Saturday, March 22, 2008

Union Square Today - The Broken Chain, Peacealujah, The Upcoming Vigil, and Feathers in the Sky

The Broken Chain

Yesterday, I hear that at noon today, a human chain will form along 14th Street in Manhattan from "River to River." I get to the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue at 12:10 p.m. today and the human chain has hardly taken form.

By the time I decide to get some food, my first meal of the day, the people lining 14th Street get closer together and join hands. I don't want to miss the march of the human chain. I walk off the sidewalk and into an imaginary corridor - defined by the curb and a series of metal gates manned by police.

Between 5th and 6th Avenues, I offer my hand to a man, Gary, who stands at the tip of a line that stretched to the end of the block. I then join hands with Bob, his dad, who suddenly walks up to join the group. We wait a while and chat. A P.A. system set up down the block blares "Give Peace a Chance." We let go of each other's grasps, and a few minutes later we rejoin hands. The line contracts and stretches. Sometimes the line stretches so far that we struggle to stay together.

Finally, the human chain begins the march. But we are told by the organizers that we should do so in walking formation, not as a human chain. I feel disappointed but immediately my attention is stirred by Elizabeth Adam, an older woman who mentions her distaste for the New School's ambition to replace 65 5th Avenue with a state-of-the-art, 18-story "flagship" building, which currently is slated to look like a gigantic shimmering block of windows.

Adam tells me that she is a neighborhood activist who is trying to put a stop to development efforts like these. What about the vermin invasion? What about all the new students? The neighborhood won't be able to handle it. "The Village is under siege," she says.

"NYU's even worse and the students are even worse," she continues. Every day, they're crowding the sidewalks, smoking cigarettes, yakking on their cell phones. They never get out of the way. "I have to say 'Excuse me' three or four times."

She has no problem with education, or with universities, she says. She has a problem with the fact that the New School and NYU can't provide for their students. She tells me: "Give them a place to stand."

We walk into Union Square, now totally packed with people, and Elizabeth sees a friend. They embrace and Elizabeth brings up the New School's soon-to-be flagship. "We don't want that building," the other woman says. I tell them that I'm off to find some food, but instead I just wander around Union Square awhile.


People have set up little tables to sell kitsch. I see some pins made of origami animals. "Feel free to touch them, to fondle them," Jeremy, a black guy wearing a leather jacket and a frog origami earring on his left ear, tells me. The animals are made of "gift paper, origami paper, wall paper," and they are dipped in polyurethane.

"You're a cutie," he adds. I say goodbye and amble to the band nearby, three kids in their twenties playing banjo, mandolin and spoons.

I cut through the center-square to scope out the 9/11-truth placards underneath the statue of George Washington. On my way, a crowd chants, "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" When they say "Peace!" a homeless man with long hair, smoking a cigarette, says "Work." When they say "Now!" he says "Jobs."

I somehow make my way back to the southwest corner of Union Square, where I began. There appears in the congregation a tall man with a big, waxed, Elvis-like coif, who is wearing a stark white suit, a black shirt and black gloves underneath, and a white reverend's collar. He holds a giant, white, acoustic megaphone. It's Reverend Billy!

He inches his way through through the mass of people. I begin to follow him. I meet up with Sam Lewis, photo editor of the New School Free Press, and simultaneously run into Kate Goff, a member of the Lang Student Union, and urge them to pursue Reverend Billy with me. We make it to the southeast corner when I buttonhole the man - and notice that he's got a tiny branch of purple berries in his buttonhole.

The Reverend is a large man. He has a square forehead, clear blue eyes and a strong jaw. He gives a striking, pointed stare, occasionally adding some flair of mannerism. Earlier today, The Church of Stop Shopping and Reverend Billy had just been kicked out of the Auto Show, going on at the Javits Center uptown.

"Amen, Hallelujah," he says. "I think we were able to spread the word about our dependence on gas and oil. Our love affair with the automobile must end. But now, coming down to this march here is like the second foot coming down. Our addiction to fossil fuels and the automobile has everything to do with this war."

"Is there anything you have planned, you know, for the next step down?" I ask.

"Well, we won't step down until we have the peace. We're involved now in a momentum. There's a money momentum. Most Americans want to get out of the war and have been for some time, but the momentum of the war is just going forward. The oil companies, the big construction companies, the supply companies. There's a money decision that's being made that isn't democratic."

His brief talk, as direct and driving as a steamroller, is ominously uncertain. "The average American has common sense now about Iraq. We're not saying Saddam flew those planes into the towers anymore. We're not saying that. But, yet, until at least the end of Bush's eight years, it seems that there is no way to curtail this colonial war. I hope we're learning a lesson here, because as you and I are talking right now, innocent people are dying."

"Peacealujah. That's all I can say." He puts his megaphone to his mouth: "Peacealujah, children." He repeats, "Peacealujah!" He drifts into the throng, calling, "Peacealujah."

