Postmodern Protest in the Age of the Neo-Demo
"I'll keep the mohawk until we stop killing people abroad."— the musician Eddie Vedder, quoted about his hair in Rolling Stone, April 11, 2002
The Palestinian Solidarity March had almost all the elements of a classic modern American political demonstration. On April 20, in Washington, D.C., a constituency previously not heard from (or not listened to) turned out in impressive numbers. Its representatives looked respectable. They conducted themselves with dignity. They had a grievance. The only thing missing was an intelligible demand.
The marchers wanted the people of the United States to ... do what? Abandon one of our few allies and take up the cause of Arab regimes that hate us? And when an Arab regime, such as Saudi Arabia's, does profess friendship, it is the Eddie Haskell to our Wally Cleaver. Should we, as more than a few placards suggested, GET OUT OF THE MIDDLE EAST? Then the front-line Arab states could have a free hand with Israel and recapture the glories of 1949, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. Are we supposed to invade the region and sort things out? We did that in 1991. Support a Palestinian state? We have, in 1947 and right now. Maybe we'd better keep applying combinations of aid incentives and diplomatic pressure, carrots and sticks, shredding twigs into the Middle Eastern salad and whacking people on the knuckles with raw vegetables. Let's mount a demonstration supporting current policies: the Million Muddlers-through March, with the masses chanting, "Five, Four, Three, Two/We Don't Have a Doggone Clue!"
Israel stubbornly insists on existing. The foolish, despotic, and corrupt governments of the Arab countries stubbornly insist on various alternatives. The political and economic situation in Arab lands is so bad that it seems as if the only sensible thing for an Arab to do is to get out and go someplace with freedom and opportunities. The people in the Palestinian Solidarity March have done so. Now they're a successful immigrant group exercising political power—exercising it to denounce Zionists, a successful immigrant group exercising political power.
We are in the postmodern era of American political demonstrations. The Palestinian Solidarity March, an indignant crowd opposed, in a way, to itself, was marching around with little hope of achieving an objective—assuming there was one. This struck a chord. Thousands of other protesters joined in. They held a neo-demo, parodying the actions of the suffragettes, Cox's Army, the civil-rights movement, and the Vietnam War protests. Seeking a clear political response has been replaced by consulting a Magic 8-Ball of activist demands: "Reply Hazy, Demonstrate Again Later."
There were, in fact, three additional pointless marches in Washington on April 20. The Colombia Mobilization Festival of Hope and Resistance gathered at the Washington Monument. U.S. drug-eradication policy was opposed. Millions of Americans have opposed that policy more effectively with mirrors, razor blades, and little glass pipes. The Colombia Mobilization also wanted the U.S. Army School of the Americas eliminated, although it has been and is now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. This can no longer be called a training ground for Latin American dictators, because Castro is the only dictator left. And to judge by the number of Che T-shirts in the crowd, the Colombia Mobilization is on Cuba's side.
Then there was the Mobilization for Global Justice, gathered in front of World Bank headquarters. The Mobilization was claiming that World Bank development policies are all wrong. A little late. One of the World Bank's own economists, William Easterly, has published a book, The Elusive Quest for Growth (2001), claiming that World Bank development policies are all wrong.
And on the Ellipse, behind the White House, the U.S. war on terrorism and Israel's West Bank incursions were being denounced by ANSWER. Act Now to Stop War and End Racism is a group that awes any fan of acronyms. I was distracted from covering their event by an urge to scribble in my reporter's notebook, trying for a one-up: Quotidian Undergraduates Eagerly Supporting Terrorist Internment On Neptune.
The Palestinian Solidarity March began on Connecticut Avenue, at the Washington Hilton, where the somewhat acronym-impaired AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was holding a conference. Many of the Arab-Americans arrived in family groups. Mothers and daughters were modestly garbed. Men wore crisp sport shirts and creased trousers. The other protesters, not all of them young, came dressed as young protesters. Covering of hair mingled with exposing of midriff. I didn't see anyone doing both, but a number of non-Arab marchers had kaffiyehs inexpertly plopped on their heads. A middle-aged man who was obviously not a Pakistani sported a shalwar kameez and walked down Connecticut eating from a box of Wheatette crackers.
