By Chris Simunek
Sit back and relax, kids: The biggest reality-TV show ever produced is here. Crack a beer and watch with shock and awe as Uncle Sam opens an $80 billion can of whoop-ass on the cradle of civilization.
Operation Imperial Lust (O.I.L)
One and a half years after 9/11, America has finally lost its shit. If there are indeed five stages of grief, then I’d say we’ve dropped anchor somewhere between anger and denial.
In the weeks leading up to the Iraq war it seemed as though this nation was hurtling full-on into a state of syphilitic insanity. Donny Rumsfeld announced to the world that America could fight North Korea and Iraq simultaneously as easily as Yankee Doodle once stuck a feather in his hat and in the same breath called it macaroni. There were 250,000 troops stationed in the Persian Gulf waiting for the order to unleash a high-tech holocaust the likes of which the world has never seen, and for two weeks straight all anyone cared about was whether or not Michael Jackson slips the midnight sausage to pubescent boys.
At work I could scarcely contain my dread. Every morning I logged on to the Reuters and AP Websites, and my hands trembled with each double-clicked headline. Ninety-nine people burned to death at a Great White concert. Mr. Rogers died of stomach cancer. Stocks surged at the promise of war like blood to the tip of Uncle Sam’s pecker as he prepared to fuck the cradle of civilization.
The day they raised the terror alert to orange, I could feel the concussion from an imaginary dirty bomb detonating on Park Avenue. My hands trembled from psychosomatic radiation poisoning. The HIGH TIMES office is no place for a man to find himself trapped under 100 feet of rubble. If there were any survivors, half of them would be searching their pockets for roaches, the other half talking about Mumia Abu-Jamal. I had the sudden desire for the company of skilled laborers—of plumbers, steamfitters, and Irish construction workers.
We never were attacked that day, or on any day since. In hindsight, I think the whole alert was a scheme dreamed up by ducttape lobbyists. Either that, or George W. was trying to scare the American people into buying whatever bullshit he was planning to lay on us in his State of the Union address. Two years into his presidency, Bush had managed to drain the budget surplus, denude the Bill of Rights, ostracize longtime allies, marginalize the United Nations, squander post-9/11 goodwill, and turn the entire world against America. As he prepared to unveil his second act, I figured he wanted our attention.
It was a hell of a speech, I must admit, this idea that after America freed Iraq, we were going to cure AIDS in Africa and build everybody little hydrogen cars that get a thousand miles to the gallon. Somehow I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see any of it, but they were nice sentiments just the same.
I watched the address down on 14th Street at the headquarters of Act Now to Stop War & End Racism. ANSWER was a pretty funny place to while away the days before the coming onslaught. Decorated with posters of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Elian Gonzalez, and Pancho Villa, the office looked like it hadn’t been painted since the Jimmy Carter days. Fluorescent lights cast a bright, milky-white glare on the small crowd. A sister group to Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center, ANSWER was formed immediately after 9/11 in response to what they feared would be an inevitable curbing of human and civil rights both at home and abroad.
The problem with ANSWER is its association with the Workers World Party and Ramsey Clark, once attorney general in the Johnson administration, now an apologist for genocidal maniacs the world over. I don’t cut the Christian right any slack for their sleazy associates, and I can’t in good conscience ignore those of the radical left. Clark was a champion of civil rights and an antiwar activist in the ’60s, but his alliance with the WWP, a hardline Communist sect whose Website has kind words for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, has caused some to question his motives. Clark and the WWP have publicly sympathized with both Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, lauding them as “anti-imperialists.”
Still, the Tuesday night ANSWER meetings remained focused on the war, with the occasional Cuba Five or Vieques tangent.
The most powerful speaker ANSWER has is Larry Holmes. A member of the WWP, Larry grew up in Harlem and got a crash course in political activism back in ’71 while serving noncombatant duty in the army as a conscientious objector. He began organizing meetings with soldiers in Fort Dix, NJ, as part of the American Servicemen’s Union. The ASU was trying to unionize the military, and even proposed giving soldiers the right to vote on whether they should go to war or not.