The Upcoming Vigil

In front of Babies 'R' Us, sandwiched between other protesters, Sam and I see a group waving Tibetan flags, blue and red stripes with a yellow sun, a white mountain and two fearless snow lions. There's a march now, but only a couple blocks up the street.

On a tiny stage on 17th Street, Leslie Kielson, the New York Coordinator of United Peace and Justice, holds up a 8 1/2 x 11" sheet of paper titled, "Traer A Las Tropas A Casa Amara," which in Spanish roughly means, "Bring the troops home." On her sheet, there are three photos of a youngish Latino man, including a family photo. The woman tells us over the P.A. that when she rings the bells, we will share a few minutes of silence. A string of bells chime out.

No one is speaking. Everything is still. Several people hold up sheets of paper that also say, "Traer A Las Tropas A Casa Amara." But they have different pictures on them. One man holds up a skateboard. A giant pink baloon on a stick flutters in the air.

The silence is only broken by the distant call of a zealot: "9/11 was an inside job!"

A recording of "Taps" comes on over the P.A. system. Then a middle-aged woman with golden-blond hair takes the microphone and sings a slow, beautiful song. Some sing along. A woman with a small drum around her neck puts up her drumsticks in a V shape. She is crying. Nearby, a mock coffin draped with an American and an Iraqi flag sits on the ground.

The woman comes back on the P.A. "Probably in the next couple of days, the four-thousandth soldier will die," she says. A candlelight vigil in Union Square is planned for sometime before the end of the month.

"Together, we can end this war," she continues. "Think of something we can do every single day. Let's do everything in our power. ... Hopefully we will not be here next year."

Feathers in the Sky

It's probably after two o'clock and I still haven't eaten. I split up with Sam, happen into a walking-conversation over to Washington Square with a reporter from Agence France-Presse (he wasn't on "super-fast" deadline but he still beat me by over two hours), make my way back uptown and finally to 6 and 12 on 11th Street and 6th Avenue. I eat, then call my roommate Ryan, who had just been at a Tibet rally uptown. Now he's in Union Square, watching a humongous pillow fight.

I walk past a swarm of thousands of people, old, young, colorfully dressed, or wearing pajamas - bigger, I think, than the turn-out of the rally - and find Ryan perked on a tall ledge at the southeast end of Union Square. I stand up onto the ledge. He warns me about the blond woman behind us, who is warding off anybody that attempts to stomp on the grass. We turn to see her tell some kids off, then turn to what everyone is staring at out the windows of Filene's Basement and Whole Foods: an indecipherable mash of hundreds of people whipping around feather pillows.

Men are walking into the melee shirtless. A guy bursts from the mob donning a big motorcycle helmet. Feathers are flying around, sticking to jackets, shirts, hair. Big puffs of feather get whipped around by wind and float into the air. Bits of feather get carried into the sky and fly away.

What, I wonder, does this have to do with the war in Iraq? Ryan, too, is perplexed about how this is meant to commemorate the war. Nevertheless, this seems like an important, even historic moment. After about forty minutes, I go home. Only then do I find out that today is International Pillow Fight Day.

Photos by Sam Lewis.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Five Years Later

Posted March 20, 2008

We've hit the 5-year mark. This week, the politicians, the ex-politicians, the hawks and the doves are having at all of the should haves, could haves and would haves. Most of the stuff I read settled on the conclusion that we made some stupid-ass mistakes and fucked everything up, but at least we took out Saddam. There were a lot of anti-war protests going on yesterday, but many still think we should continue the fight.

In a speech at the Pentagon yesterday, President Bush said the surge is definitely working. "Because we acted the world is better and the United States of America is safer," he said. "The gains we've made are fragile and irreversible, but on this anniversary, the American people should know that since the surge began, the level of violence is significantly down, civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down." This success, he added, has made the war worth the "high cost in lives and treasure."

On Tuesday, V.P. Dick Cheney visited Baghdad and declared that, “If you reflect back on those five years, I think it’s been a difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor.” He added that, "it's been well worth the effort." He forgot to mention that the war has been extremely deadly. The day earlier, 50 miles to his south, 43 civilians were killed and 58 injured in a bombing near the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala.

Yesterday, on "Inside Iraq," a blog written by Iraqi journalists who work for McClatchy Newspapers, Correspondent Jenan shared his thoughts. Five years ago, he wrote, "I had big dreams, large hopes of salvation from what we were live with Saddam regime." But, "I discovered that I was deceived and now I believe the old saying 'the devil that you know is better than the devil that you don’t know'"

Last Sunday, the New York Times presented us with an op-ed collection of experts who muse about "one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wished they had considered in the prewar debate." L. Paul Bremer III, the former envoy to Iraq, acted as though he was more of an observer and less of a high-level bureaucrat who wielded utmost authority: "Our soldiers were magnificent in liberating Iraq. But after arriving in the country, I saw that the American government was not adequately prepared to deal with the growing security threats." Check out the piece the Times ran the next day. Days into Bremer's service, he and his top deputy rammed through their grandiosely stupid bill to dissolve the Iraq Army despite the fact that a plan already existed to incorporate the army into the newly occupied Iraq. Most people these days think of this policy error as the main reason those "growing security threats" grew so quickly.

