Last week, the UN inspectors in Iraq announced they found empty chemical warheads in an ammunitions shed. At this point, it's unclear how significant that discovery is (it could mean Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, or it could mean the Iraqi government was a bit sloppy in reporting its inventory). Regardless of whether that's a "smoking gun," and despite the fact that UN weapons inspectors would like a lot more time to thoroughly search the large country, President Bush's administration has indicated that it doesn't need to wait for solid weapons evidence to declare Iraq in violation of the disarmament agreement. The path to war could be cleared by early February, especially at the rate U.S. troops are being shipped to the Middle East.

That's why over 30 folks from Seattle got up much earlier than they usually do last Friday morning, grabbed sleeping bags and backpacks, and met at Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill before sunrise.

"Welcome to the 'Stop the Bombs' bus!" 28-year-old Ellie Fingerman yelled through a Greyhound bus intercom to the sleepy but excited passengers as they boarded. Stuffing their bags, pillows, and coats into overhead bins, the crowd whooped right back. "Pretty good for 7:00 a.m.!" replied Fingerman, a member of Seattle's International Socialist Organization (ISO). It was time to hit the road.

Over 18 hours later, the bus would roll into Oakland, California. On Saturday morning, the passengers--peace activists from all over Seattle, from high-school students to a few people who marched against the Vietnam War--would march alongside 200,000 other people from across the West Coast. But for now, it was time to get acquainted and enjoy the ride.

The bus driver lurched away from SCCC, where the ISO branch meets regularly, and made his way to I-5 for the 800-mile trip.

The bus was quickly outfitted with 16 black-and-white "No War" signs, which were stuck to the windows for passersby to see (a few drivers apparently disagreed with the signs, giving the finger to anyone who cared to notice, but many more gave a thumbs up or honked). A couple people tried to get comfortable and sleep a little longer, while the rest of the passengers chatted. It wasn't long before the first pit stop was called for--most of the bus riders smoked, and demanded the driver pull over--so the bus stopped in Vader, WA. We were already behind schedule.

···

Near Salem, Oregon, Allen the bus driver asked a simple question. "What's in San Francisco that you're all going down?" He got an earful, to say the least. Fingerman and a few others near the front of the bus spent the next half hour explaining the scale of the march, and outlining the basics of why they're opposed to a war. By the end of the conversation, they seemed to have Allen on their side.

"People don't have a long-term vision," explained Fingerman, a petite girl with short and curly dark hair who relocated to Seattle from Washington, D.C., last summer. "The short term is, someone attacks me, I'm going to attack back." Allen, however, wanted to know her solution for Iraq.

"There's no quick and easy way," Fingerman told him. "But I think the best way to stop terrorism is to stop the U.S. from supporting dictatorships around the world. There's no democracy in those countries."

With that, Fingerman explained the principles of socialism, and handed the driver a copy of the group's newspaper. "Thank you," Allen said, turning his attention back to the road.

This was Fingerman's second trip to San Francisco in the past few months. The ISO branch also organized a trip south for the October 26 antiwar rally. They rented a few vans, squeezed two dozen people in--including several UW students--and drove all night to get to San Francisco. "At the time it was like, 'Oh my god, that was the biggest protest,'" Fingerman recalled. "Until this one."

···

Halfway to the Bay Area, Darrin Hoop, a 28-year-old ISO member with wire-rim glasses and a thick red beard, took the mic and rallied up the crowd. "This is going to be my biggest protest ever," he said. "I want to take energy from this back to Seattle. We're trying to stop this war, and all wars, once and for all." On a side note, he then showed off his bright red T-shirt, adorned with a screen-printed caricature of Bush, Cheney, and Powell, and the phrase "Axis of Evil." "Shameless self-promotion," Hoop said. "Axis of Evil T-shirts are 15 bucks."

"You all shoved away whatever was conflicting [in your schedule] to do this. We need more people like us to stop this war," Fingerman added. "We would love everyone [here] to march with our contingent. Look for our sign. It says, 'Stop the War at Home and Abroad.'"

