I HATE WAR. ELEANOR HATES WAR. EVEN THE VALETS HATE WAR: But Can a Peace March Stop the Machine?
"A PEACE DEMONSTRATION IS BY ITS nature optimistic," said my friend Penelope on the day before the rally, as we watched on television as Europeans objected to the Powell Doctrine at the U.N. But it wasn't until 1 p.m. the next day, when I walked into the distant rumble of amateur drums on Hollywood Boulevard near Vine, that I really believed her. Reports were already filtering in of a half million protesters in Rome, 2 million in Spain; the streets of New York City, we heard from friends on our cell phones, were gridlocked by protesters oozing out of their designated corrals onto side streets. Here in Hollywood I climbed a light pole to hang the cumbersome sign I was carrying ("Let the Inspections Work") and saw before me an endless valley of signs, bobbing like square-headed daisies and extending as far ahead as I could see. (There were a few undercover cops, too, but nobody stopped me.) For the first time I thought, as maybe civil rights workers did in '63 and AIDS activists did in '93: This mass of humans, this noise, this exuberance maybe all of this will register in Washington. Maybe.
A peace demonstration is also by its nature a party. Who could turn down a chance to parade around the cordoned-off streets of Hollywood in some nutty getup with a decorated dog or a kid with a cute sign? ("More Candy. Less War.") Or your own defiant sign? "Fuck me, not Saddam," read the bold statement of a young woman chanting along with the Super Boss Marching Band ("We're here to fight the evil anti-groove/We're here to loose the sphincters of the world!"). The strident rhetoric of the Marxist folk who think they'll finally have their revolution was drowned out by the happy ruckus; even the announcer on KPFK kept slipping up and calling it a "festival."
The Bush administration, and The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, would like us to think war in Iraq will encourage democracy in the Middle East, thus making the world safer all around. Most U.S. citizens, however, seem to understand that a president who was not fairly elected and pursues a war well over two-thirds of his constituents oppose cannot be trusted to foster international democracy. Hence the day's numbers: Official estimates say 30,000 turned out in Hollywood, only a tenth of the crowd that assembled in New York City in April 1967 and February 2003, but way more than ever gathered before in a city that sprawls with various neighborhood protests every week. Even more telling were the identities behind the numbers: families, former ravers, men in mesh baseball caps and women in Lands' End comfy pants. Handsome young actors from yoga class, clerks from my upscale neighborhood supermarket. Latino valets in their red vests, who picked up discarded signs and held them aloft under their Grant Parking marquees, smiling broadly and waving two fingers in the air for peace. Opposing a war has never been so non-controversial, so appropriate for polite company, so indisputably patriotic.
Peaceniking, in fact, has become as common in the U.S. as hating Americans is in the Middle East and most of Europe. And if they hated us on September 11, which we were told they did, they hate us even more now, and with even better reasons, what with our own domestic gerontocracy talking cavalierly of tactical nuclear strikes as if radiation could be sanitarily confined to a bunker. No thinking person goes to bed in a major American city these days unconcerned about that hatred, and not one of us wakes up in the morning and turns on the radio without at least a spasm of dread. And just as it took classmates and brothers and sons and lovers coming home in body bags to get the public out to the barricades against the war in Vietnam, fear of the next morning's CNN special report or of some strange smell infecting the city smog no doubt helps get us all out on the streets these days.
As, of course, does the enduring human need to be heard about anything, anywhere, anytime. "Dog Bites Delay Mail" declared the cardboard on a stick carried by a tall, blond geeky-looking man in aviator glasses, marching with his two women friends.
"Excuse me," I interrupted. "I don't get your sign."
"Oh," he said. "It just means that postal workers shouldn't have to put up with dogs."
"Right," I said. "You do know, though, that this is an anti-war rally, not a post-office rally?"
"Sure," he said. "But there's TV cameras everywhere. We want to get our message out, too.