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Freezing for Peace

If you are conscious enough to be reading this, you know Wednesday the 10th was the night that President Bush made his appeal for a higher body count in Iraq. Bush had about as much chance of selling me on the idea of further escalation as he does of converting Bin Laden to the Christianity. I have been opposed to this war from the get-go, and will remain so. As an American, I want no further blood spilled in my name for a bogus cause, and I also believe Bush and Cheney should be impeached. I have no faith this government is capable of a military solution – if there even was one, which I don’t believe there is – that will resolve what they have started. I confess to having had no intention of even watching the thing; I simply can’t stand the sound of the guy’s voice, so I stick to transcripts. I’m happy to report that skipping the telecast was one early resolution that I kept.

Big picture, though, what weight does my opposition carry? Does my voice for peace really mean anything if it isn’t raised? Is failing to act on one’s convictions when presented with an opportunity to do so any different from those people who choose not to vote? I’m loathe to admit that I am one of what I suspect is a multitude of people who consider themselves “activists” who aren’t particularly active. Voting doesn’t count when it comes to earning activist stripes; that is a civic duty that comes with the privilege of living in our democracy that is ignored by far too many people. Writing letters here and there counts, I guess, but somehow it just doesn’t seem like activism, at least not for me. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything unless I’m breaking a sweat, and sitting in a chair changing a couple lines to personalize a prepared email sent from Defenders of Wildlife or Working for Change almost seems like a copout.

Opportunity arrived this time around with a little “ding.” Wednesday afternoon I received an email from MoveOn telling me that members were busily organizing national “Emergency Rallies to Stop Escalation in Iraq,” to be held the night after the Presidential address, and that I should find one in my area to participate in. I clicked the link, keyed in 59801, and discovered that there was a rally planned for Missoula. Rosauer’s parking lot at 4:30 PM was to be the mustering point, and I was urged to be there. I grunted, made a mental footnote that maybe I should check it out, and went back to whatever I was doing.

By Thursday a couple more messages were urging me from my inbox like jack russell terriers lobbying to be let outside to chase squirrels. In the meantime I’d given it a lot of thought, so I RSVP’d that I would indeed be there. I arranged my schedule accordingly, and at 4:15 I was in my truck headed for the intersection of South and Reserve, en route to my very first demonstration.

My first impression upon arrival was that 10 degrees looks a lot warmer on the computer screen with the sun shining through the window than it actually is when you’re in the middle of it. It is also difficult to notice a stiff breeze from inside the house, but it is painfully apparent when it is shredding your clothes like those new-fangled airport scanners everyone is in an uproar about. I realized that forgetting my gloves was going to be more of an issue than I thought; it’s rather difficult to stuff your hands in your pockets when you’re holding a sign.

I resolved to Cowboy Up, though, as I was admonished to do by no less than three oversized pickups that passed by over the ensuing hour I was on the sidewalk. In each case the phrase was boldly displayed on the back window, flanked at each side by either one of those naked girl silhouettes, a charming shot of Calvin relieving himself on a Ford/Chevy emblem, or a Support the Troops sticker. Measuring the gathering crowd of demonstrators, I decided that if the elementary schoolers accompanying their parents could handle the weather, that if the older folks that made up at least a third of the gathering could Cowboy Up, then I certainly could too.

Initially sparse, the size of the demonstration grew steadily while I was there. I expected a more festive atmosphere, but I think the weather was responsible for taking the edge off everyone’s enthusiasm. Most had a sign of one kind or other; I was given one that read, “No More Montana Deaths!” Others displayed slogans like “War is Obsolete,” “No More Troops!” and, my personal favorite, “Purge the Surge!” One fellow was urging people to buy regular Exit signs to hang from our windows, trees, fences, etc. to serve as a message that the US should get out of Iraq. Later, cardboard coffins draped in American flags joined the procession.

The idea was that with every change of the light we would cross the street, marching with signs aloft across Reserve from Rosauers to the Holiday station, then across South to the fire station, back across Reserve to Shopko, finally re-crossing South to Rosauers where it would start over again. Getting moving helped; the weather went from feeling deathly to just life threatening. The crowd was growing with each crossing. It wasn’t long before each corner had a mass of people waiting to cross, with more lined up along the street waving their signs. I wanted to get some photographs, but after snapping four or five I literally could not feel my fingers well enough to shoot. Finally I just hung my camera around my neck down inside my jacket in hopes that the battery might somehow give off enough heat to keep me warm.

Once the actual march began, it was interesting to see the reaction of the people piloting their vehicles through the intersection. A majority did their best to act like we weren’t even there. For all our bright signs, we could have been just another drab rock garden for all the attention they paid us. Others were obviously irritated that their right-on-red turn was delayed an extra 10 – 15 seconds by pedestrians actually using the crosswalk. Others were so busily jabbering on their cell phones that we could have been cavorting nude on the sidewalk and they never would have been aware of our presence.

Beyond the studied indifference, I was pleased to note the next most common reaction was support. Folks driving by blaring their horns and waving, displaying the thumbs-up, or even rolling down their windows to cry “Woo hoo!” always got a cheer from those of us shivering en masse. Like the demonstrators, those voicing their approval of our actions appeared to be from all demographics; college students driving beat-up escorts covered with Grateful Dead stickers to grizzled rancher-types pulling horse trailers. It was never more apparent that the little boxes pundits like to place people in, or the stereotypes we trade in, are generally unfair. It isn’t unique to our city, but this mishmash of culture is one of the things I love most about Missoula.