The stale bus didn't roll into Oakland until well past midnight. Despite hurried meals at fast-food joints and gas stations, we were a few hours behind schedule. The smokers' bloc on board took democratic--and frequent--votes to stop. Somehow, they always won.

Pulling up in front of Oakland's Fellowship of Humanity Hall, our lodging for the night (motto on the hall's flier: "For the left leaning and the left out"), half-awake activists dragged their bags up the stairs to the large, mostly empty room. Most folks tossed their bags onto the cold floor, unrolled sleeping bags, and went to bed. But a handful of people, undeterred by the threat of another 7:00 a.m. wakeup call, went out in search of a bar. They struck out, The Fellowship of Humanity Hall was surrounded by auto dealerships and a hospital.

At 7:00 a.m., Fingerman woke the activists with a cheery shout. They wearily rolled out of their cold sleeping bags and staggered to the small table set up with tofu scramble, juice, coffee, and soymilk. An hour later, after long lines for the two tiny bathrooms, the group grabbed their day packs, anti-war signs, and spare food, and headed toward the BART station a few blocks away. It was protest time.

···

Emerging from the Embarcadero BART station, Chris Mobley lugged a box of T-shirts a block up Market Street before realizing he'd headed in the wrong direction. At 9:00 a.m., there were few activists on Market Street, but there was already an excited energy in the air. At the eastern end of Market Street, where ferries from the East Bay docked, a dozen people were setting up a stage and sound system for the 11:00 a.m. kickoff rally. Other people looked for friends, or eyed other activists' signs, puppets, and costumes, like teens checking each other out at a school dance.

After a U-turn and a few blocks' walk, 16-year-old Mobley found the ISO table, in front of a Noah's New York Bagels, where members from L.A. and Bay Area ISO groups were setting up. The socialists had a lot of time to kill until the march officially began at noon, but they kept busy hawking T-shirts and literature to the growing crowd, and keeping track of the cash--the Seattle group still needed to raise a few hundred bucks to cover the cost of the bus.

Every time a BART train or ferry pulled in, the crowd swelled slightly. It was almost unnoticeable, until you realized you'd slowly been surrounded by activists carrying every anti-war sign imaginable, from the simple "No Blood for Oil," to more complex and irony-laden posters deriding Bush. Other activists had already adorned the sidewalk with human-shaped chalk outlines, symbolizing Iraqi civilians. Large white dove puppets, complete with olive branches, were erected, and a Buddhist group started walking in a meditative circle on a large patch of grass.

"It happens definitely in Seattle sometimes, where it's the usual leftist students for the most part, the same familiar faces everyone knows," Mobley said, surveying the San Francisco crowd. "It's lame--I don't always want to go [to Seattle marches]. But this is mass people from all different walks of life. It's amazing. This is what a movement should be, not just crusty old lefties from the '60s."

Another marked difference from Seattle: the San Francisco protest sponsor, International Answer, had a level of organization not normally seen in marches on Broadway or Westlake. They had hundreds of volunteers, and even secured a helicopter to gauge the number of protesters. The march was set up like an ordinary parade, with groups staging well before the march was going to start, instead of flooding into the street spontaneously after a few rallying speakers. Answer volunteers coordinated larger groups that wanted to march under their own banners, and ushered them into the street an hour early.

"So these guys are going to get in front," a young volunteer said to the Seattle group, pointing to a large, bright orange ISO sign. "So if Seattle folks could get behind them...," she trailed off while running to assist another group.

Seattle folks willingly hopped into the street, eager to start the two-mile hike up to the Civic Center. Though only a handful of the people on the bus were part of the Seattle ISO, most of the folks who rode down joined their new friends in the group (save a few passengers who met other friends in San Francisco).

It was a long wait for the expanded ISO contingent, who were staged near the end of the march. By noon, the crowd had stretched several blocks up Market Street (to about Seventh Avenue). One guy from Seattle, Mike Gable, saw how long the march was before anyone started moving. "The front was about a mile away. At least six, seven blocks," he said. "And there were still people coming off the ferry."

