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Wednesday, January 15, 2014
From my book Tripping Through the American Night:
Papa Bush Starts a War
The crowd at Olympia's Sylvester Park on January 15, 1991 exceeded our expectations. Even the police expressed their surprise at the large numbers and enthusiasm. By the time the speakers had begun, there were more than 3000 people in the park and the streets surrounding it. Curtis and I ran interference—keeping folks off the stage and helping keep order among the scheduled speakers. Susan introduced the participants and Anna kept the show moving. The only conflict that arose on stage was when Democratic Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld approached us and asked to speak. Curtis and I were against such a move, not because we had anything in particular against her, but because we did not want politicians diluting our message or riding our coattails. Anna and some others felt just as strongly the other way. Eventually, Curtis and I gave in,
knowing that the final speech would be given by Peter Bohmer in front of the Capitol and there was no doubt about his stance. Within days Unsoeld was supporting the war under the guise of supporting the troops, like so many other politicians.
After the rally ended, a group of drummers organized by Mike O. went into the street and waited while people lined up behind them. Then the crowd headed up Capitol Way to the Capitol. The police did a little pushing and shoving but for the most part they behaved themselves. After the majority of the crowd had reached the parking lot in front of the Capitol, Peter began to speak. He gave a rousing twenty minute talk tying together the fight for justice and against imperial war and then urged everyone to join him inside the Capitol where we would attempt to present a petition demanding the Washington State Legislature pass a resolution opposing a war against Iraq. People headed towards the doors. As they went inside police asked them to leave their signs at the door. Once inside, the chant “No War!” began in earnest once again. While most of us remained in the rotunda, about 500 protesters went looking for a door into the chambers. Eventually they found one and streamed into the room. The Legislature had closed early that day because of the demonstration and the room was empty. Not for long, though. Soon, close to a thousand people were in the room, chanting, talking, and dancing. Some of the more organized members of the crowd began to strategize a plan for the longer term. They called the group to some kind of order and expressed their desire to occupy the chambers until the legislators responded to the proposed resolution. Meanwhile the police were gathering their forces and talking to each other on walkie-talkies. The press was sending out their version of the events on the national wire and over the
television airwaves via CNN. Within the hour, news of the action had spread and more media were streaming in as protesters began to settle in for a long stay. By dark most folks had left the chambers. Some headed home. Most, however, joined a vigil and prayer session that had begun an hour earlier in the Capitol rotunda.
Around 9:00 pm, while the speeches and praying went on in the rotunda of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia, a different type of action was playing out in the chambers– by now sealed off by state troopers and a variety of other law enforcement types— where a dozen or so protesters from the earlier celebration/takeover continued their occupation and protest against the impending attack against Iraq. Capitol grounds administrators and police talked back and forth about physically removing the people inside. Myself and one or two other organizers asked them to
hold off. Meanwhile we waited for attorney John Thorne to return an earlier phone call. Although John could not legally practice in the state, he had plenty of experience dealing with police in all types of situations. His experience in California during the sixties and seventies representing everyone from a police union in San Jose to the revolutionary George Jackson insured that. On top of that, he had helped us deal with the police during other protests in Olympia against American policy, including showing up at a moment’s notice after a confrontation following a 1989 protest against US policy in El Salvador and retrieving my friend David from jail. This would be child’s play.
After finding the room where the police were planning their move, John began asking around for the officer in charge. At first, none of the police wanted to talk to him, but after he told them he was an attorney, a lieutenant eventually materialized. After brief introductions, John and the lieutenant left the hallway to discuss the protesters who were locked in the chambers. Meanwhile, I waited. So did the troopers. When John came back, he winked at me, shook the lieutenant’s hand and we headed upstairs to the lobby and the continuing vigil.
“They’re going to let them stay the night, Ron.” Said John, referring to the demonstrators inside the chambers. “As long as they leave in the morning. Do you think they’ll go for it?”
“Probably.” I said. “If we can get some food in to them.”
“Anyone working on that?” asked Thorne. “Yeah. The co-op people put together some
sandwiches and have them outside in a truck.”
By this time, we had arrived at the locked doors of the chambers and began to knock rather loudly. The food co-op workers were already there with a box of sandwiches and drinks. After a minute or two, Ceridwen, one of the occupiers, opened the door a crack and peered out. We assured her that no police were around. She then opened the door wide enough for the box of food to be handed to her. After a quick word or two of assurance regarding their overnight stay, I went back to the vigil where a group of teenagers were harassing another teenager for wearing the US flag as a headband.
The following day, the local daily The Olympian, like the television media, treated the Capitol protest as spectacle. This angered me. In a conversation with Symphonox a week or two later regarding this recurrent tendency of the media to portray all events as spectacles that just seem to happen without organization or any other type of forethought, he asked me, rather sarcastically, what could we do about it. The question stopped me for a moment. After all, we didn’t want to organize a spectacle, we wanted to organize a movement. Yet if the media insisted on portraying our work as spectacle, it was up to us to figure out how to use their portrayal as an organizing tool. We couldn’t play just to the media, yet we shouldn’t ignore it either. In union organizing, one can ignore the media since the union’s audience is in the workplace and composed of folks the organizers know. But we weren’t organizing a union, we were organizing a movement against imperial war. There was no way we could reach everyone we wanted to reach without letting the mainstream media do some of the talking. The trick was to create events and information that the corporate media could not reinterpret to fit their bosses’ needs. Little did some of us know that soon even that opportunity would be denied as the media just stopped reporting any opposition to the war at all.
