Crisis - Open Forum > Next Story

 Saturday Is the Time to Speak Truth to Power
 Erika Munk, USA
 March 20, 2003
 
"Why do you want to march again Saturday?" a friend asked me.

"Because I live here," I replied.

Her question was about marching in general. Isn't it too late? Can it change anything? No, it isn't; yes, it can.

But what I meant by my answer was: I want to march, I need to march, it's my civic duty to march, because I live here. In New York. And as a New Yorker, I have particular, passionate reasons to join those New Yorkers who are going to march from Times Square to Washington Square on Saturday. Some of the reasons come from Sept. 11, 2001, the others from a month ago, on Feb. 15.

The 3,000 deaths of Sept. 11 were the Bush administration's golden opportunity to activate the global foreign policy agenda it had long wanted to pursue. Yet New Yorkers instantly mourned those same deaths not only with flags, but by gathering all over the city against dumb violence and hateful vengeance. Peace symbols sprouted on walls, trees, sidewalks, tee-shirts. Since then, New Yorkers have watched the event that caused our grief and fear used to justify censorship, repression, surveillance and torture.

And now the administration has created an imaginary but propagandistically powerful link between Iraq and al-Qaida—again exploiting our grief and fear—to justify war. How dare they? New Yorkers know about civilian casualties. We can imagine Baghdad under bombardment. Iraqis may well be under fire by the time you read this. How can I let my empathy remain unvoiced, no matter how much I despise Saddam Hussein? How can I let George W. Bush manipulate our memories without protest?

In February, a different "they," Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Police Department, also seized on terror as an excuse, in this case to end New York's traditional role as a center of protest, a place where outrage at injustice has always been vigorously expressed. How humiliating, that this was the only major city on Earth to deny its citizens the right to march on the day of the largest peace protests in history. Demonstrators were corralled, divided and blocked so tens of thousands of them were completely out of contact with each other, and the event as a whole was invisible to the city itself as well as to the media. (As were the bullying, the police violence, the arrests.) Mayor and cops together engineered a form of disappearance through fragmentation, trying to keep us, and the rest of the world, from knowing how many were out there, trying to make it look as if only "old Europe" was against the war.

Now that the spirit of St. Patrick has shamed City Hall into granting a permit, I want to walk down Broadway with such masses of people that it will never again find the nerve to deny their right to do so. Broadway's long diagonal moves through every Manhattan neighborhood. I want them all to own it. My Mother the Red was kicked by a police horse at a Union Square rally, she told me, but she was always proud to march down Broadway.

And what about the question of whether it's pointless and too late? This is the perfect time to reclaim some international honor by showing how many Americans disagree with their unelected government and how they're going to keep a sharp eye on the way it conducts the war, the postwar, and all the future wars Bush has in mind. It's not too late, though doubtless optimistic, to try lending the Democrats a little backbone. It is never too late to strengthen a social movement by demonstrating its numbers, or to give a jolt of companionship and possibility to any one person—there are many—feeling depressed, useless and alone in opposition.

And though the time is always right for an act of conscience, perhaps the best time of all is when the voices of power are howling that dissent is treason. A crowd marching for principle voices a different kind of power, saying what power itself doesn't want to hear: Americans have a right to dissent. Civil liberties are not a village that you save by destroying. Protest doesn't undermine our country; it doesn't hurt the young people who have been sent out to fight. On the contrary. As a sign in a florist's window down the street says: "Support the troops. Bring them home."

Every movement toward effective change in America has made itself heard through crowds of ordinary people moving through the streets. Their demands may fail at the moment, but change doesn't need to be obvious right away. A million people in London, 3 million in Spain, hundreds of thousands in Australia didn't immediately change their government's policies, but they made it clear that this war is against the popular will and "we" are not crusaders.

We are citizens—if we participate. We shouldn't just live here. Indeed the more compromised the democracy—by a president, a mayor or a chief of police—the greater the need to participate. I'm a citizen of New York City, and can imagine few better ways of exercising that citizenship than marching down Broadway with thousands of people speaking their consciences, and reminding myself that however deaf our government is right now, it should listen to them, and eventually it will.

Erika Munk is a volunteer at United for Peace and Justice, which is organized the protest march that took place on Saturday, March 22, in New York City. She is also a professor at the Yale School of Drama.

From Newsday (Melville, NY), March 20, 2003.