April 20th Report From DC
This wonderful email below is from one of the non-Muslims who rode on the bus from the Islamic Foundation to DC this past Friday. Many of the non-Muslims expressed previously how excited they were to ride with Muslims because none of them had ever interfaced with any Islamic community before.
They are primarily people of Peace. Her email is slightly long but quite detailed and expressive. I ask that you read it and share it with others if you'd like to show the results of our efforts. I hope, InshaAllah, not only are there more opportunities like the rally in DC, but that we also look for more opportunities to work with non-Muslim civil rights and peace organizations to help strengthen our respective communities. This email below will, Insha-Allah, convey the benefits.
From: Val & Ben Iglar-Mobley
Valerie & I are not the most organized activists in the world, so when we finally got around to contacting the groups sponsoring the buses that were leaving from downtown Chicago to Washington, DC for the April 20 demonstration for peace in the Middle East... they were all booked up.
Fortunately for us, there were some more buses leaving from one of the mosques in the suburbs, the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park. We'd heard about those buses when one of the members of that mosque had come to one of our group's meetings and had made an announcement. The night before we were to embark, Val and I drove out to the mosque to give them our check for our seats, since we doubted there'd still be any spaces if we left it until we were just about to get on the bus. Val felt a bit underdressed in her shorts, and as we drove back she worried, "Ben, are we going to be the only non-Muslims on the bus?"
"Yeah," I said, "but, it'll be fun! We're going to party with the Muslims! How many times do you get to do that in your life?"
The next day we put on our best walking shoes and packed up our signs, buttons, petitions, and water bottles as we listened to Live's "Peace Is Now" to get us fired up, left extra water out for our kitties, and we drove out to Villa Park. We got there in plenty of time, because the buses hadn't even arrived yet, and we stood around and chatted with the crowd of people who were also waiting, mostly other members of the mosque but some also from the Islamic Center of Naperville who were cosponsoring the buses. We were nervous and excited about the event; we asked some others if they'd heard any estimates about how many people were expected to turn out. Nobody really knew, but we all felt hopeful.
When the buses arrived we eagerly lined up to get on them, and they were quite full. A few people had to figure out some alternate transportation at the last minute. Val and I looked at each other and sighed with relief. We introduced ourselves to the other people sitting around us and asked them if they'd been down to DC to demonstrate before; most of the people we talked to hadn't, and we were excited to see so many people taking this step into political activism. Then we noticed we had been sitting for a while and weren't moving.
We looked out and our organizers were talking with the bus drivers. After a bit of an exchange, our group leaders got on the bus and announced the drivers had told them they weren't leaving until they got cash up front for their payment. Cash? Since when did a bus company refuse to take a check, and from a religious organization no less? Well, it was too late to try to find other means of transportation, so we waited the couple hours while some representatives of the mosque went to their bank (which was still open, thankfully) and withdrew enough cash to pay the drivers so we could get on our way.
While we sat, the organizers passed out some falafel sandwich dinners that they had graciously donated for us, and that calmed down our butterflies quite a bit, so we were in high spirits again when we finally got on the road. Unfortunately, we made an unannounced stop not too far along, and the driver said he had to pick up another driver since we were pushing through the night. We were already behind schedule, we would be stopping at scheduled times to pray, and now this? We were starting to worry whether we'd even get there in time for the rally. I began to suspect our bus drivers were showing some hostility to our group. I wondered whether this wasn't some racist sentiment coming out. Debbie, another of our group, said she thought it might be politically motivated, some kind of opposition to the aims of our demonstration.
As the night wore on, Val and I and the rest of our busmates tried to sleep as best we could in the accommodations, and when we woke with the sun we were feeling pretty ragged, but our anticipation was really building as we got nearer to DC. One of our busmates, Sofie, led us in some protest songs to charge us up. I passed out some quotations for peace that Val had printed up on slips of stationery. One of our leaders, Aimin, cautioned us to make sure we stuck to the printed schedule they'd passed out and got back to the buses on time so that we could depart again without any mishap. And then our bus driver announced he'd missed our exit, got us off on the next one and tried to find another way through the surface streets to where we needed to go. It was obvious to us something was going on with our drivers, but we resigned ourselves and we waited.
