US Marchers Sent Message—And Deserved Better

By Charles Jenks

On January 27th, the people sent a clear message to Washington—“Get U.S. Troops Out of Iraq Now!” Hundreds of thousands of people marched, and they completely—for the first time in history it is reported—surrounded the Capitol Building. When the first marchers came to the end of the loop there were people still waiting to start marching.

Unfortunately, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ)—the primary sponsor—didn’t live up to the standards set by the marchers. Its continuing refusal to work with some other national coalitions, and its focus on celebrities and politicians, was reflected in its botching the start of the march and in the focus given by media.

The great news though, from my perspective, is that this march drew such a broad range of people. Look at the people marching——has over 200 march photos; and you’ll see a cross-section of America. This—as much as the numbers—is what should worry the Bush Administration and Congress.

I saw the entire march, as I was assigned to photograph it for Traprock Peace Center (which has covered every national march since the historic gathering in Washington on October 26, 2002). This was as large as any march that I have seen in D.C. The 500,000-person estimate given by organizers seems reasonable.

This was a huge outpouring of people, despite it being January, and despite Weather Channel reports that there would be a wind-chill in the 30’s with 15 mile-per-hour winds. As it turned out, it was almost balmy, with little wind and temperatures in the 40’s. If the weather forecast had been accurate, surely the march would have been even larger. (No, I’m not blaming Bush for messing with the weather report, though it did occur to me!)

This writer saw not one instance of violence. An eyewitness told me that at one point about 80 people (AP said 150 people—funny what the media exaggerates and what it downplays) rushed down a sidewalk at the Capitol as though they were going to storm up the Capitol steps. This sent the police scurrying to head them off, with police running down the steps. The rush was obviously choreographed and done in jest, as protestors came to a sudden halt, apparently acting merely to tease the police and get a reaction. This kind of behavior—juvenile in my opinion—was the marked exception on this day.

The mainstream media, of course, grossly under-reported the size of the march (AP called it tens of thousands, and cited police sources as saying it was less than 100,000). So what else is new? Organizers obviously need to take media tendencies into account ahead of time. Was that done here? It didn’t seem so.

So how did UFPJ manage to screw up the beginning of the march? Here’s my eyewitness account of what happened.

As the speeches from the main stage were winding down, march marshals patrolled a large taped-off square area on 3rd Street, directly behind the stage, where celebrities were gathering in preparation for stepping off. The march route was to go down to Constitution Avenue and then take a right turn on Constitution toward Capitol Hill. The squared-off area, marked by yellow plastic ribbon, was about 100 feet along 3rd street on one side and the width of the street on the other. This squared-off area was in the middle of throngs of people.

Marshals were inside and outside the square telling people to get up on the sidewalks to keep the street clear to let the celebrities who were supposed to head the march pass through and get in front of the marchers. About 100 reporters, with march supporters mixed in, gathered in a tight group jostling for good camera positions on the side of the squared-off area closest to Constitution Ave. Opposite this gaggle of press were celebrities, liberal Democrat politicians and organizers selected by UFPJ, taking up their positions behind the big UFPJ banner.

More and more people gathered as organizing the march took more and more time. There was a huge crush of people—very tightly formed—behind the celebrity formation. And there was the crush of press hugging onto the yellow ribbon opposite the celebrities. People were now surrounding the square, and people were ignoring marshals’ pleas to clear the street along the beginning of the march route.

This unstable situation blew apart when media people—bristling with their video and still cameras—noticed that some of their number had managed to get up close and personal to the celebrities and were getting great shots. Photographers next to this writer (and including this writer) yelled to one guy with a video camera to get out of the way of the banner. (He was facing it, camera in hand.) We were trying to get long-range shots.

Then, another photographer got in front of the banner. Enough was enough for the crush of photographers behind the yellow ribbon. One lifted the ribbon and sprinted for the banner to get her own great shot of celebrities. This led to an avalanche of photographers, trying to get close-ups (I got a few myself).

The celebrity formation was now confronted by a mass of photographers acting like paparazzi. (And truly, they were just that, as many, if not most, were there to take pictures of the famous.) The celebrities started moving forward; taking baby steps, as the reporters inched backwards, clicking away. Meanwhile, marshals were yelling to the now hundreds of people in the street to get off the street and to “fall in behind” the group of celebrities who were supposed to be heading the march and who were still inching along.

There was no place to fall in behind the celebrity “head” as there was a crush of people behind it and masses of people on the sides.

