- I was a bit reluctant to join this mass convergence on DC to demonstrate
against war. I'd been feeling discouraged since the vote in Congress which
I thought would have gone more our way. Plus I thought maybe I shouldn't
leave Valerie alone for a weekend while she's under the weather. She didn't
really need me to be on hand, but without her there the trip looked like it
would be less fun for me and I was looking for an excuse not to go. But
then I reminded myself that I had made a New Year's resolution to give more
of myself to the cause this year, and fortunately for me my boss is right
there with us in wanting peace and I had no trouble getting Friday afternoon
off of work so that I could catch the bus.
"The bus" being the ones leaving not from downtown Chicago, but from the
Islamic Foundation of Villa Park. I had traveled down to DC in April with
the buses from IFVP, and I thought it would make this trip a little more
special for me if I joined them again and maybe saw some of the same people
I met then. Plus, I should confess, in a small way it felt like a sort of
mild expression of solidarity with Arab- and Muslim-Americans. As it turned
out, the bus fare was cheaper with the IFVP group than what the Chicago
group was listing for theirs. As I handed over my check to Amer who was
collecting them for our group, I was grateful just to be getting a spot so
near to the event; that it was at a discount was just icing. I figured it
had just been a stroke of luck that the IFVP organizers had found a bus
company that charged less, though I'd later find out where that discount
I arrived at the Foundation on the dot at six Friday evening-- in time to
see a mostly empty parking lot, with no buses and few people inside. I
worried that I had missed the departure, but after speaking to some people I
found out that our departure was going to be a little later, like around 7
or so, and others started arriving and joining us in the lobby. I did see
several people I had met on the April trip-- Muhaidin, Ali, Aimin, Muhammad,
and some others with whom I'd spoken but whose names I hadn't caught. I
found it a little amusing when, despite being here inside a Muslim gathering
place with several women standing around in robes and scarves who obviously
looked like regulars, a few other white people entered the lobby and sought
me out to ask where the bathroom was or just to introduce themselves. 'Ah,'
I thought, chuckling, 'old habits die hard.' The buses arrived and, after
just a bit of confusion over who was assigned to which one, we stowed our
signs, boarded, and set out.
I introduced myself to the people sitting around me, congratulating the
people for whom this would be their first trip to DC to demonstrate. My
seatmate, Ursula, was a German immigrant who had fled the Nazis during World
War II, and she said she could see the same kind of horror was being brought
about against people in the Middle East today. Rose and John in the seats
behind me were from Naperville and I told them I'd grown up and met Valerie
there, and they told me their son had graduated a year behind me at the high
school. I talked to their daughter Hannah in the seat across from them, who
liked to be called Joan (or was she born Joan and liked to be called Hannah?
I got a little confused), and who-- despite having parents who were
long-standing political activists-- was also making her first visit to our
nation's capitol to demonstrate. I called Val on her cell phone she had
lent me for the trip and, yes, I obnoxiously handed the phone around for my
fellow travelers to say "hi" to her. I admit it, I was "that guy" that
people complain about from bus trips.
Muhaidin made a few announcements and then turned on the overhead monitors
to show some movies to help us pass the time. He invited others to suggest
videos any of us had brought to share. I tried to read the books I had
brought with me, but I find it impossible to read when a television is on
because it's just so distracting, so I admitted defeat and surrendered my
brain over first to Michael Moore's "TV Nation" and then to some Keanu
Reeves movie the organizers had promised for the kids on the bus. It was
two in the morning (post-time change) when the double-feature was over, and
I was wide awake. I knew I was going to have a hard time sleeping on the
bus, and I just hoped it wouldn't keep me from marching the route the next
day. In the morning our organizers showed a video of a panel presentation
on civil rights efforts in the Muslim-American community (since this trip
was timed for King's birthday after all) and the even pacing and volume of
the speeches were just what I needed to hear to get a nice nap in before we
We drove into the city and pulled up to the curb at an intersection, just
behind the other bus from IFVP as it was unloading. One of our busmates was
talking on a cell phone to someone she was hoping to meet when we arrived.
