The New York Times buried its little story on the biggest peace rally in the United States since the Vietnam War on page A8, under the headline "Thousands March in Washington Against Going to War in Iraq."
Not tens of thousands. Not 100,000. Not 200,000. Just "thousands." In the same October 27 story, the Gray Lady reported that "fewer people attended than organizers hoped for."
Well, good for President Bush then. The only march that really meant something, apparently, was the march to war.
The Washington Post, though, reported a far different story on the same day. Quoting crowd estimates between 100,000 and 200,000, a team of Post staffers reported that those supposedly disappointed organizers were actually exuberant about the success of the October 26 march.
The Post's version was the right one, but it also gave the protest short shrift by playing the story in the Metro section rather than on the front page.
Both newspapers tried to atone for their respective mistakes. On October 30, the Times ran a cleanup story headlined "Rally in Washington Is Said to Invigorate the Antiwar Movement," which correctly stated that the six-figure turnout actually had "startled" organizers. The article also mentioned that buses came from as far way as Nebraska and Florida.
In a November 3 column, Post ombudsman Michael Getler scolded his colleagues for keeping the march off the front page: "This was one big demonstration -- a lot bigger, these Post editors acknowledge, than they expected... People had traveled here from all over the country. Post editors, in my view, fumbled this one, not because they are pro-war but because they were surprised at the turnout..."
The protesters themselves weren't surprised at the shoddy press coverage, though. The facile reporting on Bush's drive to war before the march was what caused many of the 55 riders on that Times-noted Florida bus to make the trip to D.C. in the first place.
They had watched with growing consternation as the prevailing media corporations let Bush slide on his flimsy pretexts for an invasion. The mainstream news gurus are largely unwilling to call the president to task for his specious logic, fear tactics, and outright lies (i.e., Bush's contention that official reports show that Saddam Hussein is six months away from nuclear capability). Significantly buried has been the fact that the CIA has reported that the threat level of Hussein is low and has found he has no discernible connections to al Qaeda or the September 11 attacks.
For a mainstream journalist to report the obvious -- that the two oil men who now run the country plan to use U.S. military might to directly control the Middle East (see the September release of the "Bush Doctrine") -- is seen more as engaging in heresy than as a first draft of history. The Post has been basically pro-war from the beginning, led by invasion-happy foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland. The New York Times has had a more critical eye, with excellent reporting on the complications and dangers of an Iraq war, yet it apparently doesn't believe it's fit to print the truth about Bush's motives. The Times' Nicholas Kristof, who opposes the war, wrote last week that liberals who ascribe the oil or revenge-for-Daddy motives to Bush "discredit" themselves.
But ignoring the question of motive discredits the media and does a great disservice to the country: That question is at the heart of whether this is a just war. If the "regime change" is really about oil and other interests in the region -- rather than an imminent threat, September 11, or weapons of mass destruction -- then it's not really a war anymore. It's a war crime.
But Bushcroft and Chensfeld needn't worry. Hell, the two best newspapers in the world can't even get a protest straight, much less offer rigorous analysis of the administration's foreign policy.
Combine the media's failures and the Democratic Party's rollover on Iraq and you're left with an energized, ground-based, antiwar movement. Regular citizens have realized that if they don't do something, nobody else will.
I went along for the ride on a Florida bus to D.C. and had the opportunity to meet (and sit on a bus for 45 hours with) some of the most dedicated antiwarriors in the Sunshine State. There I got an eye-level view of a burgeoning movement that, so far, has not been televised.
Before the October 26 rally, my first contact with the opposition in South Florida came on the night of October 14 at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Fort Lauderdale. A man named Paul Lefrak, who heads the Broward Antiwar Coalition, had called a "mass meeting" there to talk strategy.
The coalition was formed shortly after the September 11 attacks to protest military action in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the general public didn't exactly embrace the group. Its first demonstration was held during rush hour at a busy downtown Fort Lauderdale intersection October 11, 2001, precisely one month after the Twin Towers fell. Passersby greeted the protesters with derision; fisticuffs were narrowly avoided.
