IN THE LAST six months, I have marched for peace through October foliage on the Boston Common, traipsed through bitter February cold into holding pens set up by the New York Police Department, and joined a noisy London throng swarming along the Thames just days after the war began. I thought I had a handle on what the protests of our era look like: sloppy, spirited, ideologically convoluted affairs, which nonetheless reveal a demographic-leaping antipathy for war. But at Saturday’s march in Boston, the protest had a new look, suggesting that peace activists are learning lessons that could lend the anti-war movement staying power, and even broaden its appeal.
From the rally on the Common, it was clear that march organizer United for Peace and Justice had learned the value of focus, the power of message, and the need for community. Three talking points became our new marching steps: you can be both anti-administration and vocally pro-troops; a movement must reflect the diversity of the society it's part of to truly speak for it; and the war abroad is not disconnected from pressing issues at home. It was a smarter approach than anything I had previously encountered, and it marked a young movement beginning to show signs of maturity.
The protesters weren't the only ones to have grown. The Boston police, already less prone to storm-trooper behavior than their peers in New York, moved from their earlier stance of passive (and, at some past events, sullen) support to proactively facilitating the best result for marchers and viewers alike. One might argue that the progress evidenced on Saturday is simply a case of practice makes (closer to) perfect, but it seems more likely that the difference is in the stakes: all parties must now grapple with the real and the present, not the hypothetical and the future. Military body bags and civilian casualties have returned to our daily lives for the first time in decades, and both sides — pro- and anti-war alike — seem to have responded with appropriate seriousness. If this momentum can be maintained and built upon, then we may well see, as marchers chorused for blocks, " what democracy looks like. "
Stars, stripes, and doves
The first winds of change were evident in the appearance of American flags and yellow ribbons. At the first march I attended, the only flags I saw were wrapped around protesters’ nether regions or defaced in some fashion, feeding into the media’s ongoing portrayal of an either/or dynamic — either people support the war, or they’re against the nation and its troops. But many of Saturday’s marchers clearly rejected that dichotomy, blending symbols of peace and patriotism into personal iconography of citizenship.
Doves who wave flags have received dubious treatment even from theoretically liberal-leaning media outlets (Sunday’s New York Times suggests this new symbolism is about " pre-empting critics " ); cynics suggest the motivation is pure marketing, hollow at the core. But Saturday's marchers made crystal clear what drives them: dozens of protesters carried photos of family members currently fighting in Iraq. A woman in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words my sister is serving in basra and a girl waving a poster that read my boyfriend is in iraq were among many who discovered that they were not alone when members of the group " Military Families Speak Out " addressed the rally. (Disclosure: my brother is serving in the Marines. See my March 26 entry in the Phoenix War and Peace blog at BostonPhoenix.com.)
" Joe was supposed to come home Wednesday, and we just received an e-mail that he won’t be coming after all, " said Nancy Lessim, whose son is fighting in Iraq. She described marching for peace as a more effective way to watch out for her son than staying home and hanging yellow ribbons on trees. Her voice was full of fire when she described President Bush as " using our loved ones and our children as cannon fodder, " a statement that drew cheers from the crowd.
Many of the families ended up marching the route together; late in the day, when confronted by a small group of pro-war activists, they were among the peace marchers who surprised the pro-war contingent by joining them — across a blue line of police — for a chorus of the national anthem. No one was going to tell them what they did and did not support.
The face of democracy
Military families offered only the first glimpse of the new face of protest. As inspiring as many found the pre-election Boston rally last fall, it was one of many early anti-war events nationwide criticized for its overwhelming whiteness — a slate largely composed of white speakers speaking to a sea of white people. But organizations like Win Without War and United for Peace seem to have gotten the message and have begun to recognize the importance of community outreach, both behind the scenes and in the limelight.
To that end, the roster at Saturday’s rally was more richly diverse in terms of race, class, gender, age, and religion. Boston city councilors Felix Arroyo and Chuck Turner shared the stage with teenage rapper Kiki Breathe-Life, college-age Arab dancers, and a wide spectrum of others, including uneasy allies like veterans and anti-ROTC teens. Without the subtle anti-Semitic undercurrents found at some anti-war events (a charge that has dogged the rallies organized by International ANSWER), there was room on stage for both shalom and salaam.
