Thursday, 20 March: 5pm
An impromptu rally is called at Dupont Circle and attracts a few dozen people, who gather around a small stage in a steady rain at dusk. As volunteers for the Washington Peace Center—the organization sponsoring the rally—test the PA microphones, I’m besieged by volunteers from various organizations who hand me flyers for other demonstrations and actions over the next few days.
Rain comes down hard. One of the umbrellas has a peace sign on it, done in masking tape. “Everybody complains about the weather,” I overhear, “but nobody’s ever done anything about it except the CIA.” The man who says this chuckles, catches my eye, and I smile back. He’s obliquely voicing a mad suspicion that played in the back of my mind as I humped to the circle from the Metro station in a blinding downpour. During the Vietnam War, the military seeded clouds over the Ho Chi Minh trail to soak the trail in rain and hobble the North Vietnamese supply line. Now, on the first day of the administration’s protest-plagued attack on Iraq, Washington, D.C.‘s under a flash flood watch.
But Spring is coming, March is a month for rain. Anyway, if it’s some sort of weather-warfare conspiracy it hasn’t worked: as coordinator John Judge introduces the rally’s first speaker, a procession of several hundred high school students comes up on the circle from Connecticut Avenue, followed maybe a half-hour later by several hundred labor and union marchers. The circle is now crammed with people—a sea of umbrella canopies, signs, and upraised fists.
Meanwhile, the police ring the circle, occasionally cycling their sirens for no apparent reason. In the middle of a procession of police cars, there’s a Budget Rent-a-Car van.
The first death in the second Persian Gulf war is a man who fled the fighting in Jenin and resettled in Baghdad. He was a bus driver.
Several hundred demonstrators leave the rally and go back down Connecticut Avenue toward the White House. Only a handful of people are left when the rally’s star speaker, Daniel Ellsberg, gets on stage. In leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, Ellsberg probably did more than any other single person to halt the Vietnam War. He routinely gives keynote speeches at foundation events and packed university auditoriums. But he talks to us, a sprinkling of straggling demonstrators, with consummate respect. We clap as loudly as we can, but it sounds thin. I wonder how many of the people around me, many of them college-age or younger, know who Ellsberg is. Ten years ago, I didn’t.
He says he’s going to the White House after he gets off the stage. It’s an unpermitted demonstration, and some people will probably be arrested. “This is a good night,” he says, “for a patriot to be in jail.”
The rain has tapered to a drizzle as I walk alone to 16th and H, the plaza in front of the White House. The chanting is audible a block away. I stand at a distance for a while, because the demonstrators on the side of H Street facing the White House—they number probably around two hundred—have been surrounded by the police. People are allowed to leave, but no one is being let into the crowd. About a hundred more officers are massed across the street, poised to charge into the crowd if the order is given or a moment’s confusion or a missed cue sparks off chaos. But this doesn’t happen, at least not for the hour or so that I’m there. The worst case of official misconduct is that of a helmeted motorcycle cop, who makes an “L” on his forehead with his thumb and index finger. Losers.
As I’m getting ready to walk back to the Metro, a kid in his early twenties comes up and asks me what’s going on. He says he’s from Harrisonburg, Virginia, about an hour’s drive away, and came out to Washington after seeing the demonstrations on TV because they looked like they were turning violent. But everything’s fine for now, I tell him. I ask him how he feels about what’s going on.
He shrugs. “I’ve always had a big problem with the government.”
We talk for a while about the government and the people and TV and war. “Everything on TV glorifies war,” he says. “It’s a parade of reality shows about soldiers who charge at dummies and stab them with bayonets. Why wouldn’t the rest of the world hate us?” he asks. “Why wouldn’t they think that all we have to offer is war, when our own television talks of nothing else?”
