I went to the rally for Darfur on Sunday, April 30, in Washington, D.C. I arrived in D.C. on Friday afternoon, and went with a friend to a Darfur-oriented Friday night service at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, organized by a couple of local DC havurot (prayer groups). A couple of people spoke after services about Darfur, one of them a woman who had just come back from six months of working in Darfur against gender-based violence. It was wonderful to see a room full of people concerned about Darfur. I've spent a lot of time in the last couple of years feeling that I was one of only a few who really cared about Darfur - there has been very little organizing on this issue in Ithaca - so it was great to see that there actually is a movement of people who believe that it is important to stop a genocide going on right in front of our eyes, rather than mourning it later on, as we did with Rwanda.
On Sunday we joined a larger group of people from DC havurah circles going to the rally, meeting first at Ebenezer's, a cafe close to Union Station, from which we walked to the rally. On our way, we passed a large Unitarian pre-rally get-together. Some of the people with us were from a recently-organized group, Jewish Seminarians for Justice - consisting of people going to rabbinical schools ranging from Hebrew Union College (Reform) to Yeshiva University (Orthodox). We arrived at the rally shortly before it "officially" began. It was really a thrill to see such a large crowd - it eventually grew to between 50,000 and 75,000 people.
At least in the corner of the rally where I was, there were many different Jewish groups represented - various synagogues, the Reform movement, youth groups including Young Judea, students from Yeshiva University, etc. From what I've read, the rally was actually more diverse than that, as the Washington Post article reported: "They wore skullcaps, turbans, headscarves, yarmulkes, baseball hats and bandanas. There were pastors, rabbis, imams, youths from churches and youths from synagogues. They cried out phrases in Arabic and held signs in Hebrew. But on this day, they said, they didn't come out as Jews or Muslims, Christians or Sikhs, Republicans or Democrats." Although the Post reporter seemed to think that Jews were among the largest contingent of demonstrators: "But yesterday's rally brought together people from dozens of backgrounds and affiliations, many of whom strongly disagree politically and ideologically on many issues. Judging from T-shirts and banners identifying the various groups, Jews appeared to be among the largest contingent of demonstrators."
There were many many speakers. Some of the highlights: Elie Wiesel, who spoke first; Paul Rusesabagina, whose story was told in "Hotel Rwanda," Richard Land, of the National Association of Evangelicals; also a woman from Darfur who now lives in the U.S. Most speakers did not propose specific policies, but asked for awareness and for pressure on the U.S. government to do what it could. (There has been some criticism of this in the blogosphere, but I think that in a rally with such a broad coalition it would have been impossible for the speakers all to call for one particular policy). Some speakers asked for a NATO force in Darfur, I think even a couple called for a U.S. force.
We stayed at the rally until about 5:00 (it was supposed to end at 4:30... but still seemed to be going strong as we walked away).
I am very glad that I went - I now have the feeling that there is an actual, grassroots movement to try to save the people of Darfur, and perhaps we will have an effect on their fate. On Monday morning I went on a lobbying day organized by the Religious Action Center, something I've never done before. We were going in state delegations to lobby our senators on such issues as including more money in the emergency supplemental bill now before Congress for peacekeepers and to support the AU force. I went with the New York group and we spoke with legislative aides to Senators Clinton and Schumer. Clinton seemed to be much more active on this issue than Schumer. I think it's a good thing we went, it's always good to let our senators and congressmen know we care about issues like this, not just about how the price of gas is too high.
One of the things I took away from the rally and the lobbying was an appreciation of how involved the U.S. government really has been in trying to deal with Darfur. The U.S. is the single largest donor to the UN World Food Program's food relief in Darfur. The U.S. has been very involved in the negotiations going on in Abuja between the Sudanese government and the rebels. David Saperstein of the RAC said something very interesting about the rebels, by the way - that we should not regard them as inherently better than the Sudanese government, it's not like they are the "good guys" either. We were not rallying to support either side, but to support the people of Darfur who are being murdered, raped, and driven from their homes - principally, of course, by the government of Sudan, its military, and the Janjaweed. On Monday the assistant secretary of state Zoellick flew out to Abuja to try to rescue the talks - I hope that he and others will succeed in bringing the warring parties to some kind of agreement. President Bush also called the President of Sudan yesterday to urge him to compromise. This diplomatic effort is much more important than I had previously realised. I hope that the rallies that occurred on Sunday across the country will continue to provide an additional impetus for our government to be active in trying to stop the fighting and save the people of Darfur.