Valerie Silidker, a 28-year-old student with black John Lennon sunglasses and blond Glenn Close hair, spent a recent Saturday bobbing between thick rows of traffic on Sunrise Boulevard, handing out antiwar fliers to drivers waiting for a green light.
Most of them were happy to take one. Some weren't.
"Fuck you!" one man yelled at her.
Ah, echoes of George W. Bush's own diplomatic style.
As the man showered obscene epithets on her, Silidker noticed a toddler strapped in the back seat of the man's car.
Such fury, however, was only scattered at the February antiwar rally in Sunrise. Silidker estimated that 85 percent of the drivers accepted the flier and the constant honking of sympathetic horns clearly showed that the majority of motorists stood with the protesters.
About 175 people attended, which doesn't sound like much unless you consider that it's about 20 times the amount that showed up at the first anti-Iraq war rallies last year. In the United States, a million people protested that day, according to estimates from the Independent Media Center. More than 7 million rallied around the world.
Sure, our president dismissed them all with a wave of the hand. He had every right to do so, politically speaking. The Americans among them don't make up his constituency -- the vast majority of them wouldn't vote for him if their hair were on fire and he had the only glass of water.
No, the blossoming of the antiwar movement isn't really a Bush problem. It's a Democratic problem. Silidker and her fellow protesters should be the guts of the party, its manic glory, but instead they are mostly frustrated political loners or Green Party advocates. The party of the left seems to have been stabbed in the heart -- and its blood is running out onto America's streets.
"I don't trust the Democrats; they tend to say one thing and do another," said Silidker, who is registered as an Independent. "A lot of times, they are Republicans in sheep's clothing. The Green Party is like the new Democrats. I think they have a very strong foundation in their beliefs as far as protecting the people and the environment. There is hope with them."
Remember the damage Ralph Nader did to the Democrats in 2000? Now imagine what this burgeoning antiwar juggernaut could do in 2004 if the Democratic Party doesn't come to its senses and strongly oppose the so-called Bush Doctrine and the policy of preemptive attack.
Today, its middle-of-the-road stance is as beneficial for Dubya as it was for Bubba back in the '90s. If Iraq hawks like Joe Lieberman or John Edwards win the nomination, Bush might as well start writing reelection thank-you cards to his big-money supporters.
Never has the jackass seemed such a dead-on mascot for the party. Locally, Democratic elected officials have largely been mum on the Iraq issue. Of the three Democratic congressmen representing Palm Beach and Broward counties, only Alcee Hastings voted against the resolution to give Bush the go-ahead to attack Iraq. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton and Peter Deutsch of Plantation both back the president.
As a little experiment, I called three Democratic Broward County commissioners last week to question them about their views on the impending war. Suzanne Gunzberger and Josephus Eggelletion didn't return my call. Only Ben Graber was good enough to discuss the issue -- and he supports the war. Of his quiet colleagues, Graber said, "They prefer not to discuss it -- they are afraid they are going to make people angry."
Cowardly politicians? Imagine that. Amy Rose, an aide to Gunzberger, told me her boss has never spoken publicly about Iraq. So I asked Rose, who is also president of the Young Democrats of Broward County, what she thought of it. She said she opposes the war but added that the protests aren't reputable enough for most Democratic officials. "There are fringe groups who show up there," she said, "so there is a reluctance of credible people to get involved in the movement."
OK, so the party is run by a bunch of sheltered snobs. That's no secret. Only now, they are do-nothing, sheltered snobs.
In defense, Mitch Ceasar, chairman of Broward's Democratic Executive Committee, pointed me toward an antiwar resolution the DEC quietly passed last month. But that's just a useless piece of paper that does nothing to question the president's dangerous policies. What has the DEC actually done? "Right now, we're just watching and waiting," Ceasar said.