Everyone had told her there was no chance she'd run into her friend, but she
was saying, "Our bus is right in front of you! No, not that one, turn a
little to your left! No, back this way!" A guy was standing on the sidewalk
next to where we'd pulled over, phone to his ear, slowly turning his head to
scan up and down the street, and we all waved our hands in the windows and
pointed to him. When we got off he joined with her and her companions, and
seeing her luck at finding her friend somehow made me just know I would run
into some other Oak Parkers during the day.
The sun was shining, the air was cold, and we got out our signs and stood
around for a moment, groggy and bleary-eyed, among the bare-branched trees
between the grand buildings of the Canadian Embassy, the Federal Courthouse,
the National Gallery of Art, and the National Archives, as Muhaidin told us
where we would be meeting back up again to get back on the bus. Crowds and
lines of people were filing past us toward The Mall where the rally was
being held, and we could hear speakers echoing indistinctly. We were told
to stay together as a group so that everyone would be able to find the bus
again at the end of the day, and we did exactly that... for a full
half-block, before scattering into the masses of people.
For myself, I tried to stay with our organizers, since I didn't have a map
and I wasn't entirely confident of my ability to find my way back. As we
wound our way toward the lawn on the Capitol Mall, our small group threaded
in with others who were arriving and I was able to keep track of my busmates
only because several of them had brought a huge American flag to carry.
Watching it ripple in the mild breeze as it was passed between our
organizers, I thought it made a terrific tableau-- Arab-Americans banding
together to hold aloft the American flag. Unfortunately, I'm not half the
photographer Valerie is, and I couldn't capture the image with justice.
The crowd on the lawn was already overflowing, and everyone was facing
toward the stage that nobody could see, trying to decipher the words as they
echoed through the park. I've gotten in a little experience at trying to
estimate crowd sizes at the deonstrations we've been staging and attending,
but once it gets to the level I was seeing (sarcastically understated as "a
whole dang LOT!") I pretty much lose my frame of reference. Let me venture
a SWAG estimate (Scientific-sounding Wild-A** Guess). When Val and I came
to DC back in April, then the gathering was estimated between 70 and 200
thousand. The crowd on the lawn this time seemed to be packed about twice
that dense, so I'd guess us at an even 200 thousand.
Amer and Ali were on cell phones to reporters, trying to tell them where our
group was so that we could be interviewed. Several of our group leaders
were interviewed on camera by Fox News, and I had to wonder to myself how
that network would edit their comments. Amer asked me if I wanted to be
interviewed, and of course I agreed but I hung back and deferred to my
companions, for reasons I couldn't have articulated just then.
A young woman who said she was from the Northwest Indiana Times made the
mistake of asking if she could interview me, starting with the obvious
question, "Why are you here?" I think I gave her far more than she could
possibly use, and probably more than she really wanted. As we walked,
following our group as it tried to worm closer through the crowd, I told
her, "People of conscience have an obligation to speak out against this war.
We are a moral nation. We do NOT attack other countries first!" I said a
war on Iraq would do nothing to make America any safer-- in fact would make
us less safe, just as CIA Director George Tenet has warned it would do. I
told her, "There's a saying that goes, 'When the only tool in your kit is a
hammer, then to your eyes everything in the world will look like a nail.'
War is the hammer that is the lone tool in the Bush administration's foreign
policy toolkit; this administration has been a complete failure at diplomacy
and negotiation. There's not a single country in the world with whom our
international relations have improved under this administration-- not one.
Mostly, our relations have worsened."
She asked me, "Is Saddam a threat?" and I emphatically stated, "He IS a
threat! The possibility of his possessing chemical or biological weapons is
as much of a threat as that posed by North Korea. Or Pakistan. Or the threat
Israel poses to the Palestinians. Or really any of the countries that
possess nuclear arms-- Russia, China, England, France, India. And the same
way we respond to the threat and danger that those countries present--
namely, through diplomacy and negotiation-- so should we respond to Iraq."
