san francisco — “The unity of our empire hangs on the decision of this day.”

This mid-19th-century quotation, uttered by W.H. Seward on the occasion of California‘s statehood, is carved into a monument that stands on the edge of San Francisco’s financial district. Last Saturday someone appended “Fuck Bush” to its pedestal in Magic Marker, while a nearby Armani shop bore the spray-painted warning “Rome Is Falling.” These and other graffiti marked the passage of some young anarchists who had broken away from the big peace rally at City Hall and marched down Market Street to the Embarcadero, where a few would instigate a snit of petty vandalism before disappearing into a subway station.

The anti-war protest march and rally had otherwise been a model of civility. In many ways it was a Xerox of the October action (same itinerary, same signs, same sopping-wet City Hall lawns) except that it was bigger — much bigger.

“I‘m wearing a yellow, checked scarf,” one woman said into her cell phone as she stood in Justin Herman Plaza. Lots of luck to the friends who were looking for her, I thought — you could have lost a tangerine elephant in the plaza at that moment. Law enforcement typically low-balled the day’s attendance at 40,000, while event organizers countered with a hallucinatory 200,000. I wouldn‘t be surprised if the number was 100,000, although such numbers mean nothing in a country whose president “won” the 2000 election with a half-million fewer votes than his chief opponent.

While it’s safe to say the demonstrations here and in the capital had zero effect on the White House and big media‘s drooling class of pundits, protests against the pending incineration of Iraq are growing. And they are growing at a rate that required years, not months, during the Vietnam War.

If Saturday’s protest resembled the large anti-war actions of the 1960s and ‘70s, there were also important differences. Two generations ago it was easy for many people to embrace the Viet Cong and its aura of guerrilla romanticism, while few in Saturday’s march along Market Street hailed Iraq‘s Saddam Hussein (or North Korea’s Li‘l Kim) the way leftists had once celebrated Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. And, despite some hand wringing within the established, respectable left, the new peace movement has not been hijacked by a few Marxist fanatics — in fact, this movement shows an astonishing maturity. Kids aren’t buying into the oedipal enemy-of-my-enemy logic that misguided many of us not so long ago; neither are they content to let the movement become a single-issue peace campaign — contingents representing gay rights, Palestinians, radical ecologists and others are forcing more Americans to confront injustices that their indifference has tacitly allowed to fester.

“We‘ve got to start somewhere,” a middle-aged man named Anthony told me. He was selling peace-sign stickers on behalf of the Blake Street Project, a “Vedic consciousness-raising group” trying to involve people in conversations about war and violence. He was optimistic that the protests have so far been free of the rancor that poisoned the anti-war marches during the Nixon era — an observation reflected in the day’s signs and its banners‘ playful dialogue.

“No War 4 SUVs” read one sign, while another countered, “It’s Not the SUVs — the Military Consumes 70 Percent of Our Oil.” “Bush Don‘t Surf” was written on a shortboard carried by one young man; “What Would Ike Do?” another sign wondered wistfully, as yet another asked, “Hey Bush! Who Would Jesus Bomb?”

“Everybody had a great time at the last one,” a gray-haired traffic cop told some tourists of the October protests. Otherwise, there was little room for cops as the parade inched up Market, flooding sidewalks and filling coffee shops en route to the Civic Center — whose mall, quite honestly, has already outlived its protest use. If, under the Patriot Act, future demonstrations are possible during wartime, their organizers should consider Golden Gate Park or even the waterfront’s Crissy Field as end venues. As it was, the mall was claustrophobically packed, making it difficult to comfortably hear the speakers, who included actor Martin Sheen, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt and East Bay Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

The only room to breathe was on the streets bordering the mall, where a small band of pro-war men and women stood on City Hall‘s steps with such affable signs as “Martin Sheen Is a Traitor” and “Leftists Hate America.” If they wanted attention, they got it — cops helplessly looked on as protesters got in the counterdemonstrators’ faces and either yelled denunciations or — even worse for them — tried to engage them in earnest debate. a One young woman stood silently in their midst holding up a placard that read, “Martin Sheen Is My Hero.”

As advertised, a breakaway march assembled at Polk and Grove, and within 30 minutes that intersection was choked with Pink Bloc members of a group called Gay Shame (“Oh Mary!” one sign read, “Not Another War in Iraq!”) and the goth-clad Black Bloc anarchists. These dissidents, their eyes appearing as slits between bandannas and hoods, may well be the children of affluence, but their mad idealism and incorruptibility (and the convergence of fashion and radical politics) give their gatherings an undeniable tribal magnetism.

A surprising number of people — perhaps 1,000 at the march‘s height — followed a black “Antiwar Action” banner and punk-blasting boom box that was wheeled in a shopping cart down Market Street. As they had in October’s “direct action,” the anarchists completely outmaneuvered the police, at one point making an abrupt turn down Fifth Street and leaving most of the cops to themselves farther down Market. After some milling around at Fifth and Mission (and some spray-painting on the walls of the San Francisco Chronicle), the march returned to Market. An attempt was made to divide the crowd into two columns that would, for some reason, sprint down the street for 100 yards. But after 45 minutes the breakaway protest was breaking up. There was hardly much left of it at the very end, in the financial district, where a few kids broke some windows at a Starbucks and at the INS and knocked over some menacing newspaper vending racks. (Take that!)

All in all, these anarchists were no Weathermen, and the antics of a few boys and girls in black will probably not lead to the anti-war movement‘s unraveling. On the other hand, what are you going to say to make them stop — that their vote counts? The true test of all of Saturday’s demonstrators will come once the bombs fall.

LA Weekly