Confessions of a Virgin Protester

What I learned at my very first anti-war rally.

Red Hot & Riot
Don't let the chanting fool you: The march feels more - like a Saturday-afternoon stroll. - Walter  Novak
Don't let the chanting fool you: The march feels more like a Saturday-afternoon stroll.

It's been a long time since Dennis Stuehr hoofed for a cause. So long, in fact, it takes a few hard shakes of his brainpan before the memories drop out.

"It musta been 15, 16 years ago, something like that," he says. "Now what the hell was it for?" He pauses, squints. "There were like a million people in Central Park. No, wait a second -- it was Washington, D.C." Another pause. "South Africa! That's what it was. We were protesting U.S. policy down there."

Then a student at MIT, Stuehr demonstrated alongside a bunch of buddies full of idealism. Now a working stiff, he's joined today by his infant daughter, who's full of Z's as she lies swaddled in her stroller. Father and child are crossing the Veterans Memorial Bridge, braving 35-degree weather and the country's pro-war climate. They're among about 1,000 protesters -- if you count kids, reporters, and people waiting at bus stops -- marching toward Public Square to rally against the looming U.S. attack on Iraq.

Actually, marching is a bit too militant-sounding; it brings to mind Seattle anarchists who promote peace by rioting and not bathing. This feels more like a Saturday-afternoon stroll, enjoyed by the same folks who might attend a neighborhood block party. Grandmothers and clean-shaven Boomers mix with young couples and soccer moms. Steam rises from Starbucks cups. Police are present, but only to clear the streets of traffic as they escort the ruly horde into downtown. Some cops even -- gasp -- share laughs with demonstrators.

The mellow mood suits Stuehr just fine, as does the noon-to-2 p.m. protest schedule. Between family-man duties and running a Cleveland Clinic research lab, two hours of activism is about all he can squeeze in these days.

"I figured I could do this and have a lot of the day left over," says Stuehr, 44. "For a regular guy, this is really convenient."

And convenience, as I discover, is but one of the many smaller motives that inspires protesters to freeze their agendas off on this gray day. Among the others: detecting signs of liberal life in the universe, walking their dogs, and, as a middle-aged man confides with a smile, "having the whole goddamn bridge to ourselves." All of which I find intriguing, since I've never bothered to demonstrate against anything in my life.

Protests, I've always thought, are parades minus the floats and marching bands. If there's no green beer, what's the point? Call me jaded, call me a typical Gen Xer, but I've yet to feel moved to chant bad poetry with strangers.

So I go into Saturday's rally without clear conviction -- while generally anti-war, I'm also very pro-bomb-the-living-shit-out-of-Saddam-himself. I want to ask people why -- beyond a possibly obvious desire to hate George Bush in public -- they've decided to protest in the cold. Especially when they could be -- let me see if I can find the right word here -- inside.

For Roxy Ward, the reason turns out to be the chance to chant bad poetry with strangers. The Case Western Reserve senior and two friends clutch a large red banner with a slogan that doesn't quite roll off the tongue: "Collateral Damage, Addiction to Violence, Allegiance to Oil. Is This What We Fight to Preserve? No Blood for Oil!" They wisely rely on other slogans to fire up the crowd, alternating old standbys like "No justice, no peace!" with new faves: "One, two, three, four -- our grief is not a cry for war!" They're a peacenik spirit squad, missing only the hemp pom-poms.

"I'd always thought it would be kind of weird to stand around and yell with a bunch of people," Ward says. "But when you do it, there's actually this kind of cohesion. You feel like there are a lot of other people who feel the same way."

Up ahead, Laurie Murray, a 73-year-old University Heights resident, revels in her first demonstration. "Being with all these people, you don't feel alone," she says, handmade "No Blood for Oil" cloth signs pinned to her coat.

Yet a popular knock on protests is that, like bringing old newspapers to the curb each week, they do little besides ease the conscience. Truth is, the rally's biggest impact is probably on motorists who'd planned to take the bridge.

Dennis Yurich shrugs. "At least we're doing something other than watching TV," says the 42-year-old Clevelander. In his case, he's multitasking -- lending his legs to the cause while walking his black poodles, Julien and Gavin, two of a dozen dogs in the throng. "Hey, the more bodies we got out here, the better."

Some wondered if anyone -- mutts included -- would show up for the event, given the drubbing the left took on what for it was the Day of the Locusts, a.k.a. the elections. Pediatrician Karl Hess lets out his breath, relieved to see liberals still exist. "I couldn't not come here today after what happened. I had to feel like there was hope in the world."

Even so, while the wind blowing off Lake Erie brings a sharp anti-Dubya bite -- "Drop Bush, Not Bombs," one sign implores -- protesters also bash Democrats. "About all they've done so far," says Lakewood's Rich Hartle, "is get their butts kicked."

Speakers who address the throng at Public Square say much the same. Yet most do so while frothing less than the lattes they've carried, staying composed as a light drizzle begins to fall. One exception is a hyper young man in a wool cap who screeches, "Go to the Gap and yell you're against the war!"

Maybe, as Hartle suggests, it's just too damn cold for others to get angry. "There's a reason you see more protests in California -- the weather's a helluva lot nicer."

By 2:30, pigeons waddle in to reclaim the square. Most people leave realizing they haven't changed the world. But at least they changed traffic patterns, when for a few glorious minutes the bridge was theirs.

"That," Stuehr says, "was totally cool."

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