1st Annual Get On The Bus – DC was a HUGE success!

Even at nine in the morning on a Friday, when the nine-to-five crowd would ordinarily be lined up at Starbucks for a pick me up and high school students would be counting down to the weekend, the energy in the Foundry is phenomenal. In the sunshine outside, groups color flags in support of Filep Karma, while inside roses and keys are passed around for signatures and the blue-bandana-sporting volunteers scramble about, making final preparations and registering participants. Larry Cox hasn’t even arrived yet, and everyone is already buzzing with excitement.

By the time everyone has settled inside for the opening speeches, the count is well over one hundred. The various speakers infect the crowd with even more passion and anticipation, reaching a pinnacle when Larry announces that he has decided that joining us for Get on the Bus is more important than going home to meet with the IRS. It’s hard to argue with that, but his fervor is contagious. The group splits, half heading to demonstrate for the Women of Zimbabwe (WoZA) at the Zimbabwe Embassy and half for Walid Yunis Ahmad at the Iraqi Consulate. We march in long oval shapes, chanting and holding our signs, the very picture of peaceful protest. At the Iraqi Consulate, faces peer out from the windows and passers by stop to watch. One asks what we’re doing – I tell him that we’re here to speak for Ahmad, and explain his circumstances. He shakes his head and mutters a few choice words, the gist of which is that it’s a shame for Ahmad. He’s glad we’re doing this.

At Dupont Circle, the orange Amnesty tent goes up, and in the sunshine, a sea of people come out to eat their lunch and, in some cases, ask what we’re doing here. Later, someone will ask me what all the people in yellow shirts and blue bandanas were up to and I’ll give him the Amnesty spiel – hopefully he made good on his promise to go on the website. Maybe he, or any of the others who stopped and asked questions, are reading this now.

Indonesia is next, to call for the release of Filep Karma, and embassy staff returning from lunch walk by with varying degrees of interest and annoyance. A few black SUVs roll through the gates, and we wave our signs bearing pictures of Filep and shout that “waving a flag isn’t a crime.” The police officers standing at the edge of the curb seem amused by our enthusiasm. A cheer goes up every time we get a honk from a passing car, and at one point, a double-decker tour bus. Our elliptical march ends in a group photo with our banner, and a final, ear-splitting chant of “Free Filep.” We remind them we’ll be back – they probably know, by now. MARO organizes a monthly demonstration on Filep Karma’s behalf.

At Chad, there is good news – an embassy official meets with Becky Farrar and expresses both interest in meeting with an Amnesty representative and support for our cause, protection of displaced persons. Outside in the hot sun, we call for an end to violence in Darfur and in Chad, and protection of refugees and IDPs. Layers are shed, sunglasses are donned, and many of us, caught up in the greater cause, forget to apply sunscreen. Our sunburns will be our battle scars.

We split again, this time half heading to the Myanmar Embassy to call for the release of Burmese political prisoners and half to the Sri Lankan one to call for an international war crimes investigation and protection of journalists. A sign on the door of Myanmar puts a momentary damper on our collective spirit – they’re closed. But we’re reminded that if we don’t stay and send our message, next year they might follow suit. We stay, and rally anyway, spilling our thousands of signed keys down the steps. We pick them up after – Amnesty doesn’t litter.

At long last, we reach the Chinese Consulate, and begin to circle the small park across from the building, holding our signs with pictures of filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen and chanting. This is my action, and I shriek into the megaphone with all of the enthusiasm I can muster. “What do we want?” is the familiar rally cry of the day, answered with a resounding cry of “human rights!” Again, we draw curiosity from within, and support from passing cars. The day has been long – all of us have been either traveling, volunteering, or organizing since before dawn – but the volume and intensity of the group doesn’t reflect it. For many people, the final action seems to renew their spirits. They throw everything they have into this last one, and it shows, when it takes three calls to wind down the chanting. No one is eager for it to end, because Get on the Bus Day, for first-timers and veterans of New York alike, is exhilarating.

By any conceivable standard, Friday is an overwhelming success. The turnout, while a mere fraction of New York’s numbers, is impressive for the first year, and certainly exceeds the final few weeks’ dire registration count that had many behind the scenes worried. At least a third – probably closer to half – of the participants sport bright turquoise bandanas, signifying volunteer status, but that’s certainly nothing to be disappointed about. The support and enthusiasm of local Amnesty group leaders, MARO staff and interns, and Get on the Bus volunteers is, and has been, remarkable, and without question helped the event to exceed expectations.

The recurring rally cry at the end of each action transcends a mere warning – that “we will be back.” It is a promise to those who came, those who couldn’t, and those who didn’t even know about Get on the Bus Day that next year’s event will be even bigger, even better, and even more amazing. In the meantime, however, we have made our mark. Get on the Bus is no longer just New York – it is Washington, and it is going to be the stuff of legend.