Walking the tightrope of identity had clearly taken its toll on speaker Rana Abdul-Aziz, a young Iraqi who now lives in the United States. Of her relatives still in Baghdad, " their nightmares reach me, " she said wearily, but now her family is " scattered like seeds " and the phone lines have fallen silent. When she finished, she turned from the platform and walked into a crowd of soldiers' families whose relatives are being made to bomb her homeland — a silent tableau that captured the complexity and horror of our time.
Protest begins at home
With an impassioned audience in place, organizers made sure that while peace was the main order of business, local issues were not forgotten. With war costs spiraling even as the president asks for tax cuts (making him the first wartime president in US history to do so), the assembled crowd was reminded of the budget cuts that have decimated school services and teachers’ ranks in Boston.
Two Boston students, who introduced themselves as Jose and Erica of Teen Empowerment, told the crowd about the 600 teaching jobs lost in Boston's public schools and about students’ daily privations, such as being forced to share a single textbook with multiple classmates. Erica drew a cheer from the crowd when she scoffed, " I bet the Army doesn’t make soldiers share guns, but we have to share books! "
The sting of reduced services both nationwide and in Massachusetts was thrown into sharp relief by Veterans for Peace, whose members noted the irony of accusing peace protesters of being anti-troops when the Bush administration is currently slashing veterans’ benefits (proposed cuts include restrictions on health and education benefits, among others).
After the two-hour rally, the march itself bordered on anticlimactic. Stretching for blocks on a route down Beacon Street, over to Boylston, and back to Charles Street, the jubilant throng waved signs that ran the gamut from local critique (dear senator kerry: you’re fired) to global summary (great. now everyone hates us). Though Bostonians are not the best chanters — most chants died out within the space of a block — there was energy and spirit aplenty, from drumming circles and a marching choir, to a tiny dog clad in a what would lassie do? sweatshirt and a towering, two-faced tyrant puppet conjoining Saddam Hussein and Bush.
Along the route, college students hung out of dorm windows flashing peace signs, while tourists and shoppers appeared alternately bemused and beleaguered. (On Newbury Street a young man moaned, " I didn’t bomb anyone, I just want to shop! " ) Although five helicopters hovered in the sky, it was not until near the end of the parade that marchers encountered any real hint of conflict.
Perhaps 50 people, mostly men, carrying American flags and pro-war signs, were gathered at the edge of the Public Garden. Their signs were fierce and direct, with phrases like " you mooching anti-Americans " and an attack chart suggesting that Kabul and Baghdad should be followed by Paris. Their chanting — which included the ill-considered gay anthem " In the Navy " and their spontaneous attempt at a left-baiting taunt, " Saddam hates trees " — was of even poorer quality than that of the marchers, but they were raucously vocal, and it was clear that many of them would have enjoyed a physical continuation of this debate.
But the Boston police, who had outlined the intersections, answering questions and directing crowds throughout the day, now formed a quiet protective line between the groups, allowing each to conduct its own brand of protest in safety. When the pro-war contingent decided it wanted to move further toward the parade grounds, the police line moved as well. And when two White Nation activists tried to spread their own gospel, they found themselves surrounded by a police ring of their own, to protect them from some members of the pro-war group who had " scoped " them out already, according to one officer.
Die in and wind down
If there was a false note to the event, it was perhaps the useless die-in, in which small crowds fell to the street, playing dead. Any die-in for which permission has been obtained in advance (as was the case here) has already sapped itself of shock value and lost most of its potency. One might argue that the image of silent bodies has great street-theatrical potential, but that is less true when the die-in occurs at the end of the route, away from most non-participant viewers, and when the primary image is of young people in bohemian-chic clothing lying in quasi-romantic positions, some talking on their cell phones, waiting to rise dutifully when their 10 minutes are up.
Nonetheless, as the crowd separated and streamed off into the evening, there was a palpable sense of overall accomplishment. Rather than exhibit protest fatigue because past marches had not forestalled the war, Saturday’s participants announced a new chapter in the struggle for awareness: a refusal to conform to the early mistakes of the movement, and a rejection of the roles assigned to them so far by mainstream media and pundits. It appears that the peace movement, like the war it protests, is only just beginning.
David Valdes Greenwood can be reached at email@example.com