Slate is a little more aggressive than the Times with the wording of their 5-years-on coverage, posing a blunt question to the liberal hawks, folks like Jeffrey Goldberg and columnist Fred Kaplan: "Why did we get it wrong?"

Kanan Makiya - the author of Republic of Fear, who in 2002 told President Bush, V.P. Cheney, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that "Iraqis would greet Americans with sweets and flowers" and who, on the night of Saddam's overthrow, sat in the Oval Office and wept - wrote on Slate that he "underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism" of people like his pal Ahmad Chalabi, another prominent Iraqi exile and leader of the Iraqi National Congress. In The Assassins' Gate, journalist George Packer depicts Chalabi as a wealthy, smooth-talking charlatan. But Makiya had the wacky vision that Chalabi could lead the vanguard of a new, democratic Iraq. On Slate, Makiya wrote that he underestimated a lot of things and has plenty of regrets. But, "I still do not know how to regret wanting to knock down the walls of the great concentration camp that was Saddam Hussein's Iraq." He asked a bunch of questions. He even ended on one.

Top conservatives at the Weekly Standard seem crestfallen, if still defensive.

Influential editor William Kristol, who even through the worst has remained the staunchest Iraq war supporter of all, brought up the very reason we went to war in the first place: the threat of WMDs. A Defense Department analysis of 600,000 Iraqi government documents recently, it concludes, "found no 'smoking gun' (i.e. direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda." After a flurry of news reports based on this damning quote from the report, Kristol wrote, "the Bush administration reacted with an apparently guilty silence." He proceeds to accuse the report's executive summary of being "extraordinarily misleading."

Jules Crittenden, an editor for the Boston Herald who was embedded with the troops during the first push into Baghdad, wrote in the perfunctory "Five Years On" piece that the Iraq war is but a chapter in our fight against terrorism. But, "In fact, all we've managed to do as a nation over six-and-a-half years of war is confuse ourselves."

The most on-the-mark piece I saw came from Christopher Hitchens, the cantankerous Vanity Fair columnist and liberal-hawk. On Slate, he took the long historical view and outlines America's deeply unsettling - deeply, deeply unsettling - foreign policy relationship with Iraq's Ba'th Party and Saddam Hussein.

If you take all that into account, Hitchens suggests, the war - including the overthrow of Saddam, the elections, the recuperation of the devastated marshlands in the south of Iraq, and the "battlefield defeat inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates" - actually looks like the best moral option. "March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons. This must, and still does, count for something." Hitchens has a point. It counts for something. It's just too bad that, every year, that something will grow progressively more insignificant in the face of continuing bloodshed.

There are lots of short pieces by NY Times reporters and photographers on their blog "Baghdad Bureau." Ian Fisher writes about a newfound optimism among the troops, a result of the so-called surge. Sgt. First Class Donal Muthena, from the Third Infantry Division, tells him, "This time, all my vets say the same thing: This is the most satisfying deployment we have been on."

Many people aren't convinced. Anti-war demonstrations went down yesterday in "Washington and Elsewhere," the NY Times announced early yesterday. The Washington Post reported that even their own offices were a target. In the capitol, there were some incredible demonstrations. About 100 people froze in place for ten minutes at Union Station. 60 or so members of Code Pink carried a "living-room size copy of the preamble to the Constitution" down Constitution Avenue. And in the city, as I was writing this, a candlelight vigil was held in Madison Square Park.

The dark question still lingers in me about what we should do in Iraq in the future. What is, truly, the American responsibility? We can't just leave - even if the troops are gone, those HESCO housing containers and concrete blast barriers, plus the biggest U.S. Embassy in the world, won't just disappear. And the civil war will evolve and grow. Whenever I think of the possibility of an immediate withdrawal, what Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker told the NY Times last July comes to mind: “In the States, it’s like we’re in the last half of the third reel of a three-reel movie, and all we have to do is decide we’re done here, and the credits come up, and the lights come on, and we leave the theater and go on to something else. ... Whereas out here, you’re just getting into the first reel of five reels, and as ugly as the first reel has been, the other four and a half are going to be way, way worse.”

Kanan Makiya has a point. I'm beginning to find that, more often than not, the debate over the war ultimately returns to the pursuit of new and different questions. We all see that escape might prove to be just as amoral an option as invasion. The question of American responsibility remains fixed in reality; it always will. Let's proceed with that question on our minds.

Photo: Standing on a lightbox in front of the IRS building in Washington, D.C. By Jacob Cunningham, courtesy United For Peace.