I might have shot the antiwar folks a sneer myself. I supported the bombing of al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors and felt that the far-leftists who fretted about it were way out of step. My own dissident nerve wasn't sparked until the focus shifted to Hussein and Bush's plan became a doctrine. Iraq is a giant red herring, salted and smoked, and Bush figured that, after September 11, good old vengeful Amarrrrca would eat it up. Some believe Bush is just pretending to be a warmonger to build pressure for new weapons inspections. But he and Cheney made their intentions clear at the beginning: regime change, not inspections.
The Iraq talk revived the Broward Antiwar Coalition, but the October 14 meeting showed that the group isn't exactly kicking. I walked into the couch-strewn GLCC building and found no meeting. I queried strangers about it; soon a bald, bespectacled man noticed me and rose from one of the couches. It was Paul Lefrak. He was alone.
"This is very disappointing," he said.
I was the only one who showed. I couldn't help feeling sorry for Lefrak, who works hard to organize the movement. To be fair, the group usually brings in five to twenty local protesters during its periodic rallies at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. But the Broward County group seems to lack a certain oomph.
To his credit, Lefrak has created an impressive electronic antiwar community on Yahoo (email@example.com), which is where I learned of the D.C. bus ride. The first message about it came from a Miami Beach woman named Sara Iglesias, who planned the trip with the help of the national group that sponsored the protest, International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). But she was more than an organizer; she also served as a kind of cheerleader, typically ending her e-mails with sentiments like this one:
"People from all over the world are looking to the American citizens as the last hope to stopping this war. We can do it!!!! Looking forward to hearing from you!
Lots of love,
The responses came so fast that she kept having to commission bigger vehicles for the trip. First, it was a 29-seat bus, then a 49-seater, and finally, it was the biggest one available, with a 59-person capacity, including two drivers. Word of the antiwar bus spread among peace groups and political clubs throughout the state. Iglesias ultimately planned pickups in five cities: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Charlotte, Tampa, and Gainesville.
Evonn Gibbs, a trade-publication writer in Lake Worth, helped Iglesias rally the troops in Palm Beach and Broward counties. After I messaged Iglesias about my interest in attending, Gibbs called and asked whether I knew of a place near Broward Boulevard and Interstate 95 where we could meet for a pickup and park our cars. I told her my house might do. And that was all it took -- the bus would arrive at my house at 1 p.m. Friday, October 25. We would be in D.C. about 22 hours later, at 11 a.m. Saturday. Then we'd attend the rally and march until about 6 p.m. before getting back on the bus for the ride home.
All I had to do was sit back and wait for the revolution to come to my doorstep.
They began gathering in my front yard not long after noon. For simplicity's sake, I'll call them the Broward Eight:
· Gibbs, a very thin vegetarian in her late 40s who is registered as an independent.
· Tina Gwaltney, a 44-year-old teacher from Plantation who is secretary of the Broward County Green Party.
· Her 17-year-old daughter, Sarah Gwaltney, a senior at South Plantation High School and an aspiring political organizer.
· Antoinette Thomas, a 47-year-old registered nurse and mother of eight from Lauderhill.
· Thomas' friend, Ceresta Smith, a high school teacher and owner of a production company in Miami-Dade County. Smith brought along her digital video camera to shoot documentary footage.
· A Russian technocrat, Pavel Gubanikhin, manager of the Broward County Office of Information Technology. At 28, he is also a member of the Broward Young Democrats.
· Sheila Bath, a 46-year-old "spiritual healer" from North Palm Beach.
The bus arrived right on time, and Iglesias hopped out to greet us. For some reason, I half expected her to look something like Janis Joplin would today if she had lived, maybe in her mid-50s, with gray-streaked hair and beads dangling around a fleshy neck. I was wrong. Iglesias was 29 years old, pretty, and in fighting shape. She wore a red bandanna over her dirty-blond hair, which she had done in two thick braids that fell to the middle of her back. And she was every bit as cheerful and friendly as she seemed in her e-mails.