According to The Washington Post for Sunday, April 21, "Organizers at the march privately urged their participants to strike swastikas from their posters." They didn't comply. but many of the protest signs had the swastikas turned backward, perhaps in an effort to soften the Nazi reference: = SHARON = . Thus some placards could be construed to mean "American Indian decorative motif = the Prime Minister of Israel = Hindu good-luck charm." Jews were in the crowd, JEWS FOR PEACE, read one sign. JEWS SAY NO TO ISRAELI STATE TERROR, read another. A chant went up nearby: "Two, four, six, eight, Israel is a racist state." Diverse advocacies mixed in the crowd. THE RICH MUST SHARE, DOWN WITH CORPORATE CAPITALISM, DESTROY ALL BORDERS, and a giant cardboard turtle labeled MOBILIZE. Everyone got along fine. A young man carried a birch-bark mock-up of a television, captioned "How much of your life is lived through a screen?" Another young man, a representative of something called the Independent Media Center, pedaled through the march on a bicycle equipped with a homemade duct-tape-and-PVC-pipe rig that held a video camera. Messages ranged from the disprovable ("We Are All Palestinians") to the dumbfoundingly true ("Trees are not Terrorists" — although the day before in Washington a tree had blown over in a thunderstorm and killed a passenger in a van).
Some messages conveyed no sense: GIVE ME FREEDOM OR GIVE ME PALESTINE. Some conveyed too much: PRO PALESTINIAN AND PRO ISRAELI HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES. Some messages were open to interpretation. A young woman carried a picture of herself smiling broadly and embracing a large, happy mutt. Written beneath was "My dog has more rights than Palestinians."
Relations between the police and protesters were cordial. When the march reached the Connecticut Avenue tunnel under Dupont Circle, some of the marchers balked at entering, not without reason. The ventilation shafts rising from the underpass into the park were unguarded stink-bomb invitations. Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey stepped in and led the way through.
The Solidarity March went down Eighteenth Street to the World Bank headquarters, where it was greeted with cheers and shouts of "Free, Free Palestine!" There was pogo dancing at the Global Justice rally, and bare feet, and dissonant beating of drums, pots, and empty five-gallon plastic buckets. The effect was Riverdance if Ireland had been conquered by Berkeley instead of England. A baby carriage without a baby was pushed around with bongos and tambourines bungee-corded onto it and a sign reading RHYTHM WORKERS UNION. A couple was parading on stilts carrying GROW posters. The man's beard was braided. An American flag was burned, and so was a flag with yellow, blue, and red stripes. I asked what flag it was. No one seemed to know. "Colombia?" someone said. Two women in their twenties, festooned with buttons and stickers for various causes, ran toward the demonstrations holding hands and uttering squeals of gleeful anticipation.
I wasn't getting much information from the demonstrators. I have reached the stage in life where there's nothing I can do to keep from looking like a fifty-four-year-old man who should mind his own business. I had brought along Max Pappas, who does research work for me. Max, at twenty-six and with a couple of days' stubble, can pass for an activist of some kind. Although, personally, I thought the cloth cap and olive-drab short-sleeved sport shirt that Max had selected, to blend in, made him look like a sports-car enthusiast on the way to bowling league. Max spotted a pack of bouncy coeds in yellow MOVEMENT T-shirts and immediately went to interview them. They were from Colby College, and the purpose of their organization was to go to lots of demonstrations. "If anyone has an idea," one of them said, "you just come to the group and everyone will support you."
Other collegians had an even more supportive environment. An item in the Sunday Washington Post noted,
Students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College said their schools paid most of their expenses because they belong to a campus group, Students Peace Action Network. The schools provided vans for the trip and paid for hotels.
While Max was talking to the Colby students, a young woman with a tape recorder thrust a microphone in my face. She had a black hankie tied across her nose. I suppose she didn't mean this as a parody of the veil worn in the Gulf States. "Why are you at this protest?" she said, in a necessarily muffled voice.
"I'm a reporter," I said. She backed away.
Max talked to a man who was carrying a placard showing rainbow stripes, a peace sign, and a suggestion to "Envision a World." He was walking a tiny Pomeranian that did or did not have more rights than Palestinians. "Yeah, man," said the man, who appeared to be over forty, "when I get older I want to join Greenpeace."
A fifteen-foot-wide balloon had been erected by the Rainforest Action Network. The balloon was decorated like a globe with a FOR SALE banner across it, but it was shaped like a small-town water tower or, maybe, a mushroom cloud. On one side of the balloon someone was speaking to not many people in Spanish while a young priest with blond streaks in his hair and wearing a fashion-forward sport coat got ready to take the mike. On the other side of the balloon there was a protest against Citibank, whose Washington office is catercorner to the World Bank. A speaker asked Citibank to "finance solar mortgages." The small group of listeners chanted—though not, I gathered, in response to the speaker's request—"Hey, Citi, not with my money."
