One after another their trails led them here -- from California, New York, Baltimore -- disparate members of the same movement, drawn by some strong instinct that told them: Now is the time. This is the place.
Folded into a couch at one end of the restaurant is Tom Hayden, silver-goateed eminence of antiwars past, while huddled with colleagues at a long table is Leslie Cagan, doyenne of the peace movement's present. Looking wan and wrung out in yet another corner stands Tia Steele, whose stepson was shot in the throat and killed in Fallujah.
It's not just the usual peacenik suspects. Washington Wizard Etan Thomas bounds up on the restaurant's stage to perform his updated Gil Scott-Heron-style poetry -- They knock down doors to start wars / With hands stained by the blood of foreign sands -- for a packed house that includes David Meggyesy, the former Cardinal who quit the National Football League in protest of the Vietnam War.
Vietnam? The unquiet ghost, the untamed analogy, is loose in the air. There's that old nervy feeling that Something Is Happening. Here. Now. But you could be mistaken.
Every movement needs a crossroads, a watering hole, an asylum. Busboys and Poets -- part restaurant, bookstore, theater -- opened a couple weeks ago, at 14th and V streets NW, just in time for the peace movement's headiest days in forever.
Plump couches, radical books, free WiFi, $5 microbrews, killer sound system, a menu that runs from catfish and collard greens to peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches: a cool, comfortable, slightly bourgy haven for a hot, bothered, slightly bourgy peace movement.
Critics cannot easily dismiss this incarnation of antiwar enthusiasm as a fringe passion of anarchists, communists and freaks (though an author still tried to make that case last month at a Heritage Foundation forum). Recent polls say a majority of Americans -- as many as 59 percent -- think the war in Iraq is a "mistake" and the troops should be brought home. (Brought home when? That's another question.)
The news is almost too much to handle. Demonstrators walk around saying, We are the majority, trying it on like unfamiliar clothes.
It has been half a lifetime since the peaceniks felt so . . . mainstream. The last time a majority became disenchanted with a conflict as shots were still being fired -- including the Gulf War, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan -- was August 1968, when Gallup first detected that most Americans considered the Vietnam War a "mistake."
Cindy Sheehan, the movement's own Mother Courage, commands the kind of obsessive cable coverage usually lavished on titillating crimes. Her caravan from Crawford, Tex., rolled into Washington yesterday and 17 television cameras documented her first step onto the soil of the nation's capital in her quest to ask President Bush in person: "What is the 'noble cause' for which you sent our country to war?"
Seeking to capitalize on the momentum, Cagan's United for Peace and Justice and the ANSWER Coalition have organized a rally and encirclement of the White House on Saturday morning that they hope will draw 100,000. That will be followed by Operation Ceasefire, an 11-hour concert featuring Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Thievery Corporation and the Coup. United for Peace and Justice is planning more antiwar activities for Sunday and Monday. The overall message: Bring the troops home now.
Until then, it has been long days of testifying on the Hill, haranguing in Lafayette Square, fundraising, phone-banking, pounding out e-mails at 2:37 a.m. -- Re: FW: FW: FLYERING!
Then nights at Busboys and Poets, where members of the new not-so-silent majority are ushered to the restaurant's theater for "Fear Up," a play about the new American style of interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, or a screening of "Operation: Dreamland," a grunt's-eye documentary about the occupation of Fallujah.
"I think the depression and malaise that followed not being able to stop the war and not being able to do anything after the election has shifted," Steele says, "and people who felt deflated and defeated are now coming together in recognition that we can do something and we are doing something."
"I've opened many restaurants," says Andy Shallal, an Iraqi American who owns Busboys and Poets. "This is the most bull's-eye I've ever shot. This one people came in and got it right away. I think it's about timing."
The Roots of Protest
They converge, then disperse to "organize."
Whether Something really is Happening is difficult to measure. The polls offer clues, but also caveats.
Americans were much quicker to decide that Iraq was a mistake than Vietnam, says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. It took three years in the case of Vietnam, just 15 months for Iraq.
However, Newport says, the peace movement's claims to rising momentum are more tenuous. Since a majority first called Iraq a mistake more than a year ago, the number has fluctuated rather than increased steadily. Polls in the last week have suggested an uptick.
Hurricane Katrina and now Rita may be sucking publicity from peace. On the other hand, the movement has struck a chord with some people by using Katrina to further question Bush's competence and priorities.
