It’s been thirty years since I attended my last peace march. As a child of the sixties, I grew up during those times when marches and demonstrations were standard procedure for a young person; a way to express to our leaders how we felt.
The last peace march I attended in 1968 turned into a violent blood bath and I promised myself never to express my frustration in such a way again. Besides, once I found out that one single letter from a voter was counted as ten thousand votes, I struck pen to paper whenever I wanted to say something.
But there it was, a small poster on a local bulletin board, which called to me to once again paint up a sign, put on my hiking shoes and hit the streets, this time in the heart of San Francisco. It was billed as a national anti war peace march by an origination called A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism).
I asked around and found that it was run by a well organized group who’s main purpose was to have a peaceful gathering, nonviolent march, and inspired speakers who would address issues of peace and justice. Since I’d felt more than a little ineffective these last months with the direction our so-called national leaders have been taking us, I thought it might be a way to get more active and march for peace.
It was a rare spring Saturday when we arrived in the city. The clouds had burned off by noon and the sun glistened off of the glass and concrete monoliths as we crossed the bay bridge, making the city look like a cluster of quartz crystals.
Dolores Park, in the Mission District, where the march began, had the flavor of a sixties love-in, except too many of us were no longer teenagers with rippling muscles or scantily covered breast. Spirits were high, with many smiles. Pods of drummers and musicians scattered throughout the crowd, carried an ever-constant beat wherever I walked. It was a fine afternoon.
Ten to twenty thousand expectant people stood and sat waiting for the first inspired speaker to talk about peace and alternate ways to stop the ever-more pervasive war.
My wife and I found a seat on the hill, settled in for an afternoon of communion with like-minded peaceful demonstrators, then a two-mile walk across town to the Civic Center Park.
When the mike cracked, I shifted my attention to the stage, listening for words of wisdom, speeches of understanding and compassion, maybe even a few songs about such high-minded things as love, forgiveness, and mutual respect. The first person up began his speech, if one would call it a speech at all, by screaming into the mike. I don’t remember his words because they were so abrasive and ill presented, but I do remember the intent of his message, “Get rid of the Israelis, save Palestine.”
I was appalled. I thought this was a peace march to end war. He was a young man and full of passion, so his anger washed over me and I tried not to let it affect my good mood. There would be more speakers with other messages. He was but a single lone speaker, and didn’t the angry young Palestinians need to speak too? With what’s been happening lately, they certainly had the right.
I waited ten minutes for him to finish his blaring tirade, then he went into a series of simplistic chants about ending the occupation, all engineered to rile up the crowd. When he finished, with a smattering of applause from the crowd, I waited for the next speaker. The entire hour we sat in the midst of that crowd, one speaker after another got up, screamed unintelligible messages of anger to the crowd, then attempted to rile the crowd with high school chants about getting rid of Sharon, the Israelis, and ending the occupation of Palestine. One person spoke about peace and stopping the war, but having already had eardrums blown by the yelling and chanting, by then, few of us interested in peace were able to listen.
When the last speaker, in the middle of yet another antagonistic chant, suggested we start the march, I was relieved to get away from the ever-preservative abhorrent speeches. We grabbed our things and sauntered down to Dolores Street then filtered north into the throng of humanity. It took some time for the bottleneck of people to even out, but after twenty minutes, the crowd moved at an even pace up the street.
To my dismay peppered throughout the amoebae of humanity, who seemed to want to peacefully walk to the Civic Center, were more angry Palestinian supporters with mega-phones blaring their messages. Though there were no actual words about harming anyone, the wrath was well received. There were moments the crowd moved along in relative silence, many holding signs about peace, stopping the war, no more nukes, babies aren’t born racist, Diversity, Dialogue, Democracy, until another wave of well-organized, megaphone-carrying anger mongers screamed out over the crowd in another sophomoric chant designed to get the crowd worked up into a frenzy.
If, at any time, I felt that the majority of the crowd had started following the chanting, I would have simply left the march, but there was a stoic stubbornness in the people around us. Except for the overly loud organized supporters of Palestine, most marchers refused to join in the screaming and the march continued in a peaceful round about journey through back street neighborhoods toward the Civic Center.
At one point I felt so aggravated by the screamers and chanters, I decided to stop walking and wait for them to pass. As the crowd washed by us, I hoped it would be more peaceful further back, away from the mega-phones. When we took up the walk again, I looked around and saw faces of peace and harmony. Maybe I was among my people. I did the stop, and start thing three times in an attempt to get clear of the ever-pervasive shouts of rage and never-ending chants, but each time some idiot with a megaphone would blare into my ear in an attempt to stir the crowd once again.
Eventually, I gave up and walked along, enjoying the few moments when the screamers grew tired and we were left with sounds of feet padding pavement, a child crying on its mother’s shoulder, the distant rhythm of drums following far behind.
Suddenly, out of the chaos, in the midst of the screaming, yelling, and blaring megaphones, I caught the sound of a single woman singing a few word chant in a soft voice. I looked about, but could not see her. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” She sang in a clear soprano. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” It was so soft, I could only hear it between the blaring, but it was there, ever-constant, a single voice of reason in a sea of anger. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
I followed with the crowd, watching for her, trying to catch sight of her, but all I could do was hear that clear single voice calling out for sanity, for hope, wanting only for us all to live together peacefully. For the entire two-mile journey, this single voice haunted me, pulled me from my despair that we, as a human race, don’t have a chance the way we’re going. Her voice gave me hope that yes, even if one single person can live without the hate, maybe, just maybe we might have a chance after all.
“All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” I followed the sweet sound of reason and though the march got more aggravated as the blocks passed, that sound gave me a homing beacon in which to focus my attention. All the way through the loud speakered barker asking for donations, through the band playing an upbeat Dixieland jazz beat, all the way into the park where another set of angry speeches about freeing the Palestinians prevailed. I followed that single brave soprano like a moth to a flame. All the way home that next morning, the words of peace stayed with me, repeating itself in my thoughts, in my words, and now in my writing.
Whoever that single woman was, I thank her for being there, and I thank her for being so brave in the face of such overwhelming adversity. I hope she is the soul of our future.