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Marchers in Orange

I first got into it when I was 16. It was 1968 and the Vietnam War was raging. I decided I needed to do something, and marching gave me one way to let others know that I was opposed to the war. I made a public statement with my presence. I couldn’t vote, but I could march.

As the protests against the war became more frequent I did more marching, sometimes with a sign, often without. Being part of a march was important; it provided me with a sense of not being alone in my position against the war. It brought me together with like-minded people.

The marching I’ve done has not involved the coordination and beat of a military unit or marching band, but rather a determined rhythm of walking with others toward some gathering point. There is something very affirming about marching together with people who agree on an important issue. Marching brings to bear a sense of involvement and commitment. Marches also help inform those watching about the issues behind the action and serve as a means to gather supporters along the way.

Mass marching blossomed as a form of protest in the 20th century. The people learned that when the government failed to heed their concerns, marching in the streets was one way to bring pressure for change.

One of the earliest marching events to get much notice in this country was at the tail-end of the 19th century when Jacob Coxey and Carl Browne organized the first march on Washington D.C. On May 1, 1894, with an economic depression in full swing, about 500 of “Coxey’s Army” marched to the Capitol to protest economic conditions and call for the establishment of public-works programs to employ jobless workers. Coxey and Browne were promptly arrested for bringing their “petition of boots” to the Capitol’s grounds and served 20 days in jail. Marching as a form of protest in this country grew dramatically during the course of the 20th century: Women marched to demand the vote; workers marched to demand jobs, fair wages and safe working conditions; African Americans marched for civil rights, and since the late ’60s a host of peace and social justice causes have brought their own “petition of boots” to the streets.

On Feb. 15, I found myself marching again, this time through the urban caverns of midtown Manhattan, heading east on 59th Street. I had met up with a group of labor activists at the southeast corner of Central Park as part of a “feeder” march to the rally site. A steady stream of demonstrators began to pass, creative signs in tow, walking in unity from unknown points west. As the Bread & Puppet Theater Band played “Study War No More,” I got into the growing human stream heading east that was at first on one sidewalk, then both sidewalks, and then, finally, in the street. Motorists abandoned cars in the flood of humanity that followed.

While I felt like I was marching, I wasn’t legally marching. The mayor of New York City had seen fit to torch the Constitution and deny protestors the right to march. Mayor Bloomberg used concerns about terrorism and the Homeland Security Office’s orange terror alert to ban the march originally planned to go past the United Nations and end in a mass gathering in Central Park.

With the avid support of the Bush administration, federal District Court judge Barbara S. Jones ruled in favor of the mayor. The security concerns of the mayor would limit the free speech of those wishing to march and protest. The rise in the terror-alert level would later be found to be yet another Bush administration false alarm. It seemed less than coincidental that the administration had raised the level of terror alert just prior to what would become a historic global demonstration against the Bush push for war.

So, instead of a single simple march to Central Park, smaller marches broke out all over Manhattan, like the one I joined. Groups gathered at pre-designated landmarks and intersections to walk together toward the 1st Avenue rally site. Demonstrators who made it to 1st Avenue found that “terrorism concerns” penned them in with police barricades on each block and that no port-a-johns were provided (apparently the mayor thought they were high-priority targets for terrorists).

The result of the Bloomberg/Bush terrorism concerns was that much of the east side of Manhattan was swamped and disrupted by the movement of marching feet. Crowd-control measures by the police insured that 2nd and 3rd avenues were shut down by hundreds of thousands of people who could not get to the rally site. Of course, no terrorist activities unfolded, and the only real threat people massing in Manhattan faced that day was a threat to their basic right to protest against the policies of their government. One protestor’s sign kept returning to my thoughts: “Let us not become the evil we deplore.”

Despite the orange terrorism warning and all the activities of the mayor to inhibit the demonstration, an estimated half-million people marched in a 25-degree chill to express their opposition to war. They were joined by more than 12 million people in more than 500 cities around the world in the largest global demonstration for peace in human history. While relatively few protestors in Manhattan made it to the rally site on 1st Avenue, most got in some marching in their attempt to get there. All this action got me thinking about just how important this form of protest is for the maintenance of this democracy. Especially today.

The next large peace march takes place in Washington D.C. on Saturday, March 8 (International Women’s Day), when a women’s peace organization plans to encircle the White House in pink. For more information, check out CODEPINK at www.codepink4peace.org.

—Tom Nattell


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