Out there, in front of the Washington Monument, it was eerily reminiscent of another place and time, a time when the Old Guard was young and the Young Guard didn't yet exist, and people made a point of not putting their trust in anyone over a certain age. A whiff of weed wafted on the air. Couples made out in the grass, oblivious to anyone but each other. Onstage, Joan Baez stood solo, guitar strapped like a weapon against her chest, crooning "Where have all the flowers gone?" while people stood swaying, some crying, fingers forming peace signs or holding up posters of Che.
The beat kicked up, pounding and grinding as a hard-rocking woman, Lisa Kekaula of the Bellrays, righteous Afro picked out to there, pranced the stage, exhorting, "You can't be afraid to speak! We need more fearlessness!" Speaker after speaker stood onstage and roared that it was time, way past time, to bring the boys and girls back.
But out in the crowd of Operation Ceasefire, the free antiwar concert and rally yesterday on the Mall, instead of wearing T-shirts that read "Make Love, Not War," some sported tees that pronounced "Make Levees, Not War," and white kids sported buttons that read "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," a reference to rapper Kanye West's remark about the White House response to Hurricane Katrina. America's involvement in Iraq was the reason for the rally, but Katrina played front and center, too.
Boots Riley of the Bay Area socialist rap group the Coup wandered backstage, sporting an Afro and military-style jacket with "Revolution Rock" emblazoned across the back.
"I always heard about the '60s, the feeling of change in the air," he said, looking around at the crowd, looking pleased. "And that definitely exists right now. "
"The spirit is very resolute," said Eric Hilton of the Thievery Corporation, who organized the event with his partner, Rob Garza. "I feel like I'm amongst tens of thousands of people that have the pilot light on. And that's always a very nice feeling."
It was all about preaching to the choir, with the choir being a multiracial, multigenerational contingent in favor of getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. There were gray-haired matrons sitting in lawn chairs, heads bobbing serenely to the beat as they knitted. Punk kids with fanned-out Mohawks smoking cigarettes and crowing about the size of the march, rumored to be more than 300,000. There were Rastas and fashionistas alike, women carrying newborns in Snuglis across their chests and grizzled couples holding up each other as they made their way through the crowd.
Backstage, and onstage, it was a reunion for aging activists. There was Jesse Jackson, threading a mike up through his leisure suit and talking about how Cindy Sheehan, the mother who lost a son to Iraq, was the Rosa Parks of this generation. Al Sharpton roaring his rage into the mike. There was politico Julian Bond and comic rebel Dick Gregory. Country crooner Steve Earle strumming his guitar and singing about the CIA and "living in the [expletive expletive] U.S.A."
Rep. Maxine Waters kicked things off with some fighting words:
"I am a member of Congress. And I. Am. Sick. And. Tired. Of. George. W. Bush."
The crowd let it be known -- loudly -- that it, too, was sick and tired.
"This gives me flash-forwards," not flashbacks, Baez said, looking lean and sinewy in a tank top and jeans, her cropped hair streaked with silver.
Back in the day, the 64-year-old singer said, she provided a spark for those who wanted to end the war in Vietnam. It wasn't her place to provide that spark now, she said, someone else had to do it. Michael Moore started it with "Fahrenheit 9/11," and Sheehan fanned the flames. Now, she said, people were rallying.
The concert was a place to start, she said, but not a place to end.
"Music is wonderful, but you've got to involve risk." Artists have to be willing to put themselves on the line.
"With Live 8," she said, "the only risk was not being invited. This involves risk."
Indeed, unlike Live 8, this wasn't a concert for those with mainstream tastes. The lineup was more granola than glitzy: The Evens (featuring Ian MacKaye of D.C. punkers Fugazi, and Amy Farina), the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, electronica duo Thievery Corporation, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Head-Roc, Pure Belly Dance, Bouncing Souls, Living Things and host Jello Biafra.
Early on, the vibe was more protest than party, with people swaying rather than dancing to the music and with speakers filling in the dead space between acts, taking on a cornucopia of topics from global warming to Israel to discrimination against Arab Americans to Iraq vets speaking out against the war to the victims of Katrina speaking for racial and economic justice.
