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Jules and Jonah March on Washington

by Natalia Rachel Singer

I'm hoping to run into two new friends of mine at Saturday's anti-war march in D.C. They won't be there, though, if the sniper is still at large in the Capitol area because their mothers won't allow them to go. Jules Bartkowski and Jonah Rabinbach are the vocalist and drummer of a rock band called The Mad Dodgers. They are 14 years old.

The duo began their careers as peace activists only recently, on Sunday, Oct. 6, when they and I and their mothers--friends of my old college roommate--joined an estimated 25,000 people at a rally in the East Meadow of Central Park. As we drove in, the moms discussed Israel and potential routes to peace in the Middle East being proposed by various colleagues of theirs on the lecture circuit while the boys sat with me in the back discussing their rock influences (the Stones, and the girl band, Sleater-Kinney), favorite TV show (Britain's "Ali G," which they download from the Internet), and favorite book ("Stupid White Men" by Michael Moore).

Jonah was wearing the T-shirt he had recently designed himself with the words, "Middle School: Enjoy the Fruits of Conformity and Hypocrisy." He planned to wear it again that Monday at detention, where he had been sent for talking out of turn in class. "Teach me the words for 'We Shall Overcome,'" he asked his mother, and she, a veteran of dozens of Vietnam-era anti-war rallies and Civil Rights marches with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., did so, and all four updated the song with references to current events. Jonah put on the headband he'd bought for this occasion.

It was a clear, fall day but the slight chill in the air made it just cool enough for the boys to wear, during cloudy moments, their denim jackets, which gave them more cloth space to fill with the No War in Iraq buttons someone was selling inside the park. I thought they looked photo-worthy, decked out in their rally gear, but there was no one there to take their picture. The duo seemed more impressed with the slogans on people's homemade signs and placards: Our Grief Is not a Cry for War; George Bush: You Are an Army of One; War with Iraq is Bush's Weapon of Mass Distraction; and No Blood for Oil. The mothers were drawn to one that said I Won't Let an Old Son of a Bush Send My Sons to War.

The rally was organized by Not in Our Name, which was founded in the spring of 2002 to send the message that "people in the U.S. will not be silent as this government wages wars around the world, detains immigrants, and strips civil liberties away."

When the speeches began, the boys listened intently to a mother of three whose husband had spent six months in a notorious detention cell nicknamed "the shoe" and was secretly deported by the INS back to Jordan for a minimum of 10 years even though they had no evidence that he had any connection to organized terror. "My children have lost their father," she said.

They were moved by the Afghan-American woman who lost 17 family members last fall in our air strikes there, and by the Iraqi-American man whose sisters died because of lack of medicine as a result of the UN embargo with Iraq. "Please," the man begged, sobbing, "Do not let them kill us," and I watched the boys blink to keep from crying.

Many of the boys' friends have parents who worked in the World Trade Center, including their band's 14-year-old sound man and manager, Teddy Handler, whose father Harry, a vice-president of Morgan Stanley, was featured on ABC last Thanksgiving for helping an asthmatic woman down the stairs of the South Tower only 20 minutes before it collapsed. (For the record, Teddy and his parents were for the war against Afghanistan but are very much against the war in Iraq which they see as, among other things, an Oedipal drama writ large.)

One speaker read the statement of Meg Bartlett, who spoke for a group of 9/11 Ground Zero rescue workers who feel they "have a responsibility to those [they] could not save" to do everything in their power "to make sure that no one, ever again, experiences such horror, here or abroad." A spokesperson from September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows named Colleen Kelly reminded listeners that her brother and the 3,000 who died that day in New York were killed by "nineteen people and their weapons of mass destruction--box cutters." The boys liked that line and thought they could use it in a protest song.

The mothers and I were impressed by actor/director Tim Robbins, who spoke about the danger of fundamentalism in its various forms, how it hates all the things he loves: "art, a free press, and independent women," (the mothers laughed heartily at this) and how the pursuit of unfettered business--"the spread of our economic interests throughout the world, profit at the expense of people" is another form of fundamentalism, a "distraction from Enron and Haliburton while giving power to oil men to expand their business and make new contracts forged with governments that do not allow democracy."

The boys and I kept scanning the crowd for TV cameras but we didn't see any. When Pacifica Radio's Leslie Hagan insisted that "the mainstream press must be forced to tell you the truth and to stop their disinformation and outright lies," what we wanted to say is they could just start by showing up. Rick Pearlstein wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times the other day that there is no significant anti-war movement in America right now. The truth is, there is no significant mainstream press coverage of the anti-war movement.

Before we left the rally, Jules and Jonah had memorized the phone number to the White House, which actress Susan Sarandon provided us when she spoke. "Don't forget to call!" they said to each other when they parted, energized by the events of the day.

But the week ahead brought the boys many disappointments. Jonah still had to face detention on Monday, and because his favorite teacher was presiding, he didn't want to sing his protest song lest she think he was, well, anti-her. Despite the ratio of nine-to-one calls against the war that Senate and Congress staffers received (as they admitted to Not in Our Name lobbyists), the vast majority voted with the President.

Then, when it seemed that it couldn't get any worse, the boys lost their bass player; his parents accused Jules and Jonah of being against God and Country, and forced him to resign. This was the first friend either boy had ever lost, and they never expected that to happen because of politics. They had left their first peace rally believing the central message: that dissent and criticism are the lifeblood of democracy.

But Jules and Jonah still look forward to joining what they hope will be many thousands of citizens marching on Oct. 26 in Washington DC. A simultaneous march is planned in San Francisco. The sponsor of the two events, the coalition Act Now to Stop War & Racism, is hoping to influence the mid-term elections. Buses will be traveling from 120 cities in 35 states to attend, and maybe, just maybe, the major TV networks and print media outlets might find it newsworthy.

And yet, if this activism fails, if the pro-war politicians gain more seats, and if the endless cycle of war and terrorist retaliation continues unabated for decades as those of us protesting this war predict, Jules and Jonah vow that four years from now when they reach draft age their band's name, The Mad Dodgers, will serve another purpose. By then they hope to have more members, at least someone who can play bass.

Natalia Rachel Singer is an associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Her work has been published in Ms., Harper's, American Scholar, and Creative Nonfiction, among other publications.