Max found campus feminists to interview. One admitted that the Taliban's treatment of women was terrible and said the United States should have done something earlier, "in the name of women."
"Wouldn't that involve war?" Max asked.
"Yeah, it's a tricky one," the feminist said. "There might be some nonviolent approach such as micro-lending."
A man stood inside an enormous, ill-made papier-mâché head of George Bush. The head did not bear a label. A bad portrait of George W. seemed to be the point. Other points being made in front of the World Bank: MORE WORLD/LESS BANK, PEACE THROUGH PEACEFUL MEANS, FUCK YOU CIA, NO MORE BHOPALS, REFUSE WAR/ CHALLENGE DEMOCRACY, WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS (on cartoons of Tibetan monks being beaten by Chinese soldiers and Vietnamese peasants being beaten by GIs), KEEP INDIA SECULAR, WE ARE COMPLICIT, and STOP THE COMMODIFICATION OF WATER (in a crowd where almost everyone was carrying a brand-name bottle of same). There was also a placard reading SUFFERING for AFRICAN PEOPLE, which critiqued the IMF's "structural adjustment programs" and indicated that both protestor and protestee were in dire need of acronym consultation.
The Mobilization for Global Justice smelled of cats and patchouli oil and body odor. It joined with the Palestinian Solidarity March, and everyone moved in ragtag order along H Street and down Thirteenth to Freedom Plaza, on the far side of the White House.
Counterdemonstrators were few. A Dockers-dressed mom and dad stood on H Street with their ten-year-old son. They held signs: GO BUSH and USA IT OR LEAVE IT. A few college-age protesters came out of the march to argue, not with the parents, just with their child.
Some of the marchers—though none of the Arab-Americans—affected threatening attitudes. Their faces were masked. Their body language was angry. They shouted. But they didn't do anything. Several hirsute and not very clean young people wore bicycle helmets and MEDIC armbands. They hopped around nervously, giving, perhaps, a preview of some future socialized medicine. A kid waved an American flag that had corporate logos instead of stars on the blue field. He was wearing Adidas shoes, a Swiss Army watch, and a Mountainsmith backpack. Four of the Palestinian Solidarity marchers carried a makeshift litter bearing a girl wrapped up and pretending to be injured or dead. The day was growing muggy, and the girl's companions sprinkled Evian on her face. A tourist bus got caught up in the march at Thirteenth and New York Avenue. Someone bobbed around in the crowd wearing an enormous gold-fringed Trojan helmet. The fur hats of a group of Hassidim were almost as large. I tried to talk to them, but I couldn't get through a coterie bearing USA/ISRAEL AXIS OF RACISM/WHITE SUPREMACY signs. I must rely on my reportorial betters at The Washington Post:
"The Palestinians here in the crowd look at us mistrustfully at first," said Rabbi Yisroel Weiss, 45, of New York. "But then they speak a few words with us, and they show us respect and friendship." ... He said his group favored dismantling Israel and returning it to the Palestinians.
A sign reading PRO-PALESTINIAN IS NOT ANTI-SEMITIC was carried next to a sign reading SHARON MAKES HITLER PROUD. A delegation of Iranian women in chadors was preceded by a delegation announcing LESBIAN, GAY, BI & TRANS PEOPLE SAY STOP THE WAR. One of the LGBTP was wearing, with panache, a Palestinian flag as a cape. A middle-aged Arab-American man sipped from a Starbucks cup. A college student held a placard: STARBUCKS SUCKS. Enlarged wire-service photos of Palestinian casualties were held aloft, as were THE MEDIA LIES posters. One banner stated, CANNABIS SMOKERS ARE NOT CRIMINALS. A woman ran through the march with a dollar bill dangling from the brim of her baseball cap. Her T-shirt said, IN PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.
At the edge of Freedom Plaza a young couple had brought their baby in a stroller and several sheets of cardboard decorated with crossed American and Israeli flags, and slogans: SUPPORT ISRAEL and U.S. AND ISRAEL, BROTHERS UNITED.
"You can't just do nothing," the husband said. Arab-Americans politely ignored them. The rest of the protesters steered away. The only tension on April 20 came from excessive support.