Finally, the police in front of the entire mass of people in the street—where the head of the march should have been—started up their motorcycles and started to move. The marshals were still pleading with people to get off the street to allow the celebrities to get in front of the marchers, but instead people already massed in front of them began marching. One guy yelled out: “Hey, we’re marching!” The celebrities were now hundreds of people behind the real head—the people.

Is there a lesson here? I think there are several.

First, where’s the A.N.S.W.E.R. organization when you need it? UFPJ famously (notoriously) refused to work with A.N.S.W.E.R. after refusing to endorse national actions by World Can’t Wait and refusing to follow the global call for mass demonstrations last March. A.N.S.W.E.R. surely wouldn’t have set up the march to begin in the middle of masses of people. Stupid they’re not.

Second, with the focus of the “head” of the march so much on celebrities and liberal politicians (where was Iraq Veterans Against the War, for example?), it was inevitable that the crush of people would be exacerbated, and that the media that came would largely be there to photograph and quote the celebrities. This was reflected in the media coverage, as on CNN. I’ll be impressed with the celebrity who gives up a movie career—as so many dedicated organizers have given up or suspended their careers—at least until the U.S. is out of Iraq. Until then, I see people who have bought their place at the head of the march with their fame, their money or both. No wonder that people did not obey orders to “fall in behind.”

Which brings us to a third point. The organizers were out of touch with the people. How could they have thought that people would just obey them and fall in behind when there was no place to fall in? Or that the people would clear a path, like drops in the Red Sea, for UFPJ’s hand-chosen “head” to pass?

This march was about the people who came to protest the war and occupation. It wasn’t about the celebrities and politicians who gave a glamorous face and allowed march organizers to rub elbows with them. Please understand me—I am glad that celebrities and politicians participate. Yet media coverage would lead one to believe that it was all about the celebrities leading “10’s of thousands.” The huge masses of people were the real story, but these people weren’t in the story.

UFPJ needs to get off its high horse about being the coalition of antiwar forces in the U.S., as it represented itself before the London International Peace Conference in December 2005. (In the next breath, UFPJ told international organizers that it was not going to participate in global mass demos in March 2006, preferring instead a mass demo in April as a way to have influence on the November elections.) If UFPJ wants to end this war and occupation now, it needs to become a willing and cooperative partner with other national groups—including A.N.S.W.E.R.—and get over its fixation on celebrities and liberal politicians.

Bits and Pieces

Biggest and most energetic contingents: International Socialist Organization, Campus Antiwar Network(CAN)/SDS/WCW’s Unified Youth and Student Contingent, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), U.S. Labor Against the War and Iraq Veterans Against the War. (Why does UFPJ keep competing with the real energies of the student movement? It keeps promoting its NYSPC (National Youth and Student Peace Coalition), whereas the most effective organizational energy since early 2003 has come from other student groups, such as CAN?)

Troops Out Now Coalition also took up a prime spot at 3rd and Constitution to lead chants via their bullhorn. And people wearing A.N.S.W.E.R. patches were all over the place. Though they’ve been shunned by UFPJ, they showed up.

Worst sign?

The ubiquitous Move-On sign that read “Iraq Escalation? Wrong Way.” Hey, Move-On, this was a protest against the war and occupation, not merely against the escalation. This is the same Move-On that refused pleas to take a stand against attacking Iran. Instead, its petition merely calls for not nuking Iran. “President Bush and Congress should rule out attacking Iran with nuclear weapons.” Is that helpful, Move-On?

Another profile in courage/integrity by Sen. John Kerry.

With his history of having refused many times to meet with his antiwar constituents before he voted for the war resolution in October, 2002, and his dismissing 500 faxed hand-written pleas to call Scott Ritter as a witness for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on that resolution, and his having locked his constituents out of his office on the day he voted for war, one would think that Senator Kerry might actually meet with the 70 constituents who assembled in his D.C. office on January 28th. Not to disappoint those who appreciate consistency, he again sent an aide. He was “out of the country.” I’m sure he was, and I’m sure he could, if he wished, arrange his schedule to meet with his constituents of peace.

Charles Jenks, is Chair of the Advisory Board and Past President of The Traprock Peace Center, and he serves as its web manager. He writes and consults for and the ExxonMobil War Boycott. A licensed attorney since 1980, he has practiced human rights law for over 20 years.

—Traprock Peace Center, January 31, 2007