Now begins the war at home. One minute Jay Bushman was standing in the rain across from the White House, giving an interview -- "If George Bush was a Nazi, he'd be one of the people convicted at Nuremberg" -- and then suddenly he was being hauled away by helmeted police, TV lights bleaching his features, friends shrieking hysterically, a supportive crowd chanting "Arrest George Bush! Arrest George Bush!"
An undercover officer had seen someone passing out rocks at Lafayette Square, where protesters mobilized in force within minutes after the news of the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf. Park police first grabbed and frisked Paul Ciccone, a 29-year-old carpenter from Baltimore, then an officer shouted, "No, no, not him, the one with the beard," and Bushman, a George Washington University sophomore, suddenly found himself surrounded by men in uniforms. They checked his pockets and found cigarettes. They took him away anyway. He was so bewildered he couldn't talk at first but finally mustered, "George Bush is a murderer!" Ten minutes later the police released him and he was back in the crowd.
It was a night of gloom, outrage, but most of all a pervasive depression. Some people could barely speak. Many huddled around Chris Johnson, a musician who had brought a portable radio. There was an awful moment when a reporter in Saudi Arabia broadcast a strange message that "there's activity here in the hotel" and suddenly went off the air, a transition so abrupt that the crowd literally recoiled, aghast.
Shaye Diveley, 19, a GWU student, arrived at the park weeping. "I just found out," she told a fellow student, Dennis Coyne. He tried to put his own feelings into words: "It goes right through you. It's like" -- he made a gesture of something sinking in his stomach -- "like being on a roller coaster."
Diveley hugged him and said, "I didn't think it could happen at all. I couldn't believe it when they told me. I thought it was a joke. It's not fair. I'm going to stay here all night. I have to call people! I have to call my mom."
Until last night, the war had been almost an abstraction in the anti-war movement. Death itself -- the carnage, the immediate effect of bombs raining from the sky -- had not actually been the major issue. Activists in general and students in particular have focused on economic issues for so long -- cuts in social programs, cuts in student loans, increases in tuition, investments in South Africa, military expenditures and so on -- that they seemed to see the Persian Gulf crisis as yet another budgetary question, a misappropriation of resources.
Protesters have tended to focus on the statistical inequalities in the armed forces, the disproportionate number of African Americans and poor people. Thus the evil of war becomes not the killing itself but the inequality of the slaughter.
In recent days, before war became a reality, there was an almost festive atmosphere in Peace Park, the name activists have given to Lafayette Square. There were so many signs and symbols you'd have needed to be a semiotician to totally understand the picture: a man holding a banner that read "Hemp 4 Fuel," accompanied by a drawing of a marijuana leaf ... a barefoot woman with tie-dyed pants, dreadlocked hair and Valley Girl diction, floating through the crowd, swaying to and fro, imploring everyone to join hands and encircle the White House ... a group of students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts singing "We Are the World" ... another cluster of high school students sitting on blankets, one of them strumming an acoustic guitar, the music selection favoring Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead -- though many protesters prefer the more current sounds of Public Enemy and Jane's Addiction ... away from the main body, about two dozen black militants, all wearing black berets, forming a circular knot with men on the outside and women on the inside, none of them speaking a word ... an enigma, to say the least.
What has been most distinctive has been the presence of so many people lacking any distinction at all, what you might perilously call regular folks. Men in suits and ties have chanted "No blood for oil" in unison with angry members of the America-is-always-wrong brigade.
Then there are the students, who tend to be rather clean-cut even if they would cringe at such a description. They are in the process of inventing the image of student anti-war protesters all over again. Forget the '60s. Woodstock was the Stone Age. This anti-war movement is all business, armed to the teeth with technology. The fax machine is the day-glo VW bus of the '90s. When President Bush sent a flag-waving letter to 500 student newspapers last week, students at the University of Chicago fashioned an instant reply, and before the night was out they had faxed an anti-war response to other students around the country.
"That's why the student movement of the 1990s will have so much respect, because we're not hippies," Carl LeVan, a GWU junior, said recently.
"But there's nothing wrong with hippies," hastily added Dwayne Voegeli, a GWU senior.
It is important, after all, to be inclusive in one's thinking. No nastiness allowed. But at the same time, these students don't pretend to be part of -- what was the term? -- the counterculture. Perhaps it is merely too soon for the general opposition to the war to mutate into other forms of rejectionism. No one knows what the repercussions will be of actual combat. LeVan made a prediction last night when he arrived at Peace Park: Bush, he said, is "trying to unleash a storm on the desert but instead he's going to have a hurricane at home. ... There's a line from a terrible movie: The '90s are going to make the '60s look like the '50s."
So far, students in general have been undistracted by personal psychological journeys or social experimentation; they are focused, serious to the point of being grave. No one sits naked in the trees across from the White House. There isn't so much as a whiff of reefer. There will be no ODs in this crowd, no acid casualties.
At the moment, this anti-war movement is all over the demographic map. "Youth" is no longer an important, urgent concept in America. Still, the largest faction of the movement is made up of students, partly because -- for logistical reasons -- campuses are the perfect incubators of protest. Students also have the most at stake: They might get drafted. They have friends who may die.
