Former Antiwar.com columnist Chad Nagle sends this special report from Washington.

October 31, 2002

Day of Preemptive Protest Appeals to Patriotism

The assortment of political demonstrations I've witnessed over the years has accustomed me to the mainstream press and media's tendency to manipulate the numbers game. Marches of several hundred against Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela get reported by Reuters, AP or CNN as numbering from ten to twenty thousand, while a demonstration in Argentina against the pro-IMF government which looks to number half a million in photos taken from above is lucky to be estimated in the six-figures. I've generally chalked these distortions up to the free media's mutation in the post-Cold War era, but it's hard to pinpoint their exact origins.

The first report I read of the demonstration in Washington, DC on Saturday, October 26th (the first I had ever attended in the United States) came from the Associated Press, estimating the size at 100,000. This number was in line with my own estimates on first arriving at Constitution Gardens, on the grass next to the Vietnam War Memorial, at about 11:30 a.m. But I couldn't form a clear picture from simply traipsing around in the crowd. Placards blocked the view in every direction as far as the eye could see, and heavy rains the night before caused me to sink into the mud in the big empty areas scattered amid the horde of people.

I heard cries of disbelief from several marchers, evidently from out of town, upon discovering that "marching on the White House" was at best an "abstract" concept because of the barricades Bill Clinton had erected a decade ago. As I walked near the front of a crowd of 7,000 or so that headed off in the direction of the Rose Garden, the hopelessness of proceeding along the street running along the south edge of the lawn (itself almost out of sight of the presidential mansion) was palpable. Adding to the dashed hopes, the Ellipse (the grass area north of Constitution Avenue across from the White House's iron fence) was also off-limits, and there would be no stopping. From our vantage point, government really did feel like it was getting more remote from the people.

This initial group moved up 15th Street past the Treasury Department and Pennsylvania Avenue, also blocked off by police, until it could turn left on H Street along the north edge of Lafayette Park across from the White House. It soon met the main column, which had marched in a clockwise direction up 17th Street and turned right on H. Anyone who even looked like a protester was barred from entering Lafayette Park. The large crowd circling the White House was so remote from President Bush that he could have been sitting inside drinking tea the entire time without noticing. I stood watching the procession of every imaginable type from clean-cut, conservative-looking young couples, to Palestinians dressed in traditional Arab garb, to post-modern punk types with peace signs and slogans painted on their faces lumbering by, banging drums, playing instruments, and chanting. From what I could judge at this time, the crowd numbered no less than 200,000 and may even have been as large as a quarter of a million. When I factored in the possible exaggeration of an activist yelling to the crowd through a megaphone that there were "over 300,000 of you here," I figured I was probably about right.

This multitude's mood was so non-violent, I thought to myself, that it wouldn't have caused any trouble if the police had allowed them to get close enough to press their faces between the bars of the White House fence on Pennsylvania. This wasn't because the loud police helicopters hovering overhead or the snipers on the roofs were overly intimidating, however. The police themselves testified to the peaceful nature of the crowd. Suddenly running into DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey in the middle of the street, I overheard him tell a questioner that there was nothing to worry about in terms of arrest because "these are good people." There wasn't even any of the hooliganism or exhibitionism that accompanied the anti-IMF/World Bank demonstrations the previous month, although a handful of arrests were made. A woman carrying a sign reading "Dykes for Peace" and inviting people through a bullhorn to "take their clothes off" to stop the war received no takers.

MY COUNTRY, RIGHT OR LEFT

The organization with the highest profile on Saturday, International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), had put together a line-up of famous speakers including the actress Susan Sarandon, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA). A.N.S.W.E.R. was acting as an umbrella group for a host of mostly leftist organizations, many of whose members sadly felt the need to hold their banners and placards up during the speeches so that people further back couldn't see. A number of American flags waved in the crowd. On several, the stars had been arranged in a peace sign, but there were several standard Old Glories as well. I didn't hear all the speakers, but those I did hear weren't using the limelight to lash out at capitalism. For the most part they seemed to be encouraging protesters not to give in to fear.

Susan Sarandon, the most eloquent orator probably by virtue of her profession, said, "I am here because I am tired of being frightened to speak out," and boldly claimed a "dormant majority" of Americans was waiting to for a politician who could confront "oil men ready to expand their influence with new contracts on the soil our bombers have plowed." I never caught a glimpse of Ms. Sarandon's attractive face with its slightly bulbous eyes (which I've always thought have the power to make any man feel guilty) because of the obstructive placards and banners. But from what I could hear, her performance on the day couldn't be seriously faulted.

