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WASHINGTON, DC -- A dazzling sun beamed down on peace activists from around the countrywho gathered on the National Mall Saturday to demand an end to the Iraq War. Beneath this benevolent sky, the event read as much like a victory parade as a protest march. These were not the angry demonstrators who took to the streets of New York City in February 2003 in an attempt to avert a war, or the beaten-down and beleaguered ones who marched through US cities in March 2005 to protest US occupation of Iraq, or the slightly bedraggled group who last Spring tied US spending on the Iraq occupation to mismanagment of the crisis as they traced Hurricane Katrina's path in a three-state "March to New Orleans".
Estimates of the crowd size vary -- CNN put it at "tens of thousands" and event organizers insist nearly half a million showed, DC police declined to speculate -- one thing is certain: Today's marchers were as satisfied as cats who stole the cream, cats who were almost ... celebrating.
"Before, we were a minority marching to convince a majority that occupying Iraq was a terrible idea," says Hany Khalil, spokesperson for march organizers, United for Peace and Justice. "But today, for the first time we are out in force representing a majority of Americans who want us to get out of Iraq."
United for Peace and Justice, a coalition representing 1,400 national and local groups, has orchestrated protests since before the war begin in March 2003. Today, its lineup of speakers ranged from celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins to political familiars like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). Standing beside a flag-draped coffin, the speakers were almost uniformly optimistic. "It's healing time. It's hope time," the Reverend Jesse Jackson said, exhorting the crowd to "keep hope alive."
For this day anyway, the peace movement seemed to have called a cease-fire in its ongoing debate over how to allocate its limited resources: Is it better to work in electoral politics and propel antiwar representatives to Congress or take to the streets with shows of grassroots power? Saturday's protest organizers apppeared to concede these are complementary tactics: grassroots organizing has indeed shifted public opinion against the war; this shift in public opinion, coupled with some strategic work to get antiwar politicians into office has clearly paid off.
Conyers acknowledged the impact of the November elections. "[George Bush] is the commander of the military but he's not the commander of the citizens of this country," he said, to roars of approval. "Not only is it in our power to stop George Bush, but it's our obligation."
"The women of this nation spoke loud and clear in November," Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal reminded the crowd. "They said 'no' to this war." Speaker after speaker referred to the elections as a referendum on the war and insisted the American people had sent a clear mandate to Congress: End US occupation of Iraq. The clock is ticking on that mandate. Nowhere was this more evident than among the military families, vets, and soldiers whom this peace movement has always made room who have been front and center in this and protests. Dozens of military families crowded on stage at one point to speak of personal experiences in Iraq orwhat it was like to lose a family member to this war. More filled the backstage overflow area because they couldn't fit, and Iraq War veterans in camouflage were evident in this crowd.
Mary Geddry, a member of Military Families Speak Out, came from Coquille, Oregon with her eleven-year-old daughter, Sarah, to push for a swift end to the war. In their case, the stakes were particularly high. Mary Geddry's son, John, is a Marine who served two tours in Iraq before getting out of the military -- but as a member of the Individual Ready Reserves, he is eligible to be called back to duty at any time. He is slated to return to Iraq for a third tour in May.
"Seven times the vehicles he was traveling in were hit with IEDs [improvised explosive devices]," says Mary Geddry. "He survived, but he's definitely screwed up." "He attacked our brother on Christmas eve," pipes up Sarah.
Mary Geddry explains her son now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and that he is on medication for it. He also suffered some hearing loss and has carpal tunnel syndrome -- but none of this disqualifies him from service.
"Wanna see a picture of him?" Sarah asks, whipping out her digital camera and flipping through the shots until she comes to one of her brother, John, smiling up from where he lounges on the living room sofa. "He's really cute, right?"
Though she says her son is very disillusioned with the military, and thinks Americans aren't making any friends in Iraq, he remains conflicted about vocally protesting the war because he feels responsible for his fellow marines who are still over there and doesn't want to be perceived as not supporting them.
"I say, we need to separate the war from the warriors," Geddry insists.
Clearly, Mary Geddry is doing everything she possibly can to keep her son from being deployed again. She has joined multiple peace groups, writes antiwar editorials and letters to newspapers, attends protests all over the country, and participates in a weekly vigil in her home town. She understands that families of soldiers have a role to play: "As members of Military Families Speak Out," she says, "we want it clear that our children can't be used as an excuse to fund this war."
Iraq War veteran Charlie Anderson has been an outspoken critic of the war for more than a year and is active in Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Today, he takes comfort in the knowledge that the antiwar movement has turned a corner. The momentum is growing, he says, and now has a life of its own. "I like the fact that I went to bed last night and we had 12,016 people registering on our website and when I woke up this morning, there were 12,023." Anderson, who has been campaigning hard, looks tired but clearly pleased that the numbers grew as he was sleeping.
Still, he, like nearly every grassroots protester and celebrity speaker urged Congress to be more aggressive. "They have to do more than a nonbinding resolution," he insisted. "Congress holds the purse strings. They have the power. They have to use it."