Jacob Lawrence, Protest Rally (1969)
October 27, 2002:
11:30am, Saturday, October 26, 2002. BART train, Fremont Line, beneath Market Street. Train crawls to a stop.
Driver's voice on the PA: "There's a back-up at Embarcadero Station due to the large
number of demonstrators offloading there." Astonished, exhilarated cheer rolls through our car like
the "wave" at a baseball game.
1pm, Saturday, January 26, 1991. Market Street, San Francisco. The standard hyperboles leap to mind,
but can't capture the power of this crowd: ocean of people, sea of humanity. The street is
full, the sidewalks are full. Demonstrators shoulder to shoulder, maybe fifty across, and behind them
are miles more. Civic Center Plaza is full, the street is full, the assembly point at Justin Herman Plaza is
full, and still there are busses arriving. We counted 250,000 at our tally point approaching
the rally site.
Sound of the crowd echoes from tall buildings. Chanting, drums,
cheers. There's a good spirit. You're late, there's not time to look for your friends at the assembly point. Stake out a
spot standing on a pedestrian bench where you can snap some pics. Excited cheers: the march begins.
We began building in October. Full-time office staff of three. Canvassing housing for busloads
coming from as far as Montana. Placing ads in alternative media. Answering phones. FAXing press releases.
Renting a dozen portable toilets at $900 each, plus three with wheelchair access at $1200. Renting a
sound truck for $10,000. Organizing flying squads of volunteer leafleters who plastered telephone poles
and construction sites for a hundred miles. During the final two weeks we printed 10,000 leaflets a day.
Cheers and chants roll up the block as marchers pass. Excellent turnout. Really, very good. Street's crowded, people are
spilling into the sidewalks. Festive, determined,
angry, serious, satirical. Large marches have an unmistakable sound: drums beating, bullhorns chanting slogans,
individual voices standing out from the roar then fading, tens of thousands of shoes on asphalt. You snap digi
pics for half an hour: all you have of the monster 1991 rallies are your happy memories. Then in and out of the march,
sometimes participating, other times running off to the side for more pics.
There was a simultaneous event in D.C. which was even larger. Activists have learned from experience that
police underreport attendance by at least half: their "official" figure for D.C.
was 250,000. Over the phone the organizers there told us it was far, far larger.
From the stage we announced a conservative 350,000; the cheer was unbelievable.
Near Kearny Street you pass a local TV crew filming cops. "San Francisco police prepared
a massive presence today in anticipation of tens of thousands of demonstrators." You interrupt,
parking yourself between camera and reporter, saying, "Excuse me. The police are not the story. The march
is the story and" - you make a you-should-turn-around-now gesture with both hands - "the march is
behind you." Smile and waive. They're polite about it. That evening they underreport the turnout
by two thirds.
Next day at U.C. Berkeley, 1000 student activists held a conference to establish an umbrella
committee coordinating hundreds of campuses across the western states. It's hard to judge just how many
students these activists represented, but it must surely have been hundreds of thousands. (Mental note:
next time you organize one of these things, don't use Roberts' Rules of Order.)
The rally site is packed. Dozens of literature tables and booths; at least a zillion leafleters hawking movement
newspapers. It's afternoon, there are long lines at the large booths serving barbecue and Middle Eastern food.
It's something like the world's largest Fourth of July picnic, in part because of the smoky-sweet smell of sizzled meat
drifting on the breeze. From the sound stage there's the usual rhetoric; you and everyone else tune it out.
Until a child's voice rings from the loudspeakers: there are grammar school and middle school kids on
the program, who command everyone's immediate and complete respect. The huge crowd hushes, listens,
answers each one with a mighty
ovation; then returns to tuning out the grownups. (Mental note: next time you organize one of these things,
no-one on the speakers program over 15.)
Despite the crush you find your friends easily: you know which literature tables will interest them. Now indeed it's like a
Fourth of July picnic. You half expect fireworks.
Later that week Bush Sr., our President, lied, saying, "There is no antiwar movement."
Remarkably, there are no counter-demonstrators. At the Afghanistan rallies over the preceding year
there's been a highly nuclear family of 4.3 blondes waiving flags, running after TV cameras, calling us traitors, trying to see
how many local stations were willing to make them celebrities of a sort. They're a strong picture, so at first
they monopolized the TV coverage - that is, the four of them, instead of the 25,000 demonstrators across the street.
You labeled them
"Aryans For Indiscriminate Bombing," and it sort of caught on. Eventually the press became bored with
them. Now they're not here. Perhaps they've given up. Or perhaps even yo-yos like them know better than to try
to upstage a mass this size.
It's a pity we lost in 1991. If we'd prevented that war, there might have been no 9/11, no Afghanistan war,
no need to be here again, on this and future Saturdays.
Late in the afternoon the crowd thins. There are many riders with rally signs on the BART train home. Mostly younger
people, just a few of the gray-haired '60s veterans. Except for the crowd size,
in the print media is more accurate than you've seen lately; they
even quote some of the slogans correctly. The TV news focuses on the small number of older participants, as if to
imply, "It's a hippie thing from the Woodstock set; no need to think about it too seriously." Even that's toward
the end of their broadcasts, after fifteen minutes on the Washington sniper.
"How long? How long must we sing this song? How long?"
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© 2002-2013 Mark Phillips.
All rights reserved.
This writing is fiction. Please don't confuse it with reality.