Feb 15th, 2003, Home from NYC:
It is two degrees fahrenheit with a cutting wind in Shutesbury, Massachusetts tonight. I sit down at the computer at 10:45 p.m. having just settled the kids in to bed. The house is cozy and warm and I have rarely been more thankful to be here. I am bone weary and my head is too full to sleep.
We've just returned from a round trip bus ride to New York City to participate in the historic international rally and march to urge the government of the United States to seek a peaceful resolution to conflict with Iraq (and N. Korea, and every place else too).
Yes, we went. Yes we brought our two older kids (age 7 and 10), our 4 year old had the choice of coming with us or staying with friends and she chose to stay home (whew) and had her own adventure at a small rural rally and a walk to the Buddhist Peace Pagoda.
If you've been reading the press or listening to radio reports of the rally, don't believe what they tell you! Official police/city numbers remain at 100 thousand, the rally organizers say 375-500 thousand, but I tell you they are all short of the actual numbers of protesters in the streets Saturday. I was there, I saw. The majority of those gathered were never able to get to the rally because police cordoned us off and closed access to 1st avenue. We were uncounted. So here is a picture of the untold story: Imagine 3rd Avenue, a major artery in one of the greatest cities in the world, filled with people, sidewalk to sidewalk. I asked a police officer how far this stretched on and he replied, "from 34th St. all the way up to 71st St." Well, more than 100,000!
No cars: just marchers, singers, chanters, drummers, families, students, gray beards and babies, people in costume, people carrying giant peace doves with a wingspan of 20 feet. People riding on shoulders, rolling in wheel chairs, carrying banners and signs, people out on a bitter cold day because peace matters more to them than warm fingers and toes. Festive, boisterous, peaceful...
Two uniformed officers trying to get through the crowds with a load of barriers they would pen us in with, asking to get by and apologizing, saying "It's not that we don't agree with you all, but we need to get through."
The most important story for me is the evolution of how our group came to be making this journey; 44 people, mostly parents and children, ranging in age from 2 to over 60. I live in a small rural New England town with fewer than 2000 residents. There are about 180 kids in our elementary school. A few weeks ago a local dad who has kids in my daughter's second grade class stopped me on the sidewalk in a nearby town and asked if I was thinking of going to this march in NYC. Was I bringing my kids? Did I think we could get enough people interested in sharing a coach bus to the City? I replied that I thought there would be a lot of interest and enthusiastically supported the idea, saying I would help with logistics.
And there was interest, we even had a waiting list for a few days. As the day came closer and the news of war became more dire, it seemed more important than ever to be present in New York. At the same time, the country went to orange alert, New York was named as a specific target, rally organizers were blocked by the Justice Department, the Courts, Mayor Bloomberg, and the NYPD from obtaining a permit to march, and we were told that rally participants would be placed in pens along 1st Avenue and should be prepared to be searched by police. The government seemed to be working very hard to convince us that it would be dangerous to come to New York.
I began to feel scared: about going at all, about taking my kids, about what would happen to us if things ran amok, about terrorist attacks or suicide bombers, about war being inevitable no matter how many of us say NO. The National Guard was shown on TV at Grand Central Station carrying machine guns. My fears mounted. Were we crazy to be taking our kids in to so risky a situation? Or, if we chose to stay home, would we be buying in to the governments fear tactics, allowing them to manipulate us and forfeiting our right to speak out and gather.
As momentum for the Peace Bus increased it got people in town talking about the world situation, which has helped us all with stress management. Meanwhile we carried through with our plans, the bus was chartered, calls were made to inform people of departure times and to recommend things to bring along. If it weren't the first weekend of a school vacation week, I am pretty sure we could have filled a second bus.
We organized a potluck dinner and sign making party, and even as we came together for the dinner, people were having second thoughts about going. The cast of characters shifted, some decided to stay home, others to come along. All of this brought us together in a surprisingly open and intimate way. I was moved by the sense of going and representing our community, our little town in western Mass., our school, our forest...There is a little sign I painted that hangs on the wall in my office, "trees stand tall for peace, we can too," I can tell you that Shutesbury is standing pretty tall today!
The potluck was a lovely time and included folks who had decided not to go but who wanted to support the peace bus. The grown ups talked amongst themselves about trepidations and logistics. We got the kids started on brainstorming slogans and making signs, with the older ones helping the younger ones, they were all so enthusiastic. It was great to provide them with a direct way to express their demand for peace. I saw the respectful way they worked together as a tribute to the sense of community and responsibility that is fostered in our small local public school, the biggers helping the smallers to do a good job together. My 2nd grader's sign: "War is Death, Lets Have Peace" is one of my favorites.
This morning we gathered at the elementary school at quarter to six, cold, weary, a little uncertain. Going forward anyway. On the bus we talked, sang, watched silly movies, shared food, and had a grand adventure for peace. We organized smaller travel groups with captains. Each group had a cell phone. (And at the end of the day it turned out that each group had a different adventure to share on the way home.) The kids each raided their families food packages and brought around shared offerings of melon, coffee cake, brownies. Tissue packets and small containers of bubble-blowing juice also got passed around. Maps, cell phone numbers...we tried to cover all the bases.