Students also have advantages that older protesters lack: A raw cellular vitality, that physical resilience that allows them to stand in a cold rain and keep a protest going when others might seek shelter. They possess a purity of belief; the nicks and scrapes of adult existence have not dulled the edge of their ideology.
The great ambition of students today is to be truly ethical. They are politically correct ("PC") in their thinking and speech. They patiently say "people of color." At meetings, they try to make sure everyone has input. Politeness is an assumed virtue. This is not an irreverent bunch. Abbie Hoffman would have been bored silly.
Robin Templeton, a student organizer in Washington who is taking a year off from Oberlin, runs many of the anti-war meetings but prefers to call herself a "facilitator" rather than a leader. Templeton lives in a row house with two other whites, two blacks and two Salvadorans. Despite the ethnic mix, she notes the gender flaw: Five men, only two women. "Which is kind of bad," she says. "It's just better to have a good gender balance. Men in the movement need to be confronted with their own sexism."
Predictably, there has been political in-fighting behind the scenes between radicals and the more mainstream activists. The biggest dispute was over the date of a major Washington mobilization and march. The failure to agree has resulted in two separate protests, a week apart. The first is this Saturday, the 19th, sponsored by the National Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, which is opposed not only to the attack on Iraq but also sanctions. The second mobilization will be on the 26th, sponsored by the more mainstream National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, which believes sanctions are -- well, should have been -- enough.
Students also favored the 26th because schools will have resumed classes by then, making organizing easier; the single greatest logistical problem with the student anti-war movement is that the schedule for war hasn't jibed with the campus calendar.
The two sides tend to refer to each other in shorthand by the dates of their marches -- "the people of the 19th," for example. There are so many coalitions and campaigns that it can get confusing. At a recent organizational meeting a woman introduced herself: "I'm with the coalition" -- meaning the D.C. coalition against the war -- "and also the larger coalition" -- meaning the national campaign that's organizing the Jan. 26 protest -- "and the coalition that's doing the action on the 19th."
One problem with writing about the anti-war movement is that it includes so broad a range of ideologies, and it is easy to focus too much on one aspect, one issue, one faction. Much of the printed literature comes off as more radical and dogmatic than the students sound in person. Partly this is the transformation that comes over anyone when they get their hands on a keyboard. The sweetest lamb becomes a grizzly. Partly this is the dynamic of any activist group: Fanatics work harder and talk louder; the center always caves first in a coalition.
A leaflet by the Student Call Against the War, a nationwide coalition of student groups, promoted Tuesday's rally at the African Methodist Episcopal church in downtown Washington by saying, among other things, "The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is being used as an excuse for a permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East to protect oil interests." The leaflet defended Iraq's right to rule Kuwait and favorably mentioned Saddam Hussein. The rally itself was strongly anti-American and anti-Israeli. One Howard University student organizer, Nicole Pearson, said that although the rally was a great success in terms of turnout, "it should have been more inclusive. We have one goal, we want to stop this war. In terms of that, I think they were a little too exclusive of other groups. It was too entirely focused on African Americans."
Talib Karim, a senior at Howard and a leader of the Student Call Against the War, says, "There's some attempt at building coalitions, and we support those attempts, but if there was any time for us to be segregated in our approach, now is the time, because we have a more specific focus, a more specific problem ... We have a problem with the larger number of African American people being killed... . A lot of our people view it as mass extinction of our race."
Asked about whether views are diverse within the black community, he said, "People are opposed to the war, whether they are pacifist, whether they are anti-American, whether they are anti-Zionist, whether they are anti-imperialist... . Everyone's on the same wavelength."
At their worst, students have a few standard bad habits, number one of which is overstatement. "We will not be fooled by your attempt to create the fiction of popular support for this impending genocide," reads the letter from the students to George Bush. "You are morally bankrupt and expect us to pay your debt -- with our lives." Students in particular tend to write their statements in a great booming know-it-all voice, as though they are engaging in a kind of role reversal with the man they are trying to talk sense to.
They also are deft with analogies. Nothing the United States can do makes any sense at all since it contradicts or is inconsistent with some other previous action. Says one George Washington University sophomore, "We won't condemn Israel for bombing Lebanon, we didn't intervene in Ethiopia and Somalia."
There are occasional traces of paranoia. Activists worry about bugging and infiltration by the FBI. Of course, paranoia is sometimes called for -- bugging and surveillance has occurred in the past. The other day at the Peace Center, a Quaker meeting house near Dupont Circle, an activist suddenly became hesitant when discussing an upcoming demonstration. "I feel uncomfortable saying that at the Peace Center... . It's an obvious target for monitoring."
Until yesterday, the anti-war movement had been protesting a war that did not yet exist. The kind of abstract socioeconomic argumentation that has marked the cause, the highbrow analysis and ideological specificity, may be finally put aside for a more direct and simple message.
"How dare they? How dare they?" was all Dwayne Voegeli could say last night, standing in that rain in Peace Park, where much of the green grass is now worn away, leaving only mud.