such a way that
All these thoughts flooded my mind as we slowly walked and chanted. Sometimes, I'd chant, too. Sometimes, I'd whisper to myself the chant, especially where the word was "peace." However, whenever song broke out, I tried to sing. At more than one point, people sitting on top of buses along the route started singing the soccer song, "Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé," but finished the chorus with, "No war, today." I found myself singing along, although I'm not a good singer. There was a gentle and almost quiet sound to the singing. At other points, street theater broke out in little pockets, rhythmic dancing pits to drums, and more chanting and song. It began to feel more and more like a victorious parade. People were smiling and looking around and waving. The anger that was at the peace march the year before was lost in the general peaceful tranquility of the march. The police, some of whom on horseback, were often smiling and looking at the march with almost warm faces. I noticed some looking at all the signs, and I caught one laughing in approval. This was a far cry from other protests I had been where police often armed with clubs would force confrontation in the streets by blocking them off at arbitrary points, even where no incidents were occurring. This peaceful march had none of that. We continued to march along H Street near Lafayette Park and the White House when I heard a great cheer coming like a wave from around the corner on 17th Street. It soon overtook us and we were all spontaneously cheering along. It honestly felt great. I felt like I was in some giant parade at the end of a Star Wars movie, festive and like something had been accomplished. And, yet, this hopefully was only a small beginning. We began to spread out more, and I remember getting to 15th and H Streets, which is in the heart of downtown Washington, and I remember that the air smelled like spring blossoms to me. I don't know how that was possible, and I felt as though I was probably the only one who sensed that smell. On this now warm, sunny fall day, there was a lot of pleasant sights and smells and sounds. I began noticing others like myself who were walking alone. I noticed a young girl holding a peace sign. Back on Constitution now, this warm feeling growing, I saw a Paul Wellstone campaign sign. It said, "Wellstone! The Legacy must live!" That's what I felt. I felt that this was the time now to carry on that spirit. I was glad to see it here in DC just hours after the awful day that was yesterday, where such a great and beautiful man died too soon. And, yet, at this moment, I was not overcome with sorrow but with this sort of deep passionate contentment. The voices in my head were all singing together, and I was now letting them pull my puppet strings. I started skipping a little down Constitution Avenue. Then, I found myself on the double yellow lines in the middle of the road trying to balance myself on them. I snuck a peak behind me and noticed a young woman behind me who was walking alone doing the same thing. Then, I started dancing on and between the lines in the road a little like I was shuffling a deck of cards. I picked up a leaf, and then I blew it out of my hands after looking at it.
Soon, I was back where we had begun. The crowd was scattered all over the area, and the area where the speakers were still speaking was now very sparse. I sat under a small cherry tree and began writing the first paragraphs of what you are reading in this narrative. Soon after, though, I felt it was time to go, but I took my time. I walked along the little nearby pond and went to the Memorial for the signers of the Declaration of Independence where fellow marchers were just peacefully relaxing, talking, cuddling in cases. I looked lovingly at the ducks in the pond that I might not usually notice. Again, I found myself picking up a leaf. This time I looked at it gave it a kiss and put it back softly where I had found it. I started looking closely at the trees and the cracks in the sidewalk. Thoughts went through me about how not even a sidewalk should be treated with disrespect. I felt that I was holding on to love, that I was expanding, that this great need in me was reaching out somewhere. If it wasn't finding people, it was finding something. Just before I reached downtown again, I saw a big tree, and I sat under it and looked up to take a picture. I met a woman yesterday who, after seeing my Yellowstone website, said that I needed to go to Yosemite and sit under the huge Sequoias and look up. This was no Sequoia, but it was a pretty tree, and so I sat and gazed up and took a picture. All this behavior on a normal day in DC would have seemed strange. But, in this atmosphere of festivity, celebration, and most importantly PEACE, this was quite okay to do, and I felt a bit of freedom you don't usually feel in this or any other city.
I, then, went to the subway, went home and have worked feverishly trying to get the pictures ready and get this narrative written while it was still fresh.
There's a lot of work to do. Too often the work stops with the end of the festivity. We go back into our safe places and hunker down. We find ourselves back in the wars we actually fight every day. Iraq or the wars of somewhere else are often easier for some of us to care about (though not enough even then). It's much easier to ignore the other loves we want to hold onto. My purpose in writing this is in part so that you see that the question of peace is a much more personal thing than we often let it be, that peace is a very hard thing, that it is only gotten by getting through a lot of awkwardness and chiseling through a lot of walls. Learning how to talk, how to channel your passions, how to express the beauty of the world to each other is very hard. It's easier in the short term to build fortresses and strike each other with a rigid order that prevents any of the dangerous things into our lives. Love is a dangerous thing, and so is peace. It encourages every bit of anxiousness in us because the voices of a peaceful world don't stop gnawing on us, often irritating us. The trick is to see how this is still what luminous times involve. Where a lot of voices get together and care and work through problems, there is peace in all that noise. Today, I was quiet in a sense, listening and absorbing the sounds around me. But, this deep and dangerous anxiousness was moving me to reach out. That's the very motive force of life itself. That need, that striving, that action to "hold on to love," is luminous indeed. I pray that you all find that truth in your own way and that we begin to shine that light together.
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