When I arrived at the meeting place uptown, it was still dark. There were several people lined up or sitting on benches at 125th Street in Harlem – older folks of color, children in strollers. I approached the corner, video camera on my back, feeling the strange combination of simultaneous excitement and exhaustion.

Tired because I woke up at 4 a.m. after a long day and week of work. Excited because I was on my way to Washington, D.C., for what would surely be the largest demonstration I had ever attended.

The sense inside me was that I was about to experience something I would never forget and that the event was to be historic. I was right. The bus was full, almost all African American or Latino, and almost all under or around the age of 25. More than half of us were women.

Among the passengers were nine Latino students from Bushwick Outreach, an alternative school in Brooklyn, and three young Black women from Harlem’s

Action Community Empowerment (ACE). For many of them, I believe it was their first demonstration.

There were groups of young people from the Black Radical Congress (BRC) and Young Communist League, as well as various other activists and more experienced organizers who had bought tickets through our Uptown for Peace and Justice Coalition.

At a rest stop in New Jersey, I saw large groups of Palestinians who were going down on buses. Families, grandmothers and mothers, husbands, brothers and their children with matching t-shirts that read “Free Palestine.”

We continued on, many of us recovering from our early morning and quietly anticipating the day before us. The Bushwick kids slept under blankets, talked and laughed while listening to music. Some of the older BRC folks had a discussion on organizing and African-American history.

By around 10:30 we were crossing the Delaware River under a clear sky and I finally emerged from my groggy state to record a free-style session between Young Communist League member Cesar Casamayor and Matthew Hall from the Zulu Nation.

The excitement among the young teens in the back of the bus was growing. One person said, “When we get down to D.C. it’s gonna be on.”

We were soon there. In the parking lot of RFK Stadium, we joined up with the other Uptown bus, which had left from 159th Street and Amsterdam. That group was made up largely of a group of teenaged Dominican youth from Washington Heights, as well as other young activists of color.

A long procession of people walked from the stadium to the subway station. Buses were still arriving after we had left.

The young people from the other Uptown bus had been practicing chanting on the bus and were taking turns yelling into the bullhorn while their peers laughed and answered back. The energy was growing. If there was anyone else in the train car besides people going to the march I couldn’t tell.

We got to the Washington Monument at around noon and made our way through the crowds of people. I ran into friends from other organizations; there were tables set up with buttons and bumper stickers; as far as the eye could see; people young and old held signs, flyers and banners from hundreds of different groups and coalitions.

There were giant costumes and masks and the kind of electricity in the air that one feels when surrounded by thousands of people with a common, positive mission. I got the immediate sense that there were more people there than I could see or count.

Speakers blared from different directions, people cheered, children chased each other barefoot with political t-shirts on. Older generation activists spoke with old friends and people handed out papers. Tourists wandered through the masses with curiosity.

As the group stood around and tried to figure out what exactly was happening, I went with some others to the large Palestinian rally across the street. There, it seemed that there were easily 10,000 people. I once again saw families together smiling, drinking water, lying on sheets in the grass.

Old men and women talked while young children led chants and yelled: “Peace!! Justice!!” There were young Palestinian men and teenage girls in groups as speaker after speaker rallied the crowd around issues of liberation and solidarity. For as far as the eye could see, there were flags – mostly Palestinian, some American some anti-Israeli imagery and hundreds of posters and signs saying: “No War in Iraq,” and demanding an end to the illegal occupation.

A circle of people waving flags and banners, banging drums and blowing whistles, gathered around a boy who couldn’t have been older than 12. He chanted slogans in Arabic and English as the crowd, made up of other children, older activists and parents answered back: “What do we want? Palestine!! When do we want it? Now!!”

The power of the gathering, the presence of so many people demanding justice, was incredibly moving.

We began marching at around 2 p.m. and the nervous energy, tension and anticipation of the Bushwick and Washington Heights kids began to be released. The Young Communist League and Communist Party USA contingents had our banners and a giant Bush mask with a cigar.

