President Obama, War is Bad Romance
Students taking part in an anti-war protest in Washington DC at the weekend felt jilted by the man they helped get elected
It's a Friday afternoon at Farragut Square, a genteel park just a few blocks from the White House in downtown Washington. Office workers, tourists and the occasional homeless person soak up the afternoon sun on one of the first pleasant days of spring. In other words, it's the perfect time for a dance party.
At 3pm sharp a mobile sound system is rolled in to the park, and Michael Jackson's Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough kicks off the festivities. Scattered groups of students and young people, some of them twirling hoola hoops, one dressed in a gorilla outfit, take to the impromptu dance floor. When Lady Gaga's chart-topper Just Dance comes on, the crowd goes wild. When the DJ follows this up with Bad Romance, also by Lady Gaga, the students let out a roar, and some hoist up signs that read: "Drop tuition, not bombs", "Stop cheating our future", "Fund Our Future: War is Bad Romance".
"We're the generation coming up now, sending our friends off to war. Our peers are the ones coming back with PTSD," 19-year old Zora Gussow tells me, a student who travelled down to Washington with a group from Rochester, NY to take part in this Funk the War action, organised by the Washington chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. "I had vague hopes that Obama would represent a change, but if he's going to be barely any better than Bush, he's going to lose a lot of young people."
The anti-war dance party on 19 March, attended by hundreds of students, coincided with the seven-year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, and marked more than nine years of US and Nato occupation in Afghanistan. It's an inauspicious milestone. According to the National Priorities Project's "total cost" counter, the price tag for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now clock in at almost a trillion dollars. The date also falls soon after another round of recent reports about the role of American special operations forces in the massacre of Afghan civilians, and revelations that last year's suicide rate for men aged 18-29 in the armed forces hit a record high.
To talk to this generation of young people is to find a group of people whose entire adolescence and early adulthood coincide with protracted US involvement in multiple wars and occupations in the Middle East. The Forever War (a phrase coined by New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins) takes its toll on the society as a whole, but young people bear the brunt. This is a generation battered by soaring youth unemployment rates, spiralling tuition costs at public and private universities thanks to the recession and state budget crises, and a future of generally diminished expectations. Many of those out on the streets this past Friday were involved in the Obama campaign in some shape or form, and almost all of them cast their first vote in a presidential election for him. The students I talked to on Friday now say they're feeling pretty jilted.
"We knocked on doors, we helped put him in office. He told us he'd create more green jobs, not ship more young people off to war," says Brian Menifee, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student at Howard University.
Brian remembers election night in Washington when Obama's win was announced and people swept out of houses and bars to dance in the streets, and strangers hugged each other on the sidewalk. Now Brian is dancing on the street with a suit and tie, and a Santa hat, where the Funk the War moveable dance party has made a pit stop in front of the offices of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative thinktank that helped make the case for the invasion of Iraq. "I think we learned not to put all our eggs in one basket. After these old heads retire this is going to be our country. We have to start making our demands now."
"This isn't much different than we used to do in the early days," Mack Bica, a member of Veterans for Peace tells me (and seemingly one of the few people over 30 in the crowd). "These wars drag on and on, and it's these kids who are getting screwed the most."
Another woman watches the festive protest from the sidelines with amusement. "I'm not sure what they're out here for, but they've got a nice little beat going on."
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited