Day 24. Widespread looting in Baghdad.
I had been gearing up for three weeks for the antiwar demonstration in D.C., but as it approached I became uncomfortably aware of several things. First of all, none of my friends were going, in fact, most had not even heard about the demonstration. Secondly, I did not like the prospect of having to ride on a bus round-trip for ten hours. Thirdly, the war appeared to be dwindling away to almost nothing. (Was this even still technically considered a war?) And finally, and most disconcerting, I was haunted by the images I had seen of Iraqis celebrating and laughing and kissing American soldiers. I had a painful vision of being one of seven people at the demonstration, being jeered and derided by Arabs and Americans alike, who could not believe that we could be so thickheaded in the face of such evidence.
I decided I had to stick to my convictions and go. And after much deliberation I splurged and bought a train ticket. It was priced at $144 to the bus‚s $35, but I was able to use Amtrak‚s special Matisse-Picasso promotional fare and get the ticket down to $115.40. (Amtrak was apparently unaware that I was already in New York City.)
On Saturday, April 12, I woke up at 6:45 AM. It was cold and raining. My girlfriend suggested I take a cab to Penn Station, but I had timed it so I would arrive ten minutes before the train departed and my bicycle was the only guaranteed method of getting me there fast enough. Before I left, however, I removed the antiwar button from my coat. I didn‚t let my girlfriend see me do this. It was an extreme act of cowardice and I was ashamed, but it was motivated by a photograph I had seen the day before of thousands of muscular construction workers rallying for the troops at Ground Zero.
I rode to Penn Station in the driving rain and arrived soaked, but found, to my delight, a bike rack sheltered in the underpass that runs between Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. On the wall behind the rack was a large sign which read, “This bicycle rack is for messengers only.” It was unequivocal.
Fuck that, I thought. What do they care? It‚s Saturday, there are no messengers today.
I had eight minutes before my train left. I locked my bicycle up and went down the escalator to Penn Station, proud of my defiance and my New Yorker ability to quickly assess the toothlessness of certain rules and regulations. Perhaps it had also worked to counter-balance my earlier moment of timidity.
As I walked to the gate my conscience gnawed at me. What if they do care? What if they care so much that they cut my bicycle lock and I have to spend a $180 (an arbitrary figure) in bailing it out? It‚s not worth the risk, I thought. I‚ll just park it in the rain and let it get soaked. I quickly returned up the escalator. I had six minutes before my train left. Two soldiers were milling about in front of the entrance and I asked them politely, “Since it‚s Saturday, do you think it‚s O.K. if I lock my bicycle up to the rack?”
It was a bizarre question to ask of men dressed in army boots, combat fatigues and holding automatic weapons. I felt like a little boy for asking it and then having to stand there wide-eyed waiting for a response. They looked at me, looked at the bicycle, and said they really didn‚t have any idea what the rules were. I had five minutes before my train left. I decided to just move the bicycle and be done with it. I unlocked the chain as the rain came down harder.
Who was I kidding? I thought. This is New York City, no one cares about improper bicycles being locked to racks. And even if they did, would they spend their time blow-torching a bicycle lock on a Saturday just to prove a point?
I had three minutes to go. I‚d take the risk. It was worth it. I left my bicycle where it was and ran downstairs to catch the 8:05 to Washington D.C.
On the train I took a seat near a young guy with long hair and a long beard. He was asleep, sprawled across both seats with his legs in the aisle. I had no doubt that he was going to the demonstration and I felt emboldened. By Newark the rain had subsided. My bicycle popped into my head. It was stupid of me to leave it there, I thought. They wouldn‚t have put up a giant sign if they didn’t care. I envisioned a security detail converging around my bicycle. I tried to push it out of my head. Across from me was a man reading Barron‚s who I presumed would not be at the demonstration. He was nice enough to give me his New York Times, though. I studied some maps of Iraq and read about Rumsfeld saying that there was still some “untidiness” in Baghdad. Every so often the sleeping guy would shift in his seat and I‚d get a whiff of extremely severe b.o.
At 11:25 AM the train arrived in Washington D.C. I saw an older man in the train station brazenly carrying a sign that read, “U.S. out of Iraq.” There’d be at least three of us at the demonstration. I asked him if he knew how to get to the White House and he said that it was about a twenty minute walk and that I should just follow either Pennsylvania or Constitution Avenue.
I thanked him, but outside I could find neither Pennsylvania nor Constitution Avenue. I asked some people at a bus stop, but none of them could locate the streets either, and they all thought that the White House was too far away to try to make it to on foot. Which is how most people respond to distances that New Yorkers take for granted. One man pointed me in the general direction and I set out figuring that I‚d find the White House eventually. I passed through Georgetown Law School and Chinatown and the place where Booth supposedly plotted Lincoln‚s assassination. It was a beautiful sunny day, in the mid sixties. I enjoyed walking. Soon I spotted a police helicopter hovering in the sky and I followed it like the North Star. It lead me to Freedom Plaza, where the rally was being held.
