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.

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."

The day of the attacks, campus officials removed a student telephone directory from the university's Web page after a student with a foreign-sounding name received what Volkmann called an "inappropriate call" from someone outside the university. On the day of the demonstration, a local television station erroneously reported that someone had shot at a student, provoking fear and uncertainty on campus, he adds. In such an atmosphere, officials concerned about the safety of students decided to close the event. "It was due to the incredible sense of uncertainty and trepidation -- and, I guess, fear -- of many people on the campus," Volkmann says. That fear has largely subsided. The Web directory is back up, and a teach-in organized by Amnesty International and WashUPeace last week was open to all. More than 200 people attended. Volkmann says he anticipates more peace forums and demonstrations and, barring unforeseen events, those will be open to the public.

Food Not Bombs, a peace group that hands out free meals at its demonstrations, also encountered difficulty the weekend after the attacks when it set up outside the Market in the Loop in University City. A man playing chess nearby became irate and twice called police. The first time, officers told demonstrators to remove signs posted on public and private property. "The cops came and said we weren't doing anything wrong," says Mark Fraley, a member of Food Not Bombs who also helped organize the Wash U. demonstration. "We just had to take the signs off the property." The signs came down, but two different officers were back about an hour later. Exactly what they did is a matter of dispute.

Fraley says the officers told the group they had to leave the market, and so they moved to a spot a couple blocks away, near Fitz's. Capt. Charles Adams of the University City Police Department insists that no one was told to move. "They were never told they had to leave," Adams says. "We're as liberal as they come. Everyone's very sensitive right now, from both sides of the coin. We preach patience." There has since been at least one other demonstration by Food Not Bombs on the Loop, with no problems reported. Fraley says he had no preconceived notions, but his personal experience casts doubt on polls that show an overwhelming number of Americans favor war. "It certainly hasn't reflected the polls that suggest 90 percent of Americans are bloodlusting," Fraley says. "For the most part, people seem to be very receptive. A lot of people agree with us. There's a lot of people who really haven't made up their minds."

Other demonstrations have also met little notice or fuss. Two weeks after the attacks, seven demonstrators stood silently amid the Kiener Plaza fountains with anti-war signs while several hundred equally quiet office workers ate lunch on surrounding steps. "They've got as much of a right to say what they feel as anyone," said Dave Must as he munched a sandwich with friends. Like the demonstrators, Must, who works at May Co., believes that the terrorists need to be punished, but he confesses he doesn't have any easy answers. "I don't think such a thing exists," he says. "It needs to be premeditated and well planned. I think the people responsible for what happened need to pay for their actions. It's so nebulous this time around. It's not about territory. It's not about a regime. You can't put a set of crosshairs on it."

Demonstrators also don't have answers, but they know what shouldn't be done. While handing out anti-war leaflets in the Central West End, Heidi Waltz, 23, pauses to say that those responsible should be imprisoned forever but war isn't the answer. It's time for America to examine its foreign policy and admit it has made mistakes, she says, and that's not giving in to terrorism, it's simply doing the right thing. "A lot of people are very angry at us and chose a very horrible way to get our attention," she says. "We continue to have wars decade after decade, and so far it's led to war, so I suggest, 'Let's try something else.'"

A pair of women -- members, it appears, of the "Greatest Generation," approach. They're walking a dog. Waltz hands them a leaflet headlined "An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind." The women smile as they accept a leaflet, but they shake their heads at the same time. "We all hope nobody gets hurt, but it's war," one of them tells Waltz. "Sorry, dear, but it is." Or maybe not.

"I would love my generation to be the first generation to say, 'No, we're not going to be part of this,'" Waltz says.

About The Author

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.