The bus was huge and had a clean smell and what seemed at first to be reasonably comfortable bucket seats. Several video screens were positioned overhead. With roughly ten people from Miami already on, I sat in an unoccupied pair of seats toward the front.
Gubanikhin, who had short black hair and bone-white skin, was in the seat directly behind me. The Muscovite had a reserved demeanor, almost dour, that was occasionally broken by a flash of wit. On that very day, Chechnyan rebels were holding almost 800 hostages in a Moscow theater. I asked him what he thought about it. "Look at the past," he said in his small, sharp, nasal Russian accent, staring at me through wire-rimmed glasses. "I think several hundred people will die."
While we spoke, production company owner Ceresta Smith had her professional-quality, digital video camera out and was interviewing the youngest rider on the bus, Sarah Gwaltney, who sat across the aisle and a couple of seats back from me. Her mother sat directly behind Gubanikhin. I overheard the tall, freckled teenager, who looked strangely familiar, say she was a senior at South Plantation High and was afraid a war in Iraq would lead to "mass destruction."
Gubanikhin, meanwhile, was no peacenik: He said he believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was right to occupy Chechnya, as it was basically a criminal country run by Islamic extremists who had to be controlled. And, like me, he was all for the Afghanistan invasion. But not Iraq. "I really think it's about oil and not about weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Russia and the United States never went to war because of mutually assured destruction. That can work with Saddam too. He wants to be in power. Why would he attack someone? I think it will only cause further terrorist attacks down the road. Plus, there is no exit strategy."
Putin's interest in Iraq was much like Bush's, surmised Gubanikhin: It was all about how much oil he could get out of the deal. "It's good to be cynical," Gubanikhin added with a chuckle.
Although he can't vote in America, he said he wanted to see more political parties. "I'm really interested in the Green Party," he said.
That was Tina Gwaltney's cue. She rose from eavesdropping and handed us a couple of pamphlets titled "Broward County Green Party." On the cover was a Margaret Mead quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."
Tina, who has long, straight, grayish hair and round wire glasses, told me she lived just a couple of blocks from my house. No wonder her daughter looked familiar. I asked her what she was before she registered as a Green. "Republican," she said. "I was born in Miami and was a Republican, like my parents."
Just for kicks, I decided to test her Green-ness.
"What do you drive?"
"A little red pickup truck that has a bumper sticker that says 'Tree Hugging Dirt Worshiper.'"
"Not exactly a Honda hybrid."
"But I ride my bicycle to school sometimes," she offered with a laugh. "The kids hum the theme song to The Wizard of Oz when I come into the parking lot."
The school in question, I learned, was Nova Southeastern University High School, where she teaches science. Tina said she never really paid much attention to politics before Ralph Nader gave her a "shot in the arm." Being a Green, however, hadn't come easily. There was no relief from members of the two main parties: Republicans thought she was a loopy radical, and Democrats still blame her for George W. Bush's presidency. The friction apparently hasn't helped party enrollment. "Before the 2000 election, there were about eight or ten members who attended the meetings back then, but after Nader lost, it went to three," she explained. "Then we started gaining membership again, and then September 11 hit, and it just stopped. But now we're back up to about 40 members."
As Tina talked, the driver exited at Kings Highway in Port Charlotte. Only then did I realize that we had already crossed Alligator Alley and were traveling north on Interstate 75. The bus pulled into a Cracker Barrel parking lot, where the next bunch waited to climb aboard.
A middle-aged man pulled some protest hardware out of the trunk of his red Chrysler Sebring convertible. The car was festooned with bumper stickers that read "STOP THE KILLIN," "Visualize World Peace," "Attack Iraq? No!" and, as I pointed out to Tina, one for the Green Party. The tanned fellow looked like a protest veteran from the Vietnam War: The sunglasses with little American flags jutting from them were a nice touch. He climbed the bus stairs and greeted everyone, "Hey, folks! Ready for the revolution? Oh, let me take my patriotic blinders off." Then the man, who I learned was Frank from Fort Myers, took off the shades.