We arrived downtown and got off the buses, not where we were supposed to disembark and later than scheduled so that we weren't able to connect up with the rest of the Chicago contingent, but we were glad to have arrived. The rally had begun and the streets were bustling with demonstrators, some in robes and some in shorts. Once again our leaders cautioned us to stay together so we could get back to the buses as a group, but almost immediately we dispersed through the crowd in the excitement washing through the sea of people.
Val and I and a few others found a place about halfway back from the stage, on the park lawn facing the White House. We had a clear view of its pillared edifice, but Val didn't want to take a picture, not while Bush was squatting there. There were a lot of different signs, but all carried the message of opposition to the Israeli occupation and support for the Palestinian people. A few signs had gruesome pictures of children horribly wounded by Israeli bombs, and I had to warn Val not to look as they passed, so grisly were the images. I had to swallow back my own tears. Val had brought her bird puppet, modeled as a dove carrying a heart-shaped sign that read simply, "peace", and she held it high and let its wings flutter in the wind. Quite a few people took pictures of it. It was supposed to stand out as a meeting point for our bus group, so recognizable was it, but only a few people stayed with us or found us. I asked Jeannette, one of our busmates who was still with our little group, how many people she guessed were there, and she and I both scanned the crowd. Thirty thousand was what we each estimated. We were thrilled with the showing of support the event was receiving, and I passed out the rest of our peace quotes to people standing near us.
The banner over the stage read "Free Palestine" and "No War on Iraq," and the speakers were pretty varied. One woman spoke in Spanish and in English, and likened the US support of Israel against the Palestinians to the US embargo of Cuba, ending her speech with, "Libertad de Palestina! Libertad de Cuba!" A couple speakers from the UK mentioned how their own demonstrations in London had included members of the British Parliament and criticized our Congress for refusing to the last member to attend our event. Mumia Abu Jamal had recorded a message from his jail cell on death row, and he reminded us how the US unilateral support of Israel against the Palestinians is part of a systematic domination of US foreign and domestic policy by military and business interests. Some orthodox Jews spoke out against the occupation from the stage and were met with wild cheers of appreciation and chants of "Judaism, Yes! Zionism, No!"
Another speaker reported that we were fifty thousand strong, and Jeannette and I looked around at the crowd and it had indeed swelled since we'd tried to estimate it earlier. He said we were going to begin marching soon and we'd be joined by another twenty thousand who had gathered to rally elsewhere. Their group was demonstrating outside one of the meeting places for some global financial institutions, and they were focusing their message on opposition to globalization. I had hoped that the demonstration would put our opposition to the Israeli occupation in the context of Bush's disastrous and openly hostile foreign policy, relate it to his eagerness to re-ignite war with Iraq, and even expose the anti-Arab bigotry that is barely under the surface of his administration's policies. My own sign I was carrying read, "innocent civilians killed: USA 3,220; Afghan 3,767... ENOUGH!" and though several people took photographs of it and though the signs printed by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, one of the event's principal sponsors) carried the second headline, "No War on Iraq"... that part of our message seemed to be pretty overwhelmed by the dominant message of support for Palestine.
Not all of the speakers could we hear, in part because the sound system wasn't powerful enough to carry over the entire crowd, but also in part because I think we were eager to start marching to the Capitol Building and start chorusing our message. Almost non-stop, spontaneous chants would erupt throughout the crowd, drowning out the speakers entirely when they were raised close by to us. Soon enough, we had our chance to march and to shout. The organizers told us to start out onto the street, and I wondered why the crowd was so slow to respond. As our small group got close to the street to start marching, I understood what was holding us up.
The streets were filled with people.
Usually in marches like this, the crowd ebbs and flows along the route and pockets of space open up sporadically between marchers. Here, we were solidly covering the pavement, front to back, side to side. I stepped off the street onto an embankment to photograph Val's bird flying over the procession, and nowhere along the river of people could I see any gaps. That seventy thousand estimate had to be an under-reporting. Our group leader, Aimin, would later tell us at dinner that he had asked police officers along the route their impression of our size and they compared our turnout to the pro-Israeli demonstration on the previous Monday. "There's just no comparison," they said, "that one had maybe fifty thousand people, and this demonstration is several times what they were."
All along the parade route people were standing to greet us, take pictures, and cheer us on. Several times I saw hand-made signs that read, "Another Jew against the occupation," and we waved the peace sign to the people holding them up.
It began to rain, but our spirits were undampened. The chants never paused, even overlapping at times, as different chants were taken up by groups on either side of us:
"End the Occupation Now!"