I cornered him one afternoon at their headquarters as volunteers were busily stapling signs to cardboard posts in preparation for the massive February 15 antiwar demonstration in New York. “This is a war about what wars are usually for,” Holmes said. “They’re not fought for ideals, they’re not fought to liberate people, they’re not fought over weapons of mass destruction—those are excuses. They’re fought for the spoils. If the US can affect the recolonization of Iraq and the Persian Gulf, it will put Arab people at a violent disadvantage. It will rob from them what little independence they have, both to control their own resources and to stand up against the Western Empire. And I don’t think the American people would be for that if they understood the situation as such. That is, of course, how it is understood outside the United States.”
“What’s your worst-case scenario for this war?” I asked.
“If this war goes on and effects even a fraction of what people fear along the lines of killing people, innocent civilians, just the catastrophe of death and damage and violence that will be visited on the region because of the destabilization, the people of that region are going to be angry to the twenty-fifth power…. You’re going to create a situation with this war where no place in the world will be safe.”
I thanked him for his words and hit 14th Street in time to watch a bomb squad trying to make its way through the afternoon traffic. Most New Yorkers’ biggest issue with the war is that we’re the ones with the targets on our backs. It has helped us appreciate the miracle of our own births, and, by proxy, the miraculous births of others. The idea that we might die or that other people might have to die because George W. Bush wants to carve his oil buddies some economic lebensraum in the Middle East is abhorrent. Unfortunately, it was looking like we weren’t going to have much say in the matter, and in our own way, we were all bracing for the day those bomb-squad sirens might come calling for us.
Screaming at a Wall
Conveniently enough for me, the February 15 rally took place uptown, just a few short blocks from my home. The umbrella group that organized the event, United for Peace and Justice, had been fighting the city for a permit to march past the United Nations, but the city, under pressure from the Justice Department, quashed the idea and instead forced the thing into a series of steel-barricaded “pens.” On First Avenue, the police informed me that I no longer had the right to walk down streets in the neighborhood where my family has lived for the past 100 years.
Holding signs that read Give Peace A Chance, Iraqis Are People Too, and Drop Bush Not Bombs, the protesters looked crowded in their cattle pens. One person raised a poster featuring Adolf Hitler in front of the Reichstag fire saying, “Follow me!” On the back of the sign, Dubya stood in front of the burning World Trade Center with the same command. Portable radios tuned to WBAI broadcast the speeches from the mile-away podium, and a video screen at the foot of the 59th Street Bridge displayed the 10-foot-tall face of Al Sharpton promising, “We will not sell out! We will not break down! We will not compromise! We will go FORWARD!” to the jubilant crowd.
I broke out of the pen, determined to reach the stage. Second Avenue had been overrun by protesters trying to do the same. Every available space between cars, in front of cars, and in some cases on top of cars was filled with people. On 56th Street, a battalion of cops on horses waited for the order to lay into the crowd. I made it to the stage before they shut the street down.
Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Angela Davis were all motivating, but the hour belonged to Nobel Peace Prize winner and South African freedom fighter Bishop Desmond Tutu.
“Hellllllo all you wonderful people. God is with us!” A collective roar erupted, spanning 20 city blocks. “People marched and the Berlin Wall came down, people marched and apartheid ended, and now people are marching because they are saying no to war! Human beings are not collateral damage, human beings are flesh and blood! We are one family, God’s family—how can we drop bombs on our brothers and sisters?”
For a second he held the emotions of the crowd in his hand, then released them to the world.
“What do you say to war?”
“What do you say to death and destruction?”
Satisfied with our indignation, the good bishop transformed from battleweary peace crusader to the man of the cloth who once promised God he’d do his best to save people’s souls.
“What do you say”—he flashed the crowd a sudden smile—”to peace?”
I tell you, hearing 200,000 people pledging allegiance to the sanctity of human life is just about one of the most powerful moments I’ve yet witnessed on this stolen island.
The situation in the pens was becoming untenable. Before I got the chance to join my fellow Who fans in Stomped-to-Death Heaven, I ducked into an old Irish bar. I ordered a Guinness and talked with Maria Tayarah, an older Syrian doctor who had visited the refugee camps during the last Iraq war and seen the effects of Gulf War syndrome first hand. “How can the American people be so ignorant of the effect this war will have in our region?” she asked me. “Don’t they get an education? Don’t they go to college? Do they know the damage these toxic bombs cause to the environment?”