There is some bad and some good about America, I say. Something must be blessed about our country because throughout history, so many have endured so much to come here. I look up at the White House, distant from where we stand, and I forget where my argument was leading. The surrounded demonstrators shout their opinions but we are all too far away to be heard through the walls of the White House. These days, people are seeking asylum from America rather than risk detention at the hand of the INS. So I want to make my argument, but I don’t know how.
Friday, 21 March: 1pm
I have work to do at home so I don’t make it to 16th and H in time for the noon demonstration—a “die-in” a group called Code Pink has organized. Reading the flyer I’d been given the day before, I learn that a die-in is a simulation of war’s violence. Protesters adorn themselves in bandages and stage blood and lie down in the street, deliberately taking a variety of poses.
My friends and I did a similar thing as children, when we played guns in the woods and wrote war on our own small bodies. Remembering these days, I can’t recall a single time I’d thought of grief and loss. I’d only thought about the game. It occurs to me that the people in power in my country are more like I was then than like I am now. So I don’t know if die-ins will work, although I hope so.
I’ve forgotten how to get to the White House from the Faragut West station. But when a caravan of ambulances, vans and police cars blazes down the road with sirens blaring, I follow a grim hunch and go in the direction they’re coming from. The streets feel like siege and madness. Police are everywhere, biking down the sidewalk in twos and threes, standing at intersections, rumbling by on motorcycles. Someone has adorned a truck in gory pictures of aborted fetuses and angry messages to George Bush and John Ashcroft, demanding that they outlaw the murder of unborn babies. The driver senses that Bush and Ashcroft will listen to him, I suppose, and he’s probably right in sensing this.
Going where the ambulances are coming from works—I find the die-in—but it’s a coincidence. They were coming from someplace further along. Still, I learn later that the die-in led to twenty arrests. For what, I can’t imagine.
A handful of people are pacing the sidewalk and wandering off alone and in small groups. Someone who looks like an organizer—she has more than her fair share of buttons and a laminated badge on a strap around her neck—is talking to a reporter from WMAL, a local AM radio station. A minute later, she’s telling me about the people who got arrested and explaining her “Dump Richard Perle” campaign.
I mention the ambulances but she says she doesn’t know anything about them. “They’re bombing the hell out of Baghdad,” she says. “That’s all I know.”
“I’m aware of that,” I say. But I’m not really. I can’t get my head around 1,200 cruise missiles and a 12,000 pound bomb, falling on a city of 5 million people.
Carol Moore, the organizer, says there’s supposed to be another demonstration at 5 back at Dupont Circle so I go there, get something to eat and wait. “Shock and awe” had been pre-empted for the smaller attack that killed the Iraqi bus driver. But the bombing of Baghdad is going full tilt by now and nobody’s here, nothing’s going on. I listen to people talk about the war on the radio.
My mood is sour by 4 o’clock, when a police entourage as long as a presidential motorcade comes screeching around Dupont Circle. The same Budget Rent-a-Car van parks close enough for me to read its license plate.
Months ago I saw a picture on the Internet of a yellow Ryder truck, a picture that was supposedly taken in early April 1995, on a military base in Kansas near Junction City—where Timothy McVeigh was later to rent a similar truck for the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s hard to know what to make of insinuations like this, but I’m not encouraged to learn that the government likes to work with moving vans.
Just like I’m not encouraged to learn that when the U.S. troops sweep down into Iraq from the north, they’re ordered to go first not to the chemical weapons plants Iraq is supposed to have, but to the oil field of Kirkuk.
A small group has gathered on the intersection where the road circuiting Dupont Circle peels off onto Massachusetts Avenue, toward downtown. There’s only a couple dozen of us. News of the 5 p.m. Dupont Circle action never made it onto the Internet lists and no flyers were ever printed, so everyone who’s here has learned about the gathering by word of mouth.
Four police stand in the street with their toes nearly touching the curb, watching us.
