Initially, when I told my two teenage sons we’d be flying into Washington D.C. to participate in the United for Peace and Justice anti-war rally and march against President Bush’s troop escalation in Iraq, they didn’t protest. After all, it was a day off from school.

But on that Saturday as the colorful and raucous multitudes of dancing, singing and chanting anti-war protesters poured into the green spaces on the National Mall, Colin, 16, and Corey, 14, were swept into the teeth of it.

That day we hooked up with a small group from Unity Temple of Oak Park and members of the Oak Park Coalition for Truth & Justice. Under blue skies and mild temps, we peacefully protested. Most memorable for both boys, they told me later, was when we encountered a vociferous pro-war group demonstrating outside a makeshift fence. As hundreds of thousands of peace marchers passed by, a dozen or so rancorous activists were hurling insults and hanging a mannequin of Jane Fonda in effigy. Many of our marchers stopped to argue with the few. One of the pro-war signs read “Hippies Smell.” Go figure.

“We all started chanting, ‘Tell me what democracy looks like … This is what democracy looks like’ over and over again,” said Colin, a junior at OPRF High School. “That was a pretty cool snapshot of what was going on there, especially with the Capitol building as a backdrop. Also, looking down from one of the hilly streets and spotting marchers as far as you could see, and realizing that they just kept coming-the sheer numbers-was incredible.”

Throughout the celebrity-saturated pre-march rally, free speech emanated from podium and crowd-through T-shirts, signs and buttons. Slogans were angry, poignant, funny and obscene. One sign showed a cartoon of President Bush with his head up his lower extremity; a group from New Jersey carried a sign picturing a tank with a flower coming out of a cannon. Another group held aloft an oversized cloth dove that flew in the wind. Nearby, a band of drummers kept the beat for stilted and costumed women and men who strode through the masses without ever falling, while organized hip-hop dancers weaved in and out of the crowd. Their cause, besides anti-war sentiment, was school funding. In an effort to stay on the periphery, we had planted ourselves in a sea of socially active Unitarians from everywhere-no Garrison Keillor jokes, please.

In addition, there were cells of young radicals hawking socialist newspapers. Vietnam war vets, military wives and loved ones stood in protest on behalf of a lost or living American soldier. Seasoned activists, like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jane Fonda, who had spoken out during the Vietnam War, were back. When actor Tim Robbins called for impeachment, the rowdy 20-somethings picked up his angry fervor and chanted back, adding Vice President Cheney’s name in their swelling roar. Like many other families, we were first-time anti-war protesters, and covered the activist spectrum. We traveled to Washington D.C. by car, van, bus, train and plane for a deadly serious cause.

“I don’t really think about what is going on in Iraq that often,” admitted Corey, an eighth-grader at Percy Julian Middle School, “but this giant march showed me people can do something. But from the reaction of the president, I’m not sure it helped. I don’t know if kids my age can make a difference,” he added. “I think it really depends on the person and who will listen to them when they take a stand and speak.”

About two-thirds of the way into the march, after we had passed the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, Colin, who was wearing his OPRF letterman jacket, was approached by a short reporter. My son had spotted him earlier during the rally perched in a tree.

“The reporter said: ‘Sir, can I ask you two questions’,” Colin recalled. “‘One, do you think you would be able to lift me up over the crowd so I could take a photograph, and two, would you lift me up over the crowd so I could take a photograph?’ I complied, and he got his photo. That was pretty cool.”

Regarding President Bush’s resolve to escalate troops by 21,500, Colin agrees with his brother that the president probably won’t change his mind about Iraq. However, with enough public pressure, he hopes Congress will.

“To be honest, the first thing I thought when I was told we were going to an anti-war protest in Washington D.C. was that I would be able to miss a day of school,” Colin said, smiling. “The next thing I thought was that it would be pretty cool to go. If not historic, it was a chance to participate in something I wouldn’t get another chance to do for a long time, if ever. I went as an observer, and returned home as an observer. I don’t believe in the policies of President Bush, but I’m not sure where I stand regarding the method of protests. At this point, I’m more interested in getting a good grip on how political activism works.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....