Eventually, I apologized for monopolizing her time as much as I did. In
turn she thanked me for giving her article so much material, and then
apologized herself because she doubted her paper would print her story.
We had gotten close enough to the stage that we could hear the speakers,
even though they were still obscured amid the sea of raised signs and
banners. Interspersed among the many activists were a few speakers who were
immediately recognizable-- Representative Cynthia McKinney, Representative
John Conyers, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Reverend Al
Sharpton spoke, and no doubt garnered a few votes for his Presidential bid.
And then I called Val again on her cell phone so she could listen in with me
to the speaker who was the indisputed high point of the rally: the good
reverend, Jesse Jackson. Here's just a bit of his speech, from what I was
able to make out off of what we taped onto our answering machine:
"When we march today, use our marching feet like Dr. King-- and Jesus, and
Mandela-- used civil disobedience. We must fight back because our lives are
at stake! We march today to fight militarism... and racism... and sexism...
and anti-Semitism... and Arab-bashing. We fight for one world. Here, on this
mall today, we have the joy of fighting back in our nation. Dr. King said
what made America right was the right to stand up and fight. Today, we beat
our swords into plowshares. Don't let them break your spirit. Don't let them
discredit you. Don't let them dissuade you. Here we stand, red, yellow,
brown, black, and white: we're all precious in God's sight. This is America
at its best! Can I get a witness? (cheering) Can I get a WITNESS? (wild
cheering) CAN I GET A WITNESS? (insane cheering)"
Jesse invited us to start out onto the parade route, and the crowd slowly,
almost glacially, began to creep forward onto the street. It seemed to me
we were taking forever to inch forward from the gray, winter-worn grass onto
the pavement, and I figured we would start to walk at a more regular pace
once we were out on the route. My feet were cold and my toes were numb, but
our little band hung together inside the waves of humanity. Finally, we
stepped off the curb... only to continue at the same slow, plodding pace we
had been following. It was only then that I realized just how immensely
huge the turnout had to be for us to so completely clog the Mall and the
streets into near-impassibility.
About half a block along and we could still hear some announcements from the
stage. Organizers were warning against hypothermia, advising us to drink
water and eat food, and our group leaders passed around some health bars
they had brought. Another announcement asked for a doctor to come to the
back of the stage, and our organizers looked with some worry at the younger
people in our group who really hadn't brought along very warm coats. Just
at the end of the first block, our group stepped out of the street and onto
the concrete steps up to the Department of Health and Human Services. We
decided to split up, with some of us remaining with the teens while they go
inside somewhere warm and the rest of us going on along the route. We said
goodbye and agreed to meet up again with each other at the bus, and our
small contingent-- now half its already diminished size-- rejoined the
Just behind us, a young Arabic guy had gotten up onto a friend's shoulders
and was leading us in cheers as he shouted up over the street, without any
aid of a bullhorn. I'm guessing he must have come with another Muslim
gathering, because he led his group in the chant that I've grown to love
hearing-- "La illaha illa Allah." Ever since traveling down to DC and
hearing that one first chanted then, I've repeated that line over and over
to myself when I think back on that trip. When Val & I took our bicycles
out on nearby forest preserve trails this past summer, I would intone it to
myself quietly in time with the spinning of my bike's wheels. It has a
wonderful cadence and rhythm, and if I thought I could pronouce it without
mangling the words I would've joined in as we marched. He also led us in
what I thought had to be the best chant of the day:
"This is what democracy looks like!
Bush is what hypocrisy looks like!"