As the new riders climbed on, an older woman bluntly announced, "Paul Wellstone was just killed in a plane crash."
Several riders, to my amazement, asked, "Who is Paul Wellstone?" The news momentarily stunned me. It was too weird. Just a few days before that, a mass e-mail was sent on the Broward Antiwar Coalition Yahoo group urging people to send campaign contributions to the Minnesota senator who was against the Iraq war and in the political battle of his life.
As we rolled back onto I-75, Frank put some music on the bus' sound system. There was Jackson Browne's "For America," some Phil Ochs songs, a handful of John Lennon standards, and Bob Dylan's rendition of "With God On Our Side," which ends with the words, "If God's on our side, he'll end the next war."
Also coming over the speaker was Jello Biafra's version of the Pledge of Allegiance, after which he calls the flag a "Yankee swastika" and encourages the listener to be a "good Boy Scout" and "let it burn, baby, burn."
Not long before 6 p.m., the bus exited at Busch Gardens in Tampa, where 20 riders just about filled the bus. I gave up my window seat to 26-year-old Lori Hicks. She said she was a lab technician at the University of South Florida; she'd made her protest sign, which said "War = Terrorism," during her lunch break. "Everybody looked at me like I was crazy," she said. "They couldn't believe I was coming up here."
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."
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.'"
"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.
"Bush knows the angels exist," she continued. "The pope knows they exist too, because they have showed up in front of them to say, 'Look, you're not doing good here.' But Bush won't listen, and he keeps it a secret. Look at these people. This is the will of the people, and this gathering will add to the vibration of the planet, and the higher vibration, the better."
Bath said a massive shift in humanity was about to occur -- and she wasn't talking about last week's Republican-dominated midterm elections. No, this shift had something to do with the end of time as we know it. It was supposed to happen at the turn of the millennium, but now she says it may be 2012, when one of the Mayan calendars ends.
And then, as I was thinking about Bath's angels, one appeared before me. It sat on a chair in the mud not ten feet from us, all dressed in white, with a halo and a set of wings. I pointed the angel out to Bath, who walked over and spoke with her.
"Her name is Carol Laverne, and she's from New York City," Bath told me after her chat with the costumed woman. "She knows. When you know about the Ascended Masters, it just clicks."
Then Bath said she had to go to the Vietnam Memorial and walked away. A contingent of about 15 from the Florida bus stuck together while everyone else scattered. Tina Gwaltney and her daughter stayed together, each holding up a side of a large banner that touted the Broward County Green Party. Two middle-aged women walked up to Tina and chided her for helping Bush win the election. Another protester, obviously still miffed about hanging chads, walked by and scoffed, "Oh yeah, we remember about Broward County."
Tina took it in stride. She's a Green. She's used to it.
Speakers gathered on the dais and soon were bellowing out speeches over the amplifiers. After maybe 30 minutes, Susan Sarandon, wearing a dark coat and dark sunglasses, took the stage and gave a speech in a rather grating voice. "Mr. Bush, you have hijacked our pain, our loss, our fear," she said. "I say to you, Mr. Bush, this is what democracy looks like... Let us find a way to resist fundamentalism of all kinds, in al Qaeda and in our own government."
Sarandon didn't need the coat anymore. The sun had broken through the clouds, and it was getting positively hot outside. Or maybe it was body heat: More and more people kept swarming onto the Mall. Most of the signs were homemade, and they ranged from the wonderfully absurd ("Broccoli! Not Bombs") to the pointed ("Democracy in Florida Before Democracy in Iraq") to the very, very pointed ("Bush is a motherfucker"). Signs offered bounties for Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman, who were wanted for cowardice and warmongering. Signs identified their holders as veterans for peace, the Yale coalition for peace, soccer moms for peace, farmers for peace, firemen for peace, even a little boy carrying an Etch A Sketch that said, "Toddlers for Peace."
