Living in the Mold Culture of Violence

By William Boyer

Living in the mold culture of violence, nagging questions ring endlessly like distant car alarms, and many wish we could simply stroll out of the listening range, to somehow float above homicide rates, terrorist attacks and the catch sound bite shrieks of "acceptable loss and affordable risk" or "remaining vigilant," as if the ultimate action in this democracy is to become a vocal cheerleader. More salient inquires, such as, "Can't we all just get along?" and "Is this a just war or just a war?" remain muffled, with answers forever on hold.

As an urban high school social studies teacher of government, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, and even drama, I struggle to go beyond the mere relay of information and the fallacies of supposed objectivity, to somehow ignite the (re)discovery of participation and the power of change. And there I stand, saddling up with friends, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, October 25, 2002, in Washington DC, dressed in jeans and a yellowing  T-shirt portraying the grim message of an Iraqi child dying every ten minutes due to economic sanctions, together with my essential props – a plastic scythe of death and a George W. Bush mask (made in China) -- on my way to the largest anti-war rally since the Vietnam era.

Skipping past the polished building glass on the way to the Metro and again in the subway windows, the Ghost Of My Old High School Reflection (Class of 79) periodically collides with the present reflections glancing back at me. The brief memory flare-ups reproduce images of my last visits to the Marine recruiter, of a troubled youth, over twenty years ago, trying to escape with camouflage and camouflage his escape. Now another ghost, one of my former students, the recent GED grad Christian Crampton begins to haunt me as well: Christian, who, like me, had trouble listening and participating as a student, Christian, who, unlike me, even attended a couple of anti-war meetings before deciding to enlist in the Marine Corps-- sadly, like me.

As I erase the chalkboard of another vanishing lesson, Christian looms in front of a circle of empty desks, grinning and mumbling a slightly apprehensive farewell, while his Marine Gunnery Sergeant recruiter waits impatiently outside my classroom door. It's too late to describe the exhilaration of protesting in Washington DC, too late to warn Christian of the Constitutional rights he forfeits when signing up to allegedly protect them. When I ask his concerns about possibly being in the front lines of the impending next war, his recruiter ambles in, as if on cue, to recite the stock reply, "Marines, more than anyone else, know the true horrors of combat and therefore desire war the least, but if called upon, we will serve because it our duty and our job." It is the same answer I once learned to parrot back, in my extended adolescence, when my only exposure to alternative points of view were a few (curiously) treasured folk songs by Bob Dylan and a chance viewing of the once famous black and white film, All Quiet on the Western Front. The Gunnery Sergeant recruiter smiles awkwardly when he admits he has never seen combat himself and soon ushers Christian out the door towards his one-way transport to boot camp and soon after, the Middle East.

If only Christian could have caught an actual demonstration, if only all my classes could witness this, all these ground forces of peace, the dozens holding picket signs on the subway platform multiplying into hundreds surging for a place to huddle in the rail cars, if only I had known way back then what we know now. . . with tributaries of activists swelling into rivers of rising radicalism; it's time to put on my costume and begin four hours of character impersonation, of George W, the Bush Wack, the President who in early September declared he possessed entirely new information on the Iraqi's nuclear weapons program, information actually altered and twisted from a 1998 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which actually claimed Iraq had no physical capability to produce nuclear weapons.

A stage rests across from the field below the towering Washington Monument phallus, with human and electronic speakers, yet the gathering appears suspiciously small, with only a few dozen attendees, TV cameras and American flags. Surely, this cannot be it, and surely, our growing peace column gradually realizes it is the pitiful Pro-War Rally, which C-Span would later dutifully devote to over two hours of coverage, suggesting (objectively?) that a pro-war demonstration of less than a 100 people could be just as every bit significant as a demonstration of well over 100,000.

We cross the street leading to Pennsylvania Avenue and suddenly the massive Anti-War assemblage quickly drowns out the pitiful Pro-War Rally. My crowd estimates are aided by many years of attending dozens of sold-out University of Michigan football games of 107,000 plus people, and I will eventually conclude the rally to be a stadium and a half full of protesters (roughly 150,000) but at first, I am easily distracted merrily distracting others along the still waters and excited protesters overflowing the mall. My masked presidential presence, my clumsy prancing, it elicits strange stares, odd cheers and frequent camera clicks. I will be kissed and cavorted throughout the day, along with many other street theater performers (such as an Uncle Sam on stilts) and colorful troupes (not troops) who enter and exit with spontaneous delight. Beneath my rubber face, I sweat and thank my impromptu co-stars, including a heavily wigged (out) group who eagerly pass out play money for me to smoke (as the "Grim Reefer").

