RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Protests, Revisited

On Oct. 2, the media were full of stories about how the Senate was about to give up its rights as a decision-making body and give full war powers and homeland security powers to Bush insiders. It was almost funny that the US Congress, once arguably the most powerful group of policy-makers on the planet, was washing its hands of the Middle East. Campaign slogans, 2004: "Don't Blame Me, I Voted to Abstain."

But I wasn't in a laughing mood, and instead found myself drawn to the cluster of protesters at Broadway and Providence. I picked up a sign that read, "Oil Fuels Our Foreign Policy." The sign-maker had put flames around the word "Fuels," which made it kind of hard to read, but the sign said what I was thinking, so I carried it to the northeast corner of the intersection and stood on the curb.

In the last year, I've taken up residence on the curb three times. Jack O'Connell, on the southeast curb, has been here 50 weeks. Jack was wearing his regular summer outfit -- khaki shorts, button-down shirt, wrap-around sunglasses. He looked like he had just stepped off the golf course or, perhaps, lunched with Mom, dropped her off at the condo, and promised to stop at the garden-supply store on his way home. He was about 35, bacheloresque, tidy.

He had even figured out the best way to work his sign, which said "Honk For Peace." He had mounted it on a five-foot pole, so he could support it with one hand. He rotated it this way and that to face the oncoming traffic. With his other hand, he waved and hollered to the drivers, "Thank you."

Next to Jack, a skinny black guy held a sign with a densely-written essay on the last 140 years of social injustice in the US and ended with "We need to fix our own problems first." On the back of his sign, perhaps to make up for the wordiness of the essay, he had written four big words: "LOVE ONE ANOTHER -- JESUS."

On the other corners, there were the usual suspects. Peace activists and college professors, a mom with her kids, a pothead looking for something to do, a couple of students. Two held a large banner, "No War With Iraq." The other signs said stuff like "Justice, Not War." A Hispanic man who called himself Manuel had a sign that said: "Not Our Sons. Not Their Sons."

Three of the peace activists were chattering excitedly about their trip to Washington, D.C., where they'd all been arrested. "I'll say one thing about the D.C. cops," said one shaggy fellow, "they didn't steal my stuff." Amy Goodman, the Pacifica news anchor who had covered the protests, wasn't so lucky. She announced on her program, Democracy Now, that someone had run off with her laptop computer and camera.

Here on our corner, nearly all the passing cars honked and the people made peace signals or waved, but just when I was feeling successful and comfortable, a woman stuck her head out of her car and said, "I just want you all to know ... " then started to cry.

She was one of those startlingly well-groomed people that pop up at football games and country-western concerts, champagne-colored from the top of her head to her manicured nails. Driving her champagne-colored Beemer, she breathed into a champagne-colored cell phone like it was an oxygen source, then turned her head to speak to us again.

"I just want you all to know," she said, "that my brother's over there fighting for you all." And, wouldn't you know it, the stoplight turned red and she ended up stuck and sobbing about three feet from where I was standing.

I wanted to pat her on the shoulder, and take her to the organic bakery for a cookie and a cup of herbal tea. I'd say, "There, there, it's OK to be sad." Then, when she was ready to reason, I imagined myself saying, "Listen. We've got to get him out. It's a war zone over there!"

But she was in her Beemer, glued to her cell phone, and I knew it would terrorize her to be approached by someone with a sign saying, "Oil Fuels Our Foreign Policy," even if she couldn't read the word "fuels." And then the light changed.

And she stomped on the accelerator and turned her head out the window yelling, "Just move to Iraq, then. Just move to Iraq."

In another time and place, watching the parade for the high school homecoming, say, or standing in line to pay for our parking spots, we would have smiled cordially, and, perhaps, been curious about each other. "What is her life like?" we might have wondered, studying each other's hair and purses. "Who are her friends? Where does she live?" In peaceful times, imagining the lives of strangers is a pleasant and harmless way to pass the time.

But -- and here's the scary part -- we're not in peace time. In fact, the peaceful gathering on corners, unreported for the most part by the media, will grow. And more and more people will have more and more brothers fighting. And, with a president grabbing the power to make "pre-emptive" strikes, these brothers are no longer our defenders. We're the attackers. We're the attackers, complete and complicit with a single leader's world vision.

Twenty years from now, the victors will write the history, and like the US versions of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, the histories will shape the way we see ourselves. Today, by holding our eyes just so, we can see US history as a series of isolated, mostly heroic military actions. Twenty years from now, historians might well see a different pattern -- one military action fueling another. World War I fueling World War II fueling Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Cycles of violence. A culture of violence.

And Daniel's week 50 will become Week 100, then Week 150, and where will it end?

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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