A Piece Missing at Peace Rally (March 2003)

Dan and I timed a brief mid-February vacation in New York City to take in comedian Julia Sweeney’s new monolog, “Julia Sweeney in the Family Way,” at the Ars Nova theater. Julia, the “Saturday Night Live” alumna and actress, was a popular speaker at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s most recent convention.

We were thrilled when we realized our last day in New York City would coincide with the huge peace rally scheduled there and in some 600 other cities around the world on Saturday, Feb. 15.

Julia Sweeney’s monolog about how she came to adopt a baby girl in China was very, very funny. Thanks to Julia’s hospitality, it was topped off by meeting the tiny subject of the monolog herself, Mulan, now three, a vivacious, adorable little personality in her own right. (Freethought news scoop: Julia is beginning to schedule her newest monolog: “Letting Go of God.”)

This was my first visit to Manhattan, so Dan and I spent an enjoyable two and a half days sightseeing. But by Saturday, I was ready to start marching. You may know that city authorities refused a permit for a march, or even to let us congregate in front of the United Nations building, a refusal upheld by two courts.

Hoping for the best, Dan and I set off for the noon rally at about 10:30 a.m. from our hotel at 45th Street and Eighth Avenue, walking a long mile toward First Avenue, the site of the rally. Dan got a lot of laughs carrying a homemade sign with his personal pun: “Bush is a bad precedent.” Packing light, I only had a piece of bright pink cardboard bedecked with two relevant bumperstickers and a little scrawled advertisement, “Bumperstickers available” (always the freethought saleswoman).

Reaching Third Avenue, we realized we were in for an endurance contest. Police had barricades up along the sidewalks, and had totally shut off side streets that led directly to the rally. Instead, they slowly herded us (there is no other word) for blocks and blocks away from the rally site before letting us turn toward Second and then First Avenues. We later learned that marchers filled First, Second and Third Avenues all the way from 51st to 80th Street!

At least we had our march of sorts, however poorly the city had planned for it. There was no room and no way to contain us. Confrontations took place on Third Avenue later as marchers, dangerously overcrowded, had no choice but to overflow the barricades. Almost 300 were arrested, some simply for doing what I had done–walking in the street to avoid overcrowded sidewalks.

We kept moving like cattle, finally squashed into pens erected on First Avenue. We came to a dead halt six or seven blocks from the rally. Utterly smashed, I was contemplating being the first in our block to climb over a barricade, until I spotted a police officer sauntering by with a German Shepherd. Was that necessary, Mayor Bloomberg?

The diverse crowd was extremely good-natured. In too-close proximity, we smiled at each others’ signs. A grandmotherly woman passed out Girl Scout Thin Mints. I chatted briefly with a female professor from Iran. She shrugged off the unhappy crowd conditions but told me she was so dismayed to realize she was using the same slogans against Bush that she had used against rulers back in Iran. With a wicked wind blowing up from the East River, we were slowly freezing. Protesters took every opportunity to clap, cheer and jump up and down.

As the rally began, heard through loudspeakers, at least three or four “reverends,” maybe more, invoked their respective gods. There was a Baptist minister or two, a rabbi, and preachers sprinkled throughout the program, such as Al Sharpton. It’s one thing if a speaker mentions personal beliefs–but scheduling formal prayers and invocations excludes so many of us. Just as a welcome secular speech began by actress Susan Sarandon, the loudspeakers by us turned to static.
This was too much for me: I hadn’t come to the rally just to freeze, smother and hear only prayers! Although it looked impossible, we politely elbowed our way through wall-to-wall protesters until we came to an intersection. There was no way out of our corral.

Since the coast looked clear, I climbed over the barricade. Dan followed eventually (son of a police officer, he is usually very law-abiding), and we slowly worked our way through two more pens until we could see and hear again, getting about five blocks from the stage.

A monitor screen displayed the speakers: many local activists, some celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Rosie Perez, a few politicians, Palestinians, Israelis for peace, Arab Americans and representatives from around the world. Although we missed a lot, we heard enough to realize that many speakers were liberally peppering their remarks with “God,” reassuring the crowd that “God is on our side,” or ending remarks with “God Bless America.” Dan and I periodically exchanged glances of wonderment, and muttered, “They sound just like George Bush!”

(I later read European coverage contrasting the religious nature of American peace rallies with Europe’s pronounced secularism.)

The final straw was special guest Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. (I do give him great credit for attending.) He expansively told us “God was smiling” on all the people down the avenue. Tutu always argued from divine authority against apartheid, rather than as a civil libertarian (“We are all God’s children.”). Although I clapped enthusiastically at Tutu’s secular follow-up remarks, I wondered if nonbelievers–after all, we are 14% of the U.S. adult population–would ever be acknowledged or represented at this huge rally!

Feminist singer Holly Near saved the day, when she launched without preamble into her feisty song, “I Ain’t Afraid.”

I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh
I ain’t afraid of your Allah
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
I’m afraid of what you’ll do in the name of your god.

She took a minute to explain that we shouldn’t do stuff in the name of a god or divide ourselves by religion. I sensed no crowd comprehension. But after her song, when I put down my sign to tie a shoe, a little girl read it and asked if she could buy a bumpersticker. Her father stepped forward and handed me a dollar for “Imagine no religion.”

We know freethinkers were there in full force, are here in full force. We just haven’t made it to the radar screen of the media, politicians or the public. We need to demand representation of our reason-based views. Analyzing the growing crises out of context, without acknowledging the role religion plays in war, in suppression of civil liberties and in terrorism, is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when vital pieces are missing.

Freedom From Religion Foundation