We’re fucked

‘Massive’ anti-war rally on Capitol steps nose bombs

Hey, where is everybody? That’s what this peace seeker seems to be thinking at the lightly attended September 7 anti-war protest on the Capitol steps.

Hey, where is everybody? That’s what this peace seeker seems to be thinking at the lightly attended September 7 anti-war protest on the Capitol steps.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

“What if they gave a war and nobody came?”
—bumper sticker, late 1960s

“What if they gave an anti-war rally and hardly anyone showed up?”
–rhetorical question, 2007

The editor of SN&R made a bad call. As a freelance writer, I pitched my services to cover a peace rally on the west steps of the state Capitol building last Friday, September 7, and the editor went for it.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much of a story there, but it was impossible to tell in advance that the event would be such a flop. After all, the war has become deeply unpopular, and the disgust with Bush policies in Iraq is high. Some organizers had predicted that 3,000 peace activists were going to show up, but the people on the steps of the Capitol to protest the war never numbered much more than 200 souls, and of that number a couple dozen were either speakers or organizers.

Without a trace of irony, one of the first speakers at the event shouted into the microphone, “This is what democracy looks like,” and then tried to lead the pathetically small crowd in chanting those words, but the effort died. There may, however, have been more truth than poetry in the observation. When it comes to imposing the popular will on the people who are in charge, this exercise in pissing up a rope just might be what democracy looks like these days, at least as it’s practiced in the United States of America.

An hour into the event, a woman passed me with a disappointed look on her face and said, “This is pitiful.”

And it was. “We are not insignificant,” a speaker read from his prepared speech, but the numbers assembled before him gave lie to his words. And the repeated references to the will of the people seemed pointedly indifferent to the fact of the rather listless group that milled around, carrying the same sorts of banners and placards that might have been seen a couple of generations ago in much larger and much younger gatherings.

Because it was mostly an older crowd that turned out in Sacramento last Friday, people who’d done much the same thing 40 years ago in response to the war in Vietnam, their heads gone gray, now nodding in desultory agreement with the words that were booming through the speakers, words about the criminality of George Bush and the immorality of oil companies.

Groups represented included Grandmothers for Peace, Code Pink, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Friends Service Committee, the Peace and Freedom Party, and Physicians for Social Responsibility. The placards carried such phrases as, “No torture in our name,” “Oh say can you see, what the war has done to liberty,” and “Impeach President Cheney and his little dummy, too.” One sign quoted Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.”

A passing TV cameraman lugging his equipment paused to say to me, “Y’know, I was doing this same thing back in the Vietnam day. It never stops, does it?” In solidarity and in brotherhood, I nodded and said, “Same old shit.”

By which I meant, of course, wars and rumors of wars, and truculent Texas presidents making brief photo-op visits to troops who are near—but not too near—where the explosions are being detonated. When I said, “Same old shit,” that tired phrase incorporated the idea of troops being used as the justification for their own exposure to early death. They were, we were told back then, and they are, we are told now, doing it for us, for our freedoms, of course, so we should refrain from using those freedoms because if we use our right to dissent from government policies that get them killed, we are only playing into the hands of those who would kill them, our brave sons and daughters, far from home, discouraged and disheartened by those who don’t support their mission. And that mission is, by now, to ensure that those who preceded them in death have not died in vain.

Same old shit.

One of the singers sang, “This Land is Your Land,” but the song sounded ironic in this context, what with a powerless Democratic Congress, a willful president demonstrating determined indifference to those who differ, and a momentum already building to take the nation into a wider war in the Middle East, a war that will sweep Iran into the mix.

Another singer stepped to the mike to sing a doleful song of protest, and then the event’s organizer followed him to the podium saying, “I love that laid-back sound Jackson has,” but her words seemed to put the best possible spin on a song that sounded more like a dirge than a cri de coeur, more a whine of lamentation than a howl of anger.

Weariness was the spirit of the gathering, a little bunch of people who surely represented the feelings of lots of their fellow citizens, at least to judge by the number of drivers who honked or raised their thumbs in solidarity as they drove by on 10th Street—and many more, if the polls are to believed, who share the disaffection of these protesters out beyond downtown, all those who have come to hate this war but were too busy or too apathetic to join those who milled about, leafleting one another, and listening to sermons to the likeminded. It was a circle jerk of those for whom the circle was unbroken, going back to the same old used to be.

Fadhil Al-Kazily, a man in his early 50s, took the podium for an emotional few moments. “I am a proud Iraqi-American,” he said, “but most of my family are all in Iraq. I live their daily life with them from here. You cannot imagine what they go through.” And then his voice broke and he fought back tears, reminding everyone that real people are suffering and dying each day due to U.S. policy in the nation of his birth. “Enough is enough,” he said through his tears. “The crime has to stop.”

There were younger people there, too, a handful, including a baby-faced kid who would identify himself only as Jeremy, a former soldier who served in Iraq in 2003. His brother followed in his footsteps, and is serving there still. Jeremy was willing to speak out, but reluctant to use his last name for fear of reprisals against his brother. “As one who has served in Iraq,” he told the assembled faithful, “it is offensive to me that Bush and Cheney say that people who oppose this war are not supporting the troops.”

And there was a bright-faced young Chicana from Sac State, Jasmin Aleman, who reminded the gathered that the first soldier to die in Iraq was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala.

There was a Unitarian Universalist minister from Davis who repeated the refrain, “We need a surge of truth, not a surge of troops.” And there was a lot of the self-defeating and divisive rhetoric often heard whenever the left gathers together, calls for electing Cindy Sheehan along with demands for the recall of a grocery list of Democrats—Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Doris Matsui—who haven’t proven effective enough fast enough for those who are so righteously impatient for change. There was even a speaker who issued rather creepy warnings about the cabal of “zionist Anglo-American Wall Street bankers” who are, she said, joined with the Rothschild family in a plot to reduce the world’s population through large-scale radioactive poisoning.

So this is what democracy looks like in 2007, I guess—a smattering of people, varying from the deeply concerned to the marginally loony, raising their voices in a time that feels like a national emergency, but where the main news is of celebrities in rehab or senators in toilets, where mention of the ongoing war in Iraq rarely makes the front pages anywhere in the nation.

In that other war long ago, Bob Dylan was part of the soundtrack when he sang, “How much do I have to pay to get out of goin’ through all of this twice.” With comparisons to Vietnam now coming from left and right, the question takes on new relevance. Perhaps a lesson that can be drawn from last Friday’s rally is that what once worked to turn the nation against the war in Vietnam isn’t going to play in re-runs. The nation is already turned against this president and this Iraq miasma. What’s missing is passionate outrage that can overcome ennui and the fog of war. If igniting that passion is dependent upon rallies of the kind that took place in Sacramento last week, then, to state it plain: We’re fucked.