April 12, the day of the most recent peace rally in San Francisco, began on an ominous note. For the first time in months, it rained all morning - and early afternoon, and mid-afternoon. The sky cried thunder and lightning, very rare in these parts. I wondered if the demonstration was still on, and, more peripherally, does the Bush administration control the weather now too?
I stopped at a cafe on the way. Right after I sat down a clutch of protesters walked by in ponchos, signs encased in plastic and held high. Looking on, one of the cafe employees saluted the protesters and related a story of a recent trip to Paris. Parisians, he said, were not anti-American, but anti-Bush, a distinction the right has done their damndest to obscure to middle America. This is a common dialogue in a city where Bush got 15% of the vote.
The rally itself was at the Civic Center Plaza, across the street from City Hall. It was put on by ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), an international collective of activist groups, in league with the Bay area chapter of NION (Not in our Name), an organization that stresses international peace and cooperation and social justice. I called the Bay area NION on Thursday, to see if the rally would continue as planned, despite the fall of Baghdad. The spokesperson answered with an unqualified yes, explaining that NION's mission stretched beyond opposition to cowboy unilateralism to include opposition to civil liberties infringements and Bush's war on the environment and communities of color. The demonstration in San Francisco was part of an international day of action, with coordinated demonstrations taking place in over thirty countries on five continents.
When I arrived at Civic Center Plaza, I saw at least a thousand protesters toughing the hard rain. Right away I was drawn to the many interesting signs. In the category of Biggest Stories The Liberal Media Quickly Forgot About was a sign reading "Remember Florida?!!' (www.gregpalast.org)." A sign that has caught on for months now appeared several times: "Regime change begins at home: Impeach Bush! (www.votetoimpeach.org)." Signs were by turns moral ("Victory at what cost?"), biblical ("An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind"), darkly humorous (a man in a blood-spattered suit and tie holding a sign that said "Everything Is Fine"), and simple, direct ("How many lives per gallon?"). And there were flags. The NION flag is a globe in an ocean blue background expressing that we're all in this together. One woman held a US flag in which the stars were replaced with corporate logos: Nike, Coke, Mc Donalds, Shell, IBM, ad nauseum.
In the center of Civic Center Plaza, a location for many rallies - including the recent mega-protest of over 50,000 - a speaker cracked a joke about the demonstration being "a rally announcing the death of the peace movement," then shortly after gave a reminder of an upcoming non-violent, direct action demo at Chevron to "resist the corporate invasion." Within moments of this statement whistles blew, and the march was off.
Any idea that the march would be a dirge dissolved immediately. As soon as the crowd left Civic Center Plaza and gave onto Grove Street, the protesters were buoyed by the Brass Liberation Orchestra's marching band rendition of Herbie Hancock's classic "Watermelon Man." Looking around one could see people smiling, happy to participate in democracy among others who were not afraid to share their dismay over the state of the union. At the second intersection a man held a sign up to the marchers that asked "Is Syria Next?," reminding us that we might soon be out in the streets again, if the Bush cabal continues its drive to make the Middle East a US protectorate.
The march continued unimpeded through every intersection except Market Street, which did not thrill all the drivers along the route. At one intersection a peace activist had a lively if civil discussion with a stalled and frustrated single-occupancy driver. At another intersection the motorist at the front of the waiting line kept his horn depressed in futility. A few people flashed him the peace sign, feeling few qualms at reminding the driver, however briefly, of the human costs of his lifestyle.
After a short stop at Market, the march went two blocks south on Church Street and turned left onto 16th. 16th had not yet been cordoned off, causing a driver to be caught going against foot traffic. One protester taunted the driver, who looked miffed, surprised. Quickly two other protesters yelled at nearby marchers to get out of the way and let the driver through.
The march route led to Dolores Park, a park on the side of a city block-sized hill on the edge of the Mission District. Not halfway up the block the march fed into the rally and was met by a group of booths recruiting members and copping leftist merchandise: Bushoncrack.com; the San Francisco Green Party; Bay Area United Against War; the World Workers Party; the International Socialist Movement; and Food Not Bombs, which feeds homeless San Franciscans. There looked to be about two thousand people.
It was obvious from the moment we arrived that we weren't in Kansas anymore, as the first speaker made repeated, angry references to "President Moron" and the "imperialist aggression" of his administration. More specifically, the speaker questioned the United States setting up a war crimes court against Iraqis (when the United States itself had ducked out of the International Criminal Court), and the ability - or will - of a country that had supported and installed dozens of dictators to conceive and grow a fledgling democracy.
The ten or so speakers covered a host of leftist causes that have gone virtually unreported in the US major media. Early on, a message was read from the parents of Rachel Corrie, the unarmed 23-year-old American activist from the International Solidarity Movement who was recently run over by an Israeli bulldozer as it destroyed the house of a Palestinian doctor. There was a pair of speeches by veterans from Veterans for Peace.
A Gulf War I veteran and self-described recovering "right-wing hawk" said "blind faith in your leaders will bring your children home in body bags." The other veteran - who was among the survivors when 241 marines were killed in the Lebanon occupation fiasco in 1983 - said "I love my country; I fear this government."
William Mendoza, a former Coke plant employee in Columbia, spoke of the Coke corporation's payments to right-wing paramilitaries to intimidate or kill union leaders.
Next was Stephen Funk, a former Marine Corps corporal and the first conscientious objector in Iraq War II, who read a statement of opposition to the US habit of "exploiting other countries for their resources."
There was a speech from one among the many activists who were shot at with rubber bullets at the Oakland Port last week when they "got in the way" of the business being conducted by a defense contractor that was shipping military hardware to Iraq, and there was a performance by the the rap band Red Guard, whose lyrics spoke for many:
Not your flag
Not your government
Not your war
Not your president
Now is not the time to be silent
As the rally wound down and the crowd thinned to a few hundred, the tenor of the demonstration turned from universal to sectarian. One speaker lamented the fact that the people of Yugoslovia, now living in peace after years of horrific bloodshed and forced dislocations, were "still suffering the effects of the NATO bombing."
Despite the flagrant discrediting done over the past two years to the theory that there was "no difference" between the major party candidates in the 2000 presidential election, Mumia Abu Jamal's lawyer brought the remaining crowd to its feet when he lumped the Democrats with the Republicans as co-equal "parties of the ruling classes."
At the extreme end of the ideologically freeze-dried, an ANSWER representative warmed over about the "free peoples" of Cuba and finished with the fist-raising statement "Long live the Cuban revolution."
At the close of the demonstration we were reminded of the Northern California War Tax Resistance booth and the rally 15 minutes later to protest the pro-war leanings of San Francisco representative and House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Most people went home relieved to know that they weren't alone in their anger and apprehension at the Bush administration's assault on democracy under cover of security. And many felt a degree of contentment at having engaged in that most truly American of activities, public dissent.