My fears were confirmed. The place was barely full. A few thousand at most. I felt humiliated. I‚d spent a $115.40 to come all this way. It was like arriving at a party and realizing that not only do you not know anyone, you are completely overdressed for the occasion.
I maneuvered myself to the front of the stage which had a banner that read, “End the Occupation.” Ramsey Clark spoke about impeaching Bush and I wondered if he realized that meant Cheney would then be president. He had messy hair and a very casual but direct delivery. I thought that he‚d probably make a great uncle. Then a young black man with an afro and an acoustic guitar took the stage and performed a rap that began, “Fuck America and the U.S.A.!” He was very commanding and had everyone’s attention and midway through the song he referred to himself as a “dyke” and I realized that he was actually a woman. Then there was a speaker who mentioned that the U.S. had funded Saddam Hussein during his most repressive years and a man nearby suddenly said to no one in particular, “That’s true, you know,” as if he were among people who might take exception to such a statement. A man walked past me wearing a plaster of Paris mask of Bush and a loin cloth. I was tired and wanted to sit down, but I worried that sitting would somehow dilute the full effect of the crowd.
Larry Holmes, the co-director of A.N.S.W.E.R., introduced each speaker by saying, “This next sister has been in the movement for…,” or “I want you to help me welcome this brother from…” He was wearing jeans and a faded dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves. He had an endearing quality, as if he were an old friend of the family who was sitting down with you on the porch. I wanted to like him and I wanted him to like me, but I didn’t quite trust him. There was a muscular man nearby sporting a crew cut and a brace on his right wrist who raised both arms above his head and called out, “Citizens of the world! Citizens of the world!” whenever people cheered.
A pretty woman had set up a table to sell G-strings inscribed with, “Make love not war.”
One of the speakers shouted “Healthcare not warfare!” And when the crowd responded in unison, “Healthcare not warfare,” the speaker giggled nervously and ruined the effect.
There was a sign that said, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
And I recalled how just that morning I myself had learned from the New York Times that the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers ran through Iraq.
There were several elderly white women who were hunched over from exhaustion. They looked as if they‚d been coming to these protests for years and I felt sorry for them. Another speaker said that from her vantage point on the stage she could see that all of Freedom Plaza was now filled. My hopes rose. She went on to say that before the big business press had a chance to underestimate the size of the protest she wanted to let us know that in her opinion there were at least 25,000 people here. Everyone applauded heartily. The man yelled, “Citizens of the world!” A young woman cheered and held up a sign with four very small handwritten paragraphs by Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t have the wherewithal to try to read it. I thought of my confiscated bicycle. I felt miserable. In a country of 300 million people we had managed to muster 25,000. It was pathetic and I wanted a speaker to acknowledge that it was pathetic, that things were getting worse and worse and that there was not a thing we could do about it. I wanted someone to point out that the call had first been, “No War,” and then it had morphed into “Stop the War,” and now it was the demoralizing and defeatist “End the Occupation.” Next it would be, “Please Don’t Stay Too Long.” Nothing we had done had mattered, and we now looked like fools for still trying. The United States could bomb every single country in the Middle East and no one in America would give a shit until American soldiers died in huge numbers. Until then it was time for celebration and pats on the back for a job well done.
Larry Holmes took the mike to let us know that because of an accident on I-95 the buses from New York still hadn‚t arrived. He said that we were going to wait for our brothers and sisters from New York no matter what the cops said about our time for the rally being up, and everyone applauded aggressively. He was acting as if the power lay with us, but the power didn’t lie with us. There was probably still plenty of time on the permit and the police would move us out when they wanted to move us out and he knew that. Now I really didn‚t trust him. A husband and wife took the stage and sang a folk song, deeply inclusive and slightly off-key, and then it was time to march.
It felt better moving. The crowd seemed bigger when it got all spread out and I pretended that there were a lot more people than there actually were. There was a lot of chanting, which I found sexy for some reason, and some massive banners. All of which was heartening. Some people carried a sign that read, “Astorians against the war.” There were also quite a few very thin, very small white kids who looked to be in their teens or early twenties, wearing shabby black clothes and black bandannas covering their faces. They looked like Billy the Kid meets grunge. Every so often they’d huddle together conspiratorially and exchange information and then hurry off towards something or other. Their clandestine energy was discomfiting, made doubly so by their masks, which I wanted to dismiss as childish, but instead found worrisome.
