The anti-war movement ain't marchin' anymore

Saif Rahman writes in the latest Foreign Policy in Focus about the United for Peace and Justice march planned for Jan. 27, and why everyone should attend.

In response, I wrote the following comment.

Since the pre-war demonstrations, I have been to relatively few marches (though to be fair, there have been few demonstrations to attend). This is pretty significant considering I was active nearly full-time prior to the start of the war and was a part of several national anti-war organizations. Moreover, I am not the only person who has had such an experience.

I appreciate the points you make, and I will probably go to this demonstration.

However, I think there are few important things you need to consider:

1. Has the anti-war movement changed the opinion of the country?

I find little evidence to suggest that it has. This isn't to downplay our effectiveness — the Feb. 15, 2003 marches were the largest demonstration for anything in the history of the planet, and may well have delayed the war (allowing a lucky few in Iraq to escape). Yet as soon as the war began, demonstrations quickly dwindled and support for the war shot up.

The primary reasons I think support for the war has dropped is because a) it has gone on for so long, and cost so much in lives and funding; and b) all of the reasons for going to war have been thoroughly discredited. The first is largely inevitable — public support drops for most wars over time. The second reason was supported by the anti-war movement (in particular organizations like After Downing Street) but by and large disconnected from the demonstrations themselves.

The anti-war movement may have begun the conversation about disbelieving and discrediting the reasons for war, but the reason the public doubts the efficacy of invading Iraq is not because of public demonstrations, it's because of articles in The New York Times. Again, in some cases the anti-war movement helped spur those articles to be written, but not through demonstrations. I don't believe public sentiment has turned against the war due to public demonstrations, either before or during the war.

2. Are public demonstrations the most viable way to promote change — to end the war?

You hearken back to demonstrations from the 1930s, '40s and '50s. But the world, and the United States' role in it, has fundamentally changed since then. I'm not sure that large public demonstrations are effecting much change any longer. The March for Women's Lives turned out nearly one million supporters for a woman's right to choose, yet two anti-choice Supreme Court nominees were approved with relative ease. Hundreds of thousands took part in queer rights marches in 1993 and 2000, yet public sentiment stayed relatively strongly against equal rights and same sex marriage — until marriage bans began being passed, to which there seems to have been a public backlash (national support for the bans dropped more than 10 points in two years, and failed for the first time this year in Arizona).

It's not clear to me that national marches are actually effective in directing policy. The analogy is often made to LBJ and Nixon, who publicly disavowed the anti-Vietnam War marches but were privately shaken by them. But the comparison is inapt, as the current war is quite different from Vietnam. There's no draft, meaning that many families — especially those with more economic power — remain unaffected. There are far fewer protests, and those that occur are far smaller. There were dozens of marches in Washington against Vietnam that drew hundreds of thousands of people; by my count there have been four or five to date — and most of them occurred before the war. There are no comparable events to Kent State or the Chicago Democratic National Convention — moments when the oppression of the war was brought into high relief. Largely, I believe, this is because of the state's generally successful maneuvering post-Seattle, that relegates large rallies to the sidelines, out of the press and in "free speech zones." There has frankly been very little push-back from the anti-war movement on this issue — we seem to be content marching down side streets, away from government buildings or fragile Central Park grass.

Finally, there are no allied civil rights movements pushing for racial, economic or personal equality as those that developed in the 1960s. Opposition to the war seems to have become a private affair, manifesting itself, at best, only at the voting booth — rendering large protests somewhat adrift.

3. What kind of community are we trying to build?

You are right to identify community-building as one important aspect of large demonstrations. At times — the 2004 Republican National Convention comes to mind — large demonstrations have served to re-connect activists in important ways. But marches in Washington DC are notoriously disconnected from the local community, and I see no evidence that this demonstration will be any different. In the past there have been some efforts to "reach out" to community activists around issues of economic development, racial justice and electoral representation. But this is precisely the wrong approach — the march organizers need to be accountable to the local community, not the other way around.

After the Hurricane Katrina disaster, radical and anarchist organizers like Common Ground built an incredible mutual aid system in New Orleans. They were largely abandoned by the mainstream liberal organizations and anti-war movement, which seemed to prefer to stick it to Bush and other Republicans, and bide their time waiting until the next November. In a historical moment in which the possibilities of radical community organizing were dramatically realized, most in the anti-war movement were caught looking the other way, trying to score cheap political points rather than making the connections between the war at home and the wars abroad.

4. Do we have a long-term solution?

In 1967, Martin Luther King, who you quote from, said the following in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech:

"There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy."

UfPJ and allied groups, which seemed early on to have strong connections to the global justice movement, seems to have been transformed — in the hopes of attracting more "mainstream" participants — into not an anti-war organization, but an anti-Iraq War organization; not a pro-peace movement, but a pro-better-war-policy movement. Few connections are made to "the soul of America," as King would describe it, and much attention is focused on those things that are at best cogs in the system — individual policies on the war, planning or lack thereof for the war, and particular Republicans in Congress and the White House. Yet these problems go considerably beyond Bush and Republicans.

Now, personally I believe there is a place for a mainstream, liberal-reform organizations, and perhaps UfPJ can fill that role. If we move some conservative folks into a liberal-reform mindset, and we move some liberal-reform folks into a radical justice mindset, we can create the space for social change.

But because of the changes in US society I noted in #2, I don't believe that public demonstrations have the potential to attract many mainstream folks anymore. That's simply not how they connect their anti-war beliefs with effecting social change. Simultaneously, because UfPJ has moderated its message, it has lost the support (or at least the enthusiasm) of the committed social justice activists, who see much greater potential for social change in approaches like Common Ground. So UfPJ is caught in a bind — its best supporters abandoned, its ideal supporters uninterested.

Given that, I think UfPJ could still accomplish a lot. If it wants to stay a mainstream organization, it could focus on local organizing — an approach that, as the Feb. 15, 2003 demonstrations and the subsequent MoveOn national vigil showed, has the potential for both widespread coverage and deep popular support. Folks are more likely to demonstrate in their home town than after a bus ride to DC, and ultimately it's those communities that we want to try to reconnect. US society is so atomized, so disconnected, that we really need to start at the local level. A coordinated campaign of demonstrations could help to build that.

Alternatively, UfPJ could return to its original principles and attempt to effect some radical social change. By this point in the Vietnam War, there were large numbers of people engaging in civil disobedience, including leaders like Martin Luther King. And that cost them a lot of "mainstream" support — Time magazine called King's speech at Riverside Church "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi," and The Washington Post said King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people." If UfPJ truly wants to follow in the footsteps of King, it may have to risk some of its "legitimacy."

Or, there could be other options. Massive creative nonviolent demonstrations — departing from the model of marches and rallies. A national boycott. Flooding congressional switchboards with calls, not just on one day but day after day. Picketing recruiting centers. War tax resistance. Yes Men-like media events.

There are a lot of options, and I hope people involved in UfPJ will really take the time to consider them rather than simply planning yet another march and rally every few months. But to begin with, I think we need to take a hard look at these questions listed above and figure out where we are and where we want to go.