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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2000 / 20 Tishrei, 5761

Philip Terzian

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The Million T-Shirt March -- ONE OF the minor irritants of living in the nation's capital is that it is, for good or ill, the nation's capital. And so when people feel moved to make a statement to the nation, they travel to Washington, in large numbers.

Such demonstrations, in the past, were comparatively rare. Coxey's Army, a populist contingent that walked from Massillon, Ohio, descended on the capital in 1894. The Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1924. The Bonus Marchers occupied the Anacostia Flats in the summer of 1932, until Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, routed them with tanks.

Now, in the television age, mass demonstrations are a routine event. Beginning with the 1963 civil rights march, the urge to descend on the Mall, disrupt commuters, dislocate workers, deposit mountains of rubbish and figuratively shake fists at the White House or Congress, is irressistible. Washington has been the destination of choice for feminists, AIDS quilts, antiwar, animal rights, pro- and anti-abortion activists, motorcycling veterans, angry farmers, homosexuals, truckers and environmentalists, Promise Keepers and proponents of a nuclear freeze.

Driving to church on a Sunday morning, you're never sure if you might find your path blocked by a 10K fun run against breast cancer, a march of Iranian dissidents, or women protesting female circumcision.

In the past few years, however, the undoubted master of ceremonies has been the Black Muslim orator Louis Farrakhan. Five years ago Farrakhan convened something called the Million Man March, which prompted some 300,000 black men to pack the eastern end of the Mall and listen to his two-hour talk on numerology, white supremacy, Jewish control of the media, economy and frican slave trade, and the importance of racial unity. What the Million Man March achieved is open to conjecture, but it spawned innumerable t-shirts and inspired Spike Lee to make a movie on the subject.

The success of that event -- the press tended to concentrate on Farrakhan's style, ignoring the anti-Semitism and his mystical attachment to the number 19 -- yielded a host of pale imitators: A Million Mom March, a Million Youth March, etc. And this week Minister Farrakhan produced his own imitation, the Million Family March.

The Million Man March had a fascist quality that was intriguing to observe: As Farrakhan spoke, he was surrounded by his uniformed "Fruit of Islam" praetorian guard, scanning the throng with sunglassed eyes for non-existent enemies. And the Minister was so evidently incensed -- at white folks, especially Jews and their "gutter religion" -- that his anger ebbed and flowed like abdominal cramps.

By contrast, the Million Family March was a sullen disappointment: It was never quite clear what its point might have been, and Spike Lee won't be making a film on the subject. To the cynical observer, it might even be said that Farrakhan convened the march largely because he relishes the sound of his voice. He was reduced to depending on the resources of the Unification Church (the Moonies) to put the thing together, and a portion of the day was devoted to a filmed chronicle of his travels, thrown on huge screens on each side of the Mall.

Farrakhan had hoped to attract a galaxy of black entertainers, but had to settle for Whitney Houston and her husband, Will Smith and his wife -- all of whom waved to the crowd but said nothing. The high point, for me, was the list of acknowledgments: The Metropolitan Police, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, hip hop impresario Russell Simmons, and best of all (in Farrakhan's words), "those street organizations that are called gangs," whose strict bonds of loyalty are instructive to all. Imagine Malcolm X addressing the Lions Club, and you aproximate the flavor of the Million Family March.

Perhaps most poignant was the offstage activity. When I was a boy I took a bus downtown to watch the 1963 civil rights demonstration -- largely out of curiosity, I confess -- and recall only marchers intent on their mission. By contrast, on Monday, even while Farrakhan was speaking, most of the families in attendance were buying and eating, recumbent on towels, talking and chewing. Constitution Avenue was lined for blocks with vendors hawking steaks and fried chicken, pennants and hats, assorted CDs, paperback books, African-style sculpture, jewelry and clothing. This was not a gathering of people observing the importance of families; it was, instead, a celebration of taking Monday off.

And, it should be added, the t-shirt economy was very much in evidence: There were dozens of piles of shirts in all colors, most of which were unsold by the end of the day. One vendor, in front of the National Archives, was offering shirts for a dollar; or if you didn't need a shirt, a "F**k George W. Bush" poster, which he advertised by screaming at the top of his lungs.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Philip Terzian