They’ve been spotted at candlelight vigils in Sherman Oaks. There was a sighting of them crossing busy Wilshire Boulevard, in cautious single file, near the Federal Building. And when they appear Saturday in downtown Los Angeles, emerging out of the veil of drizzle as we round the corner on Broadway, their letters are perfectly arranged: IMPEACH. But here’s what I want to know: Do they ever fall out of order? Do they sometimes, for instance, while rushing to catch the “walk” signal, for a moment spell IM-CHEAP?
I approach the letter holder on the end, a small woman, reaching a little higher than the rest to hoist her “H” to the level of the other letters. Can seven people consistently hold up letters so they always spell IMPEACH?
“This is my first single-letter experience,” she says, laughing a little. “But it seems to be under control.”
In fact, the man behind her adds, people have become a bit competitive these days over who carries those letters. “We have so many new people!”
Those new people, however, have not turned out in great numbers for today’s march, which begins at Ninth and Figueroa streets and winds toward the Roybal Federal Building on Temple Street. No one jostles past me or crowds me off the street onto the sidewalk; I discover that no matter how many times I trail off to talk to people, I can always find the four women I came with simply by looking for the colors of their hats and hair.
But what the march lacks in numbers, it makes up for in diversity: old, young, black, brown, white, straight, transgender, frat boy, office manager, banker, journalist, trucker, public-museum docent — there seems to be a delegate from every fragment of culture. In the Venn diagram that’s called “The Mood of the Country,” our circles converge on this: We all hate Bush. Freely, loudly, jubilantly. This is the happiest peace march I’ve been to in years. Not since February of 2003 have we had something that we could so clearly say no to — then it was war, this time it’s escalation — and not since Clinton left office have we had such official permission to say it.
“We used to have to be careful with our words,” says a woman in Kate Spade sunglasses carrying one end of the Long Beach Congregational Church banner. She’s neatly dressed in baby-blue fleece, and her hair is done in a neat bob, dyed a moderate blond. “We didn’t want to polarize people, you know. Not everyone in our church has always been anti-war. But today everybody’s out. We’ve been picking out our favorite slogans. One of them was ‘Impeach Bush, Torture Cheney.’ We really liked that one.”
On the whole, however, today’s slogans are disappointing. I write down “War is terrorism with a bigger budget,” but not one more. A woman in the friendly line of people carrying the bright-yellow Bus Riders Union banner, all in bright-yellow T-shirts, hands me a bright-yellow sheet of paper, imprinted with verses: “Get the pigs out of our community/It’s time to pick up some Unity.” I crumple it up in my pocket. How can you galvanize the crowd with verse when you can’t even get the meter right?
And what happened to the people who brought us “A Village in Texas Is Missing Its Idiot”? And “Fuck Me, Not Iraq”? In the lull of frustration during the time of all-Republican rule, did we get lazy? Or is it just too hard to think of anything new to say? Now the best chants of the day are jarringly simple, like the one that comes from the Young Koreans United, a costumed band of drummers moving in circles behind the people carrying the flag-draped coffins: “Stop War! Stop War! Stop War!”
Just north of Temple, we stop to hear the speeches. It’s raining, but I put down my umbrella out of consideration for the people behind me, who have come to see activists Ron Kovic and Cindy Sheehan. Audioslave’s Tom Morello sings a Creedence Clearwater Revival song (“It Ain’t Me”) and reminds us that impeachment is too good for a war criminal. Somebody from the California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus says something about struggle and oppression. Only Jason Lemieux, the young ex-Marine making the rally rounds these days with Iraq Veterans Against the War, offers a new shred of argument, the kind of speech you tuck away for the ? next time you meet someone at a dinner party who isn’t sure we should leave Iraq.
“Soldiers still say, ‘What about the schools we built?’?” Lemieux says into the microphone. He’s short, and still Marine-like with his shorn brown hair and square, handsome face. “But I say, the school you built is meaningless. It sucks. Every time a family of five is killed running a checkpoint, a hundred more insurgents are created. It is mathematically impossible to win by killing.”
“Do you think we should hang Bush, like Saddam?” I overhear a young man say when Lemieux finishes. He’s wearing khaki shorts and a baseball cap, and carries a megaphone, through which he intermittently yells ragged words, sometimes in unaccented and ungrammatical Spanish.
“No, no,” says the man standing next to him. “I’m against the death penalty. Just put him in jail for life.”