Since the Women's March on January 21st, I've been thinking about the other huge global march that took place fourteen years ago today: February 15, 2003. The march against the invasion of Iraq by US forces and "the coalition of the willing."
The Guinness Book of World Records said that between 12 and 14 million people came out that day, in over 800 cities. It was the largest anti-war rally in history. The strangest thing about it was that it was a global protest against a war that had not yet begun.
From October 2001 to July 2003, I was working on the first draft of my novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind. But I was also writing another book on the side called Night Train - a series of letters to various beings (imaginary or otherwise). The letters were an attempt to record the horror of those times as it was happening.
I've been plundering Night Train for fourteen years, using sections here and there for other books. A week ago, I was doing some more plundering and started reading the letters that centered around the invasion of Iraq - a protest march in San Francisco in the fall of 2002 and thoughts centered around the massive marches that took place on January 15 and February 15, 2003 and the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq.
After reading the letters, I thought: Wow, I was one angry bastard. A lot of sarcasm (my only weapon, it seems). But I was also struck by the similarity of the atmosphere then and now. Even some familiar phrases (Fake News). And then, I had a further thought: The more things change…
Then I remembered a photo of a woman with a sign from the recent Women's March that read:
I can't believe I still have to protest this shit.
After that initial burst of protest in 2003, the anti-war movement pretty much went dormant. There was a scattering of protest throughout the rest of the Bush and Obama years (the people at Voices for Creative Nonviolence stand out as those who kept the flame alive during those years, among many, many other small groups), but the scale of the anti-war fervor from the protest in the fall of 2002, January 15/February 15, 2003, never resurfaced. Maybe it was because, in the face of a protest force so massive, there was barely an eyeblink from those who wanted and needed the war, and most thought - if that didn't change anything, what can? I remember Bush saying: "You can’t run policy by listening to focus groups." Focus groups?
This time around, because of the many issues so many of us are protesting, and the clear threat by the Republican Administration to the constitution on so many levels, the fervor of the movement will easily last beyond the next year.
My own hope is that we use history to understand where we've been and where we want to go - recognizing that the edifice of the surveillance state, the bloated military budget and the various wars and black ops bases across the globe, the media promotion of hatred and misogyny (it makes money), the massive deportation operations, the over-arching accumulation of power in the office of the presidency, and all the various Patriot Act influenced departments were not built overnight, but brick by brick over the last sixteen years (maybe more like the last forty).
And so, here are four letters from Night Train. The last letter ends with a poem.
October 16, 2002
For a month we’ve all been waking to news of some mysterious sniper picking off people in parking lots around DC. One year ago, the news was about anthrax letters circulating through the mail system. Two days ago, the news was of Paul Wellstone's death. It’s not like Wellstone was going to single-handedly stop the coming war, but he seemed to be one of the last in DC who was actually speaking the truth.
The Bush Administration, in its desperate pursuit of war with Iraq, is gathering darkness towards itself. The anthrax letters, the bullets of the sniper, the torn bodies of dead Afghans, the bodies of US soldiers, grains of irradiated sand, shards of burning houses (ashes, ashes), all are flying through space, being pulled toward the White House.
In the last issue of Harper’s, they published the manifesto that was drawn up in the early nineties by the neo-cons. Part of the plan was to invade Iraq. Scott Ritter, one of the UN weapons inspectors, keeps saying there are no more WMD in Iraq. And anyone who has an IQ over fifty can figure out that there’s no Al-Queda in Iraq (Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia...). Congress knows this, but they’ll still give Bush full war powers. To “pre-emptive strike." I think in other countries it’s called “invade.”
Two days ago, I was dejected, felt nothing good could possibly happen, that the script had already been written. It was all over (ashes, ashes) I thought, until Michaela and I went to the peace march in San Francisco yesterday.
I want to tell you about how I stood in a crowd of over fifty-thousand people (easily), most carrying signs (Buy The Weapons Back; Jesus Died For Your Oil; Drop Bush, Not Bombs; Only Congress Can Declare War; Money For Jobs, Not War; There's A Terrorist Behind Every Bush...), and marveled. We stood near the makeshift rally stage in Justin Herman Plaza and listened to several speakers talk about the connections between the suffering of the poor in this country and the suffering of the poor the world over; listened to talk of US troops pouring into the Philippines, positioned in Afghanistan, north of Afghanistan, Africa, the Ukraine, the world over. About how this coming war is part of the ongoing chess game for the world's last energy resources.