As night edged out the day, the crowd grew younger, covering the Mall, picnic blankets spread out on the grass, tea candles and cell phones illuminating the dusk. Round about twilight, the Washington Monument started to take on a ghostly glow against the midnight blue sky. Temperatures dipped and couples snuggled together for warmth as investigative journalist Greg Palast dashed out onstage, whipping the crowd into a group chant:
"Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today? Hey Hey . . . "
"Wrong war. We've got to stop meeting like this."
Politics informed everything, with all the musical acts staying on point: Stand up. Say No. The Evens' MacKaye, a Washington native, spoke of the cyclical nature of life in the capital, with administrations moving in and out like the tide.
"As discouraging as it is that this administration got in not once, but twice, they're gonna leave," he said. "Get strong and get ready to go to work!"
"Build the liberal levee!" someone shouted from the front row as MacKaye kicked into gear, grinding on guitar, with partner Farina evoking images of punk mixed with the garage grit of the White Stripes.
Washington is our city . . .
You and yours
And all your wars
Have run your last campaign
Sweet Honey in the Rock took it to church, singing their classic "We Who Believe in Freedom," a cappella voices overlapping, sopranos, altos, bass, weaving in and out to goose bump-inducing effect.
Backstage, Jackson spoke of another time, scrolling back a few decades to the March on Washington, when celebrities and activists joined together.
"This is one of the biggest," he said. "I've not seen this many in a demonstration in at least 10 years. . . . All this makes for a culture of changes. Speeches, music, heroes, sheroes. It's not just an event."
When the concert began early in the afternoon, there wasn't much of an event to speak of; people were still at the march, which was by then looping around the White House. Men spread out in the grass, clutching antiwar placards to their chests, dozing as Machetres, a Mount Pleasant-based punk band, worked up a frenzy of fury onstage, flipping their hair and flipping the finger.
Bit by bit the crowd built up, eventually covering the Mall. Anna Soevik of Bethesda, 40, an early arrival, had biked down from Bethesda with her husband, Thor, 45, and their two tow-headed boys Odin and Njord, ages 9 and 11.
"It's very important to be here," she said in a soft British accent, "to show numbers, to show support for people" who speak out against the war.
She looked at her boys, standing by her side, decked out in their biking gear.
"And it's important for them to hear that there are other people besides their parents that feel this way."
But not everyone was in a partying mood. Corella Southerland, 69, who'd made the trek from Gary, Ind., via tour bus with members of her union local, packed up her lawn chair, heading back for her hotel early in the afternoon.
"We're kind of tuckered out," Southerland said, glasses making a steady descent down her nose.
Never mind the music.
She came out here for one reason: "To end the war."
"As a grandma," she said, all the soldiers "are mine. "When I see those pictures of them in body bags . . . it doesn't matter what color they are. My heart just bleeds."
By 10 p.m., partying took over politics as Thievery Corporation took to the stage. Picnics were packed up as the Mall filled in, with bodies crushed one against the other, arms flailing, turning the Mall into a giant but exceedingly well-behaved mosh pit. (Organizers estimated attendance at this point between 15,000 and 20,000.)
Onstage, Garza and Hilton stood on a riser, headphones wrapped around their necks, fiddling with controls and noodling on keyboards while their musicians ground out the groove.
"Liberation Funk! Liberation Funk!"
Lights flashed, giving the stage a nightclub ambiance as an ever-changing collective of Rasta toastmasters, rappers and singers bounced on and off the stage, rapping and singing in English, Spanish and Portuguese, taking the audience on a musical tour that included the Middle East, Jamaica, Brazil and Colombia and the hardcore rhythms of the Bronx, where rap was born.
Verny Varela, a singer from Cali, a long reed of a man with shoulder-length curls and glasses, grabbed the mike, shouting in Spanish.
"Aqui la unica raza que importa, es la raza humana."
Here, the only race that matters is the human race.
Things mellowed out a bit when Pure Belly Dance took to the stage, bearing lit candles and incense and shaking it up in a "public urban ritual." But the mellow spirit didn't last long as the Bouncing Souls took over, living up to their name with a blast of energy.
By midnight, the stage was stripped bare, save for a fan and a couple of guitars and DJ apparatus. Le Tigre -- riot grrrls Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Fateman and riot boy J.D. Samson -- bounded onstage, dressed in black and white with the words "STOP BUSH" marching like newsprint across their bodies, to groove-laden punk that took a page from the B-52's
"No more war" they chanted, again and again.
The crowd joined in, one big echo ricocheting through the night air.
"NO MORE WAR!"