The Antiwarriors

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

Hell no, we won't go,

We won't kill for Texaco.

No justice, no peace,

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

U.S. out of the Middle East.

Hey, Bush,

What do you say?

How many kids did you kill today?

The latter chant was a reference to one of the other major themes of the protest: the call to lift the economic sanctions on Iraq, which UNICEF estimates have killed at least 1 million civilians, most of them children. It was almost as prominent as the antiwar message. Although most U.S. officials blame those deaths on Hussein, the fact remains that the near-genocide is linked to our foreign policy.

Another big issue at the protest was ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian flags were waved en masse. Muslim emissaries walked through the crowd handing out pamphlets with titles like Islam at a Glance.

As I walked alongside the protesters, a sense of awe began to overtake me. After two hours of walking, I was convinced that more than 150,000 people had showed. The front of the march snaked for two miles around the White House and upon return ran into its own tail, which still stretched for several blocks behind it. It was peaceful too. The columns of policemen, most of them on horseback, barely had to work that day (only three arrests were made).

And all of it to stop a war that hadn't even begun. Sarandon was right. Agree with it or not, this was what democracy looked like. Too bad Bush wasn't there to see it. He was in Mexico.

As the march came to an end, the crowd dispersed, and the tens of thousands of bus riders all converged along Constitution Avenue, waiting for their rides, mainly to points up and down the East Coast. Tina Gwaltney, as she stood there, was still a little stung by the shunning she'd gotten from the anti-Green, anti-Broward people. Still, she vowed not to give in. "My mom used to always say I was stubborn. She'd say, 'You cut off your nose to spite your face,'" Gwaltney said. "I continue to do that to this day. I'd rather cut off my nose than have it grow longer and longer."

Her teenage daughter stood on the sidewalk with a veritable after-protest glow. She said the march had been one of the greatest experiences of her life. "I just walked around and looked at all the people," she said. "There were so many people. There were people who didn't know each other singing together and helping each other out. It was nice to see that for a change. Nobody cared about their appearance, and coming from a South Florida high school, that's definitely a big change."

The girl talked about going back to her high school and starting a peace group. She said she would ride her bicycle to school instead of driving her car. And she would park her bike in a car spot and put a sign on it that said, "This vehicle is fueled by natural energy."

The protest may have been over, but one of its young participants decided her work had just begun.

As the bus rumbled south down I-95, Frank read a poem over the P.A. system titled "Somebody Blew Up America," by New Jersey's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka. In the poem, Baraka (the former LeRoi Jones) relentlessly criticizes the United States, questioning its policies that helped create the events of September 11. I liked it until these words:

Who knew the World Trade Center was

gonna get bombed

Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the

Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away?

This nonsense reminded me of Biafra's America-hating rant. Protest the United States' policies, but don't pretend it's some kind of gulag, like Iran or China. Our Bush-bashing presence in Washington proved what a great country it is, whatever its (sometimes grave) faults. And wild conspiracy theories like the one that Israel was somehow responsible for the attacks or had foreknowledge of them demeans all antiwar sentiment. At least one of the Broward Eight, Joyce McMahon, said she believed that Israel had warning of the attacks. "I certainly think they had intelligence about it -- because 47,000 people didn't go to work that morning," she said.

Hmm, I thought it was 4,000. There can never be enough scapegoats, it seems, when the world goes wrong.

After another uncomfortable, near-sleepless night, I bounced around from seat to seat, talking to as many of the riders as I could. When I spoke with Frank from Fort Myers, I quickly found out he was no 1960s holdover. He said he'd been utterly apolitical before September 11, believing everything the "machine" told him to believe. He moved to Southwest Florida ten years ago from Ontario, Canada, bought a sailboat, and, as he put it, lived a life of Riley. He was married, had two sons, and then was divorced. When September 11 happened, it shook him to his core, igniting what seems to be a very politically motivated midlife crisis.

He's now obsessed with U.S. foreign policy and the peace movement. His voice cracks with emotion when he talks about it. "I made my sons promise me that they would never, ever be soldiers unless someone was attacking us in our beds," he said. "I just carry this message of peace with me wherever I go, and people feed on it. I'm going to champion this cause."

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