Author's note, April 2016: I now recognize the 11th paragraph as transphobic. I have not edited the piece, but am adding this content warning and apology as an attempt at accountability.
"One single act of defiance against power, against the State that seems omnipotent but is not, transforms and transfigures the human personality. At least for a time. For a while. Perhaps that is enough." —Edward Abbey
This is a personal analysis of a movement. It is presented in a limited, ignorant manner, because that is all any of us are, because that is the most truthful way.
The war on Iraq began just one short month ago, but it already feels like ancient history. Iraq's brutally repressive Ba'ath government has fallen, and Saddam Hussein is
missing or dead or captured. Looting, destruction, and anarchy are now overseen by an occupational force that cannot even find any of its motives for being at war.
One short month ago liberal weeklies like The Nation were heralding the birth of a phenomenally powerful global movement for peace, connected and powered by the internet. It was called the largest activist community ever mobilized, "The Other Superpower," said The Nation. Millions in London, Rome, New York, Berlin, San Francisco, and around the world expressed their outrage at the brewing war, denying it, repudiating it. They were fueled by history, compassion, and a belief in international cooperation and the admittedly nebulous concept of international law. "Not in my name!" "Not my president, not my war!" "No blood for oil!" "Let the inspections work!" I was among them, and though I agreed—and still agree with them—that this war was wrong, I tried to constantly critique the movement.
I was there when we gathered in Portland, Oregon, crowded together in a square of orange brick, there with friends from the small enclave of leftists at my school. The war had started, with the sickeningly titled "Decapitation Attack" of March 20th that served as our call to pacifist arms. We gathered with no set agenda, with no professional speakers. The crowd was a mixture of college students, middle-class liberals, lifelong activists, masked anarchists, the whole spectrum of the left.
It began with speeches. It's hard to protest a war that has already started. We were all conscious that the machine was too big for us, that we could never stop its works short of gumming them with more of the blood we were so reluctant to see spilled.
I don't remember the faces of those who spoke, but I remember their words. There was the woman who had worked with relief agencies in the Middle East, who told us that her reasons for opposing war were all children whose names she had known, who had bled and died because of strife. She told us with her tears. There were others who merely said again what we had all heard before. There were those who brought into this conflict their own issues and agendas, a whole continent of socialists and communists who told us that the reason for this war was the capitalist system, that the only way to stop war was to fashion a socialist state through revolution. There were those who told us that the war was the result of paternalistic society, that they were not patriots, but "matriots."
They revealed to us one of the problems with liberal activism. It is too broad minded. The pro-war demonstrators rallying several blocks away, I am sure, did not champion capitalism and denounce socialism as the catalyst of this war; they had what they felt was moral clarity. We did not, were stuck between two wrongs that we felt would never make a right: the wrong of war, and the wrong of undeniable political repression.
We stood there, gathered in our fear, and felt words failing us. The crowd grew restless, did not want to hear the speechmaking it already knew by heart. It felt the need for action in response to action, it felt the need for a shift of tense.
The anarchists start it, as they always do. Their drum corps begins its cadence in the street outside the square, beneath a banner of red words I do not remember. I am young and full of indignation: I join them. We start to move. We know the plan that has been whispered on the internet. We will shut down the city, "reclaim" the streets that we insist are ours. We are moving down the streets, I am at the front of the crowd, in the sparsely populated area of the procession that builds up momentum for those who follow. We carry our signs and chant our slogans, but to me it feels emptier than the last time I marched. The slogans go unanswered. I do not see people gathered along the sides of the streets cheering us on, as I saw in the weeks before. We weave through the already empty streets until we reach the areas not preemptively sealed by the police, marching towards Burnside, the main artery of the city. Someone has orchestrated this well, though we do not know it yet. As we march past police blockades, some protestors stay behind, gumming the works with their bodies.
It feels different to me, today it feels different, though I do not yet recognize it. We march down 3rd, parallel the waterfront, rounding a bend in the street. I see the foot of the Burnside bridge, clogged with bodies and blocked by a wall of riot gear. Hundreds of protestors sit in the intersection as stopped cars execute a slow about-face. Some drivers honk in exasperation, some wave peace signs. I think that this is where the protest is going to come to a head, I pull my bandanna over my mouth and nose, but take it off as my glasses fog.
