Saber-rattling civilians

Saturday’s war protest in San Francisco may be harbinger of things to come

As the crowds jammed their way down Market Street in a mist of cheers, chants and makeshift drums, rising from the wild sea of marchers was the uncomfortably huge papier-mâché head of a cartoonishly doltish President Bush. It bobbed from side to side in silly, bloated animation, like something from a Thanksgiving Day Parade, something just slightly out of control.

While the actual commander-in-chief proceeds seemingly hellbent on war with Iraq, an estimated 42,000 marchers gathered in San Francisco on Saturday to voice their opposition to the all but inevitable “pre-emptive strikes” with a pre-emptive protest of their own. In conjunction with similar protests in Washington, D.C., and around the world, the action— organized by International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now To Stop War And End Racism)—drew its numbers from a sampling of mainstream America, including a contingent of two dozen Reno residents who got up before sunrise and endured the four-hour bus ride to take part.

The idea of stopping the war before it begins is unrealistic, said Reno activist Stewart Stout, but this protest is nothing in comparison to what would happen if America starts dropping bombs.

“If more than 100,000 people in D.C. and 40,000 people in San Francisco came out to stand against the war before it’s even started, imagine the uproar when the soldiers start coming home in body bags or when we start to see brutal images of Iraqi children being massacred [on TV],” he said.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of The Partnership for Civil Justice attributed the massive turnout (claimed by event organizers as the largest anti-war protests since Vietnam) to “a clear indication of the frustration and anger people feel about Congress rubberstamping Bush’s war drive.”

Frustration and anger may have been the impetus, but the march, covering nearly two miles from Justin Herman Plaza to the Civic Center, retained the grave spirit of its mission while occasionally wading into a Halloween-styled surrealism. This was, after all, the City of Water and Fog. Besides, said a man dressed like a bat, “This is a strange, new kind of war. How could the [protests] be any different?”

While a 7-year-old marched manacled to her father who was clad in jail-stripes and a goofy President Bush mask, a cheery bohemian lady held a sign promising free sexual favors for Bush and Cheney if they pushed for peace. While a half-dozen cops in riot gear stood guard outside a Carl’s Jr., a sign featuring an utterly dazed and confused Bush exclaiming “Dude, Where’s My War?” flashed by. Somber tributes to recently deceased Sen. Paul Wellstone were balanced by such political poignancies as “Bush Is A Dumb Ass,” and “Bush Sucks.”

At one point, a brigade of pretzel-carrying cads was followed by a man waving a placard entreating President Bush to “Have Another Pretzel, Fucker!” referring not so subtly to Bush’s embarrassing Jan. 14 skirmish with a rogue salty treat, which left him momentarily unconscious. At some point, everybody with a Sharpie and a modest scrap of cardboard got in on the game.

Present at the march were “Mothers for Peace,” “Secretaries for Peace,” “Lesbians for Peace” and “Waitresses for Peace.” Scrawled in yellow chalk outside the Crazyhorse Gentlemen’s Club, there was even a glib “Strippers for Peace.” A man in tie-dye talking to the front end of a Greyhound bus held a two-sided sign that read: “Like I Need A Raisin For My Peas,” on one side, on the other, “Dose Bush.”

Proponents of marijuana legalization were on hand to put the “grass” back in grassroots. Radical Marxists hawked their newspapers at a buck a throw. Anyone willing to listen could have his ear bent 50 different ways a minute with numbers and statistics. Reports on how many Iraqi children have died since the UN sanctions were put into place after the Gulf War. The number of civilians killed during the Afghanistan campaign. How many billions will be spent on the war. How the war is really about oil. How the war is really not about oil.

On the busy Embarcadero, some passing motorists honking in support of the march were surprised with dirty looks and environmentalist harangues to “get out of their SUVs.” At one point, a funeral procession passed by, the grieving family members pressing their faces to the tinted glass of their limo in disbelief while an enterprising Asian man tried to pique their interest with a sign advertising electric scooters.

Rightly considered, this demonstration and those held in tandem should be seen as a harbinger of things to come if present policy is pursued—the peaceful equivalent of a warning shot across the bow of an unchecked Executive Branch. While the march was largely good-natured, almost jubilant at times, those present were witness to a vast potential force of dissent. In other words, once the smart bombs start flying and newscasts take on that familiar hematic tint, the Bush masks will come off, and the true face of civil protest will be revealed.

“No Blood For Oil!” “Drop Bush Not Bombs!” “The Madness Of King George Must Stop!”

“You’re either with us or against us!” “We will lead a coalition.”

The sides have been drawn. From any angle, the possibility of war in Iraq raises the ugly possibility of war, on some level, in America. Or, alternatively, the hope for some kind of national debate.