I remember being at a rally against The Gulf War in 1991 and someone nearby complaining that the speakers were talking about “peripheral subjects.” They wanted the rally to simply be about that particular military action, nothing else. They didn’t want to make any connections between military strikes and the oil economy, between the degradation of the environment and the lack of creative jobs, between religious fundamentalist terrorism and state terrorism. It’s part of amnesia-culture. When people are uncomfortable with the actions of their government, they isolate that action, separate it from the rest of society, from the rest of their lives. We want peace, but we want to keep driving our SUV’s. We want the US to sign the Kyoto accords, but we still want all those cheap goodies that come with laissez-faire factories in Indonesia.
It’s that schizophrenia that drives those who have seen a glimpse of the-connections-between-all-things mad. There’s a great line in the poem “America” by Allen Ginsberg: “America, you’ve made me want to become a saint.” That seems to be the problem with many radicalized folks in this nation. If the rest of society completely ignores the world it has made, completely ignores its true history, completely ignores its complicity in the terror that reigns around the world, then the ones who actually look into the abyss of that truth become either overly righteous or mad. Sometimes a bit of both. Me, I come off as the overly righteous type sometimes. In actuality, I am slowly going crazy.
Near the end of the preliminary round of speeches there was a burst of pigeons from the palm trees above us and someone shouted "Doves!" Blue and white dappled wings over a sea of protest banners, peace signs, posters (a picture of George Bush with blank, white-vacant eyes and the headline above his head proclaiming "Aliens Ate My Brain"). Everybody looked up into the blue, pointing, smiling, and laughing.
As the crowd began to move up Market, people began chanting, drumming, playing tambourines, and dancing. Someone released a cluster of white balloons and they sailed up through the corridor of tall shining buildings of the financial district, into the sky (and managed to follow the crowd right up the street for the duration of the march, thousands of feet above, looking like a flock of seagulls, or a cluster of day-moons, bridesmaids of the sun). There was one group with a "Think Pink" banner, dancing in white-face, black clothes, beating drums. Two girls in the group were naked from the waist up, "Nudity Not War" scrawled in black across their backs, feathers in their hair.
I want to tell you about the protestors standing on bus stop railings, on the roofs of bus stop enclosures, on metal newspaper dispensers, on trashcans, cement posts, holding up signs, singing or just waving. One kid, with dyed green highlights in his black dreads, held a sign in his right hand that read: "War is totally lame…" In his left hand he waved a cardboard sign that read (like a stoned afterthought): "…and gnarly."
I want to tell you about the flutist with greasy jeans and a worn flannel shirt standing on a cement post, trilling. It looked like he'd been walking for days on the shoulder of trash-filled roads, across a world where everyone is too terrified of each other to pick up a hitchhiker. He'd been listening to birds - mostly to the cast-off starlings - and was in the process of growing his own beak. After the march I imagined he took off his shirt, unfolded black wings, and rose slowly and full of intent as the white balloons.
I want to tell you about the waves of sound that started from the back of the march or the front of the march and moved down Market Street. A holy wall of sound as people let out whoops, rolled r's in a high-pierced tremolo, or staccato-ed shrieks (that were the fierce music of sports-victory and the shattering cries of Iraqi women prostrated over another child's coffin - at the same time). The sound bounced off the glass towers, reverberated through the city, returned to vibrate and inhabit our own skulls.
“The sun's not eternal, that's why there's the blues,” Ginsberg sang. Surely, this entire throng would eventually be skull, dust, the space between dust, our echoes settling down to mingle with the long-gone and the fresh-gone. And all the war's fought and protested against? The same dust. George W. Bush's brain and heart similar to my own - dust. There are mornings when you wake up with all the faces you've known, places you've lived or visited, staring back at you from the foot of the bed. Your entire life seen through a transparent globe, everything within it bumping into one another, unattached, equally transparent, an illusion. The one rock-solid truth of this life is that it is transient: a fall cricket singing beneath a pile of leaves on a cemetery road.
