Mad Cowboy Disease

by Jonathan Wallace

February 16, 2003

Yesterday three friends and I went to the massive antiwar demonstration in Manhattan. It was a clear but frigidly cold day, with a wan sun shining down but failing to warm us. First Avenue in the fifties and sixties was a canyon carved by a river of people; I rarely look up in Manhattan but all eyes were occasionally drawn to the gleaming buildings and the narrow sky by the sound of the numerous helicopters hovering overhead.

It was a huge crowd--word was that it extended up into the seventies from the 51st street beginnings. There were people like me, old enough to have been in Washington for the May day demo in 1971, and people in their twenties. There were the usual pre-printed signs--No Blood for Oil, with the insignia of a service workers' union below--and the hand-drawn imaginative ones. Draft the Bush Twins. The President's National Ineptitude Level Has Now Reached Orange. End Mad Cowboy Disease. Regime Change Begins at Home.

There is a crazy wired energy arcing through the crowd at a demonstration. I distrust it and love it. The collaboration, the mutual reinforcement, righteousness and certainty tempered with humor. It is like having 500,000 good partners. Years go by between--I have probably attended three demonstrations in twenty years, a pro-abortion rally in D.C. in the 80's, an Internet free speech rally opposite the White House circa 1995 (at which I spoke, quite an experience), and an anti-nuclear power rally beneath the windmill in East Hampton a couple of springs ago. But every time I go to one I re-connect to a power source quite different from the more attenuated one I experience at my keyboard.

The distrust is necessary because the power and potential mindlessness of crowds is a phenomenon to be distrusted. But this was a very mature and self-disciplined group. There was an immense feeling of mutual good will in the air: people handing out food and snacks to one another (which nonetheless I did not eat out of a healthy New York suspicion). When I started writing down some of the sign slogans for this essay, my frozen pen did not work; an older bearded man standing nearby handed me a better one, and even steadied the leaflet I was writing on, without asking what I was doing or why.

On the block right ahead of us was a large flat projection screen, so that we were able to see the speakers at the podium five blocks away. I believe there was a screen on every block. The two young organizers for United For Peace and Justice were good-looking, charismatic, and a bit disorganized; each speaker had ninety seconds. As we arrived, Richie Havens was singing "Freedom"; in the course of the next several hours we heard from Desmond Tutu (the day's most memorable speaker), Susan Sarandon, Rosie Perez, Al Sharpton, Pete Seeger (who led the crowd in singing "Over the Rainbow"--my friend Bob Wilson would certainly characterize this as a wacky-doodle liberal moment), Holly Near, the rock group Betty, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, and a wonderful performer named Sarah Jones, who used her ninety seconds to impersonate a homeless woman, an old Jewish woman and a Latina teen each opposing the war for her own reasons.

The cold was bitter. I was dressed in layers, including an old pair of longjohns I unearthed at the bottom of a drawer, and still could not feel my hands or move my jaw easily at the end of half an hour. Two of our group disappeared, then returned with hot chocolate for everyone. They had gone into a diner a few yards away from us--but had had to walk up the block and back to get there. "The cops have the sidewalks cordoned off," they said, "and they're not letting people out of the street. There's a man there arguing with them that its his Constitutional right to walk on the sidewalk."

The police presence seemed restrained--cops lined up along the barricades but carefully inattentive and quiet. Occasionally they would ask the crowd to back out of the intersection, put up barricades and allow an emergency vehicle to pass through. At another point, a group of mounted policemen, who seemed intent and nervous, galloped by on the far side of a barricade to our right. On the news that night, I heard that someone had punched a police horse and brought it to its knees. A few blocks north I could see flashing lights on a bridge over First Avenue.

The speakers mostly said the same thing, in different ways. The message was a practical one: let's not rush into a bloody adventure when we haven't exhausted nonviolent means. Innocent Iraqis and Americans will die. Let's have the U.N. solidly behind us--Bishop Tutu described a world in which the U.N. is the only entity that can legitimately declare a war. To him this is the world as it is; to me the world as it should be. Let's stop and think about the fact that so few of our long-time friends are backing our rush to fight this time, that we have lost the sympathy of so many who stood with us after September 11. That there is no smoking gun. That Saddam is a dictator, and not to be defended, but that there is a time and a way of proceeding and the path followed by our president is not it.

