It's hard to believe, but turnout for the March 19 anti-war festival in Fayetteville--headquarters of the Green Berets and 82nd Airborne Division--may have been unmatched in any American locale.
But Fayetteville's achievement--rallying more than 4,000 people in a city of 120,000--only underscores a setback for American peace forces on March 19.
London and Istanbul staged six-figure rallies, but according to the mainstream media, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., may have failed to top not only their past performances, but the turnout in an isolated North Carolina town a mere fraction of their size.
The numbers may be forever in dispute, but news reports are that about 4,000 demonstrators marched on Saturday in Los Angeles and "several [uncounted] thousand" in New York and San Francisco, both of which would have to field more than 100,000 protestors to match Fayetteville's relative success. Across the board, The New York Times pointed out, anti-war actions were "nowhere as big as those in February 2003."
Even by the standards of its sponsors, the Fayetteville rally was not an unqualified triumph. Only 13 buses arrived from out of town, four times as many as in 2004, but a fifth of what this year's organizers hoped to bring.
The Fayetteville action, more like an Americana July 4th picnic than any Days of Rage, was as placid and serene as the weather that day--temperatures in the lower 60s, dry, cloudy skies. No one keened or got red in the face, nobody clashed with the fascists, and policemen's boots didn't lose their spit-shines. The protestors were clad in loose-fitting, informal garb--jeans, cotton windbreakers and sweatshirts, athletics shoes and baseball caps. More than 90 percent of them were white--"middle-class hippies" of all ages, one participant quipped.
The North Carolina Peace and Justice Coalition had called the Fayetteville action to place Iraq war veterans, bereaved families, active-duty soldiers and their kin in the center of the anti-war crusade. The rally probably accomplished that aim.
But the vexing question is whether even an anti-war surge from within the military--if that's what Fayetteville inspired--will be able to bring sanity to our times.
"President Bush did not comment on the protests, which seemed unlikely to have any significant effect on national policy or on the glacial movement of public opinion," The New York Times opined at the end of the day.
The march formed on a downtown parking lot before noon, buses disgorging pilgrims from afar, contingents gathering beneath banners and signs. Lead by a woman blowing a bagpipe--as if in a military parade--about 1,200 marchers, led by some 200 soldiers, ex-servicemen and kin, strolled some 20 minutes over gently sloping residential streets to the north side of Rowan Park, a 50-foot depression surrounded by natural mounds.
From the park's pavilion at the bottom of the Rowan bowl, a 10-foot banner bearing the slogan of the event--Support the Troops for Real! Bring Them Home Now!--beckoned in a gentle wind.
Sheriff's deputies at two entry points conducted airport-style security checks, metal-detecting wands in hand. The procedure was congestive--ome participants stood in line for nearly an hour waiting to pass--inspiring a chant that has become a litany from shore to American shore:
"This is what democracy looks like!" the protestors intoned, pointing at their own ranks.
"This is what a police state looks like!" turning toward the police.
"This is what democracy looks like in a police state," one of them observed; Rowan Park is one of those "free speech areas" that are out of sight, out of mind. From street level, you can't see what's transpiring down in the bowl.
But after a few minutes, almost nobody complained about the security screening because on the north side of the scene, along the rim of the park, stood about 100 counter-demonstrators with lynching on their minds: "Fry Mumia," their T-shirts harrumphed.
A cadre of seasoned regional activists--one of whom, graybearded Quaker Chuck Fager, 62, has been agitating since the days of the Selma voting rights march--had spent six months making national appeals and local arrangements to build the protests. As the marchers passed through the security screens, it seemed as if the effort had failed: the first Fayetteville Iraq-war rally, in 2004, had drawn as many participants as had come from downtown.
But a couple of hundred peace advocates were already lounging on the greens, and as late afternoon warmed into spring, latecomers arrived by the score. By the time that music groups and speakers began addressing the assembly, about 1 p.m., the crowd had doubled its size--and it didn't quit building for an hour after that.
The Associated Press put Fayetteville turnout at 3,000, and march organizers claimed 1,800 more. By my own estimate, 4,200 people were gathered at the protest at its peak, about 2 p.m. Saturday.
Americans, complain as they may, are never, ever alone. Commerce accompanies us from conception to--perhaps the far side of the Golden Gates. By the time the marchers arrived, politically correct vendors had laid merchandise atop 40 tables on the east side of the speaker's kiosk. Merchants at this Green-Beret-city bazaar brought with them pins and buttons of 900 designs, and possibly more books than escaped the looting and fires at libraries in Iraq.
