Last Sunday, Portland's downtown streets played host to a "March and Rally for Peace in the Middle East." Coordinated with other actions around the country, it was meant as an international day for peace, a massive show of anti-war sentiment against the Bush Administration.
The event had everything you've come to expect from a Stumptown anti-war demonstration: lots of signs with George W. Bush's grinning face on them, speakers emphatically shaking fists, a marching band, Bible thumpers screaming at the marchers calling them "liberal sissies," and an unsettling ratio of cops to people. This time, however, the seemingly huge police presence had more to do with the surprisingly small turnout of demonstrators.
Compared to the pre-war protests, which drew 10,000 people, organizers of Sunday's event were expecting a slightly trimmed- down crowd--maybe four to eight thousand attendants. By police estimates, 600 showed.
When asked why fewer numbers turned out for Sunday's rally than for past anti-war demonstrations, an unnamed marcher said, "Some people stopped caring, or just stopped coming."
Will Seaman, a volunteer for the Portland Peaceful Response Coalition who helped organize the march, thinks the apparent apathy is due to a lack of empowerment: "The reason we had large numbers prior to the war is because we felt the only way we were going to communicate significant dissent was mass mobilizations on the street... so there was a lot of motivation." He adds, "Now that the war has settled into this horrendous occupation, it makes people feel [marching] makes less of a difference."
It would seem that trying to stop the momentum of the war in Iraq is more daunting than aiming to prevent it from happening in the first place. But have people given up, or have they just found other outlets to make their voices heard?
Seaman seems optimistic that as the situation in Iraq has shifted, so too have people's means for affecting policy change: "A hopeful factor is that we have two, maybe three, mainstream democratic candidates who are articulating at least part of the anti-war message." He added, "many people are going to feel that they don't need to engage personally in a peace march anymore."
Perhaps as elections loom nearer we are transferring our power into the hands of politicians who seem poised to do something on a grander scale. It is possible that after decades of poor election participation, the occupation in Iraq may inspire droves to the election booth next November. Maybe George W. Bush's greatest gift to us will be a reminder of the most powerful thing we possess: our vote.