We sail from the unknown into the unknown. And yet, I want to tell you about pigeons bursting out of the sun, into a clear sky. I want to tell you about the women who wore leaf-garlands and flowing white gowns, walked on stilts, carrying long sticks dangling with peace cranes. I want to tell you about the trans-woman who stood on a cement post, holding a sign over her head that read: "Bombing for Peace is like Fucking for Virginity." I want to tell you about the young women wearing fleece vests, pushing two-year old's in strollers; the young husbands carrying babies; about the old women carrying the banner "Mad Granny's For Peace"; about the groups of boys and girls, restless and impatient with silence, who tried to whip the protestors into a chant and failed; about the two leather punkers - one of them in a black wool Zapatista ski-mask - screaming with a joyous drunken frenzy on top of a bus stop roof; about the pair of curious eyes staring out from under a blue riot police helmet; about the man leaning from the fifth floor window of the rundown Renoir Hotel, across the street from a porn theater, watching the parade pass by below; about the person in a gorilla costume standing on the sidewalk, holding a sign that read: "Animals Against War"; about the people on their way to work, or coming home from work, trying to get across the street, dodging their way through the sea of bodies; about the kid who sat on a wall near the civic center, cross-legged, holding up a small white sign that said "Revolution" in black magic marker, followed by a small arrow pointing the way. I want to tell you about his goofy smile.
About halfway up Market, Michaela and I climbed a railing next to a mass transit stop and looked down the street to the bay. The swoop of heads, shoulders, signs, rose and fell in great wave. There was seemingly an endless stream of people! I burst out laughing.
Look at the range of emotions! Look at all the endless ways of being human! What the hell do I know? And I thought, for a flash second in that shocking glimpse, that anything was possible.
I don’t know if most of those people were marching in order to stop this particular invasion, if they thought this was a one-issue deal, if they were going to go climb back into their SUV dream. The election’s coming up and I know that the Republicans will lie, steal, cheat and win. And I know the Democrats will hide and dodge and cower. And they will lose. What difference will it make? Most of the Democrats are busy giving President Kill everything he wants anyway. But, today, after seeing that crowd of people who do not want this war, I don’t care.
There is no final victory, only tired feet in old, cracked boots; the cool bay breeze chasing a pee-stain smell rising up through steam grates; close-packed bodies moving slow (those who imagine a different world mixing with those who only want regime change at home); and just my one angle, this particular view, surrounded by others, bearing witness.
I want to tell you that it took three hours, walking very slowly, in a close-packed crowd, to walk one mile.
The California newspapers - most of them - carried the story of the protest. On the very same day, 100 to 150 thousand marched in Washington DC. But the Washington and SF marches took third seat to - and this is in order of hierarchy from the top of the front page down - the World Series and the terrorist battle in Moscow (I guess I understand that one).
I remember a cartoon by Tuli Kupferberg in a small press magazine during the first Gulf War: a man with his head in a bucket of sand, pants down around his ankles, his ass on fire.
The New York Times chose not to put anything about the march on their front page. Inside, they reported 20,000 marched on Washington. No mention of San Francisco.
All hail the free press!
January 29, 2003
I freaked out after President Kill’s state of the union address and began talking about the coming war to my students. The gist of my speech was that all the nations on earth are acting like kids on an elementary school playground (At least my experience of kids on an elementary school playground - beat or be beaten.). Russia and France are against the war simply because Saddam owes them a shit load of money and they want to get it back. They couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis. Around here, it seems the average US citizen is confused about Iraq, but feel they’ve “got to support the troops” once the war begins. It’s like some demented mantra I keep hearing, everyone saying: “The troops are there, it’s a done deal, so we should support them.” It sounds a bit fundamentalist to me. But, then, President Kill is a fundamentalist. His worldview equal to that of Osama’s (What ever happened to Osama? Wasn’t the “war on terror” about Al-Queda?)
Me, I’m against the eating of children, but once the President commits the US to that cause, I feel I’ve got to support it.
In class, I gave a little impassioned speech with a similar theme. I think I said “Stupid fuckheads” in reference to Congress, Prez Kill, The Pentagon, and the majority of the US populace, at least three or four times during my rant.