And history passes them by. One Democratic leader, though, is calling for the party to come out of hiding. John Coleman, a former Hollywood commissioner and a high-ranking DEC official, chided the party for its lack of leadership after the February 15 protests. "There were lots of protesters yesterday, but not enough Democrats...," Coleman wrote in an e-mail he sent to all local party officials. "What are Democrats afraid of? Bush? A right wing backlash? The lobbyists from President Eisenhower's 'military industrial complex'? Or, worse yet, being for the same peace that 75 percent of Broward voters seek?"
He concluded: "Now is the hour for the Democratic leadership to lead and add new voices to petition our national government."
Democratic volunteer Donna Todd, who was the only DEC member to show up at the Sunrise rally, says she's fed up with her party's gutless wonders. "Democrats have no guts," she complained. "Alcee is the only one with guts, and he's the only one I trust, the only one."
Todd was especially upset at Wexler, whose usually loud mouth has been pretty quiet about Iraq -- unless it's in support of the invasion. "When we interviewed him at the DEC, the only issue he could talk coherently about was Israel," Todd relayed. "The only thing he cares about is Israel, and Deutsch is probably the same way."
Therein lies a sticky little problem facing the Democratic Party -- it is torn between its religious Zionist wing and its most liberal members, many of whom sympathize with Palestinians. Though Deutsch and Wexler are both toeing the Sharon line, Broward's large Jewish community is far from united on the issue. The Sunrise rally, in fact, was organized by Paul Lefrak, who is Jewish and heads the growing Broward Antiwar Coalition. Lefrak wore a T-shirt with the words "Remember Jenin" on it, referring to the alleged massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces last year.
The shirt miffed Murray Hirsh, a Jewish Democratic organizer who lives in the politically influential Century Village community for senior citizens in Pembroke Pines. Hirsh doesn't believe there was a massacre in Jenin. He says he considered confronting Lefrak about it at the rally but decided against it. The 78-year-old World War II veteran has a war to fight, after all. This past Saturday, he led a "Seniors for Peace" rally in Pembroke Pines attended by more than 100 people, none of them elected officials. He invited numerous elected officials, but none attended.
Hirsh, who serves as treasurer for the Pembroke Pines/Miramar Democratic Club, says his strong antiwar views have stirred up conflict with some of his own friends and relatives. He says he would never vote for the hawkish Lieberman. "There is a dilemma there in the Jewish community," Hirsh says. "The leaders of Israel are very hawkish and are pushing for this war. The Jewish community here is split."
But he feels no ambivalence: "Do you know why I'm fighting against this war? Because I have three children and six grandchildren, and I would hate to die and leave the world in this freakin' mess that it is in without trying to do something about it."
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Hirsh is getting used to being disappointed with his party. Of the Democratic rollover on the Bush war resolution, Hirsh says: "I felt hurt. I felt wounded. I felt disturbed. I don't know what the right adjective is. I felt there was no comprehension of what Bush's real motives were."
Even before that fateful vote, Hirsh had already quit the DEC over a related debacle, the party's backing of middle-of-the-road nincompoop Bill McBride over Janet Reno in the Florida gubernatorial race. "My loyalty is being worn away," he says. "So I've decided to be a thorn in their side. I keep needling them. I could never vote Republican, so I can't leave them altogether."
Therein lies the hope for salvation for the Democrats, whose cowardice has already cost them the U.S. Senate. The antiwar crowd might suppress its gag reflex and vote for the Democratic nominee just to send the hated Bush back to Crawford for good. The Democrats, though, need to take some lessons from the president, who gives lip service to the center ("compassionate conservatism," hydrogen cars, and that tripe about "leaving no child behind") but really serves the far right wing. He learned well from his father's mistakes, after George the First lost touch with his Republican base on his way to losing the 1992 election.
When that protester said the Green Party gave her hope, she wasn't talking about political victory; she was talking about right and wrong. She senses that the Democratic Party is operating out of fear -- of Bush, of a bloodthirsty post-9/11 populace, of its own pro-Israel wing. When you're fighting a radical like Bush -- and he is a radical -- the political center is a graveyard. It's like taking a potato peeler to a Mexican knife fight. The Democratic Party hasn't learned that yet, and that's why it has so far managed only to pave the way for this president and his dirty war.