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
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.
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.