The way to judge a peace movement, says Jim Lafferty, is by how much its language surfaces in an election season. The director of the National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, Lafferty has been protesting wars since the 1960s; he currently sits on the steering committee of the local branch of ANSWER. And “if you look at Vietnam,” he says, “you can see that every presidential election cycle shows how peace demonstrations manifested in the culture.” This year, he says, will be remembered as a resounding victory: “All the candidates found themselves criticizing the conduct of the war, if not the war itself. The peace movement played a part in that.”
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Not that it acted alone. Howard Dean helped, as did Dennis Kucinich. So did George W. Bush. “The fact that the weapons of mass destruction turned out to be part of a big lie,” says Lafferty, “that went a long way to help the peace movement win the hearts and minds of the American people.”
If that success doesn’t translate into crowds massing on the streets of the cities this Saturday, a day of global protests to mark the anniversary of the U.S. invasion, it’s because for all the opposition to what the U.S. has already wrought in Iraq, tenacious disagreements exist about what to do next. “Everyone in the peace movement hates the occupation,” says Andrea Buffa of the Global Exchange Peace Campaign, “but the peace movement is not united on what the alternative to occupation should be.” Buffa claims her organization tries to be a voice for the Iraqi people, but when she visited in January, she found just as much confusion over there. “Everyone says the occupation is horrible, but when it comes to what should we do next, they’re completely divided. You hear everything from ‘Bring back the U.N.’ to ‘Everybody should go home and we can run our own country’ to people fearing civil war.”
It’s hard, she admits, to rally a crowd around something like “Hold the U.S. accountable!” Which doesn’t mean there isn’t still a groundswell of dissent in the country. “This is such a different time than before the war started,” Buffa says. “People’s imaginations were captured back then by the idea that they could stop a war before it started. When they realized they couldn’t stop the war, their energies went toward throwing Bush out — they went and worked for the Dean campaign, or for Kucinich.”
Last week, the activist group Code Pink for Peace unfurled a 40-foot banner in front of the White House calling for Bush’s “firing” on International Women’s Day. “Hundreds” of people came out, says Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans, “and it wasn’t even an official march.” Like Buffa, Evans insists that crowds are just one small part of the peace movement; like Lafferty, she sees the activists’ momentum in the presidential campaign. But she also believes that a better message could serve a broader movement. “One of the purposes of the protest movement right now should just be to get out the fact that Bush lied,” she says, “and to demand a resolution and an inquiry about it.
“‘End the Occupation’ — what does that mean? For people who don’t understand that the U.S. presence over there has made Iraq a lightning rod for terrorism, it means giving up on our responsibilities.
“The anti-war movement came from a place of responsibility,” Evans continues, “and people still want to use their activism responsibly. We want to do what is in our power to get people to stand together. We need to have less confusion in our message.”
Confusion or no, Saturday’s protests promise to be more widespread than any coordinated day of demonstrations that came before. More than 200 rallies have been planned in the U.S. alone; marches are slated in 50 countries.
“This is a peace movement that has to be measured on a worldwide basis,” Lafferty says. “There’s still one group or another criticizing one group or another, but this Saturday every group in town has endorsed this peace rally. That’s a sign that we understand that whatever differences we have, our common goals are more important.”
Buffa and Lafferty will still carry “End the Occupation” signs, “because those of us who have been there can see that we’re not making the Iraqi people safer,” says Buffa. “We’re making them targets.” But she welcomes dissenters from that position into her ranks all the same. “We can at least all unite around the knowledge that U.S. policy was wrong, and continues to be wrong,” she says. “It’s like voting with our feet to say, ‘This regime has to change.’” Even John Kerry could march on that.
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