The independent news organization of Duke University

Column: Democracy is dead. Long live democracy!

At this point in his life, my father was marching on the Pentagon and being jailed in defiance of his country. I find myself at 21, my country once again living in interesting times, so to speak, and I am a protest virgin. Now, I hate injustice as much as the next dude, but the myths of '60s activism didn't live long for me: Protests of my father's time were violent, faddish and futile. The ones a few years ago in Seattle were even worse. I was beginning to fear my political maturity would come and go, leaving me with no cause to say "I was there."

A peace rally was held in Raleigh on Saturday, but I didn't have enough faith in the cause to make it mine just yet. So I went as a journalist, not a participant. I would be an objective lens. I fixed my pen behind my ear. I forgot my camera on the kitchen counter.

And I showed up late. Driving in, I saw straggling picketers: "No Blood for Oil," "Killing is Bad," "With Dick and Bush, Everyone Gets F---ed." I felt my devil's advocate getting revved up, telling me that these slogans were no less simplistic than what was presented in the State of the Union address. I took out my notebook and mentally checklisted all the incisive questions I would ask unsuspecting rallyers, in search of the substance behind the slogans.

I thought I already knew what that substance would be: coffeeshop revolutionaries, kids with No Logo patches and snarled mantras, holding up signs of Bush, Sharon and Hitler dancing on a piggy bank. Swastika eyes. Aging hemp-clad hippies and Burning Man driftoffs peddling their conspiracy exposé pamphlets. The D.C. protests were organized by groups like ANSWER, groups more committed to ideological strong-arming than real grassroots, and hope for a broad-based peace coalition had been mostly left behind.

But I'm skeptical even of more recognizable anti-war sentiments, including my own. It's not that I think the U.S. is right, but what if those of us who speak out are wrong? Maybe Saddam is a real and terrible threat, and Bush is acting - however recklessly - in our own self-interest. The truth is that we don't get the whole truth, nothing like the truth, so help us God.

There were a few hundred people aimlessly drifting in front of the speakers' tent. Someone was reading out the names of the groups that had arrived, but no one seemed to listen, and nobody I talked to had much information about who spoke and what was said. I walked towards a street where the crowd got thicker and the picket signs all faced forward. The line flowed more like a stroll than a march. People hung out of windows and honked out of their cars.

I saw some students, and some trim goatees, but even more strollers and paunches. I saw more gray hair than dyed, more mullets than mohawks; I saw priests and farm laborers, corporate managers and women in burqas. Dummies in black death shrouds drifted overhead among the rows of signs. I saw many people I knew, and only some of them were from the University. One brave soul wore only a bikini and duct tape, insulated from terror if not the cold.

My questions no longer felt sharp and exacting. These people weren't here to talk, but they were here to be heard. The only thing that most of them would agree on in a discussion is that this isn't right. Somehow, that was all that was needed. Somehow, that inarticulate gut feeling put everyone on the same page. Myself included - instead of talk, I merely walked.

While we circled around back to the capitol building, a cry came from on high. "Tell me what democracy looks like!" The crowd bellowed: This is what democracy looks like! I looked and saw a dreadlocked djembe drum circle, and people dancing and jumping, their pickets flapping in abandon. In the midst of the circle, three doves, eight feet tall in feathered white robes, danced on stilts and seemed to blow with the breeze. Around them the circle grew steadily larger: professors and children, hippies and soccer moms, bikers and bankers. A group of church women suddenly soared in gospel melody along with the tribal beats, as a very angry young man rapped mantras onto speakerphone. It was all more exhilarating than Mardi Gras.

I'd only felt that kind of exhilaration twice before: once when I was a child and I saw documentary footage of American troops liberating Aushwitz, and the other time was when, in a foreign city across the ocean, I watched New York explode on TV. Downtown Raleigh was celebrating America even as it condemned the illegitimate U.S. leader and his complicit government. I hoped the world was watching, that everyone could see what this looked like.

The world, I found out later, was quite busy. Protests swelled not just in our country, but in about 600 cities around the world. Parts of Australia saw 10 times the expected turnout - one out of 10 of the entire population in certain parts. Britain, Spain and Germany - which know full well the dangers of unchecked authoritarian aggression - were overwhelmed, with five million protesters throughout Spain (12 percent of its population) and one million in London alone. It was the largest mass gathering in human history, more truly global than any war.

But if you weren't there, it's likely you won't know about it. That night, Channel 14's 5 p.m. newscast reported on the Raleigh march, counting "several hundred" anti-war protesters. The real figure is around 8,000. All of its stories gave coverage to the "patriotic counter-protest," which numbered 65 people. National news was no more responsible: nearly half a million people marched in New York City, with no permit and insufficient preparation for the massive yet peaceful crowd. CNN gave considerable air to the isolated incidences of arrests and teargassing. In the meantime, front pages showed flag burnings in Baghdad. Come Monday, the protests had been forgotten by the press. Little more than passing reference was made by the Bush or Blair administrations.

This is what democracy looks like as it is ignored - by the media, by our government. As a handful of tyrants and religious fundamentalists steer history to an event horizon, the rest of the world stands up, powerless but with dignity: Not in our name.

Greg Bloom, Trinity '03, is a senior editor for Recess. His column appears every third Tuesday.


Share and discuss “Column: Democracy is dead. Long live democracy!” on social media.