Gazing down at the sign in my hands, I could see my breath in clouds before me. The sign’s plastic material depicted silhouettes in blue stretching up from the bottom half of the sign against a backdrop of white, raising their hands to the sky. Hovering in the white sky, just beyond the reach of their fingertips, were emblazoned the words: Not in our names. The gentle caressing of the breeze caught the sign, pushing it towards me.
I stood in the cool night air, my father at my side, surrounded by strangers. We were all gathered in downtown St. Louis under the veil of night for the same reason, brought together by the same urgent call. We gathered solemnly in the courtyard of some forgotten corner of the city, cement steps climbing down from the sidewalk behind us and tall glass buildings encasing our little niche. I was a young child of ten, teetering precariously on the cusp of understanding the ramifications and meaning of what had brought us together. We were not many, but here we stood, strong like the earth that rooted us.
I recognized the man standing atop the stone bench in front of us, getting ready to address the crowd before its dissipation. He had been at many other such gatherings, and even though I had never spoken to him, his presence was one of comforting familiarity. His brown beard and eyes with crows-feet crinkling away from their corners reminded me of my uncle, and the familiar safety that came with his image was transposed onto this relative stranger.
We had walked through our city, carrying our signs and shouting our slogans, desperately trying to perform our civic duty as citizens of this grand democracy—the democracy that I was sure was the greatest in the world. America, the land of the free and home of the brave, my beloved country. How, I would wonder, were people of other nationalities proud of their countries? What did they have to be proud of compared to us? We were the epitome of democracy, the personification of liberty, a beacon
of hope, casting our light out over world. And so in that time, the days lost in between the devastation of one tragedy and another, I was sure we would triumph. America, my great country, would hear what we were saying as we gathered in the streets and recognize our will. We, the people, made up this great land, and we, the people, were speaking. America would listen.
When we gathered together like this, we felt strong. We were strong. We were America.
“We have just received word,” said the familiar stranger, and the crowd’s vague murmurings grew silent. We stood together against the cold, “That the United States has begun bombing Baghdad.” A chill passed through us that had nothing to do with the night air. Surprised gasps resonated, and I heard a lady behind me call upon the name of God.
But I didn’t understand. Had we not carried our anti-war signs, had we not said not in our names? Had we not let our voices be heard, had we not said no to this war? We were the people, huddled together against the cold; we were America. So what was America doing?
“Please,” our messenger continued, “Imagine what the people of Baghdad are feeling right now.” We lingered there moments longer, the adults around me speaking in hushed tones, eyes downcast. We stood in warm pools of artificial light, but our spirits were grim. My parents stood conversing solemnly with one of their friends, and my gaze was turned to the concrete beneath my feet. I was trying to imagine what the people of Baghdad were feeling. Inside, I felt more than grief at the lives being extinguished that moment in a city half a world away, but I felt a mourning that reached far deeper than that. I brought the sign I had been carrying into my sight once more. Not in our names. As we wandered back to our cars, I left it lying on the cold concrete, alone in the vast night.
We the people broke up, straggled away, thinking of the destruction being wrought and blood being spilled that we had each failed to prevent. I was a young child of ten, and I watched them go with my face pressed against the cold glass of the car window, until they were obscured by clouds of condensation crawling across the glass.