Report from a Rainbow-Covered Rome

21 March 2004

Yesterday's demonstration was called for 2:00 in the afternoon - but by ten in the morning the Piazza de la Reppublica was jammed with rainbow flags, the banners of municipal and regional governments across the length and breadth of Italy, the flags of the leftist parties, and everywhere people calling, chanting, singing. It's a huge square, cars and trucks continued for a while but then the streets were claimed by the manifestacion - led by a rickety old bus that had led the caravan that travelled from the north of Italy to Rome in the run-up to the 20th. The bus was decked with more of the rainbow flags, with one side covered with flags emblazoned with the names of towns and cities the bus had travelled through, and people lined up to sign the flags.

Further down the square the huge joined peace flag was being laid out. It's reminiscent of the AIDS quilt, made up of hundreds of the rainbow peace flags, the word "PACE" in white over the rainbow, and stretching maybe thirty or forty yards long and fifteen or twenty wide. The bus and then the flag, carried by dozens of people from grassroots organizations from across the country, would lead the march. In fact hundreds of people, in contingents from trade unions and community groups, party-affiliated and others, eventually took off along the march route, tired of waiting for the official opening.

Not surprisingly, the leaders were not leading, they were still discussing who would march where, who would carry what banners, and who knows what else. (And this was after the meeting that had lasted to 2 a.m. the night before to solidify the language of the statement that a representative of the organizing committee would read from the stage - the only speaker from the coalition.) But the unity of the huge and politically diverse coalition held - throughout the organizing and throughout the rally itself. And the unity had been helped by the government's sudden call a few days earlier for a "massive" demonstration "against terrorism". The call had been initiated by the mayor of Florence, acting in his capacity as president of the council of municipal authorities, a powerful and often very progressive force in Italian politics. But the Berlusconi government grabbed the idea, and tried to use it to either coopt or undermine plans for the 20th. In fact, they managed to gather only about 300 people in downtown Rome on the 18th, even the members of the right-wing organizations, whose leaders had signed on, did not show up. Contrary to Berlusconi's clear goals, it seems that more people than ever decided to participate on the 20th, fed up with government and media manipulation.

Eventually we began to march, slowly and fitfully, the two Americans (Geri Sheese, an Indiana woman from Military Families Speak Out, and me representing United for Peace & Justice) asked to help carry the lead banner, along with a woman representing the Spanish peace movement and a host of the Italian organizers, party leaders, every once in a while a politician or two. Lots of jockeying over positions, media people crowding in each time a known political leader moved into a visible position. After an hour or more, in which we probably moved about one block or less, we moved out at a quicker pace along side of the march, apparently hoping we could worm our way up to the front, by now many blocks ahead, and all crammed curb to curb - or, this being Rome, cobblestone to cobblestone - with people. The streets were as crowded ahead of us as the piazza and all the surrounding streets behind. So someone in the huge cordon of monitors surrounding the ostensible leaders led us out of the march route, several blocks in the opposite direction, then paralleling the march for a while, trying to figure out how to get to the front of the march. The leaders had to be leading of courseâ ¦. until it became clear we were quite lost, Romans or no.

Up the ancient stone steps, still in a line holding on to the banners, the lead banner saying "No to War, Bring the Troops Home", and the following one "No to War, No to Terrorism, No to Violence". All along the way would be cries of "escalara, escalara!" wherever an unseen curb or step threatened to somebody flying. And all along the streets people would stop to cheer, recognizing and applauding some of the leadership people, but mostly just cheering on the demonstration.

Eventually, five or six kilometers later, we came out into the main square, off the ancient Roman Circle and within a few hundred yards of the Coliseum. The old Forum was filled with people and flags, all the streets leading into the square were jammed with people, there were more flags surrounding the square and music blaring from the stage. Finally the leaders managed to lead, and we entered the square with the banners that were hung in front of the stage.

Back stage was the usual chaos, but no tension, the unity had held through the march, and the organizers were already thrilled with the numbers. Geri was the first speaker, she was great - began by asking the crowd if they minded if she took a picture so she could show her husband, when he came home from the Iraq theater, how beautiful the Italians were. And she didâ ¦ Then talked about her husband's betrayal by the military, and that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home.