A dozen members of the New Black Panther Party marched (in the military sense) into Freedom Plaza. They were dressed in black fatigues, black motorcycle helmets, and combat boots. They scowled and did drill maneuvers, about-facing and attentioning. The New Black Panthers carried pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Their picket signs were professionally printed: THE STATE OF ISRAEL HAS NO RIGHT TO EXIST, THE AMERICAN/ISRAELI WHITE MAN IS THE DEVIL, JIHAD. They hollered, "Death to Israel," "Holy war, holy war, holy war," and "Kill every Zionist in Palestine."
For a moment the other demonstrators were silent. They fidgeted. They backed away. "Excuse me, I'm so sorry," said a courteous Arab-American teenager who stepped on my foot. Then a chant began in the crowd: "Killing is not the answer, Killing is not the answer." The chant grew louder. Demonstrators raised their fingers in peace signs and began to press in on the New Black Panther Party. Cacophonous drumming came from the Global Justice mobilizers. They shouted, "No more hate!" A woman about my age began screaming into a bullhorn: "Jews and Arabs unite!" The New Black Panther Party, with somewhat less military élan than before, marched away.
(As it happened, the old Black Panther Party was holding its thirty-fifth reunion that weekend, at the University of the District of Columbia. The former chairman of the party, Bobby Seale, attended. "I like the methodical way it was done," he was quoted as saying about the war in Afghanistan. "That's how you judge the operation when you're dealing with a bunch of terrorists such as they are.")
The crowd in Freedom Plaza grew and pressed against the front of the National Theatre. Emerging patrons were trapped beneath the marquee. A pair of older women stood patiently staring at the protesters. "I gather you're not part of the demonstration," I said.
"No," one woman said, "we came to see a matinee of Mamma Mia!"
"But all of America is part of this turmoil," the other woman said.
"How are you going to get out of here?" I asked.
"We'll just go back in," the first woman said, "and see another show."
The Colombia Mobilization joined the ANSWER rally on the Ellipse, and thousands more protesters pushed toward Freedom Plaza. They looked familiar. If I took off my bifocals, they could have been the same denimed and T-shirted, funny-coifed, oddly shod, beard-attempting kids with whom I'd protested at this very place a generation ago. It was a startling continuity in youthful fashion—as if I'd arrived at an anti-Vietnam War teach-in and found my friends wearing zoot suits. One thing, however, has changed in thirty-five years. Regular folks feel no desire to kick these young folks for the way they look. The kids are so thoroughly tattooed and body-pierced that whatever pain someone might want to inflict on them they've already inflicted on themselves.
One bunch began a skit involving a boy in a Halloween skull mask spraying an aerosol can at girls carrying primitive paintings that depicted agricultural endeavors. Then they all dropped dead and yelled something about Colombia.
The marchers trampled the grass on the Ellipse. MORE GARDENS, a sign read. Other posters and banners declared, GIVE COMMUNISM A CHANCE, PEACE IS PATRIOTIC, END ASHCROFT'S POLICE STATE, REPUBLICANS FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, STOP CALLING PALESTINIANS TERRORISTS, REAL PROFITS FROM PEACE, CORPORATIONS ARE KILLING THE WORLD, THE U.S. STARTED IT ALL, DOWN WITH ALGERIAN FASCIST REGIME, PEACE TREATY IN KOREA, LEAVE CHAVEZ ALONE, and FOCUS YOUR DISCONTENT. Indeed.
Many of the signs were wordy: AIDS TREATMENT NOW/COKE'S NEGLECT = DEATH FOR WORKERS IN AFRICA. Another began, BUSH'S POX AMERICANA MADE US THE AXIS OF IGNORANCE & A GLOBAL STUPID POWER. THANKS DUBYA ... and continued in that vein. Some signs were touchingly simple: PLEASE STOP KILLING EVERYBODY. Others had an air of hopelessness: THE ONLY WEAPON A "TERRORIST" NEEDS IS PURPOSE. THEIR PURPOSE GROWS WITH EACH DAY OF THE WAR ON TERROR. One sign was just a mistake: GOLIATH LOST. David, after all, was an Israeli. The middle-aged "Vermonters for Peace" looked like they gave themselves their own haircuts.