She explained to me that the borders between Syria and Iraq are wide open, and that the flood of refugees would be disastrous to her country, as bad or worse than it was in 1991. “Democracy comes from within,” she insisted. “You cannot bomb people into democracy. I am Saddam’s neighbor, and we who live there in the region do not want to be rescued.”
Through the window of the bar I watched as protesters passed long blue barricades with the words NYPH: Do Not Cross written on them over their heads, followed by the huge steel fences themselves. For a moment there it seemed inconceivable that this message could be ignored.
But it was.
In hindsight, I think the only way we could have gotten our point across to George W. Bush was if someone explained it to him as his brains dripped down the side of a podium like raspberry jam.
There was a dim hope that the UN might forestall the invasion, if not postpone it indefinitely. For a moment I thought Bush was going to borrow a page from the book of Caligula and replace the Security Council with a stallion from his Crawford, TX. ranch. In the end, he found it easier to simply ignore the UN, along with the wishes of most of us on the planet who do not live in one of those little red states we saw on election-night exit-poll maps, and start his stupid war anyway.
Eve of Destruction
Three days before the war began, I attended a United for Peace and Justice meeting. The group is a coalition of about 80 different organizations—peace activists, churches, labor unions, community groups—opposed to the war. Founded in October 2002, the idea was to create a national network that could appeal to mainstream America.
About 60 people sat in a circle, discussing the logistics of a Times Square protest scheduled for the evening after the first shots were fired in Iraq. They spoke of what to do if the cops got rowdy, where to meet if the streets were blocked off. The meeting took a turn for the absurd when the floor was opened up to the group, and a woman wearing a funny hat and rose-tinted glasses was given the task of limiting people’s comments to 60 seconds. One man talked of the importance of staging an independent protest in the Bronx, while a hairy guy in a flannel shirt urged everyone to resist the police the moment they started closing in. “TIME!” the woman barked after a minute, like we were all part of some pinko Gong Show.
Toward the end of the meeting I had the chance to talk to Judith Le Blanc, vice-chair of the Communist Party USA, who damn near converted me on the spot, she smelled so nice. Her activist record stretches back to the late ’60s. A member of the Caddo tribe from Oklahoma, she got involved with the American Indian Movement, assisting in investigations for the Wounded Knee defense team and participating in the occupation of Alcatraz. She is currently an organizer for United for Peace and Justice.
I asked her what sort of reaction she got from mainstream organizations when she told them she was a card-carrying member of Communist Party.
“People are very accepting. The Communist Party is a small party, but it’s very well connected. We work within the labor movement, we work within the peace movement. And we get a lot of people who say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’ or, ‘I used to know someone who was a Communist.”’ Truth is, I’ve always wanted to be a Communist, not for any strong political reasons, but because of movies like Reds and Frida—all those scenes of comrades drinking vodka and talking resistance while young women of privilege dance with each other in states of revolutionary ecstasy. Communism still has an air of romance that democracy lost 40 years ago when that magic bullet dropped John F. Kennedy on a Dallas street.
“It seems to me that this war is a case of capitalism run amok,” I offered.
“This war is capitalism on steroids. After five hundred years, capitalism hasn’t been able to solve any of the basic questions facing humanity—the question of hunger, the question of education, the question of the right to health care. All those questions are still unanswered, unsolved.”
“Well, the communist track record is no better.”
“I think that’s debatable. You have over five hundred years of capitalism versus sixty or eighty years, depending on where you want to start the count, of the socialist experiment. It’s not about importing a system, it’s about building on the unique historical circumstances of the US, both economic and social, to develop a system that is socialist in character that does not allow for a minority to profit off the labor of the majority.”
“When the bombs start dropping in Iraq, as they are certain to do, what will this movement be able to say it accomplished?” I asked.
“Although this movement has not been able to stop the war, we have set it back. We have set the stage, I think, for an incredible struggle against the budget cuts that are going be used to pay for the war, and also against giving still more tax cuts for the rich. There will be a tremendous stage set for the 2004 elections. The collective action and the consciousness is not lost.”
We talked for a while about the racist and classist nature of this war, of how kids in search of higher education and real-world job skills are now being put in the position of defending American business interests with their lives. Judith split to go home and watch the Grammys before any vodka could be imbibed. The meeting dispersed with everyone agreeing to meet in Times Square and scream bloody murder when the war started.
