Giving peace a march

Depending on whose estimate you believe, there were between 50,000 (police) and 200,000 (organizers) participants in last week’s anti-war rally in San Francisco.

Depending on whose estimate you believe, there were between 50,000 (police) and 200,000 (organizers) participants in last week’s anti-war rally in San Francisco.

Photo By Shannon Rooney

Early last week I emailed a friend in Oregon, a veteran of the ‘60s’ anti-war protests, telling her I was thinking about going to the Jan. 18 peace march in San Francisco.

“If you go to the protest,” she wrote back, “be prepared to possibly get hurt or do jail time. Keep to the edge of the crowds and always have your escape route spotted. If there’s a legal-defense number being passed out, write it on your arm with permanent marker. Don’t take a purse or anything else you don’t want the police to take from you.”

While these words of advice admittedly gave me the willies, they didn’t deter me (and, as it turned out, they weren’t applicable to this particular event). Having come of age in that decade known—yawn—as the ‘70s, I had never before experienced a peace march. When the Gulf War came around more than a decade ago, I was the mother of a preschooler, too busy digging Play-Doh out of the carpet even to think about going to San Francisco for a weekend.

Now that I’m facing down the Empty Nest Syndrome, I have time to investigate peace marches. And if I’d known they were so much fun, I’d probably have shown up at one a lot sooner.

The entire event, from start to finish, included a Mardi-Gras-like atmosphere, with a plethora of sounds punctuating the day: conch shells, conga drums, chanted anti-war slogans, people laughing, shouting, singing and whooping. Burning sage perfumed the entire route. Even while serious anti-war messages pierced the air, a laid-back, gentle, gala party ambience prevailed. People showed up in all manner of costumes and get-ups; there was even a Statue of Liberty on stilts with a gag in her mouth. Numerous caricatures of Dubya were the order of the day, including one who held up his arm and hand in a perfect “Heil, Hitler!” gesture.

The march included a Chico contingent of about 150 people, most of whom rode to the Bay Area on three buses chartered by the Chico Peace and Justice Center. Some of the Chico marchers were graying mid-lifers who had participated in the protests of the ‘60s; Daniel Zimmerman, 7, was the youngest Chicoan to attend the event, which started on Market Street at 11a.m., with marchers arriving after noon at City Hall to listen to speeches by local and national luminaries. While police estimated the crowd at 50,000, protest organizers said the number was more likely around 200,000.

I was impressed by the speakers, both at the beginning and at the end of the march, which included aging Black Panthers, a priest who had just gotten out of prison for protesting on a U.S. military base, a Puerto Rican lesbian revolutionary, several Palestinian activists, Rep. Barbara Lee, a number of famous movie and television stars and celebrity singers, and many other inspiring and passionate speakers. Many speakers made references to Martin Luther King, with one speculating the great civil-rights leader must be looking down, saying, “What a great birthday present!”

Unlike some of the peace activists who organized the march, I am not a pacifist, and I am not averse to war as a last resort. But I think our nation is far from needing to turn to war as a last resort, and it was heartening to see so many people taking a stand on behalf of peace. My fellow Chicoans concurred.

Although I hadn’t known exactly what to expect, I wasn’t disappointed by my first peace march. I might even go to the one slated for Feb. 15 in Sacramento. As one of the speakers said, "We want Martin Luther King’s world—not George W. Bush’s world." That’s a sentiment with which I can resonate.