Atheist though I am, I so wanted to raise my voice and join in those last two. To me they sounded like a celebration of the people of Islam, now while Muslims are demonized and victimized by hate-crimes and legislated persecution in this country. Those chants never had the feeling of opposition to other religions, as I heard them, so much as joyous celebration of a common bond. Later on the bus, Muhammad, another of our busmates, explained that non-Muslims often misinterpret "Allahu Akbar" as "Allah is Supreme," or "Our God is superior to your God," when actually it is meant more as, "Whatever troubles we face, God is greater than them." Anita – one of the members of our Oak Park group who'd traveled down on the Chicago buses and with whom we never caught up in DC – later said she also thought there's something very beautiful about those words spoken by native-Arabic speakers. She described hearing the calls to prayer in the mornings as something very stirring. I think she was right. I didn't quite understand it at the time, but I felt stirred hearing those chants in Arabic. They were indeed beautiful, and I think that was also why I found myself wanting to join in them. In fact, I think this was the most energized and enthusiastic demonstration I've ever been in, and I began to wonder what made it so, whether it might have been the religious foundation that gave it such a wellspring of dedication.
We arrived at the park before the Capitol Building for the second rally just as the rain stopped, and it was clear that we were more than a hundred thousand. The park was filled with people, and some others we spoke to said they thought we were several hundred thousand strong. Once again Val and I tried futilely to find the others of our group who had traveled down by other means, wending through the crowd with her bird held high. There were more speakers and musicians, but we couldn't really pay attention to them. It was already past the time on our schedule when we were supposed to get back on the buses, and with as much trouble as we'd had we worried whether we might end up being stranded in DC.
We did find where our bus was parked quickly enough, and all of our busmates joined us again, but as we sat together in our heat and exhaustion waiting to start back to Chicago, our leaders asked the drivers if they would turn the buses on and start the air conditioning for us to cool off. Amazingly, the drivers flat out refused, used profane language, wanted more money, and said they weren't going to listen to any more of our requests. They hadn't even collected the garbage off the bus from the bags they'd passed around. We were incredulous, but at that point we just wanted to manage the return trip as best we could. We got off the buses again and stood outside (where it was less hot and stuffy) to wait for them to be ready to depart.
Whatever was going on with our drivers could not ruin how happy we were over the tremendous turnout the event had. We settled in for the long drive back, pushed the garbage bags aside from under our feet, and I asked if I could make an announcement. I told my busmates Val & I were grateful to be invited to ride with them to DC. I passed around our group's petition statement against the expansion of Bush's war to Iraq for everyone to sign, and I told them I wanted to return their invitation to a demonstration we were having in Oak Park the following weekend. Sofie sang another song for us, in gratitude for our being together. Val announced the open-mic night of poetry and creativity our group was hosting, and invited everyone to come. Another of our group leaders, Tabassum, stood up to read the coverage the demonstration received in the Chicago Tribune, which under-reported our turnout and focused much of its attention on the anti-globalization message that was carried by the smaller group that later joined us; we were disappointed with the media ignoring us, once again, but she reminded us to be glad for our having shown in such force that we could not be ignored, and she encouraged us to watch for how other sources reported the event and to not rest but for us to go on to the next step in the cause.
Aimin got up to make one last announcement. He gave a moving speech, placing the struggle for the Palestinian people within the long history of the struggle for human rights. He vowed this demonstration must not be the last for us, but the first. And then he made a special point of thanking us non-Muslims for joining their group, saying he was glad to see so many people standing with Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans in support. I was touched, and I felt a great camaraderie with my busmates.
In fact, as I sat and thought about it, I had never had such a feeling of connection and friendship with a group of fellow demonstrators at an event like this before. Once again I tried to figure out what made this one so special, and I wondered if that feeling wasn't flowing out to us all from the members of the mosque which was our meeting point, if since the people who had organized these buses already had a feeling of community and connection with each other perhaps that made this event something more personally meaningful for them and that we were all invited to share in that.
As we arrived at the mosque in the early morning, we gathered our belongings to get into our cars for home, but we lingered as we said our good-byes to each other, and I suspect we were reveling in the emotions stirred up in us and were reluctant to see this event end. I was grateful to the people I met from IFVP and ICN for having Valerie & myself with them. I hope to see them again. I hope our cause prevails, and Palestine is freed.