As we walked, I tried to take in all the myriad ways people were expressing
themselves on their signs. Aside from the obvious "No War On Iraq" and "No
Blood For Oil" and the professionally printed ones were some that had a bit
of imagination. There was one I thought was a bit self-evident, but
apparently worth pointing out: "Wake up, America! Iraq has nothing to do
with 9/11." A subtle, "Power to the Peaceful." The whimsical, "Frodo has
failed, Bush has the ring!" And then what had to be the cutest sign I saw:
"Attacking Iraq is SO ten years ago!"
Between the Communists, the Socialists, the anti-globalists, the Anarchists,
and the countless others offering their own individual spin, I wondered if
our message was a bit too scattershot. I worried that an observer would see
us as disorganized and not coming together around a central theme of why we
objected to this war. And then I thought to myself that perhaps that didn't
have to be a failing. Maybe our cheerleader was right. Maybe diversity IS
what democracy looks like.
For myself, I'd brought a sign I'd hoped might be persuasive to anyone who
might be watching but wasn't already with our movement-- somebody on the
undecided sidelines. Decorated with American flags, it read, "America is a
moral nation: No First Strike!" As I carried it through the streets and
others read it, I started to feel almost as if I were my own
counter-protest, so in contrast was my message from the critical stance
everyone else had taken up. As I passed a small cluster of people who were
resting on the sidewalk, I heard one student say to her companions loudly
enough for me to overhear, "What does THAT mean?" Finally, someone marching
alongside and keeping pace with me said, "But we're not."
I told her, "But that's what I would wish for us. It's my way of suggesting,
'Remember when this was true?'" She chuckled at that.
As the march wore on, our group dwindled even further. Several of our
people said they had had enough, their feet were cold and tired, and they
were splitting off to go rest and wait for the bus. Amer, the guy who had
been the phone contact for us all in organizing our spaces on the bus, was
torn-- he didn't want to quit but he didn't want to go the rest of the route
without anyone else from our contingent. I told him I wasn't giving up
until the bitter end, so he and I went on just the two of us. He even took
over carrying my sign for a while to give me a rest.
Amer was feeling hungry and wanted to stop somewhere to restore himself and
rest a little while, so we started poking our heads into the restaurants
that dotted the street along the route. All along first Pennsylvania Avenue
and then 8th Street, place after place was either filled back to front and
side to side with people... or they were empty and closed. 'Closed?' I
thought. 'Why would any place be closed today when they could be taking in
so much business?' We got the answer when we stepped into what few
restaurants we could find that were open and had only a few people in them--
at each one a staffperson apologized to us, saying they were out of food and
would be closing soon. No doubt that had already happened to those places
that had shut their doors. That's how heavily our presence was being felt.
The peacemakers had invaded the city. We had taken over. In a way, it
started to seem to me like we had liberated Washington, DC, much as a
military force might claim to have "liberated" a city they have come to
occupy. Instead of liberating it by force, we had liberated it with peace.
Far down the route, as it turned the corner from 8th onto M Street beneath a
military barracks, a group of drummers had congregated at the corner and
were standing together and playing as the marchers around them danced in
time. It was a spontaneous party, and Amer and I joined in, dancing as best
our frozen limbs would allow. Every few measures one of the musicians would
signal with a whistle and we'd all join in the chorus:
And then back to the drumming and dancing, as the crowd still filing past
would cheer its approval. I suspect that party on the corner was not
planned, but just arose naturally from a few of the marchers who sensed it
was a good location and a good time to have an impromptu party. Drummers
have a natural, intuitive sense of performance, communicating when a tempo
should change or a new rhythm be taken up or a new chorus be raised, and
just as the gathering fell in with the party as it was initiated we all
joined in as it built on that spot. Once again I called Valerie on her cell
phone, to share the joyousness of the moment and let her hear the music, the
chanting, the cheering, and the dancing. Amer and I were having such fun we
decided to stay as long as the group wanted to continue celebrating at that
intersection, and we bobbed and swayed with the crowd. Quite a while we
were there together, before finally the cadence began to crescendo and the
drummers realized we were building to an end to their little concert. They
played their last few measures with a loud emphasis, and then everybody
gathered there shouted with joy and gratitude, and we went back to marching.