Beware of Occidentals Bearing Gifts
I used to love Times Square. It’s hard to believe today, but this city used to care about the needs of the emotionally despondent. Times Square was a scumbag autonomous zone, a living monument to pilfered dreams and reckless human behavior.
Now those neon lights that the Drifters sang about so ethereally back in ’53 have been replaced by video screens flashing corporate logos as fast as the brain can process. The dive bars and the tranny hookers have been moved out to make way for some Disney executive’s wet and bloody dream. It’s tacky. It’s got no history. It’s a fitting place to bear witness to the birth of the American empire.
On March 20, the famous headline zipper on 42nd Street spat real-time progress reports on the war while protesters shivered in the freezing rain, their warm breath visible as they tried to chant their way out of the depressing reality that is 21st-century America.
“Money for food, not for war.”
“Money for jobs, not for war.”
“Money for schools, not for war.”
On the sidelines, uniformed men and women looked uncomfortable in their soaking-wet riot gear. Most of the police were huddled beneath sidewalk scaffolding, not expecting much action from the crowd of about 1,000. Cops on horses blocked off the southern flank of the protest. One smoked a cigarette beneath the flipped-up visor of his riot helmet, drenched and bored. Another told one of the more vocal upstarts that he would personally collar him if he didn’t stop trying to stir shit up. Above them a traffic light vacillated silently from green to yellow to red, like one of Tom Ridge’s terror alerts gone screwy.
There was a panel truck parked on Broadway. From the back, the ANSWER coalition was giving voice to the discontented. Above the truck, a Target store’s billboard featured a group of pretty, crimson-tinted young people jumping around in a state of consumer beatitude. At the bottom of the ad, next to a small target, were the words Live Life in the Red.
Buy another car, run up your credit card bill, pass a $725 billion tax cut, live life in the red.
Larry Holmes took over the mike. I couldn’t see him above the umbrellas, but I recognized his spirited voice.
“Most of us have become sisters and brothers in this struggle,” he announced, his tone a welcome mix of anger and accomplishment. “We have a bond that transcends race, color, or creed.” He congratulated us. “It looks so good! We have become dangerous, not because we are violent—Bush is the violent one. We are dangerous because we are strong.”
We’d lost this struggle on so many fronts it wasn’t funny, but at least we could say that we did something, and will continue to do something. Let the rest of America dirty their souls for King George and his incredibly rich friends. When Judgment Day comes, we’ll have an alibi.
The ceremony ended with the traditional handcuffing of the young people. Four cops pressed a screaming young girl’s face down onto the wet sidewalk and bound her wrists with plastic. It was a shitty day for all of us, I guess.
As I write this, George W. Bush is attempting to “rescue” Iraq from a despot America helped create, ostensibly to strip him of weapons America helped him acquire. Does anyone really believe that, after their brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, lovers, mailmen, and babysitters have been killed by American munitions, the Iraqis will welcome their white Christian savior and whatever puppet regime he wants to install?
The war will probably be over by the time you read this, and the Bush administration will be hard at work dividing Iraq into those three separate states it has long dreamed of—Regular, Unleaded, and Premium. Kellogg Brown & Root, a division of Dick Cheney’s old Halliburton company, is already on the ground in Iraq, surveying the oil fields like it was American dinosaurs down there under the sand whose primordial sludge had been hijacked by Arabs in the name of Satan. Who knows how many other deals are being cut behind Washington doors?
As the Hubble space telescope peers deeper and deeper into the universe, my only hope is that it continues to beam back those reassuring images of lifeless galaxies and long-dead stars. Because if America’s greedy eye ever does spot any little green men on any little green planet, I tell you, this country is going to embarrass the human race.
When our intergalactic pod touches down on someone else’s ball of dirt, and Bobby America exits his spacecraft, takes off his helmet, and reaches to glad-hand the strange appendage of his newly discovered friend, he will in effect be sealing that planet’s doom. I’m sure the aliens will be impressed by Bobby A., his blond hair and square jaw, the way he says “please” and “thank you” and holds the door open for the ladies. Combined with the brilliant mind that brought him from grade school to that historic moment, Bobby A. is sure to be a big hit.
But then someday they’ll meet the men who sent him there, and boy, will they be in for a rude awakening.
Read the full issue here.