It is deja vu all over again. And it isn't. A president has come to a small Western fairgrounds to push his war agenda. I stand with 700 Flagstaff, Ariz., neighbors at the north entrance to the grounds, a hundred yards from the south entrance where the president's motorcade will glide in. We hold hands and sing the old protest anthem, "We shall overcome."

I've been here, done this, got the T-shirt. I remember the first time, in 1959. A dozen civil rights activists were gathered in a South Side Chicago storefront church, a tired preacher patiently teaching us the words: "Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall not be moved today."

This time, I am crying with joy, filled with gratitude that we are here in such great numbers. Still, I cannot dismiss a deeper unease. It is a sense of what my youngest son calls "vuja de," the feeling that something weird is happening that hasn't happened before.

Earlier, I took a shuttle from a church parking lot two miles away, because the Republicans had rented the entire county fairgrounds and refused to include a "free speech area." The city had assigned us a fenced-off plot along the highway at the north entrance. Soon the road was jammed with backed-up cars. No way to get a shuttle through.

Moms with baby carriages draped with peace signs, stalwart old folks, clusters of chanting kids were forced to walk along the road. A patriot in a shiny SUV swerved toward the walkers, revved the engine and roared away, her hand raised in the one-finger salute.

Now, "safe" inside the security fencing, we take an age census. I reach - "How many of you are in your twenties?" - see an ocean of young hands in the air, hear a tidal wave of young cheering voices. Then somebody on a walkie-talkie yells, "Heeeeeere' s George."

I want the president to witness this, the determined young faces, the chanting of a generation that corporate media so often dismisses as clueless.

I turn toward the possibility of a president - see only orange security fence and the thick forest that separates him from our dissent, separates him absolutely - and I think, George W. Bush lives in a gated empire.

I remember the one time I was allowed in the local gated development, how the security manager had studied my old truck and reluctantly called the resident I was there to teach; how after the lesson I had driven the silent roads, each one named after a famous golf pro or a local petty dignitary.

I knew 85 percent of the houses were empty. I saw one person. A woman in an apron and bandanna smoked a cigarette at the bottom of a long flight of flagstone steps leading up to a huge mansion. My carpenter friend who had once worked in the place told me he was instructed to come through the gate exactly at 8 a.m., and go out exactly at 5 p.m. "They don't cut us grunts any slack," he laughed. "Probably think we'll steal the Kokopelli lawn ornaments."

As I remember his words, I understand my sense of vuja de. For all the excesses of government repression of demonstrations in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the administrations of those decades (with the exception of Richard Nixon's) did not seal themselves off from the voices of protest.

And back then, the media covered dissent. I remember listening to Lyndon Johnson, my right fist raised, a hundred of my neighbors' right fists raised, knowing he saw us and, years later, learning he had chosen not to re-run for president because he had seen and heard tens of thousands of us.

The media of the 1960s and '70s covered dissent, covered it with at least minimal accuracy. But now, the media seems only to help raise the walls around the president. A few days after the recent Flagstaff demonstration, our local paper reported our 700 demonstrators as several hundred, and I learned that a peace demonstration of 15,000 in New York City had been reported as several thousand. More recently, I read a headline on the back page of the Phoenix paper saying several thousand demonstrators were expected in D.C. over the weekend - and the organizers were quoted in the two-paragraph story as anticipating 100,000.

Corporate media fortifies the walls with spin and silence. Behind them, the president sees only yes-men. Behind them, real American workers and real American unemployed are invisible. Behind them, everybody is rich, smug and afflicted with bad haircuts and worse senses of humor. Behind them, middle-aged Washington chicken-hawks can send American children to kill Middle Eastern children - without ever seeing blood, brains and shattered bones. Behind them, the president need never see the Flagstaff protest sign that read: Drunk frat boy drives nation into ditch - starts war to divert attention.

Behind them, he need never hear over 50 percent of Americans tell a national pollster they don't want America to invade Iraq without U.N. and international support. Or 37 percent tell the Gallup pollsters our biggest problems right now are economic; terrorism runs second at 32 percent. Or the voices of thousands of kids in their early twenties yelling, Emperor George isn't wearing any clothes.

All it takes to live behind those walls is money, myopia, and a heart withered by fear.

 

Mary Sojourner lives in Flagstaff. Her commentaries are featured regularly on Radio High Country News.