If this weekend's demonstrations do draw 100,000, they will rival a prewar peace march in Washington that police suggested involved more than 100,000 and was considered the largest antiwar rally since Vietnam. Organizers claimed 500,000 attended that march.
So if you want to learn about the movement, you need to track the characters back up the solitary trails of tears that brought them here. The journeys involve the main questions facing the peace movement:
If the troops come home now, won't there be even more chaos and deaths of innocents in Iraq?
How can you support the troops and not the war?
If we don't fight the Enemy in Iraq, will we someday fight him here?
Isn't it a good thing that Saddam Hussein is toppled and facing trial?
If we "cut and run" and do not "stay the course," will the fallen have died in vain?
Empty Boots on the Ground
On a recent Saturday, Tia Steele is contemplating a field of black boots in Baltimore. The pairs are arranged in neat ranks like a negative image of the white crosses in Arlington Cemetery. One pair for each of 1,895 dead soldiers and Marines by this point in the war.
It's the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit arranged by the American Friends Service Committee at Johns Hopkins University. The exhibit has toured 65 cities since January 2004, when there were only 504 pairs of boots, and has been seen by more than 500,000 people, organizers say. About 6,000 people attended in Baltimore.
The boots are symbolic, purchased from surplus, not worn by the honored dead, but on a table is a special display of boots donated by families.
Next to a pair worn by Pvt. Robert Frantz are two photographs. One shows him and his smiling recruiter, the other shows his tombstone.
Thick-soled and toe-scuffed are the boots of Spec. Casey Sheehan, posthumously famous son of Mother Cindy. The leather is stamped "Made in the U.S.A."
And there are the boots of Lance Cpl. David Branning, Tia Steele's stepson.
A woman approaches shyly. In her hand is an official paper: "Report of Casualty." It's what Yvonne Green has now instead of her daughter. It says Spec. Toccara Green, 23, of Rosedale, Md., was killed in action in the "War on Terrorism/Operation Iraqi Freedom." The death is so recent that boots for her are being added only today.
Steele embraces Green. Two mothers with wet eyes.
This is the feeling side of the peace movement. Steele, 56, a Baltimore research psychologist, believes minds are changed not by information as much as by experience. It's what happened to her.
She was stunned when David signed up for the Marines, but she didn't try to talk him out of it. He was a thoughtful young man, figuring out his own path. He took "War and Peace" to the battlefield.
He was killed kicking down a door in Fallujah. He was 21.
To her, none of the administration's evolving justifications for the war withstood scrutiny -- 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, global war on terrorism, building democracy. But she did not openly dissent until she got her own Report of Casualty. She quit her job to coordinate "Eyes Wide Open" and now hopes to find work in the movement.
"David can't have died in vain," she says. "I have an obligation to his honor and to the David that I loved to do something about this craziness. . . . This war is a lie. To keep perpetuating it is to cause more damage."
The View From Here
A huge collage covers one wall of Busboys and Poets, a scrapbook of a century's worth of struggle for peace and justice. Portraits of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Joseph McCarthy. Demonstrators being beaten. The naked napalmed Vietnamese girl running down the road.
Painted across the top are the simple words of Langston Hughes:
Let America be America again
Let it be the dream it used to be
This is the fundamental yearning of protesters who consider themselves patriots.
Shallal, 50, painted the mural himself. His family came to Washington in the mid-1960s, when his father was ambassador of the Arab League. After Saddam Hussein seized power, they could not return.
Shallal became a researcher in medical immunology at the National Institutes of Health, then switched to the restaurant business -- he also owns Mimi's American Bistro and the Luna Grill near Dupont Circle -- and became active in peace issues. He camped in Crawford, Tex., with Cindy Sheehan.
He expects a lot of the land where now he is a citizen.
"I don't want it to be another country with better plumbing," he says.
Before the invasion, members of his family, some of whom still live in Iraq, were divided on the prospect of war. Some thought removal of Hussein was worth the price of invasion. Others questioned the legitimacy.
Shallal thinks toppling the dictator could have been achieved peacefully with more time. The violence, he says, undermines U.S. claims to be doing anything good for Iraq. Life in Baghdad for his cousins is more primitive and dangerous than under Hussein, he says.
The presence of American troops is breeding more terrorists, making America less safe, he says, so bring the troops home now.
"The U.S. is only creating more conditions for civil war," he says. "The Iraqis need to figure this out for themselves."