Then arriving in the Bronx, where we'd arranged to park with a group of busses from another Massachusetts town, getting in to travel groups, walking off to the subway...the trip down town as the train got more and more crowded, people reading our signs, and enjoying the group member who wore a puppet that rose two feet above her head, a whimsical papier mache pig's head with glasses, very friendly looking, and a sign across her chest that read: PIGHEADED ABOUT PEACE!
Bundled up against the cold we headed up to the street at Rockefeller Center, seeing more and more marchers, signs, hearing chants, feeling like it was really happening, that we had come to be a part of something that was big and important and life-affirming. Reflected in our children's faces the wonder of seeing so many people in one place who share at least part of their family's world view.
We walked and walked and walked, the police kept us on 3rd Avenue so we could never get across to 1st to join the rally, which we listened to with a hand held radio on the people's airwaves. It became clear that there were many more people than police had anticipated. On 3rd Ave. we filled almost 40 blocks, with marchers also on 2nd and Lexington. And the rally on 1st avenue stretched about 60 blocks. I've been to lots of marches but never anything so big.
It was very lively and boisterous and peaceful. Lots of signs ("mothers in Iraq love their kids too") and chanting ("Bush is what hypocrisy looks like, this is what democracy looks like," "whose streets? Our streets!," "peace now") and the most amazing thing was a sort of rolling cheer, like a stadium wave, that would start blocks away and you could hear it coming and pass over you, or you would hear a rising cheer from a distance and know it was a cheer for peace, a roar for peace, something from our bellies that could not be denied.
One person on the bus home told me they had seen a rainbow in the sky between two tall buildings on a side street, had stood looking at it, this suspended light that seemed like a blessing on the marchers. I read about this in the paper too.
A wonderful sign spotted in a group of Jewish marchers, "The last time we listened to a Bush we wandered in the desert for 40 years."
It was cold and we were all bundled up with mittens and hats and layers...bright cheeks, smiling faces, tired legs, big adventure, serious edge to it all when we saw a police officer start to hit a marcher who tried to get through a just-closed barrier, many voices in the crowd cried "hey officer, we're watching you!" and he stayed his hand while another marcher helped the other to move on. Cameras flashing. My daughter's pointed question, "Mom, why do those police have their sticks out when we're not being a threat to them?" Oh, the big questions in life...
A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who was drawn by my younger daughter's signs (she made a poncho out of light-weight sailcloth and covered it with signs, said a lot and kept out wind...very practical) walked with us a bit and recorded our comments. He was curious about our bringing the kids (there were ALOT of children there, more than I have ever seen at a march) and why we had made the trip from Massachusetts. I told him that I have been thinking of Iraqi parents and the anguish they must feel not being able to protect their children from the dire and imminent threat of war (on top of 12 years of sanctions that have made medical supplies scarce!). I came to the march for them, to do whatever I can to try to keep their children safe, to relieve their anguish and stop this war. I can risk a little to try to help them. And I wanted my kids to be a part of helping.
I told my daughters this afternoon, as we headed back to the bus, that they are my Sheros today, because they were brave, and good sports, and understood why we were there, and care enough to give their time and footsteps for peace. And because they did as I asked and "stuck like glue" to their parents in the biggest crowd I have ever seen, and didn't complain hardly at all about cold hands and cheeks and tired feet and legs.
Finally, when we had had enough and still could not get through to 1st Ave., when we had walked for more than 3 hours and 30 blocks, I found an Afghan restaurant at 71st St. and 2nd Ave. that I highly recommend. Fantastic food, and the cuisine seemed thematically appropriate to the day...We got warm.
I am grateful for cell phones so that when I dove into the crowd for a purpose, my husband and I were able to stay in touch and meet up a half block further on. And we were able to talk to other folks with our group who ended up in different sections of the march.
I am grateful to the New York City Police Department who, except for those on horseback, seemed mostly to take things in stride, even though it was so frustrating that they would not let us across to the rally. When you see them with riot face shields and night sticks in hand you get a sense for how scary things could become.
I am grateful to the 2.5 million folks who gathered in Rome, the 1 million in London, the 700,000 plus in New York, the 15 people who gathered in Montague Center, Mass. All of us together calling for peace.
I am grateful to the people I traveled with today. People who are willing to take risks for peace. And I am so proud of how our children behaved with one another and how they represented our town. I am especially happy that they have one another to share this experience with, and when they see each other in school they will have a special bond, the bond of peace makers (there were 4 2nd graders on the trip, 1/5 of the class!). And I am proud of all the parents who put their convictions to practice in a most real and meaningful way.
As the bus was leaving the city we sang together, Where have all the Flowers Gone, If I had a Hammer, Dona Nobis...our voices blending with all our images of the day swirling about in the air.
The day before the march, in a private moment, I went to a tree in the yard and made an offering of five tiny hemlock cones, one for each of my family members, and asked that we all be protected and come home safely to treasure the closeness we share. Tonight, in the bitter cold, tired from a day of walking and travel and high emotion, I went again to this tree and gave thanks. Then I prayed that Iraqi mothers and fathers will soon know the feeling of safety I have as I write these words. We can not rest until we stop this war, for them.
There is more to say, more images, more impressions. I am proud to be an American today because Americans want peace, no matter what lie the White House spins. We want the whole world to know it. We are free and brave and we want peace.
Dina Stander, [email protected]
"Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. That struggle might be a moral one; it might be a physical one; it might be both moral and physical, but it must be struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will." - Frederick Douglass
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