Peace Signs

Third–generation activist Luchita Rodriguez and her friends find the missing rally bus — and a fresh, family-style fight against war in Iraq

Nine stops later, the Hernandez Debate Team and crew pour out of the Metro and begin the trek to the Mall. Behind them, the Washington Monument. Before them, thousands of protesters and approximately 12 porta-potties. On a stage closer to the Capitol, hidden by the mass of demonstrators, the Reverend Al Sharpton is speaking about upholding Martin Luther King's vision, but protesters from all over the Mall are distracted by the latest word: Speedo Man is on the scene.

Clad in only a tight-fitting red bathing suit and tennis shoes, Speedo Man hops in place to keep warm, clutching Sharpie markers in both fists, encouraging protesters to adorn his hairless torso with peace signs and antiwar slogans. Lines begin to form for demonstrators to get their pictures taken signing his freezing flesh.

Even with the Houston contingent's signs with doves soaring victoriously amid the outline of the great state of Texas, the group is almost immediately separated. One small faction inches slowly toward the stage to see former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark and former King Kong captive Jessica Lange.

Thousands assemble on the Mall.
Stephen Boudreaux
Thousands assemble on the Mall.

Speakers haven't even finished when the crowd decides to begin the two-mile march to the Naval Yard. The Houston contingent has now split into four or five groups, lost in different points of the march, which runs from Independence to Pennsylvania to Eighth to M. The chants segue into each other -- "Hell, no, we won't go, we won't fight for Texaco!" becomes "Drop Bush, not bombs!"

Spectators in shops and pubs along the route smile and wave and flash peace signs. On the balcony of one apartment building, five college Republicans have summoned their collective wit in order to display a sign reading "Hippies go home." What they don't notice is the peace and Amnesty International banners two floors over their heads.

On Pennsylvania, a few smug old-timers sport banners proclaiming their support for the troops.

Houston's diehards soon discover a devious plot -- this one by Big Media. Demonstrators insist the turnout is about a half-million strong; wire services go with the meek "tens of thousands," a term that will be used by almost every newspaper. Protesters call it a conspiracy.

Whatever their number, marchers conclude at a housing project whose only economic development appears to be Club 55, Home of the Miss Black Nude Beauty Pageant.

Houstonian Njeri Shakur, 51, feels at home here. She says she was part of illegal evictions from Allen Parkway Village and lives now in "the barrio." She feels a solidarity among the downtrodden. Incredulous to see hardscrabble government housing in the nation's capital, she asks a D.C. cop, "Are these the projects?"

She can't believe it. The cop says Hell yes, we've got some hoods here, too. He invites her back for a custom tour.

Shakur, who co-hosts Fight Back with Rubac, is here with her 25-year-old daughter, Lauren Syrus. She'll probably come back, too, for every protest she can. Shakur has spent her life among the poor and working-class people whom she says are the expendable souls of the American war machine.

Growing up lost in the system, it's easy to understand why these folks would buy the idea of a new life in the armed forces, Shakur says. They hand their lives over for the promise of college tuition and to be all they can be. But some never find what they expect, she says. They return from war more lost than before.

Syrus and Shakur realize they are among the lost souls as other protesters board their buses. As the two wait in the cold by the housing projects for the missing Light Blue Behemoth, they have no idea how they'll make it home.

Around the corner, they spot Rick Brennan, 26, a high school history teacher. An hour has passed since the 4 p.m. pickup time. Brennan and Syrus decide to search the streets for the rest of the crew.

Forty-five minutes later, they're still gone. Shakur walks two blocks to where at least she can wait in a sliver of retreating sunlight. Other demonstrators are finding their groups without any problem, and slowly the mayhem subsides as the caravan of buses makes it way out of D.C. Shakur is left in the cold, now worried about her daughter.

Twenty minutes more go by, then she hears it, God speaking through a bullhorn: "The Houston bus is at Sixth and Penn…The Houston bus is at Sixth and Penn…"

Shakur sees the rescue party break through the remaining crowd of protesters. Syrus and Brennan aren't with them, but they soon turn up. The group rejoices when they finally spot the Light Blue Behemoth on a side street. They fling themselves on board, crashing into their seats, spent and shivering.

Rubac takes the mike, and the passengers take stock. They realize that Moyer, his fiancée, Claire Jacobs, and their friend Ryan Saunders aren't there. Stranded in a strange city, the three Lee College kids have no cell phone and no emergency numbers to call even if they could.

Boudreaux implores the riders to look out their windows. Henderson kills the lights and creeps forward, turning onto a street lined with cafes. Jackie Carpenter zips up her coat and rushes into the cold, poking her head inside the cafes. She hopes to find them sitting in a cozy booth, sipping steaming mugs of hot cocoa. No such luck. She darts across the street through traffic, checking the cafes there. Same story. She returns to the bus, bringing in icy gusts of air with her.

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