A young lady handed me a square of posterboard washed in pink watercolor with a brighter pink star painted on it and PEACE painstakingly lettered across the front. A family displayed a photograph of Afghan women, labeled "Our Afghan Sister Family." They gave me a printed handout stating that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan had "condemned the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance for a 'record of human rights violations as bad as that of the Taliban's.'" The handout ended with the sad and deflated sentence "This statement has apparently been ignored by George Bush and his associates."
A young man wore a T-shirt saying, I USED TO BE A WHITE AMERICAN BUT I GAVE IT UP IN THE INTEREST OF HUMANITY. But another demonstrator wore one of those Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts that were withdrawn from stores following accusations of racial insensitivity. A fat, slant-eyed bodhisattva appeared above the slogan "Get Your Buddha on the Floor." Nearby was a banner from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
The four rallies had now joined together, a total of about 75,000 people. They trooped down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Mall with the Palestinian Solidarity marchers in the lead. Many young Arab-American women had cell phones pressed to their head scarves and were saying things like "You wouldn't believe it, I'm right here on the Mall." Scores of Palestinian flags, and a variety of flags from other Arab nations, were being waved.
"What's that flag?" asked another young woman being interviewed by Max.
"Lebanon," Max said.
"But why are they waving a flag from Lebanon?" she said.
In among the Arab-American families—some of whom had brought coolers and lawn chairs—were college students with a sign reading IF QUEER SOLDIERS UNDERMINE THE MILITARY, SIGN US UP. An exhausted-looking teenager wearing anarchist symbols sat on a curb with a piece of cardboard on which he had lettered BURN ME I'M OLD AND I GET IN THE WAY. Appearing, without intended irony, near the scores of charter buses that had been hired by the demonstrators was VISUALIZE FUEL-EFFICIENT VEHICLES/IT'S A NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE. Some placards were strangely verbless: HEMP and INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT. I sent Max to find out why someone was holding up a swath of hot-pink synthetic-mohair cloth. "It's a rallying point for Wesleyan students," said a Wesleyan student in a DEVIANT QUEER T-shirt. At the front of the crowd a banner was being waved—either wholly apposite or completely out of place: SHAME ON DUAL LOYALISTS.
A truck with loudspeakers carried children singing songs of peace. The music was drowned out by young men on another truck with loudspeakers. First they intoned, "The Muslims united will never be defeated," and then "Stop the killing, stop the war." A middle-aged woman dressed as a fairy godmother Rollerbladed between the trucks with a bullhorn. She warbled, "Money for justice, not for bombs. / Money for schools, not guns. / Money for Social Security, too, / when we stop the war," more or less to the tune of "Bibbity Bobbity Boo," from the Disney cartoon Cinderella.
What united these people, other than a general loserish quality? Or maybe it was only that. They've made every question a political question, because in politics—as this political demonstration proved—there is no quality control. But the Arab-Americans didn't look like losers. That's all right. Staking a claim to victimhood has value for even the most successful Americans. Witness Oprah, Rosie, steel tariffs, a farm-subsidy bill benefiting vast wheat and cotton plantations, and the complaints of the "sandwich generation" moms pressed in their upper-middle-class lives between the demands of spoiled young children and those of crabby affluent parents. Property rights are to be had in victimhood. Then there is the charm of a good tantrum—familiar to those of us with a four-year-old in the house. The less meliorable the cause of the tears, the better the tantrum is. Plus, blame negates responsibility. "Who spilled Coca-Cola all over the Third World and crayoned on its walls?" "The World Bank did!" The wonder is not that 75,000 people showed up on April 20. The wonder is that we didn't all.
The demonstration was fully assembled. Marchers from every participating organization had arrived on the Mall. It was time for the stirring orations. The speakers' platform was ready by the Reflecting Pool, where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood. But thirty-nine years later it was Cynthia McKinney who strode to the podium. She is the Georgia congresswoman who apologized to Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's refusal of the prince's $10 million check for terrorist victims. She also issued a statement saying, "I am not aware of any evidence showing that President Bush or members of his administration have personally profited from the attacks of 9-11. A complete investigation might reveal that to be the case." And in a speech on recycling she said, "Paper continues to be made from trees."
McKinney called on "people from all walks of life—students, union members, union members on strike, homeless veterans." These were all the walks of life she named. She called on the people in them to do something that I could not hear. The members of the crowd had turned away and begun chatting loudly among themselves. Max and I walked to the Metro. We saw a man who had been on the fringes of various demonstrations all day. He had a sign of his own: GOD PLEASE EVERYONE.