New York, N.Y.–I marched yesterday. With a friend, I walked with the protesters from roughly 25th and 7th Avenue, past Madison Square Garden, where everyone booed and hissed (and the giant sign outside flashed “Thank you New York!” anyway), east on 34th Street, and then down to 5th Avenue to the march’s conclusion at Union Square.
You have to admire the protesters’ inventiveness–who knew how many ways there are to express your hatred of Bush and Cheney? Although some of the protesters are, for all their sloganeering, struck mute by the slightest opposition. A guy in a VFW hat was off on a sidewalk at one point, attacking Kerry and defending the U.S. military. A protest girl walked up close to him and just stuck out her middle finger at him for a long time with a self-satisfied look on her face, as though she had come up with the cleverest gesture ever.
Occasionally, there is a kind of charm to these people. There can be whimsy. A girl with the group “axisofeve” was bouncing around in a buttock-baring get-up, then confessed to me and my friend she had had a really long day and was getting tired. But she chirped up again to tell us: “There will be a panty flash at Battery Park–Tuesday or Wednesday, I forget which.”
And there is the doggedness. An old guy was handing out flyers for a Yippie event. “I didn’t know the Yippes still existed,” I said. My friend–a veteran of five decades worth of left-wing protests–said quite seriously, “I think I recognize that guy from a protest in 1979–it was a pot protest. Actually I think he was just smoking pot there.”
Finally, there is the endearing cluelessness. We passed a group of counter-protesters from the group protestwarrior.com, who were holding up signs mocking the protesters: “World Workers Party…the last thing we do is work.” A guy just ahead of us in the march was covered in green make-up to look like the statue of liberty and was wearing just a robe, with a skeletal, scary-looking set of teeth painted on his face and–for some reason–a little flower in his ear. By any standard, this guy was dressed like a freak. But he stopped us to ask, in scandalized and mystified tones, of the counter-protesters, “Who were those people?”
Mostly, though, the whole thing seemed, as far as I could tell, to be motivated by an incoherent and sputtering animus toward Bush. Here is a brief recounting of my interactions with various marchers. They shouldn’t necessarily be taken as representative. After each talk I had with someone my friend would say, “You know, there are reasonable people here too.” Maybe. But it wasn’t at all hard to find people who were not a great credit to the cause of peace and justice.
A kid was holding a sign, “Stop the war on youth, from here to Najaf.”
“So,” I asked, “do you support al Sadr?”
“I do as long as he’s resisting U.S. imperialism.”
“OK, so you support Islamic fundamentalism?”
“No,” he said, walking away.
“Well, he’s an Islamic fundamentalist,” I said.
He came back up to me, “Just because you support the youth doesn’t mean you side with an extremist.”
“Sadr is an Islamic extremist, he’s very clear about it.”
“It’s their mosque.”
“He seized the mosque by force!”
“You’re wrong,” he said. “He supports elections.”
“No, he doesn’t! He opposes elections.”
“Well,” he said, walking away again, “they are U.S.-supported elections. Of course he opposes U.S.-supported elections.”
Then, this goateed, cigarette-smoking little Chomsky walked off for good.
Next, there were the people holding mock American-flag-draped coffins made out of cardboard. I asked a couple of women “pall-bearers” what they symbolized. They said it was an effort put together by an organization called 1,000coffins.org, and the coffins symbolized American and Iraqi deaths in Iraq and “all the dead people in the world.”
“Do any of them symbolize victims of 9/11?” I asked, since they seemed to be casting a pretty wide net.
“I don’t know,” said one woman.
“You’d have to ask 1,000coffins.org,” said another.
Further up the march route was a guy wearing a Yasser Arafat-style headdress and holding a sign reading, “Poland 1939. Iraq 2003.”
“So,” I asked him, “you think the invasion of Iraq was the same as Hitler’s invasion of Poland?”
He went into a spiel about how both invasions were launched under false pretenses. I asked if he saw any differences in the natures of the Polish and Iraqi governments. “With any metaphor,” he explained, “there are going to be imprecisions.”
Onto the nice Asian lady holding a sign with pictures of Bush and Cheney on it, emblazoned with the word “Traitors!”
I asked whether she thought they should be tried for treason: “Completely. Of course. Its not even a question.”
Should they be executed? “No.”
“Well, why not? It’s typically been a punishment for treason.”
She said “no” again, and I left it at that.
Near the end of the march there was a guy standing in the middle of the street doing brisk business in T-shirts with Bush officials’ names spelled with Swastikas. “Do you really think Rumsfeld is a Nazi?” I asked, since he was wearing a Rumsfeld shirt with the S as a Swastika. “Oh, yes,” he said, “absolutely.”
He was briefly distracted by someone asking for a small in one of the shirts–I didn’t catch which–and he had to say, “Sorry, that’s all out in the baby-T.” Then, he was ready to address my question again. He explained that Rumsfeld wasn’t taking responsibility for Abu Ghraib, speaking to “a type of arrogance that is fascist.”
He had shirts with Condoleezza’s name spelled with two Swastikas. “Is Condoleezza a Nazi?” I asked. He thought for a moment: “Condoleezza? Mmmmm. Not so much.”
She is, I guess, only partly a Nazi, which is still enough to render her name in double Swastikas. And so it went at the peace march.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.