Note for readers: This is the second of two pieces dedicated to shame and honor in the Bush era. The first was Bush’s Wall of Shame.
On November 2, 2005, I found myself in a familiar situation — at a protest. This time, it was the New York version of the World Can’t Wait nationwide protest on the first anniversary of George W. Bush’s reelection. In some ways the scene was typical. Heavy police presence for the rally. Lots of police vans. The ubiquitous metal barricades. And that vestigial gift of the August 2004 Republican National Convention in the Big Apple: the NYPD scooter brigade — complete with flexi-cuffs informally used to weaponize the scooters by lashing billy clubs to them.
The police had been called out in force because the kids were out in force. While I saw many of the usual suspects (including my rapidly aging self), the day belonged to throngs of high-school and college kids — some of whom walked out of class, braving suspensions. Many were too young to vote or buy alcohol, though not to enlist in the military. (Go figure.) It was a fired up, diverse crowd that grooved to the excellent musicianship and furious lyrics of the genre-bending Brooklyn quintet, Outernational, and gave it up for speakers ranging from fiery City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez to former diplomat Ann Wright, who called on the crowd to spend Thanksgiving with her and other hearty activist souls at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas.
Then they took to the streets. Carrying a creative mlange of signs, clad in “Resist Or Die!” t-shirts, and wearing green stickers bearing the words of their signature chant — “Drive out the Bush Regime, The World Can’t Wait!” — they commenced a two-mile march through Manhattan to Times Square. They yelled or sang familiar call-and-response chants. “Whose streets? Our streets!” “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” They implored passersby to join the march — and I even saw an elderly man do so. Many drivers in cars smiled or honked horns in support, while office workers in windows above flashed peace signs, cheered, or gave thumbs-up. Then there was the fellow, high above in dress shirt and tie, who held his own home-made sign to a window: “Get a job.” He was met by the expected opprobrium and a chant just for him: “Get a clue! Get a clue!”
Finally, he mouthed back — at least it looked that way to me — “You, get a clue!” And I was reminded of something that is almost never mentioned anymore. I remember well the huge rallies and marches in New York, Washington, and elsewhere as the Bush administration rushed headlong into war, claiming the need to find weapons of mass destruction that were never there and strangle a threat that never existed. It should make you think about who had a clue, and who needed to get one.
In a recent column in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd called attention to a striking Los Angeles Times op-ed by retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff. He wrote that American “foreign policy had been hijacked by u2018a secretive, little-known cabal’ [headed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld] that hated dissent.” At the end of her piece, Dowd suggested that President Bush ought to take back the Medal of Freedom he gave to former CIA chief George Tenet and instead award one to Wilkerson.
As striking as Wilkerson’s revelations were, the more striking thing may be that those of us out protesting in the streets before the first shock-and-awe missiles landed on Baghdad didn’t need such information (much as we would then have wished for a voice like his to speak out). We didn’t need the latest intel from generals or politicians or spymasters with top-secret access to reports from the intelligence community. We did better without it. On February 15, 2003, at least 10 million people in 400 cities in 60 countries, across 5 continents saw what was about to happen plenty clearly. They saw that the coming war would be illegitimate, deadly, and destructive. They sensed that invading Iraq would, in the long run, be no cake-walk. They already understood that what the Bush administration so clearly planned to do was based on lies. And they knew it was all wrong — not from the start or months or years later — but before it ever began.
If medals are being given out, perhaps this is what should never be forgotten. It was the “crazies” in the streets. It was kids in weird clothes with strange hair. It was a man holding a puppet and a woman with a homemade sign. They knew then what it took the majority of Americans years to figure out. That the war would be a disaster and that, in any case, it was wrong. Those people, braving a bitterly cold day in New York City in February 2003, had better intel, more foresight, and better judgment than the military, the intelligence agencies, and especially the President and Vice President of the United States and all their advisors.
I can’t get that man with his little sign high in the window out of my head or the thought that facts like these are so easily forgotten. What I might tell him, were he to decide to come down and ask what I thought, is this: Remember well that if you want the real story. If you want the unvarnished truth. If you want the intel that trillions can’t buy. You just might find it in the streets. It might be the only place left where you can actually get a clue.