It's the peacemakers -- right? -- who are blessed.
This includes the 8- and 11-year-olds hanging out of the tree while one of their Bethesbian mothers hands them the family camera, imploring them to get a good shot of the crowd, which includes (which will always include) the kooky, ratty-looking Uncle Sam on stilts, and the patchouli girls fleetly flying around (patchouli girls now span, what, three generations?), and the drum circles, and the dudes carrying a poster that proclaims them as "Mainstream White Guys for Peace."
Blessed are the people who make great signs: "The Asses of Evil" reads one, with pictures of the president, vice president and secretary of defense; "Real Men Wage Peace"; "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer, Ein News Channel -- Fox News"; "FREEZING out here for PEACE!" Or consider the absurdity of "Drop Panties, Not Bombs," a giant banner covered with women's underpants.
Also out there somewhere are the three nuns who, earlier, in the backseat of the car, were praying to Our Lady of Guadalupe for a parking space nearer to Saturday's antiwar demonstration, which was the biggest peace march, by one guesstimate, since . . . well . . . okay, anyway, it was big.
Blessed too, one supposes, would be the phalanx of speakers whose voices echo out over the crowd and bounce against all that frozen, establishmentarian concrete and granite along the Mall -- the indignant growl of Al Sharpton, or the scratchy birdy tweet of Jessica Lange, a celebrity who is tired of being "demonized, reviled, made to look foolish" for her opposition to war. "We cannot be silenced," she vows, but only half the crowd ever listens at these things.
Blessed are all the fun-loving lefties in their plastic Dubya masks dancing around to other noise. Nothing restores one's faith in the counterculture more than the happy presence of exaggerated Halloween masks of the current leader of the free world, conscripted into the melodrama of public dissent and made into the bad guy. (This is, after all, the president's job.)
Bless 'em, because they usually get such perfunctory, objectively dismissive press.
What is a peace march now but a shrill, regimented bore to the rest of the nation? All the ambivalence from network news, the yawning disparagement from syndicated columnists of the "irrelevant left," not to mention the sneerings of hawkish neo-cons who would blog it all away into permanent, patriotic silence. It looks so futile on television, or on the page -- another predictable part of a long, obligatory prologue to war: the Big Protest. For all the energy present Saturday, a march on Washington always seems to feel like a rerun.
Someone is always protesting something and it's easy to feel inured. In a parallel universe, but also in downtown Washington on the same frigid weekend, there's an annual gathering of gay leather fetishists. Outside the Washington Plaza Hotel, three animal rights activists -- one in a cow costume, one dressed as a cowboy in faux leather and one simply a transgendered busybody -- are imploring the leather daddies to become pleather daddies, which is to miss the point of a leather fetish altogether. In this way Washington is like a constant surfing of public-access cable shows.
Leather, war, Rumsfeld, weapons of mass destruction, Give Peace a Chance, civil disobedience: a steady drumbeat, an ever-changing ensemble leaving one side of the stage while another enters.
But to stand in the middle of it . . .
Something else happens. Something affirming, hopeful, entertaining. The message can be scrambled and jammed by multiple passions (environment, racism, big oil, Iraqi orphans, Sept. 11, conspiracies, Daddy's war, imperialism, the dreaded globalism, the nefarious sport-utility vehicle) and yet it's nice to know someone still gives a fig about anything anymore. It's a good world where college students still get on buses because they believe, and because they're mad. How tragic to skip the bus to Washington -- right or wrong, for or against -- when you're young.
But what about all you non-22-year-olds? Wouldn't you rather sneak off for some coffee and let the kids stay out here and yell at The Man? (Who, by the by, is never listening.)
Don't you ever get tired of trying to change the world?
The question offends one of them in about a thousand ways you'd never think of, but she stops to consider an answer anyhow, tugging at the woolen strings of the knit cap she's wearing, and letting her friends walk ahead.
It's eight degrees below freezing on Saturday afternoon, and even the sky is a redundant Washington cliche, in the way it has chosen to dress itself in that gorgeous federal blue, a bourgeois ball-gown shade of blue, the same blue in all those photographs from all those peace marches that came before and also didn't achieve world peace, justice, equal rights or decent funding for schools. Helicopters rattle overhead. The cops look like people earning the dullest kind of overtime pay.