Amer and I looked at each other, both feeling full of glee at the sheer
pleasure of what we were doing, and we walked on together satisfied. We may
have missed the beginning of the performance, but we were there at the end.
Much as a carouser might "close" a bar, we'd "closed" the party at 8th and
Further along another group were playing drums and bells in a different
rhythm and accompanying them with another chant which the march took up as
it passed, and it struck me how energetic and jubilant this march had been.
It was as if we were showing our elected officials and our military how much
fun peace could be, and inviting them to come on out and join in the
As M dipped downward between two sloping hills, I looked up in both
directions to get a sense of the crowd. Despite being in the final blocks
of a long and slow-moving procession on such a cold day, the crowd was still
densely packing the street as far as I could see. We got up to the end of
the route on the final blocks, and while there was no final cheer of
triumph, there was still a tangible feeling of pride and camaraderie among
us all having followed the march to its end. As Amer I turned off onto the
side street lined with buses waiting to pick up their travelers I scanned
the faces of people standing along the sidewalks, feeling a little
disappionted I never met up with anyone from Oak Park. And it was only then
that I finally heard a call from ahead in the crowd, "Benjamin! You made
it!" It was Charlaine, and she and I hugged and I introduced her to Amer.
She said she hadn't run into anyone else that we knew-- as indeed hadn't I--
so it seemed to me like a small blessing on us.
Exhausted and emotionally worn out, Amer and I lurched and weaved the long
trek back up the route to the pick-up spot for our bus, all the way up at
the starting point for the march. We climbed onboard, grateful for the
heaters our drivers had started up, and I collapsed into my seat.
We sat on the bus for a while, waiting for the few stragglers to come and
join us before we could set out again for home. My seatmate, Ursula, had
told the drivers she would be getting in touch with some friends in town and
would make other arrangements for her return trip, so I was lucky enough to
get to stretch out over two seats for the drive back. Nor was the irony
lost on me that, on a bus full of Arab-Americans, the one person to get the
spacious accomodations would end up being a white guy.
As we started up and got back on the highway for Illinois, our group leaders
asked if anyone wanted to share their impressions with the group. I got up
and said that I was impressed that the crowd looked to have been about twice
the size we'd been back in April, and I reminded everybody of the quote
(though I can't remember who said it first) that even though the Congress
had already voted, "As long as the people are still involved, it's not
over." Everyone applauded. Some of the teens got up and enthusiastically
declared that this should be only the beginning, "of a new consciousness" as
one young woman described it.
At a rest stop we got out to have dinner, and Amer and Mike and I sat
together and talked about the day and what we thought it meant. I said I
was glad to see so many Arab-Americans taking part, that it seemed to me not
only with the nations targeted for war by this administration but also with
the atmosphere of oppression and racial scapegoating here at home
Arab-Americans were the people who could speak to the questions we're facing
with the greatest moral authority. "We need to hear their voices," I said,
"even though it's understandable why Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans
would be reluctant to speak out in this political climate. That makes their
contribution all the more valuable right now." Amer said it truly has been
a scary time for Muslim- and Arab-Americans. He said people were afraid of
being targeted for hate crimes. He mentioned that somebody had shot a
bottle rocket through the window of the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park,
and somebody else had fired a shotgun at a Mosque near where he lived, at
their sign that read, "La illaha illa Allah"-- "God is one." He said that
was why some people chose not to come down to DC for this event, instead
donating money so that others might go in their place which was why they had
been able to sell the bus tickets at a discounted rate. Hearing his
stories, I felt humbled at the privelege I enjoyed and the ease with which I
had been able to make my own decision to participate in the march. I had
been thinking about the discount I was given for my bus ticket only in terms
of the money it would save me, not stopping to guess at how it came to be
there. Thinking of those nameless people who had helped sponsor my trip, I
wished I had raised my voice just a little louder in their honor.
