By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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The handful of freezing demonstrators trudges through the streets of Washington, D.C., their unit leader bellowing through a bullhorn. Waving signs bearing the distinctive Lone Star silhouette, the five show no sign of giving up their mission.
Hours earlier, this group was 42 strong, comprising fresh Houston recruits in the War on War who joined thousands of others for a two-mile march and massive civil protest. But now, as the sun dips and the temperature slips below 20, the streets are clear of out-of-town activists and natives as well. This band of five is no longer battling George W. Bush's confrontation with Iraq -- they're using the bullhorn and signs in a desperate attempt to find their lost friends.
At 1:30 p.m., when the sun still offered some sanctuary, the Houston travelers waded into the crowd of marchers and were immediately separated. Some segments of the group navigated their way to the designated pickup spot in the Naval Yard, the march's end point. But the familiar Light Blue Behemoth was missing in action.
It was eventually spotted beyond the maze of other departing protesters and buses. Henderson William, the stalwart driver, explained that he'd been unable to find parking anywhere near the rendezvous site.
Those who made it back to the bus organized the final search party. As night arrived, five volunteered for the sortie to seek out the remaining few, who came back with some stray souls. But three were still missing.
It was now dangerously cold, and the three marooned marchers weren't dressed for the elements. Henderson put the bus in gear and eased along the streets. He killed the rows of interior lights to help the vision of the riders -- the ones with the half-frozen faces pressed against the foggy windows, peering into the darkness.
For the passengers, the rally and march were holy experiences. They felt euphoric, like they'd found their calling. Locating their fellow travelers was proving far more difficult.
On the previous day, this trip for peace has a promising beginning.
One by one, passengers head to the front of the bus and grab the microphone. It's time for testimonials, for all 42 people to introduce themselves and tell exactly why they paid $150 each for a 60-hour turn-around trip to Washington to protest the looming war on Iraq.
Their guide and scout is Henderson William, one of the two bus drivers navigating his cargo through the former Confederacy. The older, African-American man prefers simply to be called Henderson. He captained a bus of protesters for a D.C. rally last October and requested this run because he sympathizes with the mission.
Hearing that it's time to testify, Henderson turns off his beloved Con Funk Shun from the overhead speakers and yields the floor.
The riders explain their presence. There's a Kurd who says it's Iraq's fight, not ours; a former Merchant Marine who went from gung-ho in '91 to hell-no in '01; and a University of Houston student who runs the campus Green Party.
There's a witch, an ex-con, a lawyer and several teachers.
They range in age from 13 to 76. They're white, black and brown. They have African drums and picket signs.
They want to be a royal -- no, rebellious -- pain in the ass for President George W. Bush. They've missed work and school for this trip. Some of them sit next to a lavatory that's been bombarded by 42 sets of bowels and left to stew for five days. Some are at odds with conservative parents.
They're crammed into a 50-seat bus that might be comfortable for a ride to Austin, but transforms into an iron maiden on anything longer.
This is the Houston contingent of a massive antiwar rally organized by a coalition called International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a group formed in the wake of 9/11. Members joined the thousands gathered to demonstrate outside the Capitol building and in San Francisco, and in smaller protests throughout the world.
Some of them were returning from their first actions since the mass protests of the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago. Just as with combat itself, high technology has changed the nature of antiwar activism. Slick computer printouts have replaced the ink-smeared mimeograph broadsides; e-mails, Internet links, cell phones and voice mail have automated the get-out-the-word networks.
As the ride soon showed, the decades have altered other aspects of activism. While some passengers arrived over the protests of their parents, this peace effort has hardly reflected the Vietnam War's penchant for splitting families apart along generational lines. In fact, the D.C. demonstration was revealing that activism is becoming an all-in-the-family affair.
Evidence of that was obvious in the appearance of protester Gloria Rubac with her daughters -- even Rubac's grandchild, for that matter -- in tow.
Gloria Rubac doesn't look like a grandmother. The light brown hair and stamina throw you off. At the mike, the fiftyish Rubac becomes the passengers' motivational speaker, talking about how this bus is one of many, how they will show the rest of the world that most Americans don't want a war.