"I was here [in San Francisco] for the October 26 protest, and we set up our table in basically the same spot," Hoop said after the march. "Once that march started, it wasn't long before we started moving. This time, the march started, and we didn't move forever. I heard reports that as we left Embarcadero, there were already people at the Civic Center." In other words, at one point the entire route was filled with people, from the Civic Center at Grove and Goodlett Streets, to Market and Steuart Streets--a two-mile stretch.

It was obvious that the march was larger than most participants had ever seen. Even from a higher vantage point (a light pole, or a BART station wall) it was impossible to see both ends of the march. The entire street was a sea of people chanting, singing, dancing, and screaming.

San Francisco police noted the enormity of the march as well. Two women stopped to ask one officer stationed at Market and Battery Streets if he knew the crowd estimate. "On the radio, they were saying 40,000," Officer Balma told them. "But I think it's over 100,000. That's my humble guess." Later that night on the news, a veteran officer said it was the biggest San Francisco march he'd seen in 20 years.

It took two and a half hours for the Seattle folks to cover the route. As we neared the Civic Center, the protesters split into several side streets, and tried to cram into the main plaza. Answer volunteers tried to get everyone's attention as they manned cash-filled gray garbage cans and asked for donations. It was difficult to see the stage setup in front of City Hall due to the huge crowd of people. And forget about moving closer to see Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Martin Sheen, or California Rep. Barbara Lee speak--the protesters were packed in like sardines, despite the huge open space set aside for the rally.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the Immigration and Naturalization Service building, a smaller group of protesters broke away and went on a property damage rampage, according to San Francisco police and the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center. The INS building suffered a shattered door, and several buildings were tagged with spray paint. Two people were arrested.

At the back of the crowd, Food Not Bombs dished out free vegetarian chili and sandwiches, and a few dozen political groups, like the ISO, set up tents to sell their wares and talk to people. The ISO table was a hive of activity again, as protesters crowded around to look at the group's T-shirts and newspapers.

"For me this was just amazing!" Fingerman said. "There were some real interesting contingents--a marching band, a stripper group, the people all in white doing pantomime. It was a very eclectic group."

That was the general sentiment among the people from Seattle. Not only was this one of the most interesting marches they'd seen, but it was also the biggest protest they'd ever participated in (even the folks who marched against the war in Vietnam said this was a bigger march). Though national newspapers pegged the number at "tens of thousands," CNN's website had a better estimate at one point: 200,000 people, a number the organizers also stuck with. To put that in perspective for Seattle, that's Safeco Field filled to capacity four times, or the entire attendance at the four-day Bumbershoot music festival. Another 500,000 marched in Washington, D.C., and 30 countries around the world held antiwar marches, too.

Stacy Torres, a student at SCCC, was overwhelmed by the size of it. "This is by far the biggest protest I've ever been to in my life. In the beginning, I was walking around, checking people out, and it really just struck me that there was so much diversity. The lack of organization [at SCCC] is just ridiculous. The thing I'm taking away from this most is the urgency of organizing, the getting people involved at your workplace, school, whatever you do."

···

The next day on the bus, after everyone got a few hours' sleep, Hoop echoed Torres' sentiment.

"If we don't do this again, I thank you all for coming," he said, leaning against a bus seat. "It's been a beautiful protest, a beautiful bus ride, and hopefully you'll take this experience back to your campus or your workplace. Because this isn't going to be enough. We're going to have to go out there and get more people, so next time we have 500,000 or one million [marching]."

Before she fell asleep against a window, Emer McKenna wanted to say something to the whole bus. She stood up so everyone could hear her. "It was incredibly inspiring to see that many people there, to get a chance to be on this bus and to meet all these people," she said. "It really refueled me--it can be a struggle to fight against something that's so much bigger. It was a great opportunity, and I'll remember it for the rest of my life."