Near the stage was a man on stilts wearing a wonderful George Bush mask with an irritated, baffled expression, and the camera regularly cut to him shaking his head angrily.

Not every speaker was consistent or even on-message. We heard something about racism, inequality, and health care; about an hour and a half in, we heard the words "imperialism" and "globalism" for the first time. A woman from the Philipines told us about her sister's rape and murder by American G.I.'s.

Two of the most impressive speakers were soldiers. The first was an Arab-American National Guardsman from Staten Island who had just been mobilized. Though he stopped short of saying he would not go, he denounced the morality and motives of the conflict in which he was being ordered to serve. The other, more impressive still, was a member of a group of about five hundred Israeli soldiers who have declined to fight in the occupied territories. These reservists spend a month in prison every year when they refuse to go.

At three o'clock, the crowd had thinned out substantially and we were too cold to stay any more. We started walking west and north, towards my favorite New York diner, the Silver Star. As we reached Second Avenue, we crossed a police barricade without interference, but immediately noticed that the cops were preventing people from going in the opposite direction, to the demonstration. Here the mood was much uglier; people were arguing and the cops were more intent, some responding unctuously ("Why don't you go home and sit on your couch and watch it on television?" one said to a frustrated young woman), others angrily, and some physically pushing people back. They were preventing demonstrators from walking in the street and keeping them to the sidewalks--the opposite of the policy a block away. I asked a calm, somewhat embarrassed officer what the orders were, and he confirmed that word had come down that no additional people were to be permitted to reach the demonstration. I asked when that started but he claimed not to know.

In the crowded diner, a man came in dressed as a smart munition and carrying a sign which said "Honey, I am the bomb". His costumed friends had signs saying, "Glam, not war". You have to love New York.

I'm really glad I went, though I do not share the simple and clear moral outlook of many of the people there, especially the younger ones. I believe that sometimes violent adversaries push you to use violence, though when you do, it is regrettable because degrading. I don't think we are in that situation as far as Iraq is concerned--I question the timing and the rationale.

I was there in part because of these views but in larger part I was there for the First Amendment. The city, later confirmed by the courts, had denied a permit for a march and had only granted one for a smaller static rally. The excuses--security, the danger from terrorists, the short-handedness of the police in a time of emergency--are depressingly common today as justifications for the erosion of liberty. At the end of a week where government pronouncements had everyone buying duct tape and bottled water-- only to be told by our mayor and then by homeland security director Tom Ridge that this was an over-reaction-- it is easy to be cynical about whether the nation's orange alert status is aimed at external threats or at quieting internal dissent. The cops forbidding anyone new from joining the demonstration just as the crowd was thinning out on First Avenue was one more sign of authority opposing speech. The opposition was gentle this time, though a few people were arrested elsewhere, but this is where it begins. The denial of permits and police pressure can be a first step towards the Nixon-style demonization of dissenters, which can lead to phenomena familiar from 1970 and 1971: mysteriously organized and directed "civilians" rushing in and beating protestors, or Tactical Patrol Force officers, their ID badges covered with electrical tape, charging with raised truncheons. In those years, a lot of heads were bloodied, and some people were crippled and even killed, purely for antiwar speech. I do not know that we will go there this time--W. seems a lot less crazy than Richard Nixon. But the sudden revitalization of some of the more sinister figures from earlier administrations--Kissinger appointed to lead the 9/11 panel, Poindexter responsible for spying on us via the "Total Information Awareness" program--is not reassuring. Nor is the fact that today, at least two American citizens have "disappeared" into military custody without access to lawyers or judicial process, something which never happened in the worst of the McCarthy era or the Nixon years.

Speech too is like a river: it wants to go where it is blocked, but expends its energy when allowed to flow. The crowd on First Avenue was calm, but that on Second, on the other side of the barricades, was angry. The next move is the government's, which does not seem even to have asked itself the question of how to preserve liberty while defending it. The First Amendment was written in a different language than the one our president speaks. Things could get really hairy as Year Zero continues: year without end, amen.