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Photo Essay

History Repeating Itself

At the march in Washington, I saw passion, determination and sanity.

By Elaine Brière 27 Oct 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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By 11:00am on September 24, people were pouring into downtown Washington D.C. from every direction, waving banners and holding signs. Over the loudspeaker we could hear the voices of the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Cindy Sheeham who were speaking at the rally on the Ellipse. The dense throngs of people made it impossible for us to make our way over there. The marchers were anxious to begin, but our departure was delayed again and again. On this weekend of all weekends, the City had chosen to repair Washington's metro lines, so the subway was only working at half capacity. Each train that came in was full to overflowing and still the people kept coming.

I'm a Canadian and must admit I often hold a negative view of Americans but this on this day I admired them tremendously. Here were hundreds of thousands of people who came from great distances, many at great expense, to take over their capital for three days and show to themselves and to the world that the Bush administration is acting against them and their values. The connections between war, poverty and ignorance were clearly expressed. Something like sanity prevailed in Washington that weekend and I was happy to be part of it.

The organizers, United for Peace & Justice, a coalition of 1,300 groups from across the US, were expecting 100,000 people to show up, but there were many more. They came from all corners of the country: from New York, Virginia, Maryland and Illinois, Georgia and Mississippi; they came from Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Oregon, Nevada, California, Colorado, Alaska and Hawaii. There were Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Unitarians, Jews, Quakers, Buddhists, students, children, housewives, Democrats, Republicans, businessmen, veterans, workers, people from every race and class were represented. Many of them had never been in a demonstration before.

United diversity

Hundreds of groups were there, a reflection of the wide diversity of Americans opposed to the war. But unlike peace marches in Canada, there were very few unions represented, a reflection of the disarray in the union movement in the US today.

Even the Washington Post conceded there were over 300,000 people marching on the White House that Saturday afternoon. The crowd was so dense that I couldn't move at will and was carried along in the sea of humanity that surged toward Lafayette Park and the White House. I had driven down from Ottawa the day before with my cousin Pam, and her 15-year-old son, Gabriel. I have photographed many demonstrations before but never one where passion, urgency and determination were so strong.

Americans are tired of war. Iraq is not an abstraction to them but a lived reality, a part of their everyday lives, whether it's a son or brother killed or wounded in Iraq, or the spending of resources on war instead of on housing, health care and education. And it deeply troubles many Americans that their country is again responsible for so many civilian deaths. According to the prestigious UK medical journal, The Lancet, at least 100,000 civilians have lost their lives since Iraq was invaded in March 2003.

Sign language

Like Ken Bolling, who carried a sign reading "Impeach Bush!" many of the marchers were baby boomers who had protested the Vietnam war. "I marched here six times before it made a difference in Vietnam and I'm willing to march six more times to stop them," he said.

Will Peery, a soft-spoken man who identified himself as a Buddhist remembered being with his parents at a candlelight vigil in this same place 35 years before protesting the Vietnam war. "This is history repeating itself," he said.

Army First Sergeant Frank Cookinham, a veteran of the first Iraq war, had "LOCO" tattooed on his throat. He staggered through the crowd with a crazed look, yelling things like, "Get rid of these bastards;" and "This war is a total waste of time" "Iraq is not invading us," he shouted. "My buddies died for nothing!" he said. "I'm wearing this uniform out of respect for them."

I asked a group from Washington State if they thought this march would make a difference. "I don't think Bush cares," one man replied, "but I'm marching to influence congressmen."

Another said he was going to keep coming back until Bush resigns. "I needed to come to this march to deal with my own depression and guilt about this shameful war," a woman who looked like a suburban housewife, said. Another remarked on how wonderful it was to be here and feel that she was not alone. "And I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I did something," she said.

Patriotic anti-Bush

Many signs called for the impeachment of Bush and others expressed fear about the loss of civil liberties. "We can't take three more years of Bush," a man from Illinois said, "this country is going down a very dangerous road."

A student from Chicago Peace Action said, "When we lose our right to stand up for our rights we lose everything."

"I'm a patriotic American," said a woman with carefully applied lipstick and a cashmere sweater, "but there are a lot of things wrong with this country."

A woman from North Carolina said that this was the only place she could be today. "I come from a small patriotic town," she said "I didn't protest the Vietnam war. It took me a long time to get here."

"I'm perverse enough to hope they call the draft," a man said with a laugh. "That would really get this country moving!"

Unreal government

"This isn't a real government," said a small woman carrying a sign about Hurricane Katrina. "When they actually had to do something, they had no idea what to do."

An elderly African American woman who was holding a sign reading, "More Money for Social Housing," said that the rich get everything in the US. "We need that war money for our children, for housing and things right here in at home. You have to have two jobs just to pay your living here in Washington."

Another sign, carried by a big man read, "26,000 Iraqi dead." The man said, "I hope we bring a good message here. It makes us feel better when we do it together."

Many feared that the media wouldn't cover the march. This was borne out by the fact that many newspapers, especially in the rural areas, gave as much credibility to the small pro-Bush demonstration of 200 as they did to our demonstration of 300,000. When we stopped for gas on our way back to Canada the next day, the headline of the Cortland Express was, "Patriots Fight Back."

The day after

The next day was Sunday, a day of training for the nonviolent civil disobedience actions planned for Monday. Under the pointed finger of the Washington monument, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and anarchists planned their strategies. I sat in with a circle of Buddhists who were planning to get arrested the next day. "We are protected from reality in this society," said one participant.

"I am trying to transform my anger at this government into something useful," said another.

One woman from Boston spoke of it not being enough to hold a sign saying peace; that she felt she could embody peace through her willingness to be arrested.

Ben from Rhode Island, said, "I can no longer meditate in silence on the evil caused by my country." Another in the group said, "I came here to get arrested in the Ghandian tradition." Over 350 people were arrested the next day, including Cindy Sheehan, the mother who camped this summer outside of Bush's ranch asking the question: " For what noble cause?"

'Friendly fire'

Monday was also Congressional Lobby Day where at least 800 visits (and possibly as many as 1000) people representing more than 40 states met with congressmen and senators in the largest pro-peace lobby every held in Washington.

Looking for photographs, I visited the white tents near the Washington Monument. Beside the group of Iraqi Veterans Against the War was a sea of white crosses and poignant rows of used army boots holding an American flag and a tag with the name of a deceased soldier. Over 2,000, mostly young men, have died since 2003.

Alexander Arredondo was part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He was killed in the attack on the old Iraqi city of Najaf just a few days after his 20th birthday. Behind the white tent, his father was handing out copies of letters the boy had written home. "I was shocked when I found out he enlisted," his dad said, "they gave him $10,000, more money that he had ever had in his life. He was my American dream, my precious resource. I tried to kill myself when they told me." In one of his letters home, Alexander had written, "I am not afraid of dying. I am more afraid of what will happen to all the ones that I love if something happens to me…. Soon enough I will be in the desert... in full combat gear, ready to carry out my mission, wondering how all this happened so fast, wishing I was back home, dating Sheila." The father of John Torres, originally from Chile, wept openly as he told how his son was killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan only 12 days before his term of service would have been up. He believed that John was killed because he was writing letters criticizing the treatment of Afghani civilians, and the lack of equipment and logistical support for the troops. "I don't believe it was an accident," John's father said. "They won't give us any details on how he died. I believe they murdered my son because he was speaking out."

Elaine Brière is a Vancouver freelance photographer and writer who is always looking for a good story.  [Tyee]

Read more: Photo Essays

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