Global Peace Protests, February 15, 2003

I've never attended a peace rally. Even at Berkeley during the time of the anti-apartheid protests -- which I felt pretty strongly about -- and People's Park riots (which I felt somewhat strongly about) I preferred to watch from the sidelines. Today, I feel very strongly that our administration is acting outside our country's best interests, with secrecy and condescension that combined with the self-given power by virtue of the "war on terror" makes for a very dangerous situation. That my mother and father bussed down from rural Maine to Washington DC last month to march, and that people the world over were gathering in a spirit of unity, increased my sense of obligation. And excitement. It was a bitterly cold day but I gathered myself together and walked briskly across Houston Street to the Lexington Avenue subway.

I waited for Cleo at Grand Central Station near the information booth as throngs of kids, families, teens, grandmothers, and more than a few hippy-types meandered around, found each other and then exited the station, presumably to hit the rally. I had missed the first subway train up from Soho because it was completely full; we were going to be late but it didn't seem to matter. I ran to a Hudson News and bought a ridiculously expensive and crappy throwaway camera.

We exited through the north side of the station to avoid getting caught in the crowd at 42nd Street. After meeting up with Dimitra, we had to wait for friends on the corner of Second Avenue and Forty-Something. We were baffled by the policemen who came up to us -- three women -- and told us to move on. Move on? There were very few people on the sidewalk there, but apparently we were "blocking the sidewalk "-- or making them nervous or plotting something, I don't know.

Cleo, bless her heart, had remembered to bring her press pass at the last moment, so we slipped through the cut-offs along the west side of Second Avenue and walked toward Fiftieth Street. Along the way, people told us how they couldn't get in to the rally, that we should go all the way to the sixties and then down. The overkill evidenced by the police blockades was absurd. Thousands and thousands were unable to join in the rally, though ironically they managed to create a sense of an even bigger rally, spilling avenue to avenue and beyond.

At the press area, we hovered near the table where official rally press passes were being given out. Apparently one needed to have signed up in advance to get one. Even veteran reporters with police press passes were being turned away. Did I mention that it was bitterly cold? I could feel the freeze under my feet, moving upwards trying to immobilize me. I felt privileged to be at that particular spot, mingling with real journalists who stomped their feet like me and waited to get the special pass. Divine intervention - or Greek serendipity (what's the Greek word, Cleo?) occasioned our meeting some Greek journalists with whom Cleo and Dimitra clearly bonded, and not long afterwards we secured a second press pass and were able to sneak past one policeman who was busy not letting a very, very old lady get past and back to her apartment. We were in. The feeling at that moment was not at all unlike the "miracle ticket" experience in the days of the Grateful Dead.

Once inside the press pen we listened to speaker after speaker exhort the crowd, beginning (for us) with Bishop Desmond Tutu. I turned alternately from the stage to the clusters of photographers and sound technicians, their equipment bristling up into the air, to the immense crowd swelling behind us. Did I mention it was bitterly cold and getting colder?

I admit feeling out of place at times, not as vocal or angry as I could have been, experiencing the scene as more of a spectator. Some of the speakers were way too granola for me -- I have a problem with pink or glam - people who, while sincere, somehow trivialize the event for me and make me kind of embarrassed.

I felt so proud of the people braving the cold to line the streets and form the intermittent crowds up First Avenue despite the best efforts of the NYPD to squelch the whole thing. As I saw people bullied back from their destination, I thought of the federal court judge who ruled against a march for peace. Where was she today? What was she doing and did she realize that she had impacted nearly half a million people with her overly conservative decision? Did she care at all?

Later, I walked back home from the Bleecker Street subway station, strangely alone again, wearing my little blue peace button, wondering if I had made even the slightest bit of difference or ever could, in these strange, roiling pre-war days.

Other notes:

If I had ten seconds to get a point across to the "anti-anti-war" contingency, it would be this: We (pro-peace people) are not in any conceivable way pro-Saddam Hussein. As a tyrannical, murderous, freakishly sadistic despot, he has got to go, and the sooner the better. But an obscenely expensive preemptive war on the Iraqi people without better evidence or global support is dangerous and immoral.

Best Sign: High school students and Guernica sign, here, courtesy of bloggy.com

My not-so-great photos

The organizers, United for Peace & Justice