As we streamed into the larger procession I looked around me and saw hundreds of people making their way from the stage where the morning rally of the United We March Coalition had been held. Hundreds in front and behind me. People watched us as we defiantly, proudly walked through the street. I heard someone say: “Go youth!!” Once again, as I would throughout the day, I felt a profound pride and joy in being part of our contingent, made up primarily of youth of color, at such an important and powerful event. As we walked, the crowd grew, the energy grew, our contingent became more solid and we spanned the wide street.

We saw an indigenous dance group performing in the street, a drum circle with young people of all colors dancing, shouting and jumping while someone waved an enormous Palestinian flag. People were on trees, hills and elevated stone surfaces watching the crowd roll by. Whenever I got a chance to view the whole street, the crowd did not seem to end.

Before I knew it, the young organizers who had been leading us in chants were replaced by kids from Bushwick Outreach and ACE. We yelled: “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Hey-hey, Ho-ho, Bush and Cheney got to go!” As raindrops began to fall, one of the people from Bushwick started the chant: “Let it rain, let it pour, we will stop this racist war!”

I thought to myself that this is what the movement could and should look like. These are the leaders. As we approached the final rallying point there were thousands of people as far as the eye could see.

Later I would find out that the number was 100,000, perhaps more. At the time I didn’t dare estimate so high, but I knew that a major event had happened, was happening, and that the youth in our contingent may never be the same again. No one would.

I asked Neptali Chavez from Brooklyn what he thought of the demonstration and he told me: “I’m moved to be here, it’s a powerful movement. We need more people here, we need to keep speaking to people … Bush needs to listen to us because we are the people.”

We were tired, hot and elated. I realized I had not eaten anything all day, and had been on my feet for most of the time as well. The students and youth who had attended were like the young Palestinian children and families: they were less concerned with which coalition had organized which rallies and which marches were meeting up where. It was not the important thing.

Nor did it matter much to me that there were a variety of issues around which the demonstrations had been built, a variety of demands being voiced in different ways and styles. On that day I knew that we were all resisting the same thing – U.S. imperialism.

On the way home, after making sure all the youth got back to the bus, and in the time since that Saturday I have reflected and done much of the important thinking that is needed after a major event. The excitement the youth felt is what we need to continue to develop within young people from the working-class communities of the city and country, along with the desire and commitment to continue to work to build this movement. We need to keep struggling, keep working, keep organizing and building.

The march reminded me of a truth: there is a massive majority that wants peace and justice in this country. We must work to organize these voices into a real force for change, especially in the communities where it is most needed and most present.

Reports in the days that followed cited the huge numbers of the crowds. They are calling it the largest demonstration of its kind in U.S. history. But there were other unmistakable facts that we all took away from the historic march on D.C. on April 20: there is widespread support for Palestinian liberation; there is massive opposition to Bush’s war drive, to the racist attacks on civil liberties and the working people of this country; there is a movement. And most importantly: we will win.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org


April 20: The start of something

The April 20 Mobilization to Stop the War at Home and Abroad was a huge success for the peace movement in this country. Nearly 100,000 people came together through various coalitions against the war on terrorism, for Palestinian solidarity, for global justice and for peace in Colombia.

The huge demonstration was both a reflection of the shift in public sentiment about the war and an opening of the veil of silence since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But the movement cannot rest on its laurels. The Bush administration is set on expanding the so-called “war on terrorism” to other countries and the detention of immigrants at home continues. The success of April 20 is a great opportunity which we must take advantage of in order to build a broader and bigger movement for peace and justice in the U.S.

Last Fall, when the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC) called for a peace march in Washington, D.C., it viewed the April 20 demonstration as the beginning of something, not the goal in and of itself.

The goal is to engage in local campaigns against the repressive and opportunistic legislation that was passed after Sept. 11.

Now, the peace movement must return to the grassroots to build the local peace committees and coalitions that make up its heart. It is going to take grassroots organizing on campuses and in communities and workplaces to win the victories, large and small, that will lead to a defeat of the overarching war policy.

This local work will be difficult, but it will ensure an even larger mobilization when we return to Washington, D.C., to show our opposition to Bush’s war.

– Libero Della Piana