"Why would I get tired of trying to change the world? Anyway, we have changed the world," says our willing subject, who calls herself Neesa and forgoes sharing her last name. She is 38 and drove here from Boston to protest the looming attack on Iraq (and so much else, for what are these things if not a cacophony of grievances upon grievances?). "People are waking up everyday to what's going on. I never feel like I'm wasting my time." She doesn't know on how many occasions she's marched, rallied, held vigil candles, danced, sang, screamed. "As many as it's going to take."
"Scenario" is a key word. The organizers of Saturday's march, International ANSWER (the whole mouthful: Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), as well as the participants, speak often of the "scenarios" in which they will get their point across.
Media are both reviled and crucial to a successful scenario. Disgruntled by past coverage and hep to the 21st-century notion that life is merely your own simulcast reality show, the peace movement is almost always -- perhaps narcissistically -- photographing, camcording, interviewing and documenting itself.
At least a hundred cameras are pointed on everything. Instant pictures and words and sound bites flow in every direction. The mainstream media are blundering bystanders here.
The movement -- or really, movements, given the many agendas and affinity groups -- decides it's time to actually move, setting off around 1:30 for the Navy Yard scenario a mile away, where "inspectors" will seek to enter the military compound to search for weapons of mass destruction. (You have to love the movement's sometimes clunky sense of irony.)
It comes over the hill, down M Street SE toward the Navy Yard, a chanting throng, looking cheerfully fed up. Some stopped to get in long lines at Starbucks and McDonald's (there goes that message), but most stuck with the scenario.
The rest of the nation stuck with its own aphasiac scenario, unsure about war, but unhip as ever to the power of the people. The movement, preaching to itself, lacked the diversity it yearns for; it also lacks the fashionable cachet of all its yesterdays. More than anything, this peace march needed more Rockville and less rock. It needed more newcomers. It needed more church congregations. It needed more Disney Worlders. To the rest of everybody, the peace movement seems naive and cluttered, earnestly opposed to the possibility of war, protesting something that has not technically happened yet.
It gets to the Navy Yard and then has nowhere, really, to go. The scenario wafts away.
Sunday morning, a different but similar afterthought, an epilogue, a new scenario: The youth and student arm of International ANSWER has convened on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, about 1,000 strong, in front of what it lovingly refers to as the "Dept. of In-Justice." Marching west, toward the "Presidential Palace," they begin chanting "Hey, Bush, kiss my ass / We won't fight for the price of gas," and so on, led by a Howard University student, Peta Lindsey, who is standing in the bed of a Dodge Ram pickup, screaming into a microphone. (Not for nothin', Dodge Rams get about 14 miles per gallon.)
Around the corner they come, ready to spread out into Lafayette Square and toward the White House, were it not for police officers on horseback and on bicycles, and another squad wearing riot gear.
Then another problem presents itself when the students run aground with the grown-up protesters who are already here: It's the less colorful, more serious-minded Iraqi Pledge of Resistance/United for Peace and Justice, a group with a different scenario in store, involving the more restrained, Berrigan-brothers-style show of protest, including the movement's highest honor, the peaceful arrest.
But the students -- "the kiddie pool," one observer from the older peace crowd mutters -- leap over the metal barricades and begin getting arrested in quick fashion. Some other flower children sit down on H Street and begin singing, while surrounding themselves in colored yarn, making a human dreamcatcher shape.
Scenarios begin to fall apart. The students want in on the Pledge scenario, which in turn calls a meeting of its various "affinity groups" to decide what to do next. Meanwhile, most of the students march away. The Pledge leaders also attempt to negotiate a new scenario with the police, in which they can be arrested one by one, in an orderly fashion, for a more meaningful show.
It's depressing to watch people get arrested this way. The cops get out those awful plastic handcuff strips. Some people wait another hour or so to see if they can still get arrested. Others wander off, unhappy that the scenario has again petered out.
"We can always get arrested later," one of the protesters said. "I have this feeling we'll be back." It's a messy, unsure, thoroughly American guarantee.