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Published: Monday, 8/30/2004

These protesters aren't interested in agreeing to disagree

BY DENNIS RODDY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

NEW YORK - Among the stories to be told from yesterday's anti-Bush march, a roiling mass of invective that stretched two miles through Manhattan, was the small, poignant tale of Nora Williams.

She had come from her home in Ridgewood, N.J., short one friend.

"A woman I've known from childhood disinvited me to her daughter's wedding because of my 'Democratic leanings,' " Ms. Williams said. "And I'm not even a Democrat."

Nor is she much of a protester. When Vietnam was hot during her college years, Nora Williams stayed clear of the streets. She is so new to this sort of thing that, moving down the center of Seventh Avenue yesterday, she walked as if she were indoors - brief, tentative steps, as if she feared breaking something.

After a while, political campaigns become bigger than their candidates, and the dividing line between civic duty and civic strife blurs irredeemably. At age 52, Nora Williams crossed it, leading her to march and shout with more than 100,000 people at a time she cannot hold a quiet conversation over a glass of champagne at the wedding of her friend's daughter.

When her husband's best friend comes for a visit, she said, "we had to set a rule at the beginning of the evening: no politics."

Political disagreements can, of course, be disagreeable. They can also be engaging and a bit fun. The vehemence of the 2004 election campaign, though, has made it pretty clear that anger is the operative emotion through Nov. 2.

If any proof were needed, consider the sight of thousands of people standing outside Madison Square Garden, screaming. Some were screaming, "Go home," and others were screaming, "Bush lied." Some were simply screaming. A vendor moved through the crowd selling silver whistles, just for the purpose of making noise.

"One dollah. One dollah!" he repeated over and over. It was the last coherent sound from that corner of the march. Afterward, there was only the sound of whistles. Once there was a message. Now it is simply anger with a volume knob.

After shouting at a knot of Republicans who stood outside Madison Square Garden, the marchers shouted at a billboard. Fox News had taken out a big ad on the corner, and the marchers screamed, "Fox lies," at it for a while.

Turning the corner by Macy's Department Store, they discovered a huge video screen streaming the Fox News report. They yelled at it too until a roar of approval went up as Fox broadcast the protesters live. They watched themselves on TV, then moved on.

A block down 34th Street, the marchers again encountered actual humans to berate. Walter Vick, a Republican volunteer from Connecticut, traded bon mots with the marchers, the most memorable of which was "Shut up, you Bolshevik pinhead."

There actually were Bolsheviks here yesterday. More properly, there were Bush supporters who dressed as Bolsheviks. They had put together some brilliant signs, illustrated in Soviet realist style, showing John Kerry wielding a worker's hammer, depicting Marx, Lenin, Engels, and Kerry in heroic profile. The signs were emblazoned "Communists for Kerry," and "The next generation building communism for America."

"We're just spoofing," one of the men told me. They'd linked up on Free Republic, the ultra-right-wing Internet site and, well, when these people link up, stuff like "Communists for Kerry" is one of their more polite ideas. They slipped into the march and nobody seemed to notice, object, or recognize that they weren't actually communists and weren't actually for Mr. Kerry.

Many of the signs yesterday said, "Bush Lied," but when his supporters do it, it still works.

In the clamor that buffeted Nora Williams, there was one other quiet woman.

Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia carried a sign with a young man's photograph. It read, "We mourn Sgt. Sherwood Baker, killed in Baghdad April 26, 2004."

The name was familiar. Sherwood Baker was the first Pennsylvania National Guardsman to die in the Iraq War.

"He's my son," Ms. Zappala said. "He was part of the security detail for the people who were looking for the weapons of mass destruction. He was blown off his Humvee."

Amid the roar and whistles and loudspeakers and curses fouling the air, Ms. Zappala was hard to hear. Her voice was soft.

She went on.

"He was 30 years old. He was a caseworker for the mentally ill. He had a son. The last message I had from him told me they were rationing his water."

Nora Williams won't go to her friend's daughter's wedding. Celeste Zappala attended her son's funeral. Yesterday was a day for quiet stories lost against a wall of noise.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dennis Roddy is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Dennis Roddy at: droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.



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