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Give Protests a Chance

AP/WideWorld

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.

 

The luck, if you can call it that, came with the timing of the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. An anti-globalization protest targeting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund was scheduled for September 29, 2001. When the terrorists struck, some leaders of the movement quickly turned their march into a demand that the U.S. not respond with arms. They formed ANSWER, which already had mastered prosaic but crucial protest logistics like bus rentals, sign distribution and permit applications and became first on the map with an anti-war march at a time when the nation was still dumbstruck by the attacks on New York and Washington.

The peace movement failed at first to strike a responsive chord in the U.S. public at large up through the attack on Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime that harbored al Qaeda. Democrats in Congress rallied around Bush and generally won the support of Americans who backed the concept of rooting out terrorist strongholds. But the mood had shifted by the fall of 2002, and ANSWER was ready.

As President Bush called for the forced ouster of Saddam Hussein and prepared to ask Congress to give him authority to wage war, ANSWER steered clear of any possible opposition festering among congressional Democrats. The group focused instead on organizing an October demonstration in Washington and left it to others — activists in labor and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — to press Congress to reject a blank check for the invasion of Iraq.

“We were anticipating that the administration was going to launch the war, and we were anticipating that Congress would succumb,” said ANSWER’s Brian Becker. “Other people in the peace movement spent their resources lobbying Congress. We said going to Congress was a waste of time. Other people said, ‘That’s nice, you go ahead and have your little demonstration.’ So we went on our divergent paths.”

Becker’s predictions about Congress proved correct, and the October 26, 2002, protest that ANSWER staged in Washington was one of the biggest the capital city had seen since the Vietnam era. The tens of thousands of people who marched came to D.C. not because they necessarily shared the political views of the protest organizers, but because they opposed an attack on Iraq, and because there was at the time only one place in the nation to join in a massive shout of dissent.

The march came too late to change anyone’s mind in Washington, since the vote had taken place, much of Congress had gone home and Bush was out of town. But Becker said he never expected to change anyone’s mind in D.C. The idea was to have a protest that was so large that Bush doubters around the country could not help but notice that there was a movement afoot.

“People saluted us then,” Becker said. “You were really going against the tide at that point. It gave us a lot of traction.”

 

But if ANSWER gained traction by rejecting the political process and opting for street protests, it had already begun losing traction in squabbles over direction and doctrine.

The most publicized rift came the following February, when supporters of Rabbi Michael Lerner — who puts out Tikkun, a magazine for leftist Jewish thinkers — said ANSWER banned him from speaking at a San Francisco rally because of his stance on Israel (he supports the existence of the Jewish state). Not so, said leaders of ANSWER and its partners, United for Peace and Justice and Not in Our Name. A pre-demonstration agreement barred speakers who had publicly criticized any of the groups, and Lerner had criticized ANSWER for its stance on Israel. And besides, Lerner had not asked to speak. But whoever’s version of the story was true, the result was the same. Lerner would not be speaking at the protest, and activists were seeing in ANSWER a doctrinal roadblock to a broader peace movement.

Writers, academics and entertainers signed on to Penn State professor Michael Berube’s petition demanding that Lerner be allowed to speak. The language was sharp.

“At a time when the anti-war movement needs as broad a platform and as broad an appeal as possible,” the petition read, “ANSWER has chosen instead to put the interests of sectarianism ahead of the interests of all those who oppose this foolish and unnecessary war. We believe this is a serious mistake, and that it exemplifies ANSWER’s unfitness to lead mass mobilizations against war in Iraq.”

The incident put ANSWER in the headlines of newspapers that up to then had ignored the background of peace-movement leaders, if they covered the peace movement at all.

As ANSWER’s opponents on the left had long known, many of the group’s leaders were connected with the Workers World Party (WWP), an offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party that went its own way in the 1950s to support the Soviet bloc’s suppression of the 1956 revolt in Hungary. The WWP’s positions have included support for North Korea, for former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic (currently in the midst of an apparently interminable war-crimes trial), and for Saddam Hussein, all in the name of anti-imperialism. The party supported China’s crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square.

 

The Not in Our Name coalition is labeled by some peace activists as a front for the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist organization founded in 1975 as the Revolutionary Union. United for Peace and Justice leaders have acknowledged their socialist stance, while their detractors accuse them of being the heirs to the Communist Party USA.

