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."