We got back onto the bus for the long haul through the night, and one last
movie was played over the monitors. Titled 'Children of Heaven,' it was
about a young brother and sister in Iran who struggle to get the girl to
school and back after her shoes are lost, and then who share in the delight
of a new pen that they receive from their teacher. It was a delightful to
see their appreciation of these simple amenities, but I was once again
reminded of all the blessings in my life I take for granted while others are
made to suffer for my benefit. I was left wanting to somehow let our
elected leaders know I would be perfectly willing to pay a bit more for the
gasoline I put in my car if it woud permit us to refrain from killing and
oppressing so many people in the Arab world. When the film ended I settled
in to catch whatever sleep I could manage.
Sunday morning, on our final rest stop, as some of the men prayed and bowed
toward Mecca with their mats laid out in a videogame room, we milled around
groggily and grabbed what meager breakfast the fast food counters offered,
and I spoke with Ali about the coverage we were getting. He lamented that
the Chicago Tribune was reporting us as only in the "tens of thousands," and
he asked how I thought we could get our message out to "mainstream" America.
I said I didn't think I was the one to answer that, and he said, "Well, but
you represent that group." 'I do?' I thought, and he said, "I mean, you're
white." 'Oh, yeah,' I thought, 'That's right; I am.' White guys. That one
demographic group that causes so much trouble.
I said I thought we needed to answer the messages we were hearing from the
war supporters. I said I thought we had failed in the anti-war movement to
present a clear message about how we would answer the threat of terrorism,
that people were afraid and we needed to acknowledge their fear instead of
ignore it. I said it seemed to me that war was being peddled as the
solution to terrorism and we needed to point out that war will make us less
safe than we are, not more. I said I also thought we needed to confront the
"anti-America" stigmatization head-on, that people were feeling patriotic
and looking for some way to come together after 9/11 and may have seen war
as a means for uniting in a common purpose; we need to remind people of the
patriotic spirit of America's ideals of justice and liberty. I said that
was what my sign was supposed to convey. I don't know if I offered my
busmate any satisfying answers, but he commended me for "getting" what the
movement was about.
As we crossed the state line into Illinois, our organizers took one last
opportunity to thank everybody for coming along on the trip and to offer to
anyone to make any final announcements. I took the microphone and thanked
our organizers for making it possible for us to take part in the event.
"I've heard that the downtown Chicago buses had to turn people away who had
been on stand-by," I said. "Fortunately for us, everybody who registered to
get onto these buses was able to make it, but take a look around and think
for a minute how many people might have missed out if our organizers hadn't
arranged for these buses." As a final gesture, I passed out flyers for the
presentation by the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine that
was taking place in Oak Park later that day, and I invited everybody to come
join us for it. I doubted anyone would, especially considering how tired we
all were, but to me the act of extending the invitation itself felt
We pulled into the parking lot at the Islamic Foundation and, with what
little energy we had left, we gathered up our belongings, pulled our signs
out from storage, and scattered out to our cars. I said goodbye to my
busmates, lingering in the feeling of camaraderie from sharing an experience
that at the same time was so tiring and exhausting and yet so uplifting as
well. I told them I supposed we might have the opportunity to travel
together like this again, though I wished we wouldn't. I wished we wouldn't
need to. I wished there would be no need for any demonstrations like these,
so that we could instead get on with our lives.
* * *
At Tauba's death I swore
I would not cry
I swore by Him who turns the spheres.
If a man has not lived shamefully,
there is no shame in dying.
No person, however safe in life, escapes
Only time is immortal.
No life is favored,
nor corpse reborn.
Every youth passes through destruction
All my dear friends, though eager to live long
depart in disorder
while spheres spin around them.
I swear I won't stop crying for you
while one dove on a branch mourns
or birds fly.
--Laila Akhyaliyya, of Iraq