Friday, February 1, 2008

Five years of crushing optimism

Five years ago today, some 9,000 people converged on downtown Madison to express their opposition to the Bush Administration's calls for preemptive war with Iraq. The rally and march were the first of many, the most well-known being on Feb. 15 as part of a worldwide day of protest that saw participation by well over 8 million people in 60 countries.

Our city is no stranger to demonstrations. We're famous, and somewhat infamous, for them. Regardless, or perhaps because of their frequency, we're serious about the reasons behind the gatherings.

In February of 2003, I was a junior in college and therefor hyper-aware of what was going on in the news. I became so obsessed with checking the internet, television and radio for updates that it actually came to the point where I was hearing and seeing loud, unpleasant static in my head every time I tried to read something.

When the day of protest was announced, I was psyched. It would be a chance to take action, and a chance to stretch my budding journalistic legs. So on that cold winter day, I slung my old Canon Rebel across my shoulders, bundled up, and headed to Library Mall. And there, from my perch atop the speakers' tower, I was greeted by a pretty awesome sight.

Estimates put the crowd at between nine and ten thousand people. For a city of our size, that's a mighty respectable turn-out. People were energized and committed to making their voices heard: surely after weeks wherein millions of people took to the streets in protest it would force the saber-rattlers to take notice and stop their march toward unnecessary war. How could you ignore it? Right?

There were the usual speakers, political satire singers, and even radical cheerleaders to get the rally started. From there, we marched the length of State Street up to the capitol building, where more fiery speeches and calls for peace were shouted through the PA system.

The crowd was a fascinating mix: every age group from elderly sign wavers to crunchy Vietnam-era peaceniks to college students to grade schoolers were represented. There were people who'd never been to a protest before, seasoned hippies, pro-Palestinian activists and anarchists. If there's one thing left-leaning rallies suffer from sometimes, it's an inability to focus on just one issue, but in this singular case, everyone was there for the same reason: a deeply held belief that war with Iraq was wrong, that we were being misled by our leaders, and that it would end very, very badly.

We all left that day feeling energized, made impervious to the cold by our idealism. I would have never dreamed that five years later, when I dug these photographs out of an old album, we'd still be in Iraq. Nearly 4,000 soldiers killed. 60,000 wounded. Over 80,000 Iraqi civilians dead, countless wounded and displaced. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent and counting.

It's hard to believe that this has been going on for so long now, and still with no end in sight. Our fears that the war would turn into a bloody quagmire of epic proportions seem to have come true, something none of us ever wanted.

So I can't help but look back wistfully at the photos I took of that day in February, 2003. They help to remind me never to give up hope, no matter how bleak things might get. But it's hard. Really hard. They also remind me that an administration that can ignore millions of people protesting doesn't deserve their position of leadership. They've failed on so many levels, and are long overdue for a clean sweep from office. So let's get to it.

(for the whole set of photos from the rally, click here)

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