The above photos made up the front and back covers of a zine I put out about five years ago. The front cover was a burning oil well in Kuwait and the back was a tree covered in oil after it actually rained oil as a result of such fires. The photos were taken during the aftermath of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, by my friend's Dad. My friend Matt and his parents, Giles and Patricia went to Kuwait shortly after the Iraqi defeat to help get the neglected animals from Kuwait Zoo somewhere safe.
This 'zine was largely an anti-war publication in response to the US invasion of Iraq, five years ago. It was also the beginning of trying to make sense of my time in the Middle East.
I was wandering downtown Portland on Saturday with my friend Andrew and caught part of the antiwar march (five years since the invasion). I never thought this nightmare would last this long. I watched a few hundred people with signs, some drum banging, some bare foot hippies, a somber church groups, a gang of Black Bloc youths looking tough, some young families beckoning us to join in. Everyone playing the their assigned role in neat assembly, escorted by some bored cops. We didn't march or protest. Instead, we went to drink fancy hot chocolate at a very fine bougie establishment and discussed the hopelessness of it all.
Five years ago, the evening the war kicked off, I remember everyone mobilizing a massive protest to shut down Portland as an objection to the invasion. It was spontaneous but everyone had known it could happen any evening, as soon as that first bomb dropped. I was still writing a column for Streetroots newspaper at the time and thought it was my duty to cover as much of the protest, as I could.
The rolling bridge blockades started early in the evening and I remember racing my bicycle from one bridge to the next. After the Burnside bridge, some person, dressed head to toe in black and a face mask began to run along beside me. We began chatting, dizzy with anticipation, wondering how crazy things were going to get. A portly man in a suit shouted at us from the sidewalk, 'Hey, you two, get out of the street!' I replied, 'Why don't you calm down?'
And then he pulled out his badge, 'Stop! police!'
'No fucking way!' With that, I realized I couldn't be impartial media. And for a moment, I started to believe we were actually resisting an historical injustice, defying authority and making a huge statement to the world. 'Portland will not stand for this war!'
But as the evening played out, and some people battled the riot police, as the highway got briefly shutdown, inconveniencing a few irate commuters, and bridges were momentarily Free Autonomous Zones, I also began to fear it was to become a pointless song and dance. By midnight most people had gone home to their beds and a few determined pacifists sat in the intersection, willingly waiting to be dragged away, cuffed, jailed and booked. Talk about anti-climax.
It sure felt good to occupy the Burnside bridge, with fires blazing, banging drums, people getting naked and getting away with it (most of us). It felt good running into random friends and trying to convince each other we were not only holding the bridge but taking a meaningful 'stand.' But, as is sickeningly evident, our little party did little for the people of Iraq. And copping a face-ful of pepper spray did little for the people of Afghanistan. If only it was as simple as getting crazy in the streets. And now, five years later, people are getting less crazy, even though opposition to the war is at an all time high.
I don't know. I'm not down on people exercising free speech on a Saturday afternoon. Maybe each protest is a baby step towards something meaningful, significant and effective... And I certainly see the profound significance in people seizing public space to display their malcontent and opposition. But I can't help but feel its all a part of a very complicated game, with a predetermined outcome. Give people just enough freedom to feel they are resisting and then they can go back to work again on Monday morning feeling a tad less guilty and little less angry... while in the real world not a damn thing has changed for the people getting blown to shit half way around the world...
The other day I heard a story about a woman, who after years of listening to pro-war, anti-gay, pro-Bush rhetoric in her church finally stood up, terrified but composed enough to proclaim, 'You know, we're not all of this mindset and just because we come to this church, it does not mean we support this war.' Afterwards, several members of the congregation thanked her for speaking out. That is the type of thing that gives me hope. That woman just might have taken a way bigger step than thousands out marching.