The ones who’ve been brought up to be perfect drones of the system crossed their arms over their chests and glared (those poor bastards that have been stripped of their own voice, their own creativity, their own thoughts, by the brilliantly mind-numbing American info-entertainment industry). UC Davis presents itself as a competitive and rigorous university, but what do competitive and rigorous mean? The university system is dedicated to pumping out students desirable to the corporations. They are in the business of making technicians for the marketplace. Most of my students see their education as an economic contract (and why not? that's all they know). The administration here, like the one in Washington, is not interested in helping the students to think critically, or to learn how to form coherent questions about the world around them. It's all about money.
If I look back on my own education, I find (mostly) the same thing. The students who want to break through the veil of illusion have said that their entire education has been regurgitating what they have learned. Memorization is the key to success. It’s an institutional theme. In any institutionalized religion the children are taught the right questions to ask and then, when they reach adulthood and ask those penetrating questions, they are provided with the perfect answers. It’s marvelously simple.
My students, who will become genetic engineers and creators of the latest pharmaceuticals, cannot spell. Many cannot write coherent sentences, much less long complex paragraphs. They were stumped when I asked where or what Canada was. How can there be democracy if no one is capable of understanding their rights, or US history in relation to world history, or how federal and local governments function, or do not have the ability to know jingoistic bullshit when they hear it?
Context seems to be the key to their confusion. In the so-called Information Age all information has become equal: Mickey Mouse and Ronald Reagan, the Titanic and Iwo Jima, The Jetsons and Vietnam, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Atomic Bomb, Batman and the Holocaust. How can most of them not be perfect drones of the system? They have no history, no geography, and no ability to thread through the labyrinth of ads, spin, lies and hype that inundate them on a daily basis.
I said, during my rant: “Don’t take my word for it, find out for yourselves.” But now I realize they really don’t know how to do this. Our libraries are wonderful, beautiful places, stocked with books illustrating the shocking, naked truth about US history, but no one reads any more.
So much for free speech.
Some of the students smiled and nodded. But most are apathetic and think nothing can be done. Maybe they’re right. Millions of people marched on January 15 against the war and Bush did his usual smirking: “You can’t run policy by listening to focus groups.” Of course, his energy policy was created by several oil company “focus groups.” Oh well, let’s be like the press and let it all fly over our heads. We went to that march in San Francisco and there had to be at least 200,000 people. Focus group, indeed.
This week one of my office mates told me about some Michael Jackson interview coming up. Because I was reaching a state of pure panic in regards to the news, I tuned in. I must admit, crazy-ass Michael Jackson - wearing his scary celebrity white-face mask - gave me a brief break from the craziness of media infotainment and the babble of the warmongers. I can understand the weird fascination everyone has for him. That high voice, the obsessive way he makes his own kids wear masks out in public, the vampire-pale skin, the millions of dollars spent on playgrounds. He’s the perfect icon for the US. It’s pure carnival freak show. He’s the tragic, almost-loveable monster. Talented, but grotesquely flawed. It’s a perfect Movie-of-the-Week. Starring – who else? – Michael Jackson. I’d watch.
Pull off one mask and there’s always another.
So when I ended my rant, I realized – from those glaring eyes in the room – that there would be repercussions. When we were being trained to teach, we were constantly told to maintain “balance” in the classroom. What the statement really meant was: “Don’t get too controversial.” But, what else is college for? Balance requires that someone have a different point of view. All these poor kids get is the Bush Administration viewpoint on Fox and CNN and NBC and CBS, so – it seems to me – being balanced is, in actuality, presenting a different view than the one always screaming in their ears.
Freedom of Speech is a given to the comfortable middle classes who don’t see anything wrong with the military-industrial-economic system. Why should they care? They benefit. They also think they exercise this so-called freedom of speech every day, that the mainstream news outlets exercise it every day. What all of them are doing is mouthing the words of the masters. Like White House correspondents who simply regurgitate memos given to them by Administration lackeys.