Marxists? Maoists? Stalinists? Trotskyites? Do you have to march behind Stone Age communist groups in order to protest pre-emptive war? Not in our name, indeed. For small churches, labor groups and individuals that were considering signing on to anti-war mobilizations, the question may well have been whether groups like ANSWER were too dangerous to join, or just too ridiculous.

But anarchist networks that took key roles in anti-globalization efforts say ridiculous is bad enough. They criticize the International Action Center (IAC), which is associated with the WWP and gave birth to ANSWER, for its authoritarianism and warn that it could easily co-opt the peace movement — just like it tried to co-opt the anti-globalization effort.

“The IAC are like the ‘Borg’ of the left,” states an article on the anarchist-oriented site Infoshop.org. “They always want to be friends with you, and they want you to sign onto their projects. They get the momentum going for their projects by creating deceptive lists of endorsers, and then they use this to manipulate other groups to sign on. A critical mass develops behind their event, which ends up being big enough to give the IAC the credibility that it is really interested in.”

Becker said he and his organization, and the peace movement generally, were becoming the victims of redbaiting.

“There are political differences in the movement,” Becker said. “But there is a commonality of opposition to the war. People didn’t care if ANSWER were communists or people from Mars. They were just so angry.”

You won’t find an overload of doctrine at ANSWER’s L.A. chapter meetings, which take place every Tuesday night in an office building in Hollywood. At one recent program I was surprised to see, on two women who joined the group of about 20, blue “Kerry for President” buttons. The speakers that evening weren’t exactly Bush backers, but they hardly seemed to be revolutionaries, either. A soldier spoke of his experience in the Army, and a soldier’s wife talked about how her husband had changed since joining the fighting in Iraq. There was a presentation about a memorial staged near the Santa Monica Pier, and requests for leafleteers, and for marchers at a coming protest.

The speakers interested me, but not as much as the Kerry buttons. On the way down the stairs at the end of the evening, I asked one of the women about her button. She seemed surprised by the question.

“Well, Bush is the problem,” she said. “He has to go.”

But how did she feel about ANSWER’s hands-off attitude toward the election?

“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “I protested here and I’m going to march in New York, and I’m going to vote against Bush. I don’t know if it’s ANSWER or whoever organizing the protests. And you know, I don’t really care.”

 

Progressive Democrats who supported Howard Dean for president formed the New Democratic Majority after their candidate admitted defeat and dropped out of the race, and they are one of hundreds of groups planning to participate in peace protests in New York.

But the group’s political director, Tim Paulson, said there was no way a group like New Democratic Majority could organize massive peace protests on the scale that is expected to hit Manhattan during the Republican convention. For that kind of thing, he said, marchers will join protests organized by groups like ANSWER.

“We have a different agenda,” Paulson said. “And there are plenty of people, of course, who will say that ANSWER implies too much involvement in the Communist Party. But it seems late in the game for a new march organization. If you think about it logically, you would really have to be muzzling yourself if you didn’t go. You would be giving up your right to join your voice with a million other people. And I’m sorry, but the guy with the Caterpillar hat I stood on line with, he doesn’t believe Tian An Men Square didn’t happen. He’s there to protest the war.”

 

It’s tempting to blame Democrats and their establishment allies for not wresting the peace movement from the commies, especially after the Lerner incident. But mainstream liberals always have been slow to pick up on movements started by activists much further to the left. Jim Lafferty, director of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and a member of the ANSWER steering committee, led anti-war protests during the Vietnam era and said even then, many of the protesters were unaware that they were participating in marches organized by Communists. And, he added, so what if they were?

“There’s a certain amount of redbaiting,” he said. “Always has been.”

Still, he said, labor has come out against the war, and speakers from SEIU, HERE and other unions speak at ANSWER rallies. But they are not leading the marches.

Are the relative quiet from labor and from Democrats, and the authoritarianism of groups like ANSWER, to blame for the peace movement not yet achieving the critical mass that the anti– Vietnam War marches did in the early 1970s?

Perhaps, in part. But here are some key differences between today and the ’70s that have to be kept in mind.