The police were about 90% black and all built like football players, even the women. The white cops looked like the guys from my high school who had listened to Black Sabbath and told racist jokes. They followed along both sides of us, some driving Honda Rebels and others riding nice shiny bicycles. I thought of my own bicycle. One of the black cops reminded me of a short-order cook I had once been friends with and I had a brief confusing moment where I saw myself as the white oppressor and the police as the black victims being forced to labor on a Saturday afternoon on my account. I tried to ignore this thought.
Our first stop was the Washington Post. The truck we were following paused and Larry Holmes gave a speech from the back of it demanding that the Washington Post stop lying to the American people about the war. “Stop lying! It‚s an occupation! Not a liberation!” Then he and another woman took turns repeating it. “It’s an occupation! Not a liberation!” Everyone joined in. It was sexy. A guy on the fourth floor came to the window to see what the commotion was and a few people waved, some gave the peace sign and one gave him the finger. For all we knew he was the janitor.
A woman wearing a camouflage halter top, barely covering her breasts, suddenly appeared from out of nowhere and burst into the crowd shouting louder than Larry Holmes on the microphone. She was full of energy and she carried a sign with an illustration of Bart Simpson with a dialogue bubble saying, “Remember that the terrorists from 9/11 said they were students, too.” I didn‚t understand what she was getting at, but I was ready to champion her zeal until I realized with great uneasiness that she was against us and unabashedly so. It felt like a member from the audience had just climbed onto the stage to take over the play. People shouted at her and the truck quickly pressed on.
Further ahead there was an altercation that included a lot of police, a lot of pushing, a lot of shouting, and Billy the Kid having bottled water poured into his eyes. I wanted to rubberneck, but one of the march chaperones exhorted us to keep moving. There was urgency in his voice and I was frightened, but I was also drawn, and I purposely passed very close to the phalanx of police officers, who held their clubs in front of them with both hands, and I felt a thrill run through me. A mildly-retarded looking black man was saying to the police, “Look at you. And you call yourself black men. Go get a real job. Do something useful with your life.” Beside him was a mildly-retarded looking young white man, who said nothing, looked shyly at his feet and chuckled at each one of his friend‚s comments as if he was being forthright with girls.
Along the way one of the female bandits deftly scaled a lamppost and duct taped a black flag to the top. I didn‚t know what it signified, but it had a dramatic effect. It also seemed extremely illegal, but the police rode by without incident.
Further on a family that looked like they were from the Midwest stood in front of the National Museum of Natural History and silently watched as we marched by. The little boy of about five looked bewildered, the mother looked frightened and the father looked as if he should be a man and take up arms against us. A sturdy white woman in her fifties stood on the sidewalk and sang a rousing rendition of “God Bless America” as we passed. She was smiling at us with the strength of inner conviction. There was no question in her mind that she was right and we were wrong. She might be just one and we might be thousands, but she would stand up for what she believed and not let her country be trod underfoot. The reality was she was hundreds of millions and we were a few thousand and we were the ones ultimately being trod. She made eye contact with me and I looked away quickly and hurried on. I wished I could be on her side, the right side, the normal side, the good side, the good-looking side, the American side, the powerful side. I wished I was the one going to the National Museum of Natural History on a Saturday afternoon.
Next we stopped in front of Halliburton and listened to another speech by Larry Holmes and then shouted “shame” at the office building. I wasn’t sure which office building it was, but I looked at all the windows to see if anyone would look out. Then something serious happened and the police sped by on their motorcycles and bicycles which were somehow equipped to make the sound of a siren. Some of the Billy the Kids climbed on the roof of a bus shelter and another one ran on top of a parked car. A bottle flew through the air and shattered against the ground. From his truck, Larry Holmes appealed for us to be calm and continue marching. There was a pause and then the shit hit the fan. The marchers surged towards me, a huge wall running my way, people screaming. I thought of Kent State and I ran, too. At the intersection another contingent of police appeared dressed in riot gear. I stepped onto the sidewalk and pretended that I was a pro-war passerby who had just happened to get caught in the middle. I was thankful I had removed my antiwar button.
The police let their bicycles drop in the middle of the street like kids in the playground and ran full speed into the crowd. I watched as they pushed the protesters aside, one by one, as if they were NFL linebackers pushing away children. I saw my traveling companion with the body odor stumble and fall to the ground.
“We are unarmed and they are attacking us!” Larry Holmes said with the tone of a narrator. “Without provocation!” He also said that he needed to back the truck up. Amid the commotion you could hear the beep-beeping of it trying to reverse itself into the crowd.
On the sidewalk by my feet were a number of homemade brochures that a protester had dropped in their haste to get away. “World Tribunal on Reparations for African People.” Someone had spent a lot of effort writing that brochure, printing it out, folding it twice, over and over, believing it might come to something. The end result looked amateurish.
