The Calm Before the Storm

For anti-war protesters, the enemies are indifference and irrelevance

He is, someone on the sidewalk whispers, a cardiologist -- a friend knows him from medical school.

And for the moment, he is the star attraction here at the Central West End intersection of Maryland and Euclid. "Who wants you in this neighborhood?" he shouts while striding toward the crowd assembling on all four corners. "Who wants you here?"

A little more than 100 strong when they arrived a few minutes ago, the group, carrying signs and a bullhorn, had merited mostly brief glances as sidewalk diners looked up, then went right back to conversations, books and Saturday-afternoon soups and espressos. Now, no fewer than three television crews descend as the man begins a middle-of-the-street debate with one of the demonstrators. A cop shows up. Everyone's watching as microphones and lenses insert themselves into the finger-waving, cameramen circling less than a foot from the pair, capturing the action from every conceivable angle.

Candlelight vigil for peace at the New Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard
Jennifer Silverberg
Candlelight vigil for peace at the New Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard

Two men arguing in the street. This is the biggest news from the city's biggest peace march since terror hit home 18 days earlier.

It's all over in three minutes. The man walks away. The cop herds demonstrators who've strayed a few feet past the curb back onto the sidewalk -- it takes little more than a wave of his hand and "please." A couple more cops show up, but there's nothing to do except stand there. A woman with the bullhorn reads a plea for peace from the spouse of a serviceman killed in the attack on the Pentagon. Just to make sure everyone hears, she crosses the street and reads it again. By the time she starts the second reading, the sidewalk diners are back to their business, the sound of everyday conversation blending with the bullhorn -- if anyone objects to having lunch interrupted, he doesn't say so. After 20 minutes of silence, it's off to the memorial for Jewish refugees in Forest Park, where the march concludes two hours after it began at the St. Louis University Islamic Center.

This looks more like America in limbo than America at war. Just one fleeting confrontation with one man. No counterdemonstrations, no profanity, no hollering, no chanting. Passersby nod, some smile, as they accept leaflets espousing peace. Motorists wait patiently through green lights as the procession crosses streets. A few honk horns and wave as they drive past, but mostly it's just quiet.

Other peace demonstrations around the country the same day drew little fanfare and little attention from the media. Perhaps the most raucous was in Washington, D.C., where an estimated 7,000 protesters -- many in town to demonstrate during meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that were canceled after the attacks -- marched through the streets and briefly clashed with police who arrested 11 and at one point used pepper spray. Meanwhile, about 100 counterdemonstrators called taunts and chanted, "It doesn't matter what you say, we're going to bomb them anyway." Late in the day, somone burned a flag, which turned to ashes amid silence, according to the Washington Times.

There have been no flag-burnings in St. Louis, where the Stars and Stripes and "God Bless America" written on bedsheet banners still hung from highway overpasses four weeks after the attacks. Despite the strong feelings, Bill Ramsey, a longtime peace activist who helped organize the Sept. 29 march, still saw a window. "People's minds are pretty much open right now," he said last week, before bombs started falling in Afghanistan. "The problem is, once we commit troops, we'll have a lapse back to mindless patriotism."

If Ramsey sounds fatalistic, it's because he saw it 10 years ago during the Gulf War, when America wrapped itself in the flag, pledged unwavering support to the commander in chief, then acted as if the whole thing hadn't happened once the troops came home. Of course, with more than 5,000 lives lost on American soil, this is different. Even a pacifist like Ramsey has his limits. In this case, he says, he wouldn't object to limited military action, so long as it is targeted at those responsible for the attacks and conducted under sanction of the United Nations. "I'd be willing to live with that," he says.

Others call it an act of war, but Ramsey sees the crashing of jetliners into skyscrapers as a crime against humanity. As such, he says, those responsible should be brought before an international court. "I'm not willing for the United States to decide for the world who's guilty here," Ramsey says. "I just don't trust the U.S. government, judging from past performance." With so many dead and so many comparisons to Pearl Harbor and so many warships on the way, does he honestly believe the U.S. government will step aside and let an international tribunal dispense justice? Ramsey allows that such a tack would be unprecedented. "But it's not the first time the peace movement has asked for something unprecedented," Ramsey observes. "That's our job."

It's a job that gets easier by increments. Two days after the attacks, Washington University barred the public from a peace demonstration by 50 or so students -- a Post-Dispatch reporter who showed up to cover the event was told to leave. M. Fredric Volkmann, vice chancellor for public affairs, says it was an unusual step taken amid unusual circumstances. "It had nothing to do with the event," Volkmann explains. "It had everything to do with the events of Sept. 11."

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