Outgoing Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney spoke briefly in a straightforward patriotic appeal:

I cannot come here to this place, at this time, with all of you, without first saying: 'Thank you, Paul Wellstone, for your wonderful example of warrior-patriotism fighting for our children, fighting for education, fighting against discrimination, and fighting against war.' And thank you all of you for being here today. We know that when good men do nothing, evil triumphs. That's why we're here today, so that it can be never said that we, the good people of the United States of America, did nothing in the face of evil.

And sadly, even our own country is not the same as it used to be. The good old days are gone, but the bad old boys remain, and dangerous changes are taking place daily. Even after a jury found that the FBI went too far against Judy Berry and Daryl Churney, their families still don't have justice. The USAPATRIOT Act and the Secret Evidence Act erode our constitutional rights. The savings of generations of Americans are being spent on the military and intelligence communities, while poverty and homelessness affect millions in every city in America. And now, this administration wants to take us to war against Iraq. Yet all across our country, and those of our allies, veterans of the last war against Iraq still suffer the health effects of Gulf War Syndrome. Our Vietnam-era veterans still suffer from exposure to Agent Orange while a new generation of veterans is reeling from depleted uranium, and they have not been taken care of. Twenty-five percent of all the homeless men and women who sleep on our streets every night are our veterans to whom we've already broken our promise. How many more veterans does George W. Bush want to create, to whom we'll yet again break our promise? Mr. President, please look at the veterans who are sleeping on the streets right across from your window in the White House. Our government can monitor our cell phones, the keystrokes on our computer keyboards, the books we read at the library, but they can't give a warm meal and shelter to the veterans who have served our country, and who are now in need. In the last year alone, the Navy in one port was able to move twenty million pounds of ammunition to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Something is terribly, terribly wrong.

And what about the young men and women who now find themselves on the front lines, deployed in faraway places like Oman, Djibouti, Bahrain, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Colombia, Macedonia, Peru, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Korea, Japan, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Burundi, Australia, Nigeria, 37 European countries, 12 former Soviet Union countries, 15 Asian and Pacific countries, 21 North African and Southeast Asian countries, 27 African countries, 29 Western Hemisphere countries? George Bush signed an executive order waiving the administration's obligation to pay them their high-deployment overtime pay. If he would do this to our troops when we need them most, what will he do to us? We only need remember Florida to answer that question. And let us remember, it's easy to talk about war if you've never been to war. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Rush Limbaugh where were you when your country needed you?

We swam into the Vietnam War with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and it turned out not to be true. Our strength and courage are being tested right now. We can stand back and do nothing, or we can protect our Republic from abuse. We are gathered here today representing every slice of America. Despite all of our differences, we are here today with one desire: to return America to her true ideals. Don't be fooled by what they may say about you. You ARE the true patriots. Our first "President George" spoke about you. He spoke about what happens to true patriots. He warned us to beware the empty bellicose flag-waving of those who hold themselves out to be patriots. He warned us against false patriotism. He cautioned that the true patriot, the one who most loves his country, will become suspect and odious, and will watch while the false patriots usurp the applause of the people. But the true patriots will know that our country's founding interests are being surrendered. That first "President George" was George Washington in 1796. We've known true patriots in our day, like JFK, RFK, and MLK. But you too are patriots, and today you're standing up for what is right and good about our country.

Against today's backdrop of Washington, DC, the most powerful capital on the planet, I dream of a day when the power of love replaces the power of might. That will be the day when our world will know the blessings of peace, and our Republic will once again be in the hands of the American people. Thank you.

While majorities don't necessarily determine truth, I was pleased to feel that on this day truth was definitely nestled somewhere within the disparate and untidy mass that made up the antiwar demonstrators as they loudly cheered on Rep. McKinney. I'd read a report a couple of days before the rally that the Washington, DC Chapter of Free Republic had organized a counter-demonstration three blocks away, so I headed over. What I found was about fifty people scattered around a small podium listening to a man dressed as a Muslim cleric ranting against Saddam Hussein. I asked a middle-aged gentleman in a baseball cap who this was, and he told me he didn't know but said a demonstration of Iraqis had been going on across Constitution Avenue a little earlier and the Free Republic group had invited them over. "I'm sure glad the Iraqis came," he added. "It's pretty spectacular, isn't it?"

