This is What Democracy Looks Like
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; Mar2003, Vol. 22 Issue 2, p28
By Mazin Qumsiyeh
On Saturday, Jan. 18, I attended a rally in Washington, DC against the war on Iraq—one of many rallies held throughout the world. Some in the media billed the attendance at “tens of the thousands,” while organizers estimated that DC drew half a million. In any case, as The Washington Post put it, this was the largest rally for peace in the nation's capital since the largest Vietnam era protests. But numbers are only a small part of the picture; the diversity and dynamism of this event were truly life-changing experiences.
There was camaraderie and shared interest in stopping this war coupled with an amazing diversity of the protesters. There were Koreans in traditional colorful dresses with drums and songs, chanting “U.S. out of the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East.” There were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, and so many others of different faiths. Secular Jews Against the Occupation were seen next to anti-Zionist Orthodox Rabbis (who had to walk to get to the rally because of the Sabbath). There were anarchists and communists mixing and exchanging greetings with mosque and church groups. There were business people, trade unionists, actors, musicians, professors, and students from literally hundreds of campuses. One saw American and Palestinian flags waving in the frigid weather with other creative flags: the earth, peace signs, and a thousand more.
Demonstrators carried tens of thousands of signs and banners with an endless stream of ideas and messages. Yet all centered around peace and U.S. foreign policy. Among the slogans were: “What would Jesus do?” “Money for Jobs—Not War,” “War heads: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld,” “Heil Bush,” “Axis of Evil: Bush, Blair, Sharon,” “Think Peace,” “Dump Bush not Bombs,” “Stop the Genocide/End the Sanctions,” “Another Veteran for Peace,” “End Racial Profiling,” and “No Blood For Oil.” There were literally thousands of signs with calls to “End Israeli Apartheid,” “Free Palestine,” and “End Aid to Israel.” There were many tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. and invocations of his legacy of nonviolence for civil and human rights.
In the freezing weather of Washington, many encouraged the young man in a swimsuit with peace signs painted all over his naked, shivering body. People shared food, clothes, business cards, and contacts. They shared their visions and their hopes for a better future based on confronting the facts about the past. There were the native Americans drawing a parallel of their genocide with that of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children killed by the U.S./UK-led sanctions on Iraq. There were African Americans and other supporters of reparation for slavery.
There were family and friends of the victims of 9/11 who had signs calling for peace and speaking out against the racism inherent in new laws and capabilities given to the federal government. One of the chants I heard was: “This is what democracy looks like, Bush is what hypocrisy looks like.”
There was one sign that read: “The whole thing is so absurd, I could not think of something to write on this sign.” Indeed it is so absurd that, while our economy is in its worst condition since 1974, we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the military this year. It is absurd that we ignore 200,000 veterans documented with Gulf war syndrome (8,000 have died in the last 10 years from these illnesses). It is absurd that Washington plans to waste $200 billion more this year attacking Iraq, a defeated country, which lost over 1.5 million civilians due to our blockade (a true weapon of mass destruction). It is absurd that cancer rates in southern Iraq have increased ten-fold due to U.S. use of depleted uranium (DU) shells. Instead of sending doctors and aid, we want to send bombs and more DU. It is absurd that the U.S. government has just asked Israel to keep its request for $12 billion in additional aid “low key” while our own state budgets wallow in deficits. It is absurd that leaders, who will not themselves fight this war, rush to send others to war against the will of the vast majority of humanity.
Can our actions make a difference? Obviously hundreds of thousands of people braving the weather and freely spending their money and time clearly believe so. But skeptics need only remember cases in our history where people led the way and the governments finally relented: abolition of slavery, pulling our troops from Vietnam, civil rights, the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, among others. This is indeed what democracy looks like.
PHOTO (COLOR): (Clockwise from center left) Actors Jessica Lange and Tyne Daly, current and former presidential candidates Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin were among the growing number of celebrities opposing a war. Rock group Chumbawumba and musician Patti Smith sent musical messages. Similar' demonstrations occurred in San Francisco, Portland, Albuquerque, and Tampa, as well as in Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, Argentina, Russia, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the UK, Ireland, Jordan, Syria and Egypt.
PHOTOS (COLOR): RIGHT: Author of Born on the Fourth of July, disabled Vietnam vet Ron Kovic is assisted at the mike by another speaker, Elias Rashmawi of the Free Palestine Alliance; BELOW LEFT: Former Attorney General (under Lyndon Johnson) Ramsey Clark of the International Action Center listed a number of impeachable offenses committed by President George W. Bush; BELOW CENTER: The appearance of Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn underscored British popular and parliamentary opposition to war on Iraq; BELOW RIGHT: Gay activist Jesse Heiwa wore a blue triangle in solidarity with Arabs and Muslims facing racial profiling, just as homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle during the Third Reich.
Mazin Qumsiyeh is Associate Professor at Yale University School of Medicine. He is co-founder of the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (http://al-awda.org), http://BoycottIsraeliGoods.org and http://AcademicsForJustice.org.