It’s only when middle class white folk stumble down the rabbit hole that they see how the country really operates. Block a National Guard gate all night long and see what happens come morning. During the months leading up to the invasion of Panama in 1989, I was with a group of catholic worker folk who blocked the National Guard gate at the Des Moines airport. There were rumors of a US military buildup in Honduras (again) in The Nation and we were protesting the obvious intimidation factor of US foreign policy - flying their jets over Central America, playing war games to keep the peasants in line. What’s funny about the whole thing is that we had no idea the buildup would result in the invasion of Panama.
So, here was a bunch of loonies making the National Guard personnel drive to a gate further down the road. I suppose, at the very least, they were forced to wonder why we were blocking the gate. What the hell are those twelve people doing standing in front of the gate, with signs, in the middle of the night?
I remember looking at the faces of the people in those cars, flushed with excitement, getting their chance to go down to Central America, fly fast jets, hang out in cheap bars, see some sites. “We do more before dawn than most people do all day.” I don’t want to completely make fun of this. I grew up with those people. I was "those people." Or, at the very least, I understand those people. (An odd thought: the military world was the first part of the US social-scape that was fully integrated.)
I remember all the families I knew as a child without fathers. MIA, dead, and those alive perpetually gone. Absence was the air we all breathed. And yet, no one ever spoke about the war in front of “the kids.” Meanwhile, all civilians just kept going on about their business like there was no war going on. Fat, dumb and happy. It made the military folk circle the wagons even tighter. The protestors in front of that gate were more aware of the suffering of military personnel than the asshole conservative congressman busy voting for another invasion with one hand and cutting VA benefits with the other.
A few of the protestors were arrested for climbing the fence and hanging a banner across an A-4 Skyhawk. The rest of us drank coffee and stamped our feet and told stories to each other all night.
Come morning, it was back to work. I worked at a combination deli/liquor store back then. Around noon, an unmarked car with tinted windows pulled up to the door of the liquor store and sat there idling for almost an hour. Then it pulled away and sat in the parking lot for the rest of the day. All week long, every time I answered the phone I was greeted with a series of clicks – or dead silence.
What was that about? Overt surveillance. The government was letting us know that they were watching us. But watching who? A rag-tag group of people standing in front of a National Guard gate at a remote outpost of the empire? What threat is that? Didn't they have more dangerous people to monitor? What were they so afraid of?
February 20, 2003
While Colin Powell was busy at the UN waving around a vial of sugar or salt and calling it anthrax the sun worked its way across the sky and sank into the west. His speech was greeted with icy silence at the UN, but what did he care? It was obviously meant for US audience consumption. Everyone – except, apparently, the US public – knows the decision for war was made a long time ago. What I don’t understand is why the Administration bothers to explain their reasons at all. The largest anti-war rally in history took place all over the globe on the 15th and it was greeted by President Kill with his usual rich-boy smirk.
Outside, things keep slipping into symbols of something else.
It’s strange, after the mass rallies across the world I felt dejected. As if energy was slipping from my body. This feeling has continued for days. My thoughts are scattered. I’ve been slipping into and out of a fever. There is only restless sleep, but I seem to be falling deeper and deeper into – caves. A labyrinth of caves. Into the mammal brain, the reptile brain, insect consciousness. I’ve been talking with the spiders in the bathroom. Invisible strings play when the beetle struggles to get itself free. US Army maneuvers in the Kuwait desert. The phone is silent. No calls from the FBI. Killer and victim, predator and prey.
I fear slipping into a fever I can’t come back from. When I was 23, I was alone for days with a fever that peaked at 106. I fear the day-in-day-out crack of lightning headache that comes with that kind of fever. I thought I was going to die. At some point, I felt I made the decision to live. As soon as I did, I felt a presence come down from the ceiling. I was suddenly lying next to a fire, stars above. There was a shadow on the other side of the fire (An ancestor? Drifting healing spirit? My own desperate imaginative attempt to save myself? How will I ever know?). He began to dance, chant. I mimicked his chant and movements (as best I could in the bed) all night long, believing this was the only way I could possibly live through the night. The fever broke. But my brains were pudding, and for at least the next three months, everything - the sun, the way furniture was arranged, a passing train - made me burst into tears.
I desperately fear another fever like that.