I see it: a waving and star-spangled banner, plastic-based fibers billowing black smoke and orange flames. Its ashes drop to the ground and its glittering embers swirl in the air. I see her, a woman with tears streaming down her face, kneeling over the flag. My stomach churns. Do we mean to hurt people when we do this? To me, this flag is no more than a piece of cloth, and even as a symbol, I find myself unable to put into it any deep significance, yet to some, this flag is America, and everything they believe America still stands for. Is a time of war, a war you do not believe in, that you think of as a deep injustice and immorality—if a flag is to be burned, is this not the time?
Amy, a friend, lingers behind as the rest of us try to march onward with the now stirring crowd. She stares at the crying woman, I know she wants to reach out and talk to her, to find out what moves her so deeply about a pile of smoldering red strips of cloth. Perhaps with insensitivity, we call her away and continue back up 4th street, back to the square. I start to notice people. A man, naked, walking with his bicycle, possessing an impressive array of genital piercings. A transgendered woman who looks like an amalgamation of several other people, wearing a pink tutu and tights, with the hairy potbelly of a man, a woman's small breasts, short-cropped hair and many facial piercings. As she dances ecstatically to an inner music, I have to wonder how outsiders perceive this march, the movement itself. We are a circus. Another flag burns.
We keep walking, and I look down a side street as we pass, seeing only a thick crowd of others marching in the opposite direction. Is this march really that big? A well-dressed, large man stands in a crosswalk, his face livid and red as he argues with protestors.
"What are you people doing in the street? No one likes war, but you've made me miss three appointments today, I had to leave my car and walk—" his eyes seem to be rolling in his skull—he looks as terribly helpless as we all feel.
"Who's being selfish?" asks Jason, another friend.
Amy is incensed by his heckling. "Shut up!" she says. Perhaps more compassionate than the rest of us, perhaps just less intimidated by this man, she moves in, shelters him from the small group of protestors who are arguing with him. They move away. Her gesture of goodwill somehow calms him.
"Everyone hates war," he says, looking close to tears, this middle aged businessman, "but I'm just trying to go to work."
Sure, I think, so are the Iraqis who died today. Inconvenience at home is a small recompense for death abroad, I think. Who is it, though, who is being selfish? Can thousands of citizens expressing their righteous—self-righteous?—indignation be selfish all at once? Is this really our "right?"
We continue our circuit through the streets, turning around and moving away from the square where we began as soon as we reach it. The voices of speakers, still making speeches, ring through the streets unheeded. And then we hear it, a banshee howl, a perfect articulation of what we all feel—no, an articulation of what one person would feel if the emotions of all the thousands of protestors were combined within her:
"PEOPLE ARE DYING TODAY!" The scream is almost deafening over the PA system. We all turn around in fear and shock, exchange looks of half-bemused terror. It sounds like the voice of a woman being tortured, like the voice of hell personified. It continues in a raging shriek, unintelligible. "PEOPLE ARE DYING!" In my mind today it is drawn out in an animal growl that never ends. "PEOPLE ARE DYING!"
We keep walking, following first as it slopes down under bridges into mossy and moist semi-dark, back up, cobblestone streets bordered by grey walls on each side. An anarchist punk sprays a slogan on the wall. We are respectable. We leave. We have to get home. We walk back to our car. We burn gasoline as we leave the city. We are not inconvenienced by our political brothers and sisters as we leave them for our comfortable homes in suburbia. We feel vaguely hypocritical as we burn our gasoline. I run my fingers over the black cloth of my protestor's armband.
The protests run long into the night. Protestors tie up intersections for hours and hours. There is little clash with police. Bicyclists block the freeway in the early morning.
The tense changes again for me, but the war rages on in the present. How many people did we alienate? How many people did we convince? How many lives did we save? I felt a vague uneasiness about the massed movement, only felt purely good about my own actions and intentions. I did the right thing. I protested a government I disagreed with, I stood for my beliefs. Many of us did the right thing, but when combined...
The war is "over." Iraq lies in looted ruins, the ashes of ancient manuscripts have littered the skies in smoke like cluster bomblets. No weapons of mass destruction have been found, nor any motive, nor any justification, nor peace, nor democracy, nor finality, nor closure. The movement, our work, in all its dirty, chaotic, sometime misguided glory, is not over.