If it weren't for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they probably never would have crossed each other's path. But there they were, gray ponytailed R.J. Morrison and close-cropped Charles James, animated and loud, arguing about the American military offensive. They stood face-to-face amid a tightly packed throng of protesters at the corner of Broadway and Front Street, pointing and gesturing, alternately making salient arguments and telling the other he had no idea what he was talking about.
“Don't continue to misinform people,” shouted anti-war Morrison.
“I'm not misinforming people,” shot back pro-war James.
The sun had yet to set on Thursday, the day the regime-change campaign began in earnest. Front Street was still functioning, and the police were still trying to keep people on the sidewalk and in the crosswalks. Soon, though, the protesters were given a wide berth; for the rest of the night they had Front Street, where the Federal Building sits, all to themselves.
(There could have been 1,000 to 1,500 people assembled prior to the march. By the time the protesters were fully into their walk through downtown, many more had joined up. Organizers say the number may have reached 7,000.)
Over in front of the federal building, one impassioned, amplified speaker was preaching to the choir. “We love those troops,” he declared, “but we don't believe you should show love for them by sending them off to die!” He was followed by a string of multiethnic, mostly male speakers at the microphone. Their audience-a diverse mix ranging from young, black-clad anarchists with bandanas over their faces to more conservatively dressed, elderly folks-soaked up the words and cheered them on.
The media was ever-present, gathering sound bites from the protesters and seeking people with opposing views. Reporter Tena Ezzeddine of the local NBC affiliate found Charles James, who about an hour earlier had been arguing the pro-war position against R.J. Morrison. And James' debate partner was none too happy with Ezzeddine choice of interviewees.
Why, he asked, full of agitation, would she feature a pro-war opinion in the midst of an anti-war demonstration? Was she, he wanted to know, going to be asking “politicians” the sort of questions that were being raised by the speakers at the rally? “Play it fair,” he said to her excitedly.
“You're starting to offend me by saying I don't play it fair,” she said, having grown weary of the exchange.
Back at the microphone, a Green Party representative was stirring things up. Members of the Bush administration, said Robert Nanninga, “are not doing shit for Americans but putting targets on all of our heads.” He said California should break away from the union. “I would rather have Barbara Boxer [as president] than the dude with his finger on the button.... Every time they say, ‘Be good Americans,' I say, ‘Bullshit! Be good Californians and say no to war.'” It was a well-received idea.
The march itself was a mass of humanity and signage several city blocks long. The marchers protested. The police officers, clutching batons and donning helmets and Plexiglas face guards, walked alongside making sure the march remained orderly. Onlookers and Gaslamp restaurant patrons gawked. Some patient motorists, held up in traffic caused by the march, flashed peace signs. Some residents of downtown condos waved American flags and flipped the marchers the bird.
At several points along the way, older men stood stone-faced, giving the marchers a thumbs down. One of them combined a few choice words with his gesture. To this, a young drummer broke from the march, hurried over to the elderly man and sat at his feet. He drummed wildly as the man stood there with his thumb down.
Asked what he thought of the performance, the man said, “I think it was kind of ridiculous.” At which time two middle-aged women came over and serenaded the man with, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
Down the street, two male counter-protesters were arguing with a young female member of the National Lawyers Guild, which attends protests around the country to document any incidents involving overzealous police. “We should kill the motherfucker,” one of young men shouted, referring to Saddam Hussein.
An older female member of the guild admonished the younger woman, who was visibly shaken. “It's not your job to engage,” she scolded gently.
After the march, police officers lined up along Broadway, forming a barrier that limited the protest to Front Street. A group of young women against the U.S.-led invasion sat on the street facing them. One held a sign that said, “Waging war for peace is like fuckin' for virginity.”
Drumming and dancing ensued behind them, and the scene perplexed 36-year-old Kelly Kline, who, positioned between the cops and the seated demonstrators, stood quietly and held an American flag as his show of support for the U.S. policy. “I don't understanding the dancing,” he said. “It looks like they're having a good time. I thought it was supposed to be a serious thing.”