I want escape, but instead I get memories of watching TV while the US bombed the living fuck out of Baghdad in 1991. Flashes of green across the screen. I kept repeating “There are people down there...there are people down there...” A quarter of a million Iraqis, at least a third of them noncombatants, killed in the process. And, of course, let’s not forget that “Highway of Death”: the line of Iraqi soldiers (mostly conscripts), retreating into Iraq in full compliance with demands that they evacuate Kuwait, being annihilated by US warplanes. Bombs hurled at defenseless men.
I desire escape.
Memories of the endless parades at the conclusion of the Gulf War. And all I could hear was the banshee shrieking behind all the victory bands playing the “Star Spangled Banner.” The US military exercising its muscles at the end of the Cold War, showing who is “The New World Order.”
A couple of days ago, we got a notice in the mail from the city council. Apparently, they’ve decided to “reinstate the power of eminent domain and increase the tax increment in order to eliminate the blight in the Project Area.” We live, of course, in “The Project Area" where “the blight” seems to be. Eminent Domain simply means that if they want you gone, they have the power to kick you out and tear down your home (With compensation they deem proper for the occasion). “...The Agency has the power to acquire property by purchase or condemnation in order to eliminate blight, provide public improvements and permit development in accordance with the Redevelopment Plan.”
The notice was for the landlord. He’s a cheap bastard who isn’t interested in just how run-down this place is. He’ll make sure to get his money from the city. And if this place is torn down? I think most of the people who live in this complex will land on their feet. But what about the people in the trailer parks down the street? This is the last low-rent street in this town. Doesn’t the council understand that they need a little piece of ghetto around here to house all their servants?
I started hallucinating last night. Human, mammal, reptile, insect, plant, mineral, water, air, the spinning fire that comes before everything. Space. I fear for my sanity. The sanity of the nation has already been lost.
March 20, 2003
The war, the war, the war. The US has violated international law (I guess that’s not news) and invaded another country. I'm stuck to the television day and night. But it's the same news from the "embedded" reporters: The glory of American power. What else can you expect from reporters whose asses are being protected by the soldiers they're covering? Would you report anything negative in that situation? All of them look so daffy and adolescent, wearing their starched camouflage, giddy with the chance to play soldier.
The green lights of explosions in Baghdad on TV. I felt I hadn’t moved from my chair since 1991.
There are people down there, there are people down there...
Then, after my fill of fake news, I jumped on the Net for something more real. But, my question is - why are the American media conglomerates saving us from ourselves? Don't we like the splash and gore of action movies? Don't we love the car crash, the brains splattering against the far wall in slow motion? It seems right up everyone’s alley.
On the Al-Jazeera site there were shots of horror, of murder: Children's skulls crushed, dead soldiers with flies on their grey faces, women cradling bloody babies. Wouldn't the American entertainment industry love this? What are they waiting for? It seems like perfect popcorn fare, doesn't it?
To scream. To open the mouth and be flame. To be eaten by the flame of that scream. Like knocking your head against the wall all night, cutting off your own finger, or lighting a house on fire - what good? For some reason I keep thinking of the millions of teenagers who slash themselves with razors, endlessly looking for an opening to crawl through - out of the claustrophobic, closed-down, night-of-the-living-dead atmosphere in which they've grown up (business as usual, while the bombs rain down).
If this war goes according to plan, then we’ll all be subjected to glorious victory parades with pompous speeches using the words “freedom” and “liberation” (while the long shadow of murder stretches out behind the speakers...) and the military machine will thrust out it’s chest like Mussolini and look for the next place to invade.
Goddamn the masters of war. Goddamn the minions who follow them. Who will question the soldiers and their superiors who massacre and claim innocence, that they were just “doing their duty?” Who will reach out their hand to the soldier after he/she is reduced to a trauma-wracked killing machine, after they come home? Who will acknowledge that thousands of civilians have been murdered? Who will dare touch that darkness?
“A force never seen before”
Donald Rumsfeld, talking to the white house press corps
about American military power, 3/20/03
Wisps of pollen drift through sunlight
The iridescent undershine of the crow's black wing
The hand that coaxes blue from a beige guitar
The scuttle-tine music of a roach across the linoleum floor
Hands that risk becoming the sea-storm surface of a drum
The cadmium shock-orange calendula flower mimicking the sun
I close my eyes, turn my palms to the sky:
Blood moves through my fingers the way dust motes float through shafts of light