About 300 people gathered for Peace in Salem today. Following music in the city's waterfront park, the crowd marched to the capitol building for speakers, a performance by Urgent Carnival, and a die-in to represent those killed on and since the September 11th attacks on the East Coast. Police present was light, and the handful of counter-protesters kept to themselves. The weather started out cloudy but did not rain, and broke for sun by the end of the event. All in all, everyone seemed to feel it was a good day.
Waterfront park rally
Folks started turning up around 10:00 a.m. in the waterfront park where several organizations including Portland Indymedia set up tables for information. Three police cars, one unmarked, sat in the parking lot some distance away. The crowd had swelled to 150 by the time the music started at 11:00ish, and the atomosphere livened up, despite the heavy cloud cover.
The Salem Police Department's regular Public Information Officer was off that day but a Sergeant Hamilton was on hand to speak for the department and he answered questions from three Indymedia reporters, two from the emerging Eugene Indymedia and one from Portland. We heard from Hamilton that the Peace event organizers had obtained a permit for the march up Court Street to the capitol, but did not need one for the waterfront park; that two extra officers had been assigned to duty that day, including himself, but that no other extra measures had been taken; that state troopers were involved because the march was ending at the capitol building, and that he was not aware of any special instructions from Mayor Swaim. One officer was watching the rally through binoculars; when asked about why, Hamilton said that this allowed the officers to "stay out of the way".
The federal government recently put the country on alert for possible terrorist actions, and sent out a notice to every law enforcement agency in the country. Hamilton confirmed that the Salem Police Department had received "the teletype" but said that the alert had changed nothing so far due to its lack of specificity regarding time, manner or place. Hamilton does not feel that Salem is a likely target of terrorist attack, anyway.
By the time the march started at 12:30 about 300 people had gathered. Though I had gotten the impression from with Sgt. Hamilton that Court Street was there for the taking if the activists wanted to use it, the organizers kept almost everyone on the sidewalks, and obeyed all traffic signals. Those taking one, and only one, lane of Court Street were the people carrying a large banner and a giant puppet, and about ten others. Police pulled into intersections to facilitate the march's movement. I don't understand why the organizers did not allow the energy of the crowd to flow more freely considering that the police did not seem to be presenting any obstacles to that.
The march was loud, though. "Peace now!", "No more bombs!", "No more war!" and "Peace now, justice now!" were among the boisterously chanted slogans. Reaction from Salem residents was mixed. One woman got a big old smile on her face and said, "this is great". Someone else, perhaps annoyed that traffic was being blocked, revved their engine and peeled away. That this action, the revved engine and screeching exit, is so prevalent in the U.S. as an expression of disgust is tragically fitting: all bluster and no sense, with a quick escape that precludes response. How appropos of American foreign policy, really: willfully ignorant cowardice cloaked clumsily in hubris.
At the capitol building
The crowd briefly took the street, for a block or so, just before reaching the capitol builiding. Once in front of the art deco marble monolith, they gathered for speeches, drumming, and a piece of street theatre by Urgent Carnival about the FTAA and its dangers. This drama featuring giant puppets and characters representing industry, workers and indigenous peoples has been performed in the area before, including during the Walk For Farmworker Justice this last summer. A magnetic woman called "Mama Bear" drummed and sang: "The fire will not go out until we reach our goal!"
A handful of counter-protesters stood at the curb, just outside the circle. Though one sign mounted on a motorcycle read, "Send the peace demonstrators to the Afgan [sic] Mountains -- the Taliban need the target practice", the folks in this camp hardly represented a polar opposite to the activists. When asked why they were there, they replied, "To thank the vets for keeping our country free." Though neither of the men I talked to were military veterans themselves, both were from families with relatives who served. I asked them if they felt -- in their own perception -- whether the peace activists against whom they were protesting were all *against* vets, or gave them no honor, because I believed that wasn't true. One of the men compared the crowd to the anti-Vietnam protesters who, he claimed, "spat on and threw rotten fruit at" returning veterans back then. "They're the same people," he said. I mentioned that I was curious to hear what he knew about Vietnam vets being spat on because a scholar had come out last year claiming that such stories were apocryphal [Lembcke, Jerry: "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam"]. In response, he told me that anti-war protesters had spat on and thrown rotten fruit at a soldier friend of his who arrived at the Los Angeles airport from Vietnam in 1973. The story was told to him by this friend within weeks of its occurence, and he believed him.
The other critique of the peace activists levelled by the counter-protesters was that only one of them had a U.S. flag. They viewed this as a sign of a lack of patriotism. Peace activists feel differently on the topic, but this is something I've heard more than once now, about other peace rallies. I'm not suggesting that peace activists start carrying U.S. flags to gain greater acceptance of their message -- if indeed that would even work -- but this critique needs needs a good response from the pro-peace community, in my opinion, and I don't know what it should be.
I mentioned to the counter-protesters my observation that the divide between them and the peace activists did not strike me as being very wide. "I don't see a fight happening here today," I added. They shook their heads. "No," one of them said. "I'll defend myself, but I won't attack." The other one nodded. I thanked them for their time and went back to the rally, thinking to myself that the sentiment the counter-protester had expressed could probably be found in the crowd of peace activists, too, and that it was somehow reassuring to know that the situation was not black and white.
All the speakers were white men, which seemed like an odd line-up for a Green Party sponsored event. Not that they didn't have anything to say, but the lack of diversity in voices was conspicuous to many of the activists. One characterized the vibe as "overly intellectual", "dry", and "lacking in emotion". Mike Swaim, the Mayor of Salem, declared that there is "no such thing as a holy war", and went on to echo many of the ideas he related in a recent Indymedia interview, and read a piece of anti-war writing by Mark Twain. Among other things, Swaim mentioned that Democratic Party leadership is unhappy with him for his pro-peace stance. Lloyd Marbett of the Pacific Green Party complimented Swaim, suggested he would make a good State Representative, and mentioned that the Greens would welcome his pro-peace stance in their party. When asked whether he would be willing to jump from the Democrats to the Greens, Swaim told Indymedia, "No". Rather, he would like to see the Greens "take over the Democratic Party" in order to push it to the left, in much the same way that the religious right was successfully able to push the Republicans in the other direction. So, sorry Greens!
Echoing an action taken during the August 6 funeral for Carlo Giuliani in Portland, the crowd of activists held a die-in in front of the capitol building and lied there silently for three full minutes. Like the Portland event, this action was quite moving. The silence, the stillness, the somber tone created a beautiful moment for reflection. Mama Bear brought everyone back to their feet with drums and the words, "Rise up!" The sun had broken through the clouds moments before; it was a beautiful day.