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January 20, 2003

A Brief Account of the Saturday Antiwar March

Posted by Mike on January 20, 2003 1:01 AM

I went to the antiwar march on Saturday. This is a brief account.

Going in to the march, there was some discussion among the local gang as to whether to participate in the "official" and police-sanctioned march or participate in the "radical feeder march". The point of the feeder march wasn't clear to me, except from comments made here and there on local Web boards, in which contributors indicated that they wanted to raise consciousness about their issues with consumerism and globalism. Several were very concerned about "the middle class liberals" participating in the sanctioned march, and wanted to make the case for more radical politics with an audience they think needs educating.

I was against participating in the feeder march based on that reading. Sympathy for pieces of the broader agenda of local anti-authoritarians and anti-globalists doesn't extend to attempts to undermine the essentially broad coalition that appears to have gelled in opposition to the war: there are people opposed to the Bush administration's plans who won't care to be lectured about their buying habits, car, or coffee purchases. It doesn't require ignorance of the connectedness of some of these issues with the planned land war in Iraq to decide that the truly pressing, up-to-the-minute issue here is stopping that war and that those other issues will wait momentarily.

So after a little discussion, including some expressions of unhappiness with the idea of being caught up in a police assault on an unsanctioned demonstration, we chose to act like a collection of late-20 and 30-somethings and participate in the sanctioned march.

We got to the park blocks where the rally to kick off the march was held and went on a brief tour of the literature booths. The groups there were about what you'd expect: Physicians for Social Responsibility, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, American Friends Service Committee, and The War Resisters League had staffed tables. There was also a media booth run by the march organizers that didn't want to cooperate with the local indymedia outlet, which was unfortunate. After reading the account of their refusal to hand a press packet over to an indymedia correspondent becuase she wasn't "really the media," I decided I finally have a use for my press credentials if that's what it takes to get a little courtesy from the local organizers.

There were a lot of people milling around when the pre-march rally began, and our group almost instantly regretted not participating in the feeder march. As much as I felt it would be disrespectful toward the march organizers to try to inflict a broader anti-corporate/anti-globalist agenda on the event they'd put together, I felt like the march organizers, who decided a sonorous church chorus that demanded total attention and silence, followed by lengthy speeches, were imposing an agenda that made its own comment on who was welcome. I've helped organize rallies before, so I'm not unaware of the politics behind putting something like that together... there's a real pressure to let coalition members get a few words in, but the standing around was painful and seemingly interminable.


After a lot of standing around and speaking to each other in hushed voices (which earned a few sharp looks from people around us), we decided to follow the sounds of drumming, which we assumed would be the feeder march.

The change from the quiet, long-winded, low-energy affair in the park to the drumming and dancing among the "radical feeders" was bracing and energizing. A party atmosphere pervaded as people drummed, chanted, waved flags (and some pom-poms), blew whistles, and generally carried on.


There was a moment of confusion that split our group when some of us ended up at the head of what looked to be the start of the march and others made their way into the crowd that really was the head of the march, so my group ended up among the "radicals" for a while. They didn't do much besides wear a lot of black, with bandanas over their faces (ostensibly soaked in water or vinegar to absorb tear gas), and wave red flags around. One group took a stab at lighting an American flag on fire, but it looked to be flame retardant so I gave up trying to document the torching and moved on.


I read an account later that someone tried to charge the flag burners (I saw them at the end of the march and they'd managed to cover the flag in small scorch marks at the expense of many of the pamphlets they were going to use to raise the consciousness of white, middle-class liberals) but the police defended them, which I suppose might qualify as ironic in light of the fact the flag burners were masked to protect them from police tear gas.

Eventually, once we realized we were a block or two away from the real march (which hadn't started yet because people were still making speeches and because the police weren't ready yet), we made our way to the main march's route and waited around. Eventually they arrived and we joined them.


The rest of the march was pretty fun. It was led by drummers and a troupe of cheerleaders who had a guy dressed as a pirate out in front of them. The "radicals" ran around chalking circle-a's on everything in sight, which the police looked on with benign disinterest. We passed by a group of belly-dancers calling themselves "Bellies, Not Bombs," listened to a small band playing on the sidewalk as we passed by, and generally had a nice walk through the streets of Portland with 20,000 of our closest friends.


The closest thing to a low point in the whole affair came when an older woman drove her Mercedes into the midst of the march and promptly found herself surrounded by people with "No Blood for Oil" placards, including one balding, middle-aged man who told her the war was going to be all her fault before other people told him to shut up and leave her alone. The police were unsure of what to do with her without having to interact with the marchers, so some of the marchers told them to stay beside her while others cleared her way up to the next block.


There was also someone on the sidewalk decked out in 1st Cavalry insignia who held a sign supporting a war on Iraq. He was left alone by everyone who didn't have a camera, everyone with a camera swarmed around him while the police kept an eye on him.

At the end of the day, it was a pretty good time. I've been to antiwar marches in Washington, D.C. and in Bloomington, IN, and this one felt a lot more celebratory and hopeful than any other. Perhaps its because there's a sense that even if another land war in Iraq is almost guaranteed, the opposition to it is much greater than we could discern during Desert Storm.

If there's a next time, I expect I'll just start with the "radicals," even if I don't like their vanguard-y tone and preachiness. They had a lot more energy and I'd characterize what they were up to as much more of a pre-march party and drumline than a disruptive hijacking. There just weren't that many of them, and with the exception of their insistence on looking like German autonomes, plus the abortive flag burning, they didn't do anything that would seem to invite trouble. They certainly didn't provoke a police riot.

I'll probably also try to connect with the Indymedia folks to see if I can help them with their interactions with the march organizers. The tone of the local site is often shrill, and they aren't NBC or Newsweek, but denying them a press kit is out of line. Maybe a "professional" with a business card and credentials on their side will help.


Thanks for the interesting update. I couldn't help but think throughout that 60's antiwar radicals would've found all this politeness a little pathetic. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It's just that we've come a long way, IMHO.
I mean, even the flag burning episide is a little hilarious. This image of the "radicals" failing to ignite a flame-retardant flag while the police just look on is straight social satire. Perhaps we as a society have become inured to the political speech of others... the prevailing sense seems to be that as long as they aren't smashing in Starbucks' windows or throwing rocks, it's just 'kids' talking' and anything goes. I say bravo to that.

Posted by: Darren Schmidt at January 20, 2003 6:22 AM

I attended, and had a pretty good time of it. While I agree with Michael's perspective of the long winded speakers going overboard - I did think the main speaker made some really good points about just why we should protest this war. It was good to hear thoughtful points being made at a rally of 20,000 strong people.

Posted by: Michael Burton at January 20, 2003 7:31 AM

True... the main speaker was pretty good. He would have benefitted from some editing, but he did a good job of articulating the issues and he was impassioned and dynamic.

Posted by: mph at January 20, 2003 9:40 AM

the main speaker in question was Ben Linder's brother, which in itself I found moving, and he was well spoken, especially in contrast to the shrill woman who followed. But yes, no one on a stage at a rally should talk for more than 5 minutes, and no to choirs, no to any musical act over two songs. At any rate I had a great time, and very much enjoyed hanging out with the pack.

Posted by: Sara Koopman at January 21, 2003 10:56 AM

I have posted some pictures of the march which Sara took up at

Posted by: Leopoldo at January 23, 2003 4:51 PM