The evening did not pass without some people sharing their displeasure over our assembly, however. The first came about 10 or 15 minutes in when a car headed south on Reserve made a squealing left onto South while a young woman thrust her hand out the open window waving the bird at us – and I’m not talking about the proud, bald symbol of our democracy. Later, while waiting for the light to change, one man rolled down his window and started cheering, laughing, clapping, and shaking his head at us. As we began to cross the street, he started calling out, “Feels good to be able to do that doesn’t it? Yeah, it’s great! Don’t you idiots know where that freedom comes from? Support the troops!” and so on. One other incident was almost too perfect. A hummer came barreling along Reserve, and people began to cheer and wave their signs. This guy also had the windows open, waving that mighty finger at us, though for a middle finger it did seem a bit . . . small. How perfect is that? I’ve always felt that nothing screams, “Hey, I’m a self-satisfied jerk, please kick my ass!” like driving a hummer does, and this dude just proved my point. I could see stickers in his back window as he roared away; though I couldn’t read them, I’ve convinced myself at least one of them was a little caricature of W pissing on the Earth.

Only one incident was a bit troubling to me. While standing just off the Rosauers parking lot, a woman came screeching to a stop on the parking lot side of our assembly and came charging out of her car to confront the foursome who were packing the flag-draped coffin. I missed the initial exchange, but she was clearly upset. The point I got was that she has someone, perhaps a husband/brother/son, currently in Iraq, and she felt it was totally inappropriate for us to be displaying the coffin image where her young son could see it. Maybe she has a valid point, and maybe she doesn’t; the people carrying the prop seemed split on whether they should keep carrying the coffin or not. Personally, I think it is an important image, but I don’t know that I would have used it. The government’s ban on allowing those images in the media is ludicrous, particularly when shots of Saddam being marched up the gallows and hung were all over the news.

That dissent is what is critical about the demonstration. The dissent being acted upon by those of us in the march as well as those who disagree with us. I don’t have a problem with the finger waving, and I don’t have a problem with the guy hollering his disagreement out the window. I do have a problem with people who would try and silence our dissent. I have a problem with the idea that you can’t support the troops and not support the war. Am I a better American for wanting more young people to be sent off to die and kill for a bogus cause than I am for wanting them to stay home and live? With all this talk of escalation, my 13-going-on-14-year-old-son looks like a potential candidate for a draft, should it happen, and that scares the crap out of me. I spent a week working at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and seeing those marines day in and day out really drove home the point that these un-viewed coffins, these numbers counting American dead into the thousands, are just kids. Not to mention the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of slain Iraqis and all the ruined families that are the result of those casualties.

Finally, I have a huge problem with anyone who would silence the truth of what is really going on with this war, and that is where our government has been criminally guilty. They lied to us about the reasons for going to war. They lied all along about how the war was going. Now we are expected to believe that after all of this time, they have The Plan to wrap things up. Sorry, George, Dick, and all you spineless jackasses on both sides of the aisle in Congress that have enabled us to get in this mess, I’m still not buying. I may not have broken a sweat, far from it, but I’m happy that I exercised my opportunity to stand and be counted as one who is calling to bring ‘em home.

About Chris La Tray

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  1. I, too, attended the rally that evening. What struck me the most, besides the brain-numbing cold, was the woman you mentioned who jumped out of her car to confront the protesters. (And maybe it was her daughter with her, trailing a safe distance behind.) I was the first person she saw.

    “Where’s the sign that says you support my son?” she asked, about a half-dozen times.

    “I support your son,” I said.

    “Then where’s the sign?” she said.

    This exchange went on for a while. Had I more presence of mind, I would have whipped out a Sharpie, turned my sign over and written: “We Support (her son’s name).”

    I’m not sure this would have placated her, though. She was seriously pissed off and not there for discussion or debate. I believe it was the flag-draped coffin that really set her off. Perhaps the fact that her son might return home in one is what triggered her overwrought response. It’s amazing the power of symbols. Whether it’s a peace sign on a hillside or a coffin on the corner of Reserve and South, these icons illicit fervent yet divergent feelings, depending on one’s perspective.

    I went through a series of emotions, too: sympathy, embarrassment, anger – didn’t this woman realize that we were there to try to stop a war that might kill her son?

    And of course, it got me thinking; which is really what a rally like this is all about, to get people thinking. Whether it’s the guy in the turbo-diesel dually crew cab with middle finger extended or the folks carrying the coffin, I hope people got to thinking about the huge philosophical divisions in this country and why they exist. And thinking about this war, or any war, for that matter. How could this woman not support what we were doing? But I’m sure she felt something quite different. How could we not support our troops (in a no-questions-asked, flag-waving sort of way)?

    I’ll continue to try to comprehend the mindset of those who support this war and this administration. Maybe through understanding this chasm between them and us, there’ll be some enlightenment on both sides that results in an end to these conflicts, both here and abroad.

    As for the woman who confronted us: we support your son. Bring him home, A.S.A.P.

  2. “I went through a series of emotions, too: sympathy, embarrassment, anger – didn’t this woman realize that we were there to try to stop a war that might kill her son?”

    That describes perfectly how I felt too. That is the hardest part for me to understand, the disconnect between those who think you best support the troops by buying into “stay the course” and those of us who think supporting them means working to bring them back alive NOW. I suspect it has something to do with the Vietnam imagery of soldiers being called “baby killer” and things like that on their return. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would slap these soldiers on the back and tell them, “Damn, I’m glad you’re home!”

    Thanks for the comments, Pete.