Most of the merchants represented pastel peace groups and mild-mannered petition societies, but Trotsky's disciples--of a half-dozen stripes--brought tables, too, laden with literature that scientifically proves that pacifists, peace Democrats and former comrades from the adjoining Trotsky table have all taken part in the Revolution Betrayed.
At a table in the middle of the money-and-mailing-list exchanges stood two Seventh-Day Adventists, collecting signatures for a petition against Sunday closing laws.
On the west side of the grass-lined bowl, just across a tiny creek that courses in front of the speaker's pavilion, vinyl doors were opened and shut on 19 portable outhouses, a number sufficient to prevent the formation of lines. But the rally's half-dozen "poppers," or food-and-drink stands, weren't up to speed: Demonstrators stood 20 minutes in line for plates of curry and hastily steamed hotdogs.
As they stood in line, the participants gazed southwards up the hillside at 100 mock caskets draped in flags. Dozens of black umbrellas, resting on the ground, were strewn across the eastern incline, their surfaces inscribed at previous protests with the names and ranks of the war dead. Children daubed flower motifs and adults lettered slogans on new umbrellas, just to pass the time. The supervisors of this project, called Parasols for Peace, supplied brushes and colors. "We are doing this to provide a free and cheap way of breaking the silence in this time of fear," one of them told me.
About 1 p.m. the procession of speakers got under way. Among those who addressed the crowd were the stars of Fager's burgeoning submovement, among them pacifist Camilio Mejia, only two days earlier out of an Army brig; retired Green Beret Sgt. Stan Goff; and Cindy Sheehan, the sparkplug in a group called Gold Star Families for Peace. Sheehan wore a white T-shirt stenciled with a photo of a soldier in uniform: her son, Casey, killed last year in Iraq.
But it was the content of the speeches--some of them lively and a couple powered with pathos--that exemplified the weakness of the March 19 protests, not only in Fayetteville, but from coast to coast.
In Rowan Park, and in locales elsewhere, organizational democracy precluded inspiration. The rally's organizers drew a list of nearly 30 speakers, practically one for every group in the coalition's fold. Apparently guided by a principle that might be called One Organization, One Speech, the rally's steering committee limited addresses to three minutes each. Admirably, most of those who stepped up to the microphone stayed within their allotted time.
But not even a Jefferson, a Frederick Douglas or Karl Marx can convey a nation-transforming message, nor present any significant analysis, in a 90-second span. Perhaps for brevity's sake, almost all of the speakers drew from a well-worn repertoire of 10:
1. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
2. Terrorists didn't take harbor there.
3. Most of the world disapproves of the invasion.
4. 1,500 American soldiers have died in combat.
5. American troops were sent to war in ignorance, with insufficient tools.
6. Many can't know when, or if, they're coming home.
7. American weapons have killed as many as 100,000 civilians.
8. The war is a luxury that our nation can ill afford.
9. The "War on Terror" has put American civil liberties in peril.
10. George W. Bush is unfit for the presidency.
It's all like a game of Texas Sweat: Players draw distinct hands, arrange their cards into suits, and with individual styles and rhetorical flourishes, stake their hopes and livelihoods. But the house of Bush is dealing us a losing hand, as turnout for the March 19 demonstrations makes plain.
It may be that you can't fight city hall, that rulers have been hoisting and crucifying their subjects since the days of Spartacus, and always will. But our pose, or posture, and even our performance could be improved--or at least that's the message from North Carolina's leading leftist sage.
Michael Hardt, 45, a literature professor at Duke University, is co-author with Italian Antonio Negri of two recent tomes on globalization and the perspectives of resistance. Hardt, an admirer of the multifaceted Seattle protests of 1999 who is frequently pummeled as a producer of inscrutable postmodernist prose, lost little time in getting his bearings after the downturn of March 19.
Though he did not attend the Fayetteville action--he was on a plane returning from France--he says he knows why the demonstrations were not bigger and better, everywhere.
"When movements grow is when they propose the agenda for change," he declares. "One of the effects of the war on terror is that all we are doing is reacting. The anti-war movement has become a failure because it has conceded the terrain of issues to the pro-war people."
Hardt's general argument is that oppositionists should struggle to implement their unredacted dreams for a full vision of the lives they want to live, not for a list of reforms or bargain items underlined in red.
To return to a stage of growth, Hardt argues, the movement will have to recall what it hoped to gain by closing ranks to challenge Bush's adventurism in the first place.
Was it only a preemption of war, or peace once the invasion came? Or was it that, as the slogan went, Another World Is Possible--and that we wanted to live there today?