This is What Democracy Looks Like

I was huddled against a wall on Broadway and 5th, just after dawn, when I noticed a woman with a gas mask strapped to her belt.

“Don’t worry,” I heard someone next to me say (probably having noticed that my lips were turning white) “this won’t be like Seattle, at least, probably not.”

Despite those reassuring words I couldn’t help but recall images from 1999 of Seattle police officers spraying mace into the eyes of protesters. They were locked arm in arm across the street to prevent the World Trade Organization from conducting their last meeting of the twentieth century. I would later find out that these fears were unjustified, but I wouldn’t know that for another four hours.

I gathered in the cold with, what turned out to be, more than one hundred Chicoans who would travel to San Francisco and take part in the largest mass movement since the atrocities of September 11th. Like many people in front of the Peace and Justice Center that Saturday morning, I was concerned about American policies abroad. Perhaps I was wrong, but I couldn’t see how going into other countries, to both kill and frighten people with bombs, would prevent further terrorist attacks on the US. It certainly wouldn’t work for me. If Yemen had four thousand troops stationed in Sacramento, even if they weren’t hurting anybody, I’d be trying my darndest to push that occupying force out of my home. I try to be a good citizen, so, rather than wait for November and vote for someone who might (or might not) push for change, I decided to do it myself.

My wife and I climbed aboard one of the buses that the Chico Peace and Justice Center and Chico Peace Works had arranged for transportation. There were no seats so we sat on the floor against the wall in what would be a bumpy, but memorable experience. I marveled that there was a far more diverse group than I had anticipated. There were experienced protesters from the 60s, college students who had never protested anything except a test score, concerned parents with their children, a Chico State professor, rebels without a cause, and even a Gulf War veteran. Opinions ranged from angry denunciations of capitalism to the simple desire to learn more about our country and foreign policy. Best of all, everyone shared their views with one another and, I for one, felt that I received a greater range of discussion (and learned a heck of a lot more about what was going on in the world) than I did from watching CNN.

As we crossed the Golden Gate bridge musical instruments seemed to come out of nowhere. Everyone began clapping and singing in, what appeared to me, an attempt to psyche themselves up for the events ahead. I mumbled comically through Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” but I’m sure I drowned a few people out offering my shrill interpretation of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Sure, I felt a little goofy, but it was terrific fun. It was an experience I’m not likely to forget. We were in a bus traveling to a protest in San Francisco, singing songs about peace. It was 2002, but I felt like it could’ve been 1968. (Of course, I wasn’t born until 1975, so the only thing I know about the sixties I learned from “Forrest Gump.”)

What I witnessed in Dolores Park that morning was unlike anything I have seen before. I’ve always been lousy at winning those contests where you guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, but by 11:30 there must have been thirty to forty thousand people (organizers claim there were fifty thousand and the San Francisco Chronicle estimated “at least twenty thousand,” so I’ll hedge my bets and say thirty-five). There were so many people that the Civic Center destination was completely filled while, two miles away, others were still waiting in line to march.

International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) organized the rally, entitled: “The Real Axis of Evil: War, Racism and Poverty.” The event, however, didn’t have any one voice behind it, simply one message. Quakers, Teamsters, and Socialists joined Palestinians and Israelis to demand a change in US foreign policy. Signs read: “Question the War,” “Stop Bush,” “A Jewish Soldier Murdered My Sister,” “U.S. Out of Plan Colombia” and “Sharon: Stop Using the Holocaust as an Excuse for War,” among thousands of others.

Bob Trausch, one of the board members of the Chico Peace & Justice Center, helped to organize Chico’s involvement in the protest. He hopes that people will come to feel that there’s nothing more American than gathering peacefully to press your views onto US policy.

“I’m hoping that more people will see this and that more people will feel secure and safe with their feelings,” he said. “They don’t have to believe that if they’re against bombing Afghanistan or against going into Iraq that they’re anti-American. We’re all Americans. We all work, we all are educated, we all know what’s happening in this world and we don’t want our government doing the things they are doing.”

The police presence was remarkably light with, at most, a few dozen officers dispersed along the two mile route (one even tossed a peace sign my way as I snapped his photograph). Costumes and street theater abounded: a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty in mourning, a giant corn ear protested genetically modified foods, a couple on stilts waded through the throngs of people. There were families; children laughed and sang with their parents, elderly couples in wheel chairs held signs. An African-American woman came out of the hair salon where she worked, applauding and thanking people for working towards change. There were Muslim women draped in black abayas from head to toe and a lone hippie couple wearing nothing at all.

Chico State graduate Adrienne Wright was amazed by the diversity of people and issues. “It’s incredible,” she said, “I didn’t realize that there were this many people in California who are against the war.”

Martin Coots, a waiter at a downtown Chico restaurant, was impressed by the turnout but had hoped for a different focus. “It’s great to see that people aren’t afraid to speak out,” he said, “but I thought this was supposed to be a sister protest with Washington D.C. People here are attacking the shadow, it should be about the World Trade Organization.” Other Chico protesters agreed, and several held aloft American flags with the stars replaced by corporate logos.

Jim Reis, a Gulf War veteran, had more personal reasons for taking part in the demonstration. “I wholeheartedly joined the military and thought I was doing the right thing,” he said. “Fortunately, as I got older, hopefully a little bit wiser and more educated, I realized that war is never the way to solve any problem.”

And I was there because I love democracy. I wanted to play a small role in making a large change in the world.

“Change always has to come from people,” Bob Trausch told me while we marched, “it can’t come from higher up. And this is just the beginning, because people are finally waking up to the fact that we need a change.”

Amen to that, and you can sign me up for next time.

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