From War to Peace
Tia Steele's path leads to Charlie Anderson, who came home in one piece, physically. He has donated his own boots to the exhibit.
"These boots were worn during the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Crawford, Texas," he says.
Navy Petty Officer Anderson, 28, was a hospital corpsman assigned to a Marine tank battalion. He says five men he felt close to were killed. He stands in the field of boots with his head bowed and wipes his eyes. He flinches at the bang of nearby construction equipment.
He had a job stocking shelves in Ohio when he enlisted a decade ago hoping for a better future. He kept reenlisting: He felt he didn't have a choice with a wife and daughter and no immediate prospects outside the service.
When the war came, he supported it without much thought. He couldn't believe his country would launch it without good reason and hard evidence. Turning against the war was a slow process.
"To admit that everything we gave up in order to do this was for nothing, that's a hard sell," he says.
Seeing the country for himself, he became dubious of the supposed terror threat to the U.S. homeland, "as if Hassan with a bookstore on Haifa Street is going to wreak havoc on Sylvania, Ohio." The alternative justification of planting democracy seemed futile to him. "Then I was pinned down to weapons of mass destruction," he says.
He joined Iraq Veterans Against the War before his discharge in March. The group claims about 300 members and is growing quickly after public exposure this summer alongside Cindy Sheehan. In comparison, Vietnam Veterans Against the War took about two years to form and another couple years to gain traction, Anderson says.
Anderson has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he is a student in Virginia Beach and an activist.
He sees yellow ribbon magnets on cars, he hears talk about how you have to "support the troops." He wants to ask the ribbon people if they ever wrote a soldier to tell him? He wants to ask, How much support was there to send the troops with proper armor? As some come home battered, how much support is there for the budget of the Veterans Administration?
Anderson says American troops are "phenomenal people who are willing to sacrifice everything" to complete a mission, but in Iraq "the mission keeps morphing."
"What is the mission? Tell me what the mission is."
A Distant Echo
A bare stage with nine actors. The theater is the room with the mural and the hovering prayer to let America be America. An audience of about 70 fills nearly every seat.
An actor playing a troubled FBI interrogator says:
"Some of these techniques, I don't want to see, or be a part of. I took an oath to the Constitution to uphold the laws against enemies both inside the U.S. and out. . . . The [Pentagon] guy got really upset. He said he took the oath, too. I told him that we must have different interpretations, then."
"Fear Up" is set in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay. It's nonfiction, drawn from testimony, memoirs and journalistic sources, like that quote from a recent New Yorker article.
A few days before opening night, the two assemblers -- not playwrights, exactly -- meet in a Capitol Hill coffee shop over a laptop and do final tinkering. One -- Karen Bradley, 54, director of graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland -- had demonstrated against the Vietnam War as a college student, and she recalls the possibility and power in the movement then. She detects something similar in the air now.
"People are angry, but they're focused," she says. "It's not blind rage. People are sober, and very determined."
Part of Bradley's evidence that Something Is Happening is that she knows so many people who have never demonstrated before who are on their way to Washington for this weekend. People like Michael Kahn, 46, an oncologist from outside Chicago. ("This is a critical point for our country," he says.) And Susan Krueger, 44, a mother who home-schooled her children in small-town Michigan. ("We have to make a big noise and a continuous noise," Krueger says.)
The other creator of "Fear Up" -- Marietta Hedges, 44, assistant professor of acting at Catholic University -- reaches back to the same point of reference.
"The September 24 demonstrations could be a pivotal turning point like you remember from the Vietnam War," she says.
But knowing when Something Is Really Happening has always been tricky. Hedges was in London when hundreds of thousands marched for peace shortly before the invasion, in an effort to forestall war. It was a stirring experience. Hedges remembers what a woman marching beside her said: "I think we're going to stop this war. I think we're going to prevent it from happening."
Tia Steele, whose stepson was killed in Iraq, at the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit in Baltimore. "We can do something and we are doing something," she says.
At Baltimore's "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit, Loyola student Tori Rose, above, reads messages attached to boots; top left, Tia Steele, left, who lost her stepson in Iraq, hugs Yvonne Green, who lost her daughter; and Frank Corcoran, Charlie Anderson and Patrick Resta, of Veterans Against the War, take in the scene.
At Busboys and Poets, owner Andy Shallal reads a part from "Fear Up."