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By Jill Stewart
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You can smell the sage in Art Goldberg’s garden from the street and, for some inexplicable reason, the herb casts the kind of aromatic spell that momentarily turns even the most cynical visitor into an optimist and believer in the basic goodness of people. Goldberg is the Silver Lake activist lawyer who first rolled up his sleeves with Berkeley‘s Free Speech Movement in 1964 and for the past 30 years has headed the Working People’s Law Center in Echo Park. He is one of the organizers of Neighbors for Peace and Justice (NPJ), the anti-war group whose members can be seen, among other places, in front of Los Feliz‘s Vista Theater every Friday-evening rush hour.
“We’re not a top-down group with no base,” the old radical tells me. “In a large city like L.A. you have to get people together neighborhood by neighborhood. I tell friends we‘re probably not going to seize state power tomorrow, so in the meantime why don’t we organize people and find out what their best instincts are.”
Indeed, NPJ members are more tied together by garage sales and backyard barbecues than ideology, and it is this neighborly focus that has allowed the group to spread beyond its Silver Lake--Echo Park origins to Studio City, Alhambra and Montebello. Last Saturday it was one of many contingents in a peace demonstration that drew thousands. (The police said 3,000, and protesters claimed 10 times as many.)
Rather than drive to the rally‘s assembly point at Broadway and Olympic Boulevard, Goldberg preferred to park in Chinatown and walk the mile and a half so that he could leaflet along the way. He is a tall, trim man who, at 60, still takes the long, athletic strides of the defensive end he was on the Morningside High School football team. He and his assemblywoman sister, Jackie, grew up in Inglewood when it was a white suburb, their family having lived in Los Angeles since the 1860s.
Goldberg is ebullient today, even when he encounters pro-war sentiment along Broadway.
“Would you like to attend the rally to stop the war against Iraq?” he asks a Latino family near the Bradbury Building. It turns out the parents and kids all favor invading Iraq.
“We have to support the president,” a teenage girl replies. “We have to be safe first -- do you want to get bombed?”
Today’s demonstrators gather at the barren intersection of Broadway and Olympic Boulevard. Except for affording glimpses of downtown‘s crumbling beaux-art facades, peace marches in L.A. tend to offer few aesthetic rewards -- we’re not a town where dissidents meet at, say, a clock tower, and march toward a statue or fountain. But this day is not intended as an L.A. Conservancy walk -- it is meant to counter the arachnid impulses of an administration hard-wired for war with the sweet defiance of pacifists, reds, greens, punks, bus riders and individuals too politically eclectic to classify.
Goldberg arrives nearly 90 minutes early and approaches groups of complete strangers to see if they‘re interested in joining NPJ. Many from places like Torrance and Laguna Beach are already members, but Goldberg’s organization has yet to collate all the information on this expanding network.
At first there don‘t seem to be many protesters here, and the intersection merely resembles a farmers’ market on an off day. (Ironically, NPJ sprang from petition tables set up at the Silver Lake farmers‘ market and at the Sunset Junction Street Fair.) Many who arrived on public transportation have the same story:
“Our train was packed,” one man tells me, “and we thought, This is great! Then at Pico half the people got off to go to the auto show.”
By 11:30 the crowd is gathering strength, though, and the air becomes heavy with the perfume of patchouli oil, clove cigarettes and, fittingly enough, sage incense. A sound truck blasts songs from an earlier time of protest: “Imagine,” “War,” “For What It’s Worth.” In fact, some of the many silver-haired demonstrators must recognize in today‘s gathering the same crimson-and-clover aesthetic of the ’60s and ‘70s. Still, there’s no doubt of the rogue century we‘re in. “Dude! Where’s My War?” one poster asks over a picture of George W. Bush. “Brits Against Bush and Blair” reads another. Three gay guys carry a sign proclaiming, “We Don‘t Like Bush Anyway.” Some handwritten signs profess solidarity with North Korea or Saddam’s Iraq; these kinds of undeniably nutty sentiments send shivers among “patriotic” writers in the “responsible” left-wing press, but today they clearly represent only a tiny minority of individuals. The NPJ placards simply say, “Don‘t Invade Iraq.”
“LaRouche is a democrat like Hitler was a socialist!” yells NPJ member Jim Robertson at a group of Lyndon LaRouche supporters who have attached themselves to the rally, while fellow NPJer George DiCaprio stands by smiling.
The march moves down Broadway a little after noon, and the sea of signs and banners in this roiling, claustrophobic assembly suggests it will be a big one -- bigger, perhaps, than the demonstration held almost 12 years ago to the day to protest the first Gulf War. Still, it’s no San Francisco, and I can‘t help reminding Goldberg there’s nothing like marching up Market Street.
“But maybe marching down Broadway will become like that,” he says. “This march is helping to break down people‘s isolation.”
Marchers young and old are constantly coming over to Goldberg, who notes that four of his adult children are here. Some members of the United Teachers Los Angeles tell him they have gotten their union to announce it is against war with Iraq.
“This is unbelievable!” Goldberg will say repeatedly throughout the march. “We never had anything like this in the early days of marching against the Vietnam War.”
A middle-aged man comes over and chats about the looming invasion of Iraq with Goldberg, who says that the war will have to last at least six months for a broad national movement to coalesce against it. The thing is, such a war would not last more than a few days. Goldberg, however, believes the job of installing a new regime would take much longer and during that time an anti-war movement could find its feet. Still, there are so many factors.
“We did a great job leading up to the first Gulf War but got killed once it started,” he says. “If a new war is U.N.-sanctioned, we’ll get killed again.”
About 20 minutes into the march, everything comes to a long halt. We are in the procession‘s middle and have no idea why things have stopped. Later, I learn from a friend that the time was taken to fire up the rally with chants as it wheeled east on Fourth Street.
Perhaps more than the scattered presence of the LaRouchites and the apologists for Kim Jong I and Saddam Hussein, it is the implacably anti-Zionist tone running through today’s peace marches that spooks many mainstream liberals who fear that the movement is being corroded by a new form of anti-Semitism.
The march ends in front of the Federal Building, in the soulless maw of L.A.‘s civic architecture, glimpsed only by the cold gazes of the police and media. Pacifica radio station KPFK has wired the stage for live broadcast, and the station seems as big a presence here as the march organizers, International ANSWER (Act Now To Stop War & End Racism), Not in Our Name, and Coalition for World Peace and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. A group of cops is playing football down a nearby side street.
“There’ll probably be a lot of boring speeches now,” says Goldberg, who himself is anxious to catch one of the day‘s football playoff games on TV. Instead, the speeches are miraculously brief -- they all seem to come with a three-minute limit, and monitors constantly tap the shoulders of speakers once they reach two and a half minutes. There are politicians, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Goldberg’s sister, Jackie, who yells, “The only thing that will stop this war is to get everybody into the streets!” There are musicians such as Jackson Browne and Slash, along with actors like Martin Sheen, who begins reading a speech from cards and then seems to slip into a religious fervor as he begins shouting into the mike.
The problem with the speeches is not their length but that there are too many of them -- before long, speakers representing various causes begin overlapping and repeating messages, so that the assembled become a polite but benumbed crowd with no place to sit.
It‘s the age-old dilemma: What do you do with thousands of people once they finish a march? Still, the value of these demonstrations, as Goldberg said, is that they pull people out of the psychological suburbia that keeps progressive people feeling isolated and estranged from their countrymen. Protests have little if any effect on those who run the American empire, but it is marches and rallies and, perhaps, the scent of sage that can make us feel we belong to a neighborhood bigger than our own street.