Few minds were changed, but the despair was lifted

Nora Jacobson

February 01, 1991|By Nora Jacobson

I ROLLED for peace during the Vietnam War. My mother pushed me in a stroller. She had thumbtacked a "War is not healthy for children and other living things" poster to the kitchen door. This was New Haven, Conn., sometime in the late 1960s.

I marched last Saturday in Washington, one of the thousands brought to their feet by the war in the Persian Gulf. I marched because of an overwhelming feeling that the chaos in the world is mounting, a helpless feeling that this war is bringing it all down around our ears.

It was sunny and very cold. Two streams of people flowed around the Capitol and the shallow pool at the foot of its western steps. (The water was frozen.) The people streams met on the grass of the Mall. There was room enough to move, but it was crowded. I understood the expression "a river of people."

In the hour or so before the march got itself moving there were speakers (inaudible) and singers broadcasting from a temporary stage. Groups raised banners and donned costumes. Some people had picnics. Vendors sold buttons and T-shirts and giant chocolate-chip cookies. The sky was perfectly clear. A helicopter circled again and again.

There was some order the march was supposed to follow, but veterans first and supporters of the Palestinians second is all I heard or remember. The line formed along Constitution Avenue, ready to swing out onto Pennsylvania. My friends and I stood about a third of the way down from the march leaders, near a group from Vermont. There were several false surges forward. Finally, we started to move.

In the weeks before the fateful Jan. 15 deadline, I found myself getting into conversations with strangers about the likelihood of war. I became convinced war was inevitable -- and supported by most people. The mood was right -- a Zeitgeist of supporting our boys and hunkering down; I expected to see people stockpiling sugar. When the U.S. started bombing, it was a relief after all the tension. I was glued to the news: watching two television stations, listening to the radio and reading two papers at once. That first day the information still seemed to mean something. I thought I'd be able to understand what was happening. When the Iraqis bombed Israel, it was so immediate and real that I cried. Now things were irrevocable. It wouldn't get better until it got a lot worse.

By Saturday, headlines were back to almost normal size. The military briefings with their bloodless statistics came on regularly. Insanity followed absurdity: The weather report for Iraq was classified information; civilian casualties were subsumed and dismissed as "collateral damage." I didn't even bother to listen anymore. I went to one small peace rally. I left it feeling neither uplifted nor empowered, but only complaining of my frozen feet and the bad poetry of the angry young men. Everyone talked about the war, soberly exchanging facts and anxieties. So this was "worse" -- depression and universally short tempers. A wartime malaise. I was growing used to it.

So the mood of the Washington march surprised me. It was a lark, a festival. Walking, I felt part of a parade, not a protest.

Dixieland bands played. Women on stilts danced, long skirts swirling somewhere around their wooden knees. People in papier-mache masks acted out scenes of street theater -- suited men in white face played with cardboard airplanes, a funeral procession of sad-faced women carried limp dead. A giant horse strung together with bones and weathered wood and birds made of white bed sheets rolled past. Banners silk-screened with flowers and slogans dipped and flew as marchers worked them in unison.

What all this meant was that people had put their hands to creating something in a time of destruction. The things they made were witty and amusing, often beautiful. In this celebrating mass, for the first time since the war began, I felt happy.

I am by nature an ambivalent person. I need to mention how uncomfortable I felt standing near the Palestinian flags carried by some protesters. I need to mention the group of a dozen or so (most with shaved heads and combat boots) who barreled along beside the main stream of marchers screaming, "Victory to Saddam!"

The media gave a few seconds or inches to Saturday's march, more time and space to smaller protests organized in support of the war.

I always thought people marched to change the minds of the powerful, and I thought that was futile. What I learned Saturday is that we march for ourselves, to make a carnival, a respite. We march to walk ourselves out of despair.

Nora Jacobson writes from Baltimore.


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