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Give Protests a Chance 

The peace movement that couldn’t stop a war

Thursday, Aug 26 2004

For my first-ever anti-war protest, I finally chose a white button-down shirt, without a tie, and a pair of khaki pants.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I went back and forth in my mind for nearly a week about what to wear to the October 6, 2002, march at the Federal Building in Westwood to protest the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq, less than a week ahead of Congress’ vote on whether to back him. I considered a gray suit and a tie, and I thought about maybe a sport coat.

“Pathetic!” scoffed an acquaintance of mine, though not unkindly, when I met her at the rally and explained my quandary. I remember declining this person’s invitation to join her at a peace march 11 years earlier to protest the looming first Gulf War.

“You don’t worry about what to wear, you just come. You just put on a T-shirt and jeans. It’s our uniform.”

Well, hats off to the organizers of rallies like this one and the tattooed, dreadlocked, tom-tom-beating, sign-carrying activists who give the peace movement its sense of urgency, but I wanted to make clear that there were also plenty of people in the workaday suit-and-tie crowd, like me, who opposed the prospect of a first-strike, pre-emptive attack on another country. Since this was a Saturday, though, and not a suit day, I compromised by wearing a weekday shirt and was heartened to be able to pick out among the more than 3,000 marchers several dozen other white button-downs. Even a few ties. This was a good sign, wasn’t it? The peace movement was going mainstream.

What happened? Protests over the following months grew more massive, ballooning to over 100,000 marchers in Washington, D.C., and in San Francisco, and it seemed that the stop-the-war movement had quickly turned into a force that politicians and policymakers had to reckon with. There were two ways to go: work in the system and get Democrats to make stopping the war the number-one plank in their platform; or if the Democrats wouldn’t sign on, mobilize the nation into an aggressive moratorium that would make prosecuting the war untenable.

But Democrats in Congress seemed to take no notice, as most of them joined with their Republican cohorts to back President Bush on the March 2003 attack on Iraq. After that, the peace movement seemed to collapse, affording opponents of the war no major opportunity to make their voices heard collectively until an October march on Washington.

The failure to build a broader and more effective movement looms over New York today as hundreds of thousands of people gather for what is being billed as the nation’s most massive protest in history. They will be met by 8,000 officers securing Madison Square Garden, where the nation’s top Republicans are meeting in an overwhelmingly Democratic city presided over by a Republican mayor.

They are there to dissent against — what? If the idea is to end the occupation of Iraq by defeating Bush in favor of a president who opposes continued U.S. presence there, perhaps the massive protests should have been focused instead on Boston, where John Kerry last month kicked off his speech accepting the nomination by flashing a military salute. Something, somewhere, went wrong.

There are plenty of critics on the left who believe that I and others like me may have become eyewitnesses to the peace movement’s first big tactical error during that 2002 march when I took my place in the line that began walking up Wilshire Boulevard. We were protesting a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. But I found myself behind a banner that called for an end to the Zionist occupation of Palestine. I was here to protest against a U.S. invasion of Iraq, so I hurried to find another place on the street, only to end up with a group of people wearing bandannas over their faces and calling for an uprising to end capitalist oppression. I’m no fan of oppression, but this was not the time or place to discuss whether this group’s definition agreed with mine, so I moved up the line past clusters of people who had banners protesting Starbucks, pressing for legalization of marijuana, calling for freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. The best I could do was squeeze in behind a “No Blood for Oil” banner.

What did pre-emptive war have to do with Mumia?


Act Now To Stop War & End Racism — The International ANSWER Coalition — became the biggest name in the anti-war movement in part because of luck and in part because it rejected the political process as an instrument for change.

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