Of course by then it was 3:30 or so, and by 4:00 more people called in to say that thousands of people were still in the Pz. de la Reppublica and hadn't even been able to begin the march. After Geri's speech a letter was read from the Chaldean bishop of Baghdad, a moving call for peace, saying clearly that Iraq today is not a land of peace, and that the Italian and international movement for peace must continue its work. It was a good choice, a respected independent figure critical of the occupation but not tied to any existing political organization, and representing a constituency largely abstaining from sectoral demands. Several more speakers, mostly from grassroots communities. A decision had been made early on to ban all politicians, crucial to avoid competition, chaos and serious divisions in the movement given the variety and influence of political parties in and around the peace movement. No party representatives, no members of parliament (though many were there). Not even the mayor of Rome - who was also there and thanked me for the US peace movement's call for global mobilization - was allowed to speak. (It was noted, of course, that the weather -not a drop of rain after several wet days-was likely arranged by Rome's moderate left government. But, being Italy, it was noted as well that if it was a REALLY left government they might have ordered up sunshine too....)

The MCs, two popular DJs, introduced me by reminding people that it was the US peace movement that had first issued the call for the March 20th mobilizations. They then described UFPJ as the largest anti-war coalition in the US, with over 900 constituent organizations. The woman translating for me, an American activist based in Rome for 30 years and tied to the Catholic left, spoke first, talking about the difference between the American government and the American people. When I spoke, I said more or less the following:

"George Bush tells us that he is fighting against terrorism and that the whole world is behind him. But George Bush lies. We know that the whole world is behind our movement's demand for peace - we know that war is no answer to terrorism. We know that Bush's policies are reckless, and have made the whole world a more dangerous place. We know that this is not a war against terrorism, but a war for oil, power and empire.

To challenge that global threat of war and empire, we need a global mobilization for peace. We are here today to mark two anniversaries. We commemorate the first anniversary of George Bush's illegal, immoral war in Iraq. But we also celebrate the first anniversary of the second super-power, that was created when people around the world marched together to say no to war, and governments around the world responded by saying no to the US demand for war, and the governments' defiance forced the United Nations itself to play a part in the global mobilization for peace.We need to rebuild that global mobilization.

After the terrible events in Madrid last week, the people of Spain have given us a new example of how to respond to terrorism. Their example showed us how to fight terror- to mourn the dead; condemn ALL terrorist attacks, all attacks on civilians; hold governments accountable for leading us into illegal wars; and go to the polls to change their government, to rebuild their democracy, to reclaim their country.

In the United States today support for war is dropping. Support for peace is on the rise. United for Peace and Justice, and the entire US peace movement, joins today with the Italian peace movement, with the international peace movement. Together we will stop the war and bring the troops home. We will defy terror. We will resist empire. We will reclaim the United Nations. And we will rebuild our democracies. Thank you".

The organizers were very pleased that we had been able to get in language about Madrid, about the UN, about the US peace movement. And no, this wasn't like February 15 with our record-setting 90-second speeches... Although most were pretty brief, there were mercifully few speakers and time for at least a bit of information.

There were a bunch of journalists wanting comments after I spoke, then someone reminded me that they planned to present the giant peace banner to the US movement, symbolically linking the US and European, if not international, peace movements. Someone gave me a cell phone and I got through to Leslie Cagan, although the sound level backstage was so high it was virtually impossible to hear. So I just talked - over Melanie's voice, over Leslie's voice, I think - describing what was happening, that UFPJ was the focus of the introduction, that we were to be presented with the flags, and most important that there were more than a million people there, with many more still flooding into the Roman Forum. It was amazing.

On stage they were just finishing the statement of the organizing committee, read by my friend Rafaella Bollini, one of the key Italian organizers. Rafaella had just finished and I heard someone else announcing something about "la movimiento americana per la pace", the American peace movement. While I was still on the phone someone grabbed me and pushed me back up on stage, where the entire organizing committee had gathered. Geri followed me up and suddenly people ran from the side of the stage with armloads of the huge rainbow peace banner, thrusting it into Geri's and my arms. We were all laughing, crying, the photographers below the stage were going crazy, some of them yelling something and someone kept pushing down the pile of rainbows in my arms that was already way over my head, I think so the photographers could see us. Then we all moved to shake out the enormous flag, doing a wave motion across and over the stage, at several points dragging each other dangerously close to the edge of the stage.

There were several more speakers, including Palestinian and Israeli representatives, and more music, but somehow the real climax was the "presentation" of the rainbow banners, an amazing, powerful moment of global solidarity. It was the second superpower raising its flag. Wish you all had been there.