I try to time my playful performances to interrupt only the less inspiring speakers, including one minister who grabs the main stage microphone and embarrassingly screams at the masses to "show me the money, show me the money for peace!" While Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton further liven the lively (and the unexpectedly diverse ages and races), and as more bus loads of protesters from all over the country are announced as still on the way, it is surprise guest and Hollywood liberal Susan Sarandon who surprises everyone with the best speech of the day. Sarandon is one of the very few speakers making the war for oil connection, (Iraq is second only to waning ally Saudi Arabia in oil reserves), and she further amplifies this by reviewing the renewable resources and alternative fuels ignored by the Bush administration and a contemptible Congress.

Veteran rocker Patti Smith offers a welcome musical respite, singing her powerful "Power to the People" anthem with a lone guitar accompaniment, and the music guides me as I drift through the sweltering sea of people and wildly assorted picket signs, some with messages standing out in their simplicity, such as "Imagine" or "Peace in Our Time," and my personal favorite, the sign I cheerfully pose with: "Buck Fush."

After a couple of unexpected interviews with some inquisitive student reporters, who happily record my cries of "He tried to kill my daddy" and "I'm just looking for some cheap oil," I continue wandering, along with other smiling bystanders to a row of trees shading a young Korean unification drum circle -- their relentless rhythmic pounding echoes across the hundred rows of protesters, a combination of strict military cadence mixed with a loose Grateful Dead-like jam, defining further the dancing spirit of this historic, international event.

Although this demonstration is initially called by ANSWER, the "Stop War, End Racism" slogan-front better known as the (woeful) Worker's World Party, no leftist or reactionary group can seize the rally or the march, there is simply too many people without a party agenda to let any authoritarian take over the scene. A flatbed truck of bad microphone-screaming unintelligible Worker's World hacks attempts to overtake the ever symbolic front of the march, yet it is obvious their diesel-exhaust spewing headache machine on wheels is going nowhere. Eventually, most of us gleefully surge around and ahead of the idling obstacle after chanting "Fuck the truck!" Meanwhile, the majority of the uniformed police make an orderly retreat back to the White House barricades, where they nervously route the seemingly endless line of demonstrators away from the smaller perimeter of puzzled tourists, back from the street and onto the sidewalks.

My wife snaps her final photo of the day, next to the EPA headquarters marker while I sweat off the last pounds of moisture and finally remove my mask, exhausted yet exhilarated. Later, as we stagger close to our hotel, an Iraqi couple gingerly approaches me and thanks me profusely for wearing the anti-sanctions T-shirt. They had been quietly noticing it as we left the subway, seemingly oblivious to the peace rally they have just missed.

The New York Times would mysteriously undercount the demonstration by 100,000 people and bury it in a small article about "disappointed organizers" that Sunday -- three days later it would offer a rare quasi-retraction and more thorough coverage of the same event, adjusting the count to well over 100,000 and quoting the same organizers as quite pleased with the tremendous turn out. National Public Radio (and "Some Things Considered") would also offer an odd apology for its own bizarre miscount, claiming it had dropped a zero from its initial reports of only 10,000 protesters.

The Ghosts of My Older Reflections have long since vanished, yet the ghostly image of Christian, the young recruit, still lingers, as I observe my laughing students jotting down answers to my questions surrounding the enlarged photo of a rubber-faced George W. Bush impersonator. If revolutions and revolutionary thinking can no longer originate in the ever declining factories and shop floors, if instead, a new insurgency for change must come from the schools or institutions of radical political thought, then it still must do so with songs, dance, art, theater, even humor, not just with old and new information. And if the resistance to this (now first-strike) war insanity cannot always reach into the schools, then the teachers and the students have to find a way to sneak out to the resistance, to make it alive outside the mold culture of violence, apathy and resignation.

--William Boyer

(Excerpted from a slightly longer presentation delivered Saturday, November 16, at the Anti-War Symposium on Iraq, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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