First, unlike in the ’60s and ’70s, the United States has been attacked, directly and viciously, on its own soil. No matter how deeply many Americans may feel that invading Iraq had little if anything to do with the war on terrorism, they legitimately feel threatened, at home, in a way they did not during the Vietnam era. That threat may well take some of the zeal out of the anti-war feeling among residents of middle-class suburbia.

Also, there’s no draft. One of the more brilliant strategies of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz was to march an all-volunteer Army into combat. Young men of draft age, and their parents, may still oppose U.S. policies, but they will do so with far less urgency than they would if teenagers were being plucked from the streets against their will to go fight in the desert.

Another thing — it’s still early. Anti-war activists say the biggest protests against the Vietnam War did not begin until a year after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, and even then it took more than five years for anti-war protests to become anything close to mainstream.

On top of those differences comes the fact that we are in the midst of a presidential election year.

“Those people that still believe there’s a significant difference between Democrats and Republicans abandon the streets to get McGovern elected, or Kennedy, or McCarthy,” said Lafferty. “Marchers become part of MoveOn.org.”

In other words, there is a firm belief that ANSWER’s strategy of staying out of the political system is dead wrong, at least for the majority of the peace movement. Like the women at the ANSWER-L.A. meeting, they believe Bush is the problem, and that Kerry either isn’t being straightforward when he talks about keeping U.S. troops in Iraq — because, after all, he needs to be elected — or else he means what he says but can be trusted to do a better job of managing the war as well as the peace.

That gives business-suited Democrats and radical anarchists common cause in New York, and they are expected in such large numbers that the leadership provided by United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER may be beside the point. As United for Peace and Justice rallies on the West Side Highway, because Michael Bloomberg said he wanted to preserve the grass in Central Park, thousands of marchers are expected to leave the organizers and take their vocal dissent, without permits, to the park.

“I do fall in the ‘Anybody but Bush’ category,” said Susan Philips a week before her planned trip to New York and the protests. “This is the most dangerous administration I’ve lived through, and I can’t imagine Kerry ever being as bad as Bush.”

Philips is one of several organizers of Neighbors for Peace and Justice, a group of Silver Lake and Echo Park residents that holds weekly peace vigils and spreads the gospel of the movement the old-fashioned way — by talking to people, on the street, in the park, at the mall. The group has inspired similar efforts in other neighborhoods, but there is no umbrella organization, no formal tie — just a common name and a common commitment to talk about peace.

“You feel you have to do something,” explained Adele Wallace. “You can’t just sit and do nothing. We’ve decided now, our main goal is to get rid of Bush. In the meantime I’m thrilled that someone has organized these huge demonstrations. I don’t even know how they did it, and I don’t even know who they are. They do seem to throw in every issue into these rallies. But nobody else has stepped in to do it.”

 

The group’s Kit Kollenberg recalled a Vietnam rally at the Coliseum at which, to everyone’s surprise, organizers asked protesters to group themselves by ZIP code. The move meant many people who were neighbors, who didn’t know each other, met and began organizing peace networks.

“That’s what ANSWER should have done,” chimed in Art Goldberg, a self-described old lefty who helped lead the Free Speech and anti-war movements at Berkeley. “We had these demonstrations and they were a wasted opportunity. There were two fatal flaws. They were a sectarian group, and that’s a problem. And there was no way for them to know, intuitively, how to reach out and contact people, and to build. They should have done like Kit said. That’s so important in L.A.”

The Neighbors for Peace and Justice group may well have agreed with my friend from the 2002 march that worrying over my protest wardrobe was pathetic, as was, perhaps, my disengagement until now. But they didn’t let on, and in fact seemed happy to welcome me on board.

“There was a whole generation that was asleep,” Goldberg said.

Besides, Philips said, wardrobe is a concern in one sense. “We have friends who want us to wear armor,” she said.

Goldberg, Kollenberg, Philips, Wallace and thousands of others like them who conduct peace vigils and living-room anti-war talks all over the country will be marching over the next few days in New York, oblivious to any calls to get the U.S. out of Korea or to free Mumia. They will be there to call for an end to the Bush administration, and to the war, even if they follow a banner unfurled by members of the Workers World Party. They may be the answer, even if ANSWER is not.

“I find I talk to everybody now,” Kollenberg explained. “Whether it’s the termite man or the person I’m sitting next to on the plane. People are against the war, and we have to do what we can to get the message out.”

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