Protest in D.C.: An insider's account

My alarm rang last Friday morning, just early enough for me to get up, throw a pillow, some food, and a clean shirt into a bag and go. But I'm no morning person, and all I wanted to do was push the clock back five minutes, so that I could consciously appreciate those last few moments of sleep. Instead, I told myself to buck up and get ready for the trip.

Why was I going to D.C.? My initial response to the call for students to protest President Bush's oedipal war was derisive: the protest would be nothing more than an imitative attempt to recapture the protests of our parents' generation. As I became more interested, I realized that the trip was less an urge to get away from the academic environment for a weekend and more a concern for the state of the world. The day I left, the headlines of the New York Times featured the arrest of the two D.C. sniper suspects and the beginning of the hostage crisis in downtown Moscow. The first news was a relief, but it did not quell my impression of the disorder, anger, and violence permeating the world, and it added to my uncertainty that the United States was pursuing a war that could do little but increase the hatred and chaos. So I went.

A few hours into the long bus ride, Paul Wellstone died - first in a murmur and a rumor around the bus, then on the radio and the newspapers at gas stations, and finally in the eyes and on the signs of protesters, and halfway down the mast of every flagpole in D.C.

It was like being punched in the gut, but I didn't initially know why I felt so empty. I hadn't even met the man, but I knew that he had voted against the very thing that we were going to protest, that hundreds of thousands of people were going to protest, and . . . I, for one, felt defeated and suddenly unsure of my presence, because I did not know how our rally could hope to replace the voice that had been lost. Certainly, we could make an impact during the protest on Saturday, but with one less supporter in Congress willing to take a stand against the war, what would come of Sunday and Monday and the days and weeks beyond? I felt like I had never truly appreciated the work Paul Wellstone had done for the country; I wished I could push the clock back another five minutes and appreciate Wellstone for his life without all the politics and without being hit by the emotional weight of his death.

D.C. was awash with protesters, many holding signs remembering Wellstone. It felt like a community, as much as a group of 200,000 ideologically separated liberals can. There were crazies with literature implying that Bush had known in advance about the World Trade Center attacks and even one man with a sign that had been quickly modified to say, "Bush killed Wellstone," but these were atypical of a majority that was tired of warmongering, manipulation, and big business politics.

As disgusted as I was with the "Bush killed Wellstone" sign and the implication that the antiwar cause would be strengthened by Wellstone's fictitious martyrdom at the hands of 'compassionate conservatism,' I understood it as a sign of fear, the fear that the echo of the Senator's voice could be silenced by the dropping of bombs on Baghdad. We had lost one of the few politicians whose political concerns did not override his sense of responsibility to his values - the values he had been elected to represent - and losing the spirit of his message was terribly frightening.

After we had encircled the White House, chanted slogans, and glared at the D.C. police, I snuck away to play the tourist before the bus returned to Carleton. I had an uneasy feeling that, despite the support this Saturday, this antiwar movement would not be an easy sell to the rest of the country; in fact, a few of us were called "terrorists" by the anti-protest protesters. I wanted to see the monuments of our government to reassure myself that I was protesting against an impulsive administration and not my country itself. I walked past the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials, finally ending up at the Lincoln Memorial, facing the Washington Monument and its reflection in the pool below. In the morning the top had been lost in fog, but now the day was clear and bright, overlooking the dispersing protest. I turned inside, towards the enormous stone figure of Abraham Lincoln, and to the words above his head: "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.

We do not, I believe, deify the leaders of our country. But in exceptional times, they can become symbols of the things they fought for and the things we remember them for. Lincoln's figure symbolized the force that pulled the union back together and the understanding that the difficult choices of the past would not remove the need for courageous leadership in the future. This spirit lived in Paul Wellstone, for many liberal Congressmen found it much simpler to side with the demagogic majority during these dangerous times and close elections than to take the stands that he was willing to take. The Lincoln Memorial embodied the reason we were in Washington, forever enshrining that spirit of governance, which survived Lincoln and will survive Paul Wellstone, and hopefully will survive all of us.