A carnival atmosphere pervaded the proceedings, with a ghoulish-looking Uncle Sam walking around on stilts, a man in a bloody skeleton costume carrying an ExxonMobil sign, another protester gladhanding the crowd in a George W. Bush mask, and a couple of insane clowns running around screaming "Oil! Oil!" and "War is great!" A large group of Koreans danced in flowing blue, red, and yellow robes and played on beautiful, handmade wooden drums.
As speaker after speaker -- Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark -- berated Bush and his policies, people kept arriving, and the sun kept getting hotter.
Suddenly some protesters began walking back toward Constitution Avenue. The first to go was the Yale crowd, so I figured they must know where they were going. "It's time to march," Iglesias said.
Along Constitution were booths for Palestinian groups, socialist groups, environmental groups, anti-International Monetary Fund groups, vegetarian and vegan groups, animal-rights groups -- every feather in the left wing. Socialists sold and handed out the Independent, Worker's World, and the Militant newspapers. They were part of the professional protesters, maybe 25,000 strong. There were also lots of young people -- some looked barely 16 -- who carried backpacks with them. By their appearance, I suspected that soap wasn't among the contents of their packs. Somebody broke out a Hacky Sack, and a group of gypsy-looking teenage girls did a mock cheerleading routine: "Dissent, dissent, dissent-dissent-dissent!"
The majority of the crowd, though, seemed to be regular workaday folk -- although liberal-leaning regular workaday folk -- coming from around the country. I walked along the sidewalk beside the marchers to size the crowd. And kept walking and walking. Stacked 20 or more in a row, the line never seemed to end, and behind me, it kept growing longer. And there it was: the loyal opposition that's been missing in Congress.
While many of the marchers simply walked with their signs, a lot of them danced. Some pounded drums, and many chanted rhymes such as:
Hell no, we won't go,
We won't kill for Texaco.
No justice, no peace,
U.S. out of the Middle East.
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
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."
Like Sarah Gwaltney, Frank was inspired by the protest. But rather than start a high school club, he considered martyrdom. He said he wanted to go to Baghdad, and if the bombs come, his country will have to kill him too. Several Americans are already in Iraq for that same reason. "I'm willing to die for this cause," Frank said.
After we said goodbye to Frank and the rest of the Port Charlotte crowd at the Cracker Barrel, I sat with Evonn Gibbs, the woman who first called me days before the trip. Gibbs wasn't ready to die for the cause, but she was ready to break the law. She said she was thinking of covertly slapping peace stickers on unsuspecting SUVs in parking garages. Some might call it vandalism, but Gibbs called it guerrilla political action.
The protest, she said, took away her fear of being an antiwar outsider, a traitor to the Bush administration. Basically, she's finally come to grips with the president's famous ultimatum -- and she's against him.
Finally, as the bus cruised east on Alligator Alley, I spoke with Sheila Bath for the first time since she left for the Vietnam Memorial during the rally. She was still flying with the angels and told me of several websites where I could read more about it. She didn't make this stuff up, and she's not alone in her beliefs. Iglesias joined the conversation, saying she too was a "Spiritist" and believed in reincarnation and "karma banks."
"I was definitely black at one time," Iglesias told me. "And I know I was definitely male. I lived in South America, and I lived in Egypt."
Her past lives give her understanding and empathy for all people, she said. One of her dreams is to go to Palestine and stand in front of Israeli tanks. "What is going on there is killing a part of me," she declares.
Bath was more dogmatic about supernatural forces than Iglesias. I couldn't help wonder what might have happened in her life to cause her to have such radical ideas. She provided a clue. Out of her purse, she pulled a piece of paper with a pencil rubbing from the Vietnam Wall: "John M. Bath."
So that was why she left the rally. Bath said she was 11 when she found out her big brother had been killed in an unjust American war.
"I saw what war did to one family, and I think of the hundreds of thousands of people who die in wars, and it hurts me," she said. "It hurts all of us. It hurts the family of man."
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