52 Hours of Democracy

Nov. 2005, Little Village

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Two hours from Washington we make our final stop at a generic oasis in Pennsylvania. Our driver takes us past a gas station with several buses already parked, hundreds of passengers swarming the few restaurants, to a deserted parking lot on the edge of town.

After downing a greasy breakfast, my brother and I stand in the parking lot brushing our teeth with shockingly cold water. I tell him this reminds me of the army—the early hour, the strangeness of watching the sun go down and staring out into darkness waiting for it to come back up, being cold and not able to warm up, the smell of diesel filling the air, clinging to everything. At least it isn’t raining.

Carrying over one hundred fifty peaceful people from Iowa City, Waterloo, Des Moines, and points between, three buses have driven through the night to get us into Washington by 10:00am. Despite the cramped conditions that thwarted sleep, nobody seems the least bit cranky. In fact, when the buses pulled back onto the road for the final leg of the trip, the air is filled with a quiet excitement. We hope to be a part of the largest protest in Washington since the beginning of the Iraq tragedy, to protest global belligerence conducted in our name, to demand accountability for those who blundered, lied, cajoled us into this war, to make our voices heard, if only for a moment, in our nation’s capitol.

As we cross the Potomac, I look out the window at the white monuments we drive past. This is my first trip to Washington, but this town has become a national disgrace and I’m not here to see the sights. Our bus drives down Constitution Ave and I watch as people stream down the sidewalks and gather in parks. They carry signs reading “Bush=Murder,” “Impeach Bush,” and “The only bush I trust is my own.

The march starts at 12:30pm in front of The Ellipse with booming, fast drums, and a bare-chested man wearing a tribal mask who dances and blows a whistle. He leads a procession of disheartened brown ghosts that look like melted candles. These ghosts do their death dances over and over again to the beating drums and screaming whistles. People cling to trees and traffic lights screaming excitedly, “There are people as far as I can see! A sea of people!”

The brown ghosts and drums move on past our Iowa group and we step out onto the road, excited to start. The sounds of drums still fills the air. We have our own drummer, everyone has a drummer. Chants move up and down the crowd in waves: demanding peace, demanding change, demanding to be listened to instead of being dismissed with an irritating smirk and childish chuckle.

And there are a lot of people to listen to. We’re ready to start moving, ready to get the show on the road. But we don’t move and it starts to rain. A police helicopter circles above the march and we shout at it while waving our signs when it flies over. I’m surprised to learn we’ve been standing here for two hours. It hasn’t felt like that much time has passed and I wonder when we’ll start moving.

At 4:30, four blocks in four hours, we make it to the White House. My brother and I veer off into Lafayette Park to sit and rest for a while. I take his camera and move around the park taking pictures of the protesters and the White House. The tail end of the march is passing by, protesters carry empty, flag-draped boxes so people can see what we’re not allowed to see. I walk up to the barricades in front of the house and take pictures of two police officers that film the march as it goes by. Police form a line in the “no-man’s land” between the people and the well manicured lawns paid for by the people. I see Washington has in fact learned some lessons from the Vietnam War, albeit the wrong ones.

According to Democracy Now!, an independent media radio broadcast hosted by Amy Goodman, close to 300,000 people showed up in Washington on September 24th and marched. Have you heard about this protest? It’s understandable if you didn’t, the media mentioned it only in passing. To be fair, there was another hurricane churning towards the Gulf Coast that weekend and I’m certain the 24-hour-a-day news channels didn’t want to cut away from dramatic images of correspondents being abused by wind and rain for the anchor desk and control room’s amusement. Undoubtedly you heard about Cindy Sheehan getting arrested the following Monday for sitting down in front of the White House and refusing to move.

I’ve heard people asking why we even bothered protesting. We carried signs only we would read and chanted chants to empty buildings as the media looked away.

Do you really think you’ll change anything? Protesting the government is unpatriotic and treasonous, by supporting and marching for peace you give aid and comfort to our enemies. Sit down, wave your flag, and feel awe when that jet black limo speeds by from one mansion to the next. I find these attitude frightening, dictatorships have begun under such apathy.

Nobody in Washington that weekend thought we would change the government overnight. We knew American troops wouldn’t start coming home on Monday. But the fact that over 150 Iowans endured a 40-hour round trip bus ride for the sole purpose of spending twelve hours in Washington protesting speaks to the commitment of this movement. The ignoring media, the large percentage of lethargic Americans, the elected officials who fled rather than listen, all can be frustrating to people who believe in peace, who believe that the Iraq war was and is a tragic failure of leadership.

But we won’t be beaten and we are not going away.

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