TRANSLATION: MEMPHIS: Speaking Free 

I first saw them from the window of Square Foods on Madison, as I nibbled on a veggie stir-fry and drank a Chai tea. As it seems, I was feeling rather healthy this weekend.

Anyhow, from the window of the restaurant’s dining section one has a view of the Square, and at the corner of Cooper I spotted the line of protesters as they made their way toward Overton Park on a two-mile trek from First Congregational Church.

These were the people who marched as a means of expressing frustration at our newly-born war.

As for me, I rarely am inclined toward marching as a means of voicing my opinions, though I have many, to be sure.

See, the thing is-- I often vacillate mentally as I try to understand whatever a given point of social contention is, and it doesn’t make me a good candidate for the manning of a megaphone.

Nevertheless, I am often compelled to stop and listen.

In this case, I took a walk and then listened, after eating the last of my squash and carrots.

Organized by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, the march included maybe 500 or so people who ultimately assembled in Veteran’s Plaza in Overton Park, a contentious destination in the eyes of some, I’m sure.

On that note, I noticed several "protesters of the protesters," one camouflaged, with a patch declaring, "no slack for Iraq," another with a sign proclaiming, "give Saddam another chance again?!"

At this particular gathering these were far and few between, though.

The language of dissent is interesting in how it reflects the various temperaments of the human response to a perceived tragedy. Examples ranged from the milder signs such as "peace supports our troops," or "war is so last millennium," to the more confrontational, a la "stop mad cowboy disease," or "God forgive America."

Perhaps the most chilling non-verbal protest came from a gentleman who simply carried a cross bearing the pictures of what appeared to be Iraqi children.

While watching and listening, I found myself disturbed more than anything else. Though some surely feel that to protest the war is the most unpatriotic thing in the world, I do feel it’s important-- that the right to disagree is essential to any well-functioning democracy.

And I didn’t get any feeling that these protesters held resentment towards the troops, even from these who oppose the war. This seems to be a common refrain from those who oppose protest.

Actually, one of the speakers, George Grider, is a veteran himself, part of what I believe to be an organization called "Veterans for Peace."

So where did I fit in? I really don’t know.

There is a particular atomic structure to a protest, it seems. At the center, the nucleus, you find the PA, the megaphone, the shouting voice.

Then there is the charged ring of the most ardent supporters of the cause. These, I suppose, are the transmitters of the message, the people who agree most passionately with the dissent at hand.

If there is a song, a chant to be shouted, these are the people who spread it to the crowd. At Veteran’s Plaza, these chants ranged from "Peace now, Freedom now," to "Drop Bush, not Bombs." My favorite, though, was one that went "This is what Democracy looks like, We know what Democracy looks like."

I can tap my foot to that one.

As you move outward from this front row group, there are shades and degrees by which the personalities seem to change. Some of these people are the quiet ones who choose to carry signs. "Regime change begins at home," or "Grief has more power than rage." Others here work to get petitions signed.

These individuals provide the density of a protest, create the unique poetry of a crowd.

Finally there is an outer ring, a group less easy to define in this obviously simplified model. In the outer ring you often find passersby who for whatever reason--be it curiosity, antagonism, whatever--decide to stop.

And herein, I think, lies the power of a demonstration. If people are willing to stop, then perhaps they are willing to listen.

Often the people who diffuse toward the outer boundaries of such an event are those with the most furrowed brows. Often they are the undecided who have stopped to think.

This outer ring is like the question mark around which the topic of protest finds its meaning.

If there were ever easy solutions to things such as a war, then of course there would be no need for protest.

But as long as people are thinking, maybe it doesn’t matter whether one is with the "fors" or the "againsts."

Let’s just make sure that we all remain free to speak.

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