In Born on the Fourth of July, Tom Cruise plays Ron Kovic, a proud Marine sergeant who becomes an anti-war activist in 1967, after a Viet Cong bullet severs his spine. The real-life Ron Kovic looks more like Burl Ives minus 200 pounds; white-haired, kind, yet irrepressible, the uncle you wish you had. When he speaks, you keep expecting him to jump out of his wheelchair.
Last Sunday Kovic inspired several thousand students, Green Party activists, neo-revolutionaries, parents and children gathered outside the Federal Building in Westwood to protest the Bush administration’s post-911 policies and its threatened war on Iraq. He called the day of protests around the nation the beginning of a nonviolent progressive uprising in America. ”You were born to be here at this moment. You were born to take this country back.“
Peaceniks have had it rough since 911. When they‘re not ignored by the media, they’re all but mocked. The ongoing war debate has been framed to make Colin Powell sound practically liberal. And with John Ashcroft treating civil liberties as an unaffordable wartime luxury, activists wonder when dissent will be deemed a terrorist activity.
But how bad could things be with Ron Kovic sitting tall in the shadow of the Federal Building, assuring the crowd that the future belonged to them? ”This is a great opportunity,“ he said. ”You can change your country, you can move it to a new place. Never forget it.“
Kovic invited the protesters to march down Wilshire Boulevard to the California National Guard headquarters, which also houses the U.S. Army Reserve Training Center. There he would ask guardsmen and trainees to throw down their weapons and join a new movement for peace. This would of course be a symbolic gesture — Berkeley protesters of the 1960s tried similar tactics and succeeded only in pissing off busloads of military recruits — but then again, you never know till you try.
Protest marches are held in city centers for a reason: People are there. Onlookers spontaneously become participants, and the growing crowd becomes harder to ignore. But there‘s no real city center in L.A. and National Guard headquarters happen to be located on a lonely stretch of Wilshire. So the 3,000 protesters wending through Westwood had few witnesses beyond a gaggle of riot cops.
The crowd was in high spirits anyway — impressive, considering the broad range of sometimes conflicting political opinions. Some protesters waved Israeli flags while others draped their heads in Palestinian-style checkered cloth and loudly condemned Ariel Sharon. Drummers drummed and a brass band played. A big spooky George W. Bush puppet brandishing cardboard machine guns repeatedly stuck out its inflatable serpent tongue.
Then the crowd arrived at National Guard HQ. Two men — either riot cops or military, it was hard to tell — stood on the roof. More cops formed a barricade on the ground. Otherwise the place seemed empty, the disused back-end of a military campus.
The crowd made a U-turn and started heading back the way it had come. Mild confusion, a sense of anticlimax: Was this it? Wasn’t something supposed to happen now? A small group formed on the sidewalk, chanting, ”Peace now! Democracy now!“ Sitting in their midst was Ron Kovic.
He put a megaphone to his lips and pointed it at the men on the roof. ”I want to speak to you as a former Marine sergeant,“ he said. But the megaphone was either broken or low on batteries. Organizers came to Kovic‘s aid, tried to figure out how to crank the volume. ”Can you hear me?“ he asked through the bullhorn. A group at the back of the crowd started chanting again but were shushed — ”Ron Kovic is trying to speak.“
Kovic said again, ”Can you hear me?“ The megaphone was useless. He shouted from his wheelchair. ”I’m asking you to put down your weapons and join us! Join us! Join us . . .“ The men on the roof couldn‘t hear him.
The small crowd applauded Ron Kovic anyway, then hurried to join their fellow protesters.
I expected disappointment. The whole scene begged to be read cynically: Kovic as a symbol of the movement, a wounded relic shouting into the void. But there was no disappointment. It was enough for demonstrators to take a Sunday afternoon to demonstrate something first and foremost to themselves: That while the world stampedes toward conflict, there are people out there, goddamn it, still willing to give peace a chance.