Reflections on the September 24th Peace March in Washington


by Steve Cohn


Chanted to a Latin beat:


         "Tell us what De-mo-cra-cy looks like; (rest a beat);   

         This is what De-mo-cra-cy looks like; (rest a beat)

         Tell us what De-mo-cra-cy looks like (rest a beat);  

         This is what De-mo-cra-cy looks like…"


Chanted by 150,000 to 250,000 people marching in the streets of Washington in the biggest anti-war demonstration since the Iraq War began. 


         Last Friday (9/23/05) myself and four other Galesburg residents drove to Washington D.C. to take part in a march against the Iraq War.  The march was sponsored by a coalition of anti-war groups under the umbrella of the "United for Peace" organization and the "A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition."  This article recounts and reflects on our experience.  


         We left Galesburg around 3 PM and arrived in D.C. about 16 hours later.   We rested for a few hours and then took the subway to the assembly point for the march.  Crowds were converging on the mall area near the Washington Monument from all directions. 


         There was a sense of shared purpose and an immediate friendliness among people.  On the subway we happened to stand beside a father and his daughter.  They had driven to D.C. from Chicago, where she attended college.  She had a friend at Knox College.  A middle aged woman on the other side of us in the subway car lived in D.C.  She was participating in her first antiwar march.  She said she thought we needed to do something about Al Qaeda, but the war had nothing to do with that and was a terrible waste.  She thanked us for coming. 


         The crowds were very large.  The percentage of people that appeared 40-70 years old was much greater than my recollection of the demographics of peace marches during the Vietnam War.  The latter had been dominated by college aged protesters.  The profile of this march was more diverse. The spirit of the march seemed less "impulsive" and more measured than some earlier peace marches.  There was also a lot of energy and determination, and a sense of anger at and betrayal by the Bush Administration.


         The signs told much of the story.  "Make Loaves not War," Make Levees not War," "College not Combat," "War Leaves Every Child Behind."

The signs also captured the tremendous waste involved in this war: the loss and maiming of life (1,911 U.S. soldiers killed, 14,641 U.S. troops wounded; and perhaps 25x-50x higher Iraqi casualties), and the squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars.  The City Council in Chicago recently called for removing all U.S. troops from Iraq.  If enough cities send a similar message we might begin to achieve that goal.  We might have additional resources available for aiding towns like Galesburg and the victims of national disasters like the Gulf hurricanes.  


         The echoes of Vietnam were strong, with signs like:  "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam," and "Anything Look Familiar?" followed by columns noting similarities between Iraq and Vietnam. 


         There were quite a few signs expressing opposition to the war from military families.  Like Cindy Sheehan's protests, these were especially moving.  One man had a picture of his son in military uniform with the words "Proud of My Son" above his picture and "Ashamed of this War" below his picture.  Another poster had a young man's picture with the words, "My Hero, Send Him Home."  Other signs said:  "This Marine Family Does Not Support the Mission: Aggression," "Marine Mom Says Bring Them Home," "A Marine for Peace, They Lied."


         Many signs had strong personal criticism of Bush.  A large number indicted him for lying about the reasons we went to war.  Among the signs were: "Bush It," "Bush Lies, Who Dies?"  "The U.S. got Neo-Conned," "This War is an AmBush, "Visualize Compassionate Impeachment," and "It's all About  Oil."  There were Pinocchio Bush dolls with long noses and people with unflattering Halloween masks of Bush.  A few signs asked why Bush's daughters were not among the soldiers in Iraq.   The same question could be asked of most of the children of the political and economic leaders promoting this war.  Recent research has revealed a similar lack of military service on the part of the political supporters of the current war during the Vietnam era.  As one sign said, "At least Bush had an exit plan for Vietnam."


         The five of us from Galesburg marched near a group of 15-30 West Virginians who carried cloth or poster materials inscribed with the names of the U.S. troops who had died in Iraq.  We had to wait several hours before we started to march due to the large numbers of protesters.  The march began and ended at the same location.  We marched 35-75 abreast for about two and a half hours.  People at the front of the column had been marching for at least 2 hours by the time we began. We were sometimes able to see them ahead of us, marching in the opposite direction, when we came to cross streets.  There was at least an hour of people behind us when we finished.  The crowd was enormous.  The D.C. police chief estimated it at 150,000; the march organizers put the total at more than 300,000.  There is a history of over-estimation by protest organizers and under-estimation by the D.C. police.  It seems likely that the true number was in the neighborhood of 200,000-225,000, counting people who participated in at least in part of the protest over the 4-6 hour period. 


