Today I attended a peace march in downtown Los Angeles. Its central focus was opposing the occupation of Iraq, with due attention to the U.S. role in the occupations of Palestine, Afghanistan, and Haiti, and its roles in trying to subvert progressive governments in Cuba and Venezuela.
I arrived early at the departure point. People were already converging, though I was initially disappointed by the numbers and the high density of sectarian left groups hawking various papers. I have nothing against such activity, and some of the papers can be good -- I always found the coverage of labour issues in the Communist Party of Canada's paper to be relatively solid and rhetoric-free, but Socialist Worker and the CPC-ML Weekly were always a bit heavy on alienating jargon and light on good writing for my taste -- but if the density of paper sellers to other march participants is too high it can feel like the left talking to itself, which is not a good thing.
The event followed the traditional pattern: an excessive number of speeches, a march, and yet more speeches. I have never liked this way of structuring events. I understand the need to give as many sponsoring organizations as possible a chance to say their piece, and I understand the imperative to have people speaking from different standpoints -- far too many peace marches in Hamilton after 9/11 had rosters that were excessively white and excessively male, though the more recents ones have gotten a bit better. I just think that organizers would be better served by seeing their choices around event structure as a chance for learning. A series of short (or not-so-short) speeches with fairly repetetive content to people who already knew enough to show up hardly seems worthwhile. Why not focus on providing information or analyses that will help people go back to their workplaces and churches and communities and defend whatever position is the basis of unity for the march? One or two well chosen speakers, plus one who specializes in rousing the crowd, and we all benefit and end up less bored and less sunburned at the end of the day. And while I'm ranting about the silly conventions of mass actions like this, I have always been lukewarm about the midnless chanting that often fills the march portion of such events (though I still occasionally contribute my voice). Let's sing a few songs, or at least come up with chants that are snappy and novel!!
I am no good at estimating the sizes of crowds, but when the speeches started I would not have put the numbers above 500. However, on seeing the size of the presence on the streets when we reached the end of the march, I might be willing to up my guess to 2000. Perhaps not an amazing turnout, considering it was happening in the centre of a metropolitan area with a population of something like 10 million souls, but still a nontrivial event.
The LAPD was present in what felt like excessive numbers, though they behaved themselves admirably. As Matthew Behrens of Toronto Action for Social Change likes to point out in his action reports, every officer getting paid overtime to watch us was an officer who couldn't be somewhere else harassing homeless people. I was surprised I didn't see any people that I could identify as undercover agents in the crowd -- in fact, I was worried that I might be suspected of that role myself, given that I was an unfamiliar face with noone to hang with who spent most of the time looking intently at what was going on around him.
The route of the march was through the downtown. The second half was through an area primarily lined with institutional buildings -- there was a great photo op of a line of cops standing menacingly under the elegant arches of LA City Hall, evidently to keep the rabble out. The first half was through a bustling commercial district. I am still way too new to the local political scene to have a sense of the significance of a multiracial but still white-majority political march making a ruckus through a 95% Latino/a area, but it did feel a little odd at times. However, the demeanor of those watching from the sidewalk, barring the three amusing (white) counter-demonstrators, ranged from passive interest to active indications of support. Still, I wonder if the hands-off approach of the LAPD might have been different if it was a Latino/a-majority march going through a 95% white area.
The speeches at the end were better, though still too lengthy. I enjoyed both the recorded music as well as the live performances by a radical Korean American drumming group and a hip-hop artist. Actor and activist Danny Glover gave a short but rousing speech, and Ron Kovics, the Vietnam vet turned peace activist upon whom Born On The 4th of July was based, gave a somewhat rambling but passionate address. I think the most powerful moment of the post-march rally was the reading of a poem written by a woman whose brother was a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.
Sometimes I feel that marches are kind of pointless. I think there are times when they make sense, and others when they do not, and some approaches to organizing overuse them. However, this one felt positive, invigorating, and reaffirming. It had a good energy to it, and it felt like a step towards bigger and better things.
However, it did leave me wrestling with what is for me a perennial question: what does it mean, what can it mean, to incorporate the radical sentiments voiced on such occasions into the regular practice of living? Yes, I recognize that a truly satisfying answer to that will require social transformation rather than purely individual choices, but the search for useful paths in the here and now that go beyond attending periodic mass actions is urgent and ongoing.