A shy young woman, Toni, drew close to my wife and me as we patiently waited for this now huge, anti-war gathering to start its march down Broadway, where so many have marched before. She was a teacher of English as a second language who had come to midtown Manhattan to express her opposition to the preemptive war launched by President Bush. This was not only the first public demonstration she had ever attended, but her initiation into political activity of any sort. Bewildered by the vastness of the gathering, she wondered aloud whether her views would ever be heard or listened to.
It was a beautiful Saturday spring morning with brilliant sunshine piercing the narrow, skyscraper canyons running north along Broadway from Herald Square to Times Square. The previous anti-war gathering in New York City, in wintry mid-February, had been refused a marching permit by the Police Department, obliging hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters to squeeze into First Avenue and its side streets for dozens of blocks running north from the United Nations. This time the march had been approved.
At 11:00 a.m. a few hundred people were slowly walking behind metal barricades on the sidewalks just below 42nd Street. Within 30 minutes, the police were helpfully, smilingly stopping automobile traffic on Broadway and permitting the thousands now pouring into the area by the minute to move onto the street itself. By 12:00 noon, the scheduled start of the march, one could hardly move in this human jam. Being tall, I could gaze north and south, and all I saw was humanity jammed one against another. I had been in many parades in my life, going back to the May Day marches of my youth during the 1930s and stretching through the massive anti-Vietnam war marches in Washington during the 1960s. But I had never seen anything like this.
The younger marchers outnumbered us oldsters many-fold. There were teenagers, young children with their parents, young adults pushing carriages and strollers. There were students all around us who had come from colleges and universities throughout the metropolitan area. By the time the parade finally started moving hesitantly southward, almost an hour late, we found ourselves surrounded by a large delegation from the blossoming New School University. Formerly known as the New School for Social Research, it became a haven during the 1930s for German professors forced to flee the repression and then the Holocaust of Hitler’s Germany, either because they were Jewish or anti-Nazi.
During long waits before the march finally started in earnest, we engaged a group of these New School students in conversations about their hopes and longings. Some wanted to become schoolteachers, while a few were completing their doctoral dissertations and seemed to be aiming for an academic career. They all voiced keen disappointment with their university president, the former senator from Nebraska, Robert Kerrey, who had come out publicly in support of a preemptive attack against Iraq. It seemed to them, given the liberal roots of their university, a betrayal of the New School’s legacy, divisive at home and isolating on the international scene.
To one side was an impromptu drum band that seemed to be playing endlessly and noisily. And they never stopped playing once the march began. The band seemed to inspire marchers, especially the young, to scream out assorted slogans in rising crescendoes which blasted off the sheer walls of the high-rise buildings lining Broadway into Union Square. Their favorite slogan, echoing the peace marches of the 1960s, was a call-and-response chant led by a yelling student leader: “What do we want?” “Peace!” followed by the student leader yelling, “When do we want it?” and the roaring response: “Now!” At various times along the line of march, they shouted “No more war. No more war. No more war.” And they also yelled something I don’t remember from the 1960s: “Support Our Troops — Bring Them Home.”
As the parade finally got underway, after we had been standing for hours near 36th Street, it turned out to be unlike every other march I had ever joined. This mass of humanity stretched from one side curb of Broadway to the other, with little if any space between marchers in front or behind them. And when we finally had to leave the parade because of sheer exhaustion near Union Square, we sat on the sidelines, seemingly for hours, watching this endless outpouring of humanity pass us by.
The marchers carried aloft a varied assortment of placards, some of them home made which urged: “No War For Empire,” Stop Emperor Bush,” “Not in My Name,” “Shocked and Awed by This Immoral and Unjust War,” “Elect A Madman, You Get Madness,” “People of the World, Unite for Peace,” “The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.” and on and on.
In the old May Day parades, during the 1930s, organizers would stretch the marchers out from side to side and from front to rear, so that when we came sweeping into Union Square in our Socialist uniforms of blue shirts and red ties we would convey a picture more numerous than our actual numbers. This tactic was totally unnecessary in this massive turnout of opposition to the war in Iraq. But we did find the press and the police playing a numbers game afterwards. A New York Times reporter offered the most conservative estimate of 100,000 marchers, the police gave an estimate of “in excess of 125,000,” while organizers of the march claimed that the number was over a quarter of a million. You take your pick.
As I marched down Broadway into Union Square, warm and exhilarating memories came back in a rush. There were those memorable May Day parades which ended up in historic Union Square. And it was there that we listened with bated breath to the oratorical appeals of Socialist Party standard-bearers like Norman Thomas and Morris Hillquit, thundering about justice. Those memories brought back other ones: memories of another war, when I clambered up onto Omaha Beach on D-Day with so many comrades and joined a veritable coalition of Allied forces to beat back the Nazi onslaught in Europe. And then I thought again of those massive marches in Washington against the war in Vietnam. So many wars, so many marches. When will they ever learn?