Is it fair to look for pleasure here?
There is a serious set to the faces of those protesting the war on Iraq. They should be serious, and so should anyone engaging in discussion on the subject. This is, after all, a matter of life and death. But the realities of war can make pleasure seem distant and vaguely repulsive, especially for the antiwar contingent. When you’re preoccupied by thoughts of civilians’ lives being torn apart, pleasure can seem almost insulting. What, then, when a day spent marching to protest the war is filled with it?
Saturday, 22 March 2003, was a spectacular spring day. New York City has endured a wretched winter and this was one of the first warm days since last fall. That has to account at least somewhat for the absolute joy on many faces. This was a far cry from the painfully chilling temperatures and icy winds at the rally on 15 February. “Miserable,” was how a friend said she felt all that day; I felt the same.
But on this gorgeous day in March, from all over the city (and the country) some 100,000 (maybe more, maybe less — I heard that number while at the march) people gathered at noon at Times Square and walked around 40 blocks to Washington Square Park. Two friends and I were among them. We bought some buttons from radicals on the street who chanted, “Carry a sign in the march! Wear a button all the time! Say no to war!” Some girl with long, curly hair gave me a pink “No War” armband fastened with a safety pin.
The crowds were so thick that, after an hour, we had walked only to 39th St. As the bulk of the marchers were on the street, we made our way to 34th on the sidewalk, and were finally able to begin walking.
There’s an annual Halloween parade that winds through the Village, and most of the people in the parade just show up before it begins in their outlandish outfits. It’s kind of a freak show of creativity, showcasing how bizarre, ridiculous, or just loud you can make yourself look. This day had that same insane drive behind it, even though most marchers didn’t dress up. We did see a group of men dressed as what seemed to be alien nuns from outer space, with silver-painted faces and homemade habits. Some typical college-age guys with ragged facial hair, practical shoes, and long, ruffled denim skirts. A woman with a recorder, a tambourine, and a velour outfit including a matching cap who puffed the same few notes over and over again. Two “Make out, not war” signs with different pictures of couples embracing. A woman with a triangular sign that hung around her neck down to her waist, an arrow pointing below text that read “Good Bush.”
As we walked down Broadway, the sun grew so warm that I took off my jacket. We all got a little sunburned on our faces. There was a mild breeze. People hung out of their apartment windows cheering and waving. There were doctors and nurses against the war. Queers against the war. Two Zapatistas with a large yellow sign. Representatives of every age and color. Lots of people joked about the many groups “against the war.” There were police everywhere, but not on horses like last time, not all in riot gear, and I didn’t see one altercation between a protestor and an officer. Further down past 14th St., onlookers lined the sidewalk expectantly, like parade watchers, waving and brandishing the peace sign. It was like coming to the end of a marathon.
We turned on Waverly Place and walked the last few blocks to Washington Square Park. Usually, it’s all rastas and NYU students and homeless performers and cops hunched in their vans ready to break up pot deals, but today, there were tables set up with radical literature, more DIY button vendors, and others who had finished their march and now were waiting around expectantly, as though there ought to be more to do. Someone had put out chunks of sidewalk chalk and many marchers were sitting happily on the ground, doodling peace symbols on the stones. We sat down for a minute and then started walking to the train, a little bit mystified by contentment.
Towards the end of the march, some onlookers chanted, “The whole world is watching!” That’s one thing to hope for. I don’t expect demonstrations, no matter how large or meaningful, to effect change on the stubbornly, defiantly isolated Bush Administration. I do expect them to send a message to the rest of the world: that not all Americans support this war, and that there is a space for pleasure and celebration in protest. Look at how many people jammed the busiest street in New York City to make as much noise, visually, aurally, and politically, as possible. I will take pleasure in seeing activism of a magnitude I’ve never experienced in this country in my lifetime, and in a beautiful day spent with friends. There is something starting. I’m a part of it.