         It is expensive and time consuming to go to D.C.  With current gas prices and a reasonable calculation for wear and tear on vehicles, the 1700 mile round trip to D.C.,  for  Midwesterners like ourselves, costs at least $500 a vehicle or ~$100/person  (without including potential hotel and meal costs).  Special roundtrip bus tickets for this march cost at least as much.  For every person who was in D.C. there were many more who could not spend 30 hours driving in a single weekend or could not afford the financial cost of the journey.   Thus the size of the turnout suggests strong political sentiment.  Comparing the demonstration to earlier marches in Washington against this war and for other causes also implies strong sentiment. People need to know this.


         There were very few counter demonstrators, and it would appear that the media gave them disproportionate attention.  The Washington Post (the leading newspaper in D.C.) estimated that there were 200 counter demonstrators along the march route.  The ratio of protesters to demonstrators was therefore in the neighborhood of 750-1000 to one.  The Washington Post and the one TV report I saw after the march, however,  gave ~10%-15% of its coverage to the counter demonstrators' views and activities.   


         While the degree of overall attention given the protest in the Washington Post seemed reasonable, the apparent lack of media coverage in general was very troubling.  The New York Times' front page on Sunday, for example, had no reference to the protest in the edition we looked at near Columbus, Ohio.  Friends of ours reported a similar lack of coverage in some other print and broadcast media.  For the press and other media to downplay the largest demonstration against the Iraq war since it began is very troubling.  This is because in a country as large as ours it is impossible for the average citizen or political leader to know how the population as a whole feels about important political issues from direct experience.  We all have to rely on the images offered by the media.  For our democracy to work a lot of attention has to be paid to citizens' political activity. 


         It is ironic that if you review the world wide web for international media coverage of the march it appears that the foreign press may have given the protest more thoughtful coverage than our own media.  It is troubling that foreign observers may have had a better assessment of the war's nature and the war's merits than American citizens when we went to war.  It is even more surprising and dismaying that foreign citizens might have a better understanding of current American political sentiment than Americans relying on our own media.


         Where do we go from here?  I feel good about the march and the community of opposition it helped express and consolidate. But I think opponents of the war need to find new mechanisms to register our dissent.  I am not sure what these might be.  A general strike, say a day or half a day, when people don't go to work, or leave early from work, would register opinion.  Perhaps massive turnouts at the local offices of political leaders would get their attention, or a chain of joined hands stretching from Galesburg to Washington, passing a message from ear to ear (as in the game of telephone-but hopefully more clearly) that calls for an end to the war.


         One last comment.  Many people who are appalled by this war, who reject its moral legitimacy, who see it as strengthening rather than weakening Al Qaeda, who see it as encouraging states without nuclear weapons to pursue them, who see it as wasting enormous amounts of human life and economic resources, and as lowering America's standing in the world, still ask the following question: even if going to war was a mistake, should we just leave?  Don't we have an obligation to the Iraqi people to clean up the mess we created?


         This is a good question.  We do have an obligation to try to repair the damage.  The real issue is how do we fulfill this obligation and how do we prevent this kind of concern being used as an apology for more of the same policies that created the disaster in the first place.  The first thing to realize is that the current policy is a dead-end.   We do not fulfill our obligation by maintaining permanent war in Iraq.  We need an exit strategy and not one like the Nixon Administration's Vietnam policy.  The latter prolonged the war and dragged many U.S. and Vietnamese into death and injury to minimize domestic political losses for the Republican party.  


         Many people worry about a potential Iraqi civil war if we leave.  This is an important concern, but our present course does not appear to be reducing that risk.  For example, we have sometimes used one ethnic group, such as the Kurds, as our agent against insurgents from other ethnic groups.    This increases the likelihood of future ethnic violence.  In place of this strategy we need to turn people's attention to planning for a post-U.S. Iraq.  The only way to do that is to make it clear that we are going to get out.  Hopefully we can encourage some international body, the UN or regional organizations, to help in a transition.  If we signal we are really getting out and these international bodies will not be acting as proxies for American policy, but as honest brokers trying to avoid a civil war and establish the most humane government achievable, perhaps the Iraqis will give them a chance. 


         In order for this exit strategy to work, the United States needs to renounce the Bush Administration's current plans to maintain large permanent military bases in Iraq and privileged American access to Iraqi oil and economic assets.  To be sure, even if we do change course, Iraq may succumb to civil war.  Nevertheless, a strategy that presumes American withdrawal seems a better gamble than the present course.  We have a leader who has led us into quicksand. There are no attractive options, but as someone once said, if you venture into quicksand it is still better to go in feet first than head first.



Steve Cohn has lived in Galesburg for 20 years and thanks Konrad Hamilton, Tony Prado, Magali Roy-Fequiere, and Peter Schwartzman, who went with him on the march, for help with this article.