As almost all know, yesterday was the international day of student protest where students around the globe were urged to walkout of school in protest of the impending war on Iraq. I figured the turnout in New York City would be pretty large after my fourteen year old sister, who's biggest concern the identity if the next American Idol, told me the day before that her whole school knew about the walkout and that she'd be attending.
The optimism was indeed warranted. By 12:30pm, over 3,000 (mostly highschool and some middleschool) students had taken over the southside of Union Square. The mic was open to representatives from all the schools, who gave fantastic on-the-spot talks. One of my favorites was a short, clumsy, pre-pubescent 6th grader who had to stand on a chair so everyone could see him. After giving an eloquent critique of the war, he stumbled upon his words, where upon he put down his notes and said to the crowd in his high-pitched voice, "look, this just doesn't make any sense". That, and the students' many passionate references to the need to use the billions spent for killing Iraqis on the besieged public schools, best articulated the spirit of the rally.
The energy and loudness was fantastic. The students erupted with every good point, well articulated or not, that their peers made on the mic. Songs, raps, and poetry were performed, as well as new and creative chants that only this generation could come up with:
"This booty only shakes for peace! This booty don't shake for hate!" "Move Bush! Get out the way, get out the way Bush, Get out the way!" (This is a play off the popular rapper Ludacris' song "Move Bitch") "Who let the bombs drop? Bush, Bush, Bush" (A play of the song "Who let the dogs out?")
The rally started off in the rain, but halfway through the sun emerged to shower the young crowd with its warmth and light. The students attributed this to their own presence ("See, we brought the sun out!!!"). Wishful thinking, but clever and beautifully idealistic nonetheless.
It is worth pointing out that most of the protesters were students of color. When speakers gave shoutouts to Flatbush, Brooklyn or the South Bronx, the crowd erupted. It was a wonderful thing to see students get on the microphone in front of a crowd, probably for the first time in their life, and tell their story. One young African-American nearly came to tears as she told of her brother in the marines and the possibility of his death. This resonated with the crowd, as many of them had family and friends in the military.
The courage of these students should also be noted. Many were told before hand they would be suspended or expelled if they walked, but they defiantly did it nonetheless. Several students from a school (I can't remember that name) reported that they were already expelled for walking out. If you wish to defend them, call (212) 879-6354 and ask for Karen Smith. It is the least we could do for these brave youth who knowingly risked, and received, expulsion.
There were rallies going on all over New York at the same time. A 1,000+ strong contingent from NYU tried to march over and meet us, but was prevented by the police. After the event at Union Square, some students marched to Hunter College (the designated spot for everyone to meet at 2:30pm). Others, like myself, took over the 6 train uptown, appropriately renamed the "Peace Train". I got off about ten blocks before Hunter, where I saw a group of about ten highschoolers marching on their own to Hunter, screaming antiwar chants at the top of their lungs ("Books not bombs!"). This was much to the dismay of rich white Eastsiders (though black and Latino workers gave us the thumbs up).
When we got to Hunter, the main plaza was completely filled, and got bigger over the next two hours. We were set to march later on (illegally) to Hillary Clinton's office. The next two hours before that were basically a festival full of high energy, creative chants, drums, and a sustained volume that only youth could maintain for that long.
At 4:30pm, the march began. I'd say about 3,000 students participated, as we stretched for two blocks on the sidewalk. The police formed a human wall between us and the street, making them look like a Nazi Gestapo contingent in blue. We got a lot of salutes and peace signs from people, especially workers in the stores we passed by.
About halfway through, the police stopped us in a major intersection. Traffic was stopped for about ten minutes. I was towards the back and couldn't make out what was the commotion, but it turned out they arrested one of the students who was leading the chants on the bullhorn. For a moment it seemed like chaos would erupt, as students started screaming collectively at the cops and breaking through the lines to run around the street and sidewalk. But the march got back in order, and we continued unmolested to Clinton's office.
By 5:30pm, over ten thousand people gathered in front of her office for a peace vigil organized by United for Peace and Justice. About an hour and a half later we began marching downtown to Washington Square in Greenwich Village. The two-hour march was fantastic, as we received massive support from passerbys and window watchers. There's something very existentially fulfilling and aesthetically beautiful about marching with thousands down the streets of New York City in the dark, the Empire State building towering over you along with its lesser neighbors, neon lights and cop sirens glowing, traffic stopping, and people watching. I recall the scene from the movie "Reds", where Emma Goldman is speaking to a crowd in the dark and rain of the City, spewing out fiery words against WWI. Lately, with the movement growing exponentially, I'm feeling more and more like we are participating in something of that historic caliber.
We finally made it down to Washington Square, where we were greeted by a thousand or two, as well as great talks and lovely poetry and music. The long day of protest ended at about 9pm.
Of course, this was really just a minor day of protest in terms of numbers. The real forces will come out on March 22, when New York City will march, permit or not. But this was a day for the youth. The empowerment of the walkout, rally, and march will infuse the youth movement with confidence and momentum. Students will go back to school, the word of mouth will spread like wildfire, and the next walkout will be much bigger, even the cool thing to do. Students who have hardly ever spoken up about their thoughts on the world (for they are not encouraged to do this) will now do so.
However hard the rulers try, the youth are not stupid and apathetic. They care about their schools, their families, their opportunities, their communities, and they are willing to fight to defend these things. A little nudge is all that's needed. Hopefully (and I believe so) yesterday's events triggered off the beginnings of a new stage in the youth movement, though I can only speak for New York City. This should result in not only much greater student participation and leadership in the antiwar movement, but in a more general radicalization of young people who are eager and willing to grab their friends, play hooky, and flood the streets to fight for peace and a better future.
Shake that booty for peace!!!