When I arrived at work the next morning it was eerie. The first thing I was reminded of was the Gary Cooper movie "High Noon" where everyone knows a big shootout is coming, but nobody wants to deal with it.
So we just went about our work as if nothing was too out of the ordinary.
After work I went up to the elementary school to get my son Ian. We walked back down Capitol Way as we usually did and stopped in at a bakery shop where we often bought an after school snack. After Ian had made a selection, I handed the young woman at the counter a five dollar bill. As she was making change, the music on the radio was interrupted by one of those special news bulletins. Baghdad had been attacked. As Peter Arnett’s disembodied voice related the events, we could hear the sound of explosions in the background. The young woman began to cry and set down my change. I reached over to grab it and she grabbed my hand. I gripped her hand tightly until the fellow working in the kitchen appeared. He hugged her and she let go her grip. Ian and I hurried out the door and headed for a pay phone. I needed to call others in the coalition to get ready for the protest we knew was going to happen. Despite our hopes, we knew that there would be a war and had planned, like most other similar groups throughout the world, a meeting time and place once the opening salvos were fired. In Olympia, that place was Sylvester Park and the time was
approximately 6:00 PM the day the shooting began.
We ate a quick dinner and went to Sylvester Park where a crowd was already gathering. Curtis showed up soon after we arrived, as did Anna, Tracy, Michael, Harry and Grace from the Citizen’s Band, and several other active OAIC organizers. While we tried to get ourselves together, a radio blasted live reports from Baghdad, D.C., and other spots around the world, reporting news and repeating rumors.
The emotions of the crowd (now numbering around 1000) in the park vacillated between fear, anger and distress. All of which added to an ever growing sense of urgency and a desire to react immediately without much forethought. Up on the gazebo stage, Curtis rounded up people willing to serve as a nominal security group.
Their primary purpose would be to link arms around the speakers and musicians as they appeared and hopefully prevent any attacks from unfriendly elements. Meanwhile, Anna negotiated furiously for a sound system while Harry and Grace wondered where theirs was. We had been told it was on its way a half hour earlier.
After another ten minutes, our adhoc group decided we shouldn’t wait any longer. Since I had the voice which could carry the furthest, I was chosen to lead off the rally. I stepped to face the crowd just as the van carrying the sound system arrived. The crowd’s attention turned to me as I began.
“Hello.” I began. “I grew up in a military family and spent most of my youth on or near military bases. When I was eight years old my dad was assigned to Peshawar in what was then West Pakistan. While we lived there, the governments of India and Pakistan went to war over a piece of land known as Kashmir. As Americans, my friends and I didn’t think too much about it, but were a little fascinated by the goings on around us: windows painted black and nightly blackouts, air raid drills, warplanes flying overhead. ” I continued with a brief synopsis of those days in
Pakistan when the war raged around us. Then I went ahead.
“Four years later, I was living in the States again and my dad was sent to Vietnam to fight in another war. I didn’t want him to go and I didn’t want him to be involved in the killing. My family was lucky—much luckier than thousands of other families both Vietnamese and American—he came back intact. While he was away, my mom gave birth to my second- youngest sister. If dad had died over there, he would never have known her and her cheerful, spirited self. Like many other families, the war drove a wedge between my father and us older kids. I feared the day I would have to face the draft and did my damnedest to get that war over. We were fortunate—we did end that war, but only after way too many had died. Only after way too much had been destroyed.
Now, as we stand here other soldiers are carrying out an attack with horrific weapons on people of another country in our name. Already radio reports speak of thousands dead. Whether it’s thousands or just one, it’s too many. This suffering must end. This war must end. And we must help end it.
Our struggle will not be easy. At times, we will want to quit. At times we will question the point of our resistance. But we must never quit. No! We must raise our level of opposition to a greater level then. Sometimes we will offend some folks, maybe even our
family or friends. Sometimes we will be verbally abused or physically assaulted. We must not, no, can not, give in. Like the great fighter for the liberation of black people in this country from slavery , Frederick Douglas,
If there is no struggle, there is not progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without the thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful
roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both mental and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand.
About midway through the speech, the PA system was connected and I no longer needed to shout. As soon as I finished Harry and Grace played a tune. After that, other members of the crowd said a few words. While this went on, a truck full of war supporters drove by and threw some bricks into the
crowd. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt. By 8:30, many folks in the crowd were emotionally spent. Those of us on the stage who were more or less managing the rally decided to go ahead with a suggestion by members of the crowd to march through the downtown streets, come back to the park and call it a night. Curtis and I remained behind. After the last protester left the park we went across the street and drained a couple quick beers.
Harry and Grace had not bothered to go on the march since someone needed to watch the sound equipment so we brought them back some coffee. The four of us dissembled the PA and made plans to be back the next day for an even larger demonstration and possible occupation of the Federal Building. When the crowd returned to the park, I shouted out that announcement and wished everyone a decent night’s sleep.