The Antiwarriors

Riding shotgun with Broward County's tiny but angry peace movement

Hicks did seem an unlikely protester: small-town girl, blond and unassuming, pretty in a quiet way, who'd lived in Lakeland all her life. "This is my first protest ever," she said.

I asked whom she voted for in the last election.

"Bush," she said, clearly regretting it. "I have to do a lot of work to make up for that mistake."

A group of South Florida protesters poses outside the bus. Among them are Pavel Gubanikhin (second from left) and Evonn Gibbs (third from right). At top, mother and daughter Tina and Sarah Gwaltney catch some hard-to-get shuteye on the bus
Bob Norman
A group of South Florida protesters poses outside the bus. Among them are Pavel Gubanikhin (second from left) and Evonn Gibbs (third from right). At top, mother and daughter Tina and Sarah Gwaltney catch some hard-to-get shuteye on the bus

The talk of war in Iraq has hit her like no other political issue, in part because she dates a Saudi Arabian immigrant. "I've met people from Saudi Arabia, and he has friends from Palestine, and they put a face on the issue for me," she said. "They are people like us. I mean, I've never been to a demonstration in my life, but I just feel like I have to do something."

Ah, some good, old-fashioned, all-American dissent, more inspiring than one of Biafra's rants any day.

By then, it was dark outside; little private lights illuminated our seats. We made our last pickup in Gainesville about 8 p.m., leaving only two empty seats. I saw people of all ages on the bus, with about ten senior citizens, a dozen or so in their 20s, and the rest middle-aged or 30-something. It wasn't exactly the Rainbow Coalition, but now we had a Russian, a Hispanic, an Asian, and two African-Americans (Antoinette Thomas and Ceresta Smith) on board.

About 10 p.m., we made a stop at a highway plaza in either Georgia or South Carolina. There, at a Pizza Hut counter, I met Al Crespo, a Miami photographer who has been tracking and shooting protests for the past five years. He said he'd come to hawk his new photography book, Protest in the Land of Plenty, and snap some shots for his next one. The white-haired, bearded Crespo said he'd been tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and otherwise bullied by police officers during protests in Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle, and many parts in between. But he told me he didn't expect any excitement like that this time.

"I left my tear-gas mask back home," he said between bites of pizza that looked as if it had been sitting in the pan a few minutes too long. "No, this one is all about numbers. They need to get 150,000 people there because they recently got that many in a London antiwar protest. If they get 150,000, it will be a success."

We climbed back on the bus and revved off into the night. I might have slept an hour the entire ride to D.C. The once-comfortable-seeming seat transformed into a crucible of torture. Thanks to an early-morning showing of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life on the video screens, it didn't seem that long a night. Time moves strangely fast in the hurtling vacuum of a bus.

We pulled up on Constitution Avenue along the Washington Mall at 10:45 a.m. Thousands of protesters already milled about the street and gathered on the Mall. An ANSWER volunteer climbed on the bus to welcome us. He introduced himself as Philip Schabot and told us there would be a rally on the lawn until about 2 p.m., and then we'd all "march around Bush's house." When he heard we were from Florida, he said, "Wow, my hat goes off to you -- all I did was ride my bike 20 minutes to get here."

Once down on the street, I struck up a conversation with Sheila Bath, a middle-aged woman wearing huge red sunglasses. Bath, whose long and straight blond hair looked a little damp, told me she was a "healer" by trade. She gave me a card for her home business, which she calls "Atlantis Rising." On it, she claims to be a holistic practitioner, spiritual counselor, healer, and channel for the "Ascended Masters and Angelic Realm."

"This protest is going to give everyone the courage to move forward," she said. "We are at the threshold of the hugest shift in humanity ever. All the great beings of light are just for us to say, 'No more.'"

Say what?

"The Ascended Masters," she explained. "They're in another dimension. They are in the fifth dimension. Jesus is an Ascended Master. So is St. Germain. You can't see them because they are vibrating at a higher rate than us. I explain it like an airplane propeller. It spins too fast for us to see it. That's the same reason we can't see ghosts or angels."

I got the same strange, disorienting feeling, accompanied by an impulse to flee, that I always get when I think the person I'm talking to is absolutely insane. But I checked myself. She was talking about spiritual matters, after all, and all religions sound crazy if you really think about them.

So Bath and I walked onto the Mall lawn, where two huge amplifiers flanked a stage. Low clouds obscured the top half of the Washington Monument. The place was pretty crowded but nothing close to six figures. Maybe 30,000 protesters, almost all of them with signs (the most popular seemed to be "No Blood for Oil" and, my favorite, "Regime Change Begins at Home"). The air was cool, and the ground was soft and wet, with the green grass matting down into the mud, which spattered Bath's white shoes.

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