Yes, spectacularly pathetic. Without the Iraqis, the Free Republic demonstration might have been in the range of thirty or thirty-five people. As it was, the Iraqi cleric yelled "death, death to Saddam" as a handful of bellicose flag-wavers cheered him on. The Iraqi proudly announced he had been in the United States for twenty-five years, which may have explained why his Arab accent seemed slightly contrived. He actually had to try to sound foreign, making plenty of "mistakes" while he spoke.

A short, blond bearded man dressed in a black suit came up to speak next, and a middle-aged woman told me he was Kristinn Taylor, head of Free Republic's D.C. chapter. "He's Icelandic," she said proudly. There are probably hundreds of thousands of Americans out there willing to say just about anything to be noticed, in the hope they'll be offered some miserable slot in the government. When Hanna Arendt first met Adolf Eichmann, she was famously struck not by a feeling of being in the presence of a monster, but rather by how in the final analysis Eichmann was nothing more than an ordinary government functionary eager to please his superiors. Taylor looked like that sort of person.

He said he had spoken to some college students who had come over from the other rally, where people "were talking about socialism." It must have been when I wasn't there because I never heard any of the people on the A.N.S.W.E.R. podium mention socialism. Then Taylor said that it was "unfortunate" that they encounter "anti-Semitism" when "they go to some of these antiwar rallies," and that "some people are selling The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Again, I never saw this bit of propaganda among the antiwar crowd, but I did see some bumper stickers that said "Think Vegan." Taylor said he'd seen "several swastikas" at an A.N.S.W.E.R. rally on April 20th, and went on that "if people want to see where anti-Semitism leads, you can look behind you over your shoulder" and "see the Holocaust Museum over there." He said there had been "other holocausts" since Hitler, "like what happened in Rwanda during the Clinton administration" as if the Bush administration would have invaded that dirt-poor African state at the height of its last civil war!

The Free Republic leader said that America "as a society and a civilization" had "a responsibility to stop these dictators before they become entrenched." Then, when a young Arab-American wearing a Palestinian flag-colored hat yelled something about Israeli slaughter of Palestinians, Taylor responded, "Israel is a democracy," his voice never rising but his cheeks acquiring that sudden ruddy, flushed look. Israel respected freedoms, he said, as evidenced by all the Arab citizens of the Zionist state. He neglected to mention that Arab representation in the Knesset was mysteriously only a tiny fraction of the percentage of Arabs in Israel's population as a whole.

Looking around at the placards at Free Republic's rally, many of them resting on the ground, I noticed strange slogans. My first impression of one that read, "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," was that it was a cynical rebuttal of a placard I'd seen earlier in the antiwar crowd: "An eye for an eye, and before you know it everybody's blind." Another said, "You Commies lost? Go home!" and showed a map of the US and Cuba, with arrows pointing to Cuba. Posted on the door of one of the port-o-johnnies was a sign that read: "Note to antiwar protesters: Your rally has toilets. They're not as clean." But the most thought-provoking slogan I saw at the little Free Republic gathering was this: "Axis of Evil Saddam, Farrakhan, John Muhammad."

FREE REPUBLIC OR REPUBLIC OF FEAR?

The climate of fear at the tiny Free Republic rally far exceeded the demonstration's actual size.

After the young Arab-American with the Palestinian floppy hat finished yelling at Kristinn Taylor, the "Iraqis" came over to talk to him, and I got a feel for how big they were close-up. Three mullah-types approached, and I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that their beards all seemed a little too neatly-trimmed for the average mosque-going Middle Easterner. They got right up in the young man's face to reprimand him, and some large, plain-clothes Arab associates crowded around behind their would-be Islamic spiritual guides for support. Whatever they said to the lad must have worked, since he turned and left soon afterwards in the direction of the antiwar rally.

The core of the War Party's political strategy is, of course, instilling fear in ordinary Americans, and the cheap-shot placard of the "Freepers" linking John Allen Muhammad to some wider evil was a perfect example. Instead of an unfortunate, homeless, ex-military drifter with mental problems (for some reason much as with Lee Harvey Oswald the media rarely mention that Muhammad is a decorated war veteran), the sniper is portrayed by the War Party as an al-Qaeda operative. This sort of conspiracy theory is somehow okay with the fine folks at Free Republic, while for example suggestions that Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone's death was assassination are not.

