2003 Flashback: Maybe Democracy Happened That Day

Amid the freezing 24-degree day under the sunny skies of Washington, D.C. with the drums, speeches, occasional whiffs of sweet-smelling incense, and the chants and signs calling for peace not war, the most significant outcome of the Saturday, January 18, 2003, peace march was the sound of pent-up silence unleashed.

The 9/11 factor, which has provided Mr. Bush with unqualified acquiescence to his every proposal, including the 2002 election sweep, was no longer a good reason not to question his plans and policies toward Iraq-or toward civil rights, civil liberties, the 2000 election, his National Guard record, or even the possibility that he should be impeached due to his mishandling of his office.

It was all out there, every bit of it. It had been there before but all criticism of Mr. Bush stopped the minute the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. That Saturday afternoon criticism of the administration once again became acceptable, necessary, even patriotic.

"The People," those abstract entities that Mr. Bush promised to trust in his campaign speeches, had finally come out to speak against him. Significantly, they were not followers of the opposition party, which has yet to emerge from hiding, but they were a mass of people from a cross-section of America.

This well-organized march brought bus loads of people from as far west as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Kansas, as far north as Maine, and as far south as Florida, Mississippi, and Texas. It was inspiring, truly inspiring, to see people who braved a cramped bus-seat sleep-over to come to Washington D.C., right in front of the Capitol Building, and stand for peace.

These were committed people who endured distance, cold, discomfort, and put forth an alternative for handling conflict with our enemies, including those who dared to threaten us on our own turf.

"Peace is not the absence of war," said one speaker, "It is the presence of justice." And how did they define justice? For these Americans, it was not retaliation for 9/11 or Saddam's attempt on #41's life.

  • Justice was about spending billions of dollars on health care, jobs, and education for Americans.
  • Justice was about protecting basic civil liberties, respecting diversity, giving all people a chance to make a life for themselves.
  • For our enemies justice was about saving children from disease, hunger, homeless, and annihilation. It was about preventing a new type of holocaust-nuclear as well as biological and chemical warfare that could kill and maim mass numbers of soldiers and civilians.
  • For poor countries, justice was about controlling a voracious American consumerist appetite. It was about recognizing that the health of our economy was too dependent on low-income slave-labor service jobs, ripping natural resources from the earth, and promoting habits of wastefulness so a few profiteers could benefit from our addictions to cheap oil, cheap food, cheap technology, and cheap products.
  • For minorities justice was about allowing all people the right of access to all our institutions-whether they held a legacy card, an affirmative action card, or a middle class ticket to a good and healthy life as an American citizen.

In a recognition that the "emperor has no clothes," the cloud hovering over the Capitol that day seemed to lift for a little while as people sensed a certain relief that the destructive nature of the Bush administration's policies and practices were not their imagination-nor were they alone in that perception.

Most significant of all was the fact that the peace march was non-partisan. No one rallied around Democrats or Republicans. Instead, they were there as citizens protesting a war they did not want and which has no justification for fighting. If there was any partisan talk it was the chastisement of congressional Democrats who sheepishly voted in favor of the October 2002 resolution allowing the president to go to war with Iraq. They couldn't take a stand against war because they were afraid of not looking strong. They cared more about being re-elected than they did committing troops to die for a president's obsession with Saddam Hussein. Shame on them for caving in to such cowardice!

The peace march wasn't a passing theme or whimsy. It was serious effort to avoid an illegal, unnecessary, immoral war and instead to turn the nation's attention to its own backyard where people were hurting because they lacked a job, adequate health care, a home, or an education leading them to a job.

The marchers in Washington, all 500,000 of them, also joined a worldwide movement comprised of millions of people who recognized that the old ways of defending one's country through war were no longer effective, viable, or decent and that weapons of mass destruction, whether ours or theirs, were capable of killing whole populations of people.

The speakers at the rally criticized a cock-eyed foreign policy determined to declare war on Iraq about presumed weapons of mass destruction and not North Korea, who readily admitted, even flaunted having such weapons.

They objected to unilateral war and pre-emptive strike against Iraq-or any country and pointed out that such a tactic violates our Constitution.

Yes, it was clear that the peace movement wasn't going to go away. Nay, Saturday's march was only a beginning where those who had been confused, discouraged, angry, isolated, or oblivious to the policies of our country would no longer be silent. Too much was at stake not to demand a leadership that advocated for all people to live a life worth living. No, this thing was bigger than even the Bush Administration. It was a call for change in America about who were in the world and what we wanted for ourselves and other people.

Much was accomplished on that cold, sunny day in Washington, D.C. and in cities across the United States and the world. People marched the city streets to make peace an option, peace a possible outcome, peace a stand against war. They marched to make peace patriotic! People were finally speaking their minds. It's been so long since they have. Yes, maybe democracy happened that day.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at KalamazooCollege in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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