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The Rhetoric of Mass Demonstrations

A look at the rhetoric of protest in the Washington, DC rallies of March 15-16
This article is about this reporter's observations of the signs and symbols displayed at the Saturday, March 15 and Sunday, March 16 demonstrations in Washington, DC.

I don't mean this as some semantic exercise. The slogans written and chanted at the current round of demonstrations have been widely disparaged, snickered at and used by both conservative and liberal journalists as an example of the deficiencies of oppositional explanations of the pending war. As in most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth. Not all signs or slogans are models of political prose. But by pointing to a single sign the critics, and even the sympathetic observers, fail to realize that it is not the single sign or chant that is the message. The message is manifest in the synergy of all of the signs, the chants, and the people themselves.

On both days, it was the people who delivered the primary message. On Saturday, despite last minute organizing, close to 75,000 people rallied on the grounds of the Washington monument. Despite the imminence of President Shrub's signal to begin bombing, people came to give public presence to their opposition. They were the message, publicly transmitting their opposition to the White House and simultaneously in support of demonstrators everywhere. Adding to the resonance of their message was their diversity. There was no sign that said "celebrate diversity," but there we all were --color, shape, size, age--a sociologist's urban fantasy. There was no pushing or shoving even in the crowded sectors; people smiled at each other, spoke with complete strangers and posed for the ubiquitous photographers who wanted to take home a memento of the event.

The signs that people carried presented an explanation of what was taking place and why they were there. Rather than look at the signs individually, the observer needs to see them as statements within a "theory" of opposition to war and of building peace. This is not to say that they were deadly serious expressions of anger or despair. They were often tinged with irony and sometimes explicit joking. Humor, after all, has always been a defense against oppressive circumstances.

The first tangible target of the signs was the President. Many simply expressed their opposition.

Drop Bush, not bombs.
Stop Mad Cowboy Disease.
Regime change starts at home.
Stop King George. No war.
Bush the pipeline pimp.
I thought Bush was pro-life.
Clueless in the Oval Office, a national security disaster.

Some viewed Shrub as someone who was seriously psychologically deranged, and presented an analysis of his disability.

Medicate Bush, psychopath.
Elect a madman, you get madness.
Don't give bombs to paranoids.
Dubya is a danger to himself and others. Get him therapy now.
Many saw the President as a new Hitler.
From drunk to dictator in 15 years.
Bush, unelected president and dictator
Bush Uber Alles.
Bush is the new Hitler.
A terror alert: Hitler is alive and well in the White House.
Bush for Shah.

Jokesters had their day. Bush "axis of arrogance." "Bush and Cheyney, axis of oil," and "Bush, Blair, Powell--the real asses of evil." "Yee Haw! is not a foreign policy." "Frodo has failed. George has the ring." "Attack Texas, they have oil." One wit held a crayoned sign: "I miss sex in the White House." Perhaps the most moving sign read "The Gulf War killed my son. Don't let Bush kill yours." Many signs, in fact, focused on children; and many parents had brought their children with them.

Some of my students don't have enough money for shoes, but Bush is test firing $80 million missiles.
The children of Baghdad are not your enemies.
Don't train our soldiers to be baby killers.
Cry for Iraq's children.
Iraqis love their children too.
50% of the population is under 18. Don't kill the children.
Teachers for peace. No child should die for oil.
Sacrifice our SUVs, not our children.
Schools yes. War no.

Many people carried signs which contained specific directions for action urging us that "Silence is consent. Speak up for peace."

Money for reparations, not war.
Inspections, not war.
Impeach for world peace.
Peace is possible, so what are we fighting for.
Support our troops. Bring them home.
Military recruiters--out of our communities.
Healthcare not warfare.
Disarm not Destroy.
Let's destroy our weapons of mass destruction.
All we are saying is give Blix a chance.
Let's destroy our weapons of mass destruction.
Declare Peace.
How about preemptive peace.
Peace will come when the hungry are fed.
If war comes, walk out.
Regime change starts at home.

Some people focused on the issue of democracy, and many chanted exuberantly "This is what democracy looks like." The signs were more analytic. "A government that will not be swayed by its people is not a democracy." "Mr. President, can you hear your people. Focus on this group." Others honed in on terrorism and their anger at the thought of the US going to war.

War is anti-American
Terrorism is the symptom, not the disease.
There are no smart bombs.
No war without reason.
This is not war. It's murder.
We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can't bomb it into peace.
Shock + awe = blitzkrieg.
War is carnage.
Preemptive war is terrorism.
An eye for an eye does not equal peace.

There were those who saw the war as reflecting class and capitalist interests.

How many lives per gallon?
Defend Iraq against US imperialist attack.
Hijacking the US military for corporate interests.
Bush's oil is Osama's dream come true.

Many on the march tied the events to other human rights struggles. "US troops out of Korea." "US Navy clean up Vieques." "Justice or just us." Others felt the need to establish their identity, claiming a solidarity with their peers.

Greeks for peace.
Another Jewish lesbian mother for peace in the Middle East.
Queers against the war in Iraq.
Another pissed off soccer mom for peace.

Finally, the boldness of France in opposing the US and the absurd response of the Congressional dining hall in changing the names of French fries to liberty fries as well as the names of other foods such as French toast, led many people to respond accordingly.

I take back every nasty thing I ever said about the French.
Freedom for the Fries
Fascist Fries.
Boycott France. Give back the Statue of Liberty.
Beaujolais, Brie, Baguettes Not Bombs.

This was a good suggestion and as the march approached the White House my partner and I took off for some wine and cheese and the time to contemplate all these lovely and creative signs. Tomorrow (Sunday) was another rally. And, as the old song goes, "What a difference a day makes."

The Sunday Vigil

That evening about 500 people, most of them carrying candles and some with pencil flashlights and wands, conducted a vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The event, quite spiritual and paying homage to many different religions, was a subdued, highly emotional gathering. It was highlighted by the appearance of the folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary whose appearances at civil rights and peace rallies goes back to 1963 when they sang in this same place on stage with Martin Luther King in a march on Washington for civil rights. One of the featured speakers, Robert Edgar, who is the general secretary of the National Council of Churches had also appeared with King. One of the unique elements of this rally was the connection of this growing peace movement to the civil rights movement of yesterday and the social justice movements of today. The spirit of the gathering was captured by Peter, Paul and Mary's classic rendition of "Where have all the flowers gone," as the participants joined in and held their candles aloft. While the music and the almost breathtaking panorama of so many candles flickering along the reflecting pool could not be denied, there was a melancholy to the gathering. We all knew that within the next few days George W. Bush would announce his invasion of Iraq. .

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