Rallying Public Opinion

“Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Bush’s war has got to go!” The clamor of helicopters circling overhead and police sirens screeching along the roads provided a striking contrast to the boisterous chants of the protesters swarming the streets. This past Saturday, men, women, and children congregated in peaceful protest from 49th Street to 75th Street along First Avenue in New York City. They stood huddled together in blustery, 20-degree weather, bellowing chants and sporting creative signs to voice their dissent about Bush’s desire to initiate a war in Iraq. Returning to my home in New York City this past weekend, I decided that it would be interesting to attend the rally as a spectator, insead of as an active protestor, because I am unsure of my position on Iraq. Therefore, rather than clutching a colorful sign spouting ruthless demands or witty phrases, I attended the rally as a mere observer. It was the first rally I had ever been to, and I was both surprised and disappointed with the result. I had heard my parent’s oft-told stories of their days protesting the Vietnam War, and assumed that this rally would follow the guidelines of those past. However, I was disillusioned. The streets were blocked off and were surrounded by metal barricades, caging the protesters. Policemen surrounded the outside of the streets and stood atop surrounding buildings. People were herded and controlled like animals. In the end, the free spirit and energetic flavor of the protest was strongly countered by the police’s overbearing presence. But, most significantly, the protesters were not permitted to march. New York City, like the rest of America, is currently in the “orange” level of terrorism alert, and the city feared marching protesters would be more difficult to protect from possible terrorist acts. Historically, however, the ability of protesters to march to a central meeting place has been a potent symbol of political dissent; in this case, security concerns seem to have outweighed the traditional American freedom to congregate. I was surprised by the diversity of the protesters at the rally. I saw old women hunching over canes and enveloped by warm fur coats, mingling with small children hopping up and down and trying to see the speakers further down the street. African Americans mixed with whites, Hispanics, and Asians; all of the ethnic groups that inhabit this diverse city were joined together to endorse a common, strongly-held belief. At first I thought that it was a bit ironic, maybe even inappropriate, for protesters to convene and argue against our President’s policy on the weekend of “President’s Day,” a time established for people to stay home from work or school to appreciate and honor our country’s past and present chief executives. However, I realized that it is important, and, in fact, necessary, for Americans to express their views to and of our country’s political leaders. Wasn’t America founded on the principals of free speech and free expression? Shouldn’t we be encouraged to take advantage of our privileged state? I realized that it is important, regardless of one’s beliefs, to express one’s views in a non-violent but public manner. The anti-war rallies of President’s Weekend appear to have awakened our nation’s leaders to the voice of public opinion. There were rallies, principally organized by United for Peace and Justice, a union of 120 political organizations, in numerous cities across the nation, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego, Sacramento, Miami, Detroit, and Milwaukee. In addition, there were large rallies in London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, Rome, Melbourne, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Auckland, Seoul, Tokyo, and Manila. These protests, spanning the globe and encompassing a wide range of diverse participants, succeeded in delivering a message. President Bush acknowledges that political dissent is a fundamental right of Americans and that he is hopeful for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. Even President Bush realizes that it will be hard to lead the country into war if the tide of public opinion is against it.