Even leaving conspiracy theories aside, by now it's clear that 9/11 could hardly have played better into the hands of the War Party and its "Freeper" cheerleaders if it had been planned. Yet, as tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators were getting back on their buses to begin their long journeys home on Saturday, it was unlikely many of the millions of Americans settling in to watch the sixth game of the World Series appreciated the potential of the intensified "state of war" atmosphere to ultimately make their day-to-day lives a living hell. The increased surveillance apparatus growing out of the "war on terror" policy of this government, Republicans and Democrats alike, calls for courage on the home front. As Susan Sarandon said, her voice cracking at times: "Mr. Bush, you have hijacked our pain, our loss, our fear, and you have convinced many that to fight preemptively is the only way to protect our democracy." It's really the "fear" factor that should be at the heart of the antiwar movement's concerns, because the fear level will determine the future of the Republic that Cynthia McKinney alluded to in her speech. If the Bill of Rights is snuffed out altogether because Americans are too afraid to fight for it, America will no longer have anything to do with its ideals but will instead be some sort of caricature. Marches are a visible way of resisting. While one protest of 200,000 may only shut down the center of one city, similar protests in, say, ten cities at once could actually attract some serious attention in the corridors of official power.

Finally, while most of the marchers on October 26th may not have fit in with most Americans' aesthetic sensibilities, at least they were taking part and they weren't afraid. Appearance does matter in winning hearts and minds, something Martin Luther King understood. Whatever many on the right may think about Rev. King, he was certainly clever enough to see that it's more difficult to justify spitting at a man wearing a suit and tie, especially if the spitter's gut is hanging out of his jeans and t-shirt and he's wearing a dirty baseball cap. But however ghastly some of the antiwar protesters may have looked to many members of middle-class Americana, I would rather march next to them than have to associate with the dishonest, informer-like suit-and-tie wearers of Free Republic.

THE 'COMMIE' FACTOR

Late Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in Foggy Bottom metro station waiting for a train and a small, middle-aged gentleman with thick glasses and frizzy hair came and sat next to me. He was holding a newspaper called Freedom Socialist, the organ of one of the many revolutionary socialist parties, and he said something about having to wait so long for a train. I said three orange line trains had just gone through in succession, to which he replied that I'd missed a blue line train because I was asleep. He'd been watching me, he said.

He was a mild-mannered and very personable man who said his party was feminist but had a heavily gay component. The Socialist Workers Party, he said, was a Trotskyite organization that had split away from the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) long ago, while Workers World was also Trotskyite but had split off from the Socialist Workers Party. A.N.S.W.E.R., he said, was a "front" for Workers World.

"What about the United States Marxist-Leninist Organization (USMLO)?" I asked. I'd run into a young man carrying a big Soviet-style red flag with the letters "USMLO" on it.

"I'm not sure, but I think they're a Maoist organization," he said.

"The Progressive Labor Party?" I'd seen one of their comrades calling for a Communist revolution.

"They're also Maoist, I believe," he said. He was getting confused but still tried to be helpful. "I noticed the Spartacist League were mostly dressed in black today, which is something new for them. I think they're going for an anarchist look, but they're actually Trotskyite as well."

"One can only imagine what Rosa Luxemburg would have thought about her party deciding to follow a Bolshevik after her death," I said. Prussian military officers had murdered Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin in 1919, but Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not sorry to see her go.

"Oh, maybe not," said the man. "You know, I'm not really sure, but I think all the socialist parties are seriously thinking about ways to unite." He said some of the socialist parties were more interested in starting street fights with other socialist parties than combating the bourgeois class enemy.

We rode the train together, and I enjoyed talking to him. Although inside he could conceivably have had the germinating brain of Nikolai Yezhov, he seemed a decent and thoughtful individual and reacted perfectly amiably when I told him I was covering the demonstration for a libertarian website. When we reached his stop and he realized suddenly where he was, he flew out the door of the carriage before standing on the platform, looking hopelessly lost. "Nice talking to you," I said after him before the doors closed. He turned, startled, and with a genuinely kind smile gave me a raised fist salute by way of taking his leave. I waved.

The incident contrasted sharply with an episode several years ago in London, when I'd gone to a meeting of something called the Stalin Society. An ad in the paper described it merely as a group devoted to studying and discussing the historical legacy of Stalin. But when I arrived I found a strange collection of people who looked as if they had brushed cobwebs off themselves to leave their flats, with dust still heavy on their spectacles. A man started reading something he'd written about Stalin, praising the dictator for his wonderful achievements and explaining how Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks had attempted to subvert and derail the Revolution but had been caught and justly sentenced by the great leader. At the end of this bizarre spectacle, an old woman approached me, evidently wishing to acquaint herself with a newcomer. In a very friendly way, she asked why I'd come, and I told her I had seen the announcement and had always been interested in the Bolshevik era. When she asked what I thought, I said I found it extraordinary that people could sit around talking about Stalin in positive terms so matter-of-factly. It seemed like bad comedy to me.