Absent any other ideas for what to do, a few protesters decide to take an impromptu traffic poll; they sign Vs with their hands, cheer at the cars driving by, and gesture at their biggest banner, which reads, “Neanderthal President.” Some drivers honk and wave but most stare straight ahead or pretend to be busy with their car radios or their cell phones. Occasionally a driver baits-and-switches us: honks to elicit cheers, then jabs his middle finger in the air. One man in a pickup truck sticks his arm out of the window and waves his middle finger all the way down Massachusetts, laying on his horn continuously, until he can no longer be seen or heard. Expressing as it does a blind contempt and a desire to do violence, the outstretched middle finger seems as good a gesture as any to represent the war.
“Well, that one ain’t with you,” says one of the police, who has taken to pointing it out to us whenever a detractor goes by.
A few more people gather as it starts to rain again. The “Neanderthal President” banner comes down and someone scrawls “honk for peace” on the back of her posterboard and holds it up. From this point on the mood begins to change. A compact speeds through a green light, its horn dipping in pitch as it zooms off down Massachusetts. Arms wave ecstatically from all of its open windows, peace signs and thumbs up.
“Okay,” concedes the cop. “I’ll give you that one.”
When the light clicks red and traffic collects, one car sounds out and the sentiment travels down the line, turning the whole circle into a cacophony of blaring horns. For the rest of the evening the intersection is noisy and crazy. The cop gives up keeping count. Every once in a while someone flips us the bird again or unrolls his window to angrily scream “God bless America” or “liberate Iraq,” but they’re lost among the expressions of support for us. I’m convinced it’s because we changed the signs.
Anyway, the firm majority still belongs to those drivers who pretend we are invisible. They stare straight ahead, at nothing in particular.
Night has fallen early because of the storm clouds as a gentle, bespectacled man named Howard is telling me about a demonstration at Donald Rumsfeld’s house two days before. On the way over, police had come down on the marchers pretty hard. They had boxed in everyone so no one could leave—a trick I’d first seen two years before, at the inaugural demonstrations—and then a Special Operations guy had “just gone crazy.” I want to ask for more details, but without seeming too ghoulish.
A motorcycle cop had run over a girl’s ankle, Howard says, and there were a lot of arrests. “We really cut loose when we got to Rumsfeld’s house,” he grins. Good. I hope they kept Rummy up all night long.
A late-comer has arrived with a revolutionary flag, prompting a Vietnam vet—a dead ringer for Tom Berenger in Platoon—to ask about its ring of 13 stars. “It was our flag when we first became our own country,” the late-comer explains. “I had ancestors who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill.”
“I like it,” Tom Berenger says, tracing the circle with his finger.
Meanwhile a black-haired woman is chatting with another cop about Dwight Watson, the tobacco farmer who drove a tractor into the National Mall and staged a 48-hour standoff with police. “The only thing that really bothered us,” the policeman explains good-naturedly, “was how much attention we had to devote to that.” The D.C. police have been working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, because of the Code Orange terrorist alert—and because, I assume, of us.
As the cop tells his story about Dwight Watson, he absently shifts his weight from one foot to another, wandering away from the curb and over the yellow line into the street. A box truck is coming full speed toward the intersection, which is giving the truck a green light. “Look out,” the woman says, and reaches out to the policeman reflexively. He steps back toward the curb. In all likelihood, he was never in any real danger.
“Thanks,” he says.
Tom Berenger has gotten his own flag, the 50-starred variety. He walks over to the late-comer with the revolutionary war banner. “This is what a body looks like when it lies in state,” Tom Berenger says, and the late-comer looks on as he lies down flat on the wet concrete sidewalk and pulls the flag over his own body. It takes him a while to cover his face, pull the wrinkles out of the flag, and bring his arms straight along his side. Once he’s gotten things arranged to his satisfaction, he holds himself completely still. The ring of people around him falls quiet. We are thinking of grief, and loss.
By now, the first American soldier has fallen to enemy fire in Kirkuk. The Army will not release his name.