I felt sad for that person. I felt sad for all of us. Here we were with our ideas, our solutions, our hopes, trying to be heard like the Whos in Whoville, and in the matter of a few seconds we had disintegrated into little helpless people flailing about in front of the well-fed, well-organized, smartly dressed police. A massive cop in riot gear proudly emerged from the Metro station carrying a very large unusual gun that I could see contained enormous red bullets. I recalled the picket line a week ago in San Francisco and decided it was time to go home.
On the train back to New York I sat down across from a black man who immediately got on his cellphone and began the conversation by asking in a loud voice, “Hey, Ron, do you know if there are any barber shops open tomorrow?” I moved to another car. This one was empty except for a few people, one of them being a young guy with glasses who looked a bit like Keanu Reeves with acne. He sat across the aisle and began to talk to me about Dennis Kucinich.
“He’s a deep guy, Dennis Kucinich. He‚s bringing a whole new message to the movement. Do you know he‚s trying to set up a Department of Peace? This is a guy who‚s on a level with King and Kennedy and the Dali Lama. The things he says, I mean, they blow my mind. He‚s the kind of guy who could get shot.”
I wanted to tell him that Kucinich was full of shit just like every Democrat. That he‚d spin a good tale that we wanted to hear and then he‚d get elected and do whatever it was the fat cats wanted. But I was exhausted and didn‚t have the energy to get into it. Plus Keanu Reeves seemed like a nice guy, an earnest guy. He was good-hearted. When he spoke he made single quote marks with his fingers.
“I’m not into the Democratic Party,” I said.
“Neither is Dennis Kucinich,” he said and looked me in the eye. There was deep tenderness in his look, as if he understood my hurt. He reminded me of a Christian trying to convince me about Jesus. “He’s working to reform the Democratic Party. Bring it back to its roots, when it was a progressive party. He’s trying to carry on the progressive work that Wellstone was doing.”
I told him that Wellstone had voted for regime change in Iraq in 1998 when it became official Clinton policy, that he had voted for the Patriot Act, and that he had voted to allow Bush to use military force against any country deemed responsible for 9/11. There wasn‚t anything progressive about Wellstone in my opinion. I was smug about this, but I pretended not to be.
“Thank you for teaching me that,” he said. “That‚s a lesson for myself. I need to do my own independent research before I repeat things. Thank you.”
I was surprised by his openness. It was very Christian and I started to like him very much.
“I’m going to be working on his campaign,” he said. “I’m going to be very involved. We’re hopeful. The only problem is, he‚s kind of short, Dennis Kucinich, and kind of thin. He doesn’t have the look you need. We‚re going to need to spin it some way, a Rock-the-Vote kind of thing, MTV style. People won‚t be able to hear his message if they can‚t get past his appearance. And the message is about bridging the spiritual and the political. You have to have both.” He paused and considered. “You yourself seem like the kind of person who‚s got the political side down, and that‚s great. The street side, I guess you‚d call it. I could use more of that myself. But I get the sense you might be Œmissing‚ the spiritual side.” That stung. “Have you read Kucinich’s speech, A Prayer for America?”
I said I hadn’t.
“It’s a deep speech. He talks about how poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.” He paused to let it register with tenderness. “Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction.” He paused again.
I was growing weary and I promised him I‚d definitely look into Kucinich. Then he went on to tell me about Mariane Williamson and Jacob Needleman and the books they‚d written, “Healing the Soul of America,” and “Spiritual Politics,” and their ideas and Kucinich‚s ideas and his own ideas and I had trouble following him, and I wanted him to stop and go away and I wanted to mock him. But I couldn‚t. He was committed about doing something to change things. And what was I doing? I thought about my bicycle.
“If you give me your email address I can send you some information about the campaign,” he said.
I didn’t want to give him my email address. A myriad of lines I’d heard from women raced through my head with the speed of a microchip.
“Maybe you can let me know of a website,” I said.
He took out a piece of paper and began to write.
“My name’s Dave,” he said.
“My name’s Saïd.”
We shook hands.
“What’s your ethnic background?” “My father’s Iranian and my mother‚s Jewish,” I said. “Whoa! What’s that like? That‚s deep. That‚s real deep. Do you ever give speeches? You’re the kind of guy that people need to hear. You embody exactly what this movement is all about. I mean, your parents have bridged centuries of violence to come together.”
He was so genuinely affected that I decided to refrain from telling him that my parents had separated when I was nine months old.
At 8:45 PM the train pulled into Penn Station. I said goodbye to Dave and quickly walked in the opposite direction, half afraid that he‚d follow me and never leave me alone. I had a sinking feeling as I rode the escalator up to the bicycle rack, thinking of the $180 I‚d have to shell out at the precinct. I stepped outside. It was nighttime now, dark and cold again. There were soldiers, different ones, standing guard at the entrance. Across the way was my bicycle, untouched, waiting for me.