"Oh," she said, one eyebrow raised, but still friendly. "So you're a Trotskyite, are you?" It was as if, although Trotsky was a great heretic, at least the Stalin Society could tolerate and even appreciate one of his followers as a "known quantity" in their presence.

"No, of course I'm not a Trotskyite, for God's sake," I replied. "What sort of person sympathizes with Bolsheviks?"

I was still speaking to her at a volume that precluded anyone else in the room hearing, but she blew up at me. "How dare you speak like that!" she screamed. If I couldn't appreciate what they were doing I could just "bloody well LEAVE!" All eyes were on me as she stormed off, and I realized she was both serious and mentally disturbed. She would have been a prime candidate, I thought to myself, to sit in the dock at a Stalinist show trial and finger her comrades. But I let go of my sadistic visions, got up, and left during the middle of a speech about the glories of the White Sea Canal.

Unlike the woman at the Stalin Society, the representatives of the revolutionary Communist parties with whom I spoke on October 26th were all remarkably pleasant. Apart from one chap I chatted to – a Socialist Workers Party member who said that real change had never been achieved through elections, but only when discontent had spilled over into violence at street level – all of them seemed flaky enough to be more like interesting curiosities than a real political presence at the protest. I actually contributed to two of them. When I discovered that the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party was actually The Militant, I went back to the person selling the Socialist Worker newspaper and found out it was the organ of the International Socialist Organization. I bought a copy of both, thus donating $2.50 to the international Marxist-Leninist revolutionary class struggle. With such confusion as to names and identities, I doubted any of these people would show enough of Lenin's organizational genius to pull off the October 1917 in Washington 2002. International A.N.S.W.E.R., which acquired the permit for the protest, had organized a large, peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights. While it may only have been a "front" for the Marxist Workers World party, therefore, the fact that it felt the need to operate as a "front" and stick to "bourgeois" rhetoric may be an indication that America isn't ready for Workers World's style of revolution.

One memory stands out from the day. A conservative-looking, fifty-ish man was walking near me with his wife and another couple no less conventional in their appearance carrying a large flag with a picture of Planet Earth on a dark background. I asked him what the flag stood for, and he told me it was from an organization called "Not In Our Name" (NION). I asked him who they were, and he said he wasn't sure but that he loved the flag. "It is a beautiful flag, isn't it?" Yes, I replied. It was a beautiful flag. Then he pulled a NION pamphlet from his pocket and gave it to me, and I was suddenly overcome with the distinct feeling that although we were strangers who knew nothing about each other, we were definitely on the same side that day. To those Americans with misgivings about war on Iraq but also an aversion to joining demonstrations for fear of rubbing shoulders with "Commies," here is one "old righty" who joined in and lived to tell the tale. It was worth the trouble.

– Chad Nagle

Write to Chad Nagle

Chad Nagle is a professional writer and lawyer. He has been published in the Wall Street Journal Europe, the Washington Times, and several other periodicals. Mr. Nagle traveled extensively throughout the ex-USSR from 1992-97 as a research consultant. Since mid-1999, he has traveled widely in the former Communist bloc on behalf of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.

Previous articles by Chad Nagle

Day of Preemptive Protest Appeals to Patriotism
10/31/02

House Panel Rushes to Join the (War) Party
10/7/02

Will Congress Rubber-stamp an Unpopular War?
9/21/02

A Sensible China Policy For The American People
4/27/01

Hainan Dim-Sum: Feeding a Bully's Sinister Agenda
4/17/01

The Revolution Comes to Ukraine
3/30/01

Red Dawn in Moldova?
3/16/01

Musings On The New Imperialism and Post-Western World Government
2/23/01

Soros: False Prophet-At-Large
2/9/01

Belarus: Oasis In The Heart Of Europe
1/26/01

Serbia Joins the West
1/12/01

Death of a Patriot
8/31/00

The Twilight of Sovereignty in Azerbaijan
7/14/00

The Ukrainian Model of Democracy
5/5/00

The Slow Strangulation of Democracy in Slovakia
3/28/00

Patrick Buchanan and the American Reformation
1/25/00

The Betrayal of Democracy in Post-Soviet Georgia
11/30/99

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