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Peace Gets a Chance

A nascent U.S. peace movement has been gathering momentum, as activists make an effort to transcend their divisions and reach mainstream Americans.
 
 
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"You look beautiful," shouted more than one speaker to the crowd that gathered in New York's Central Park on Sunday, Oct. 6, to protest George W. Bush's "war on the world," most urgently the impending invasion of Iraq. The lively and youthful demonstration -- some 20,000 strong -- was a beautiful sight indeed. A largely regional protest, it did draw some visitors from Ohio, Massachusetts and elsewhere, and a Swedish couple was overhead saying something incomprehensible -- except for the words "Not in Our Name."

Across the country, a nascent U.S. peace movement has gradually been gathering momentum. In September, at least 300 peace events were being held weekly in cities from Pensacola to Fairbanks. Organizers say they're attracting many who oppose the war in Iraq but were ambivalent about, or supported, war in Afghanistan. Reecha Sen, a volunteer for New York Not in Our Name, observes, "People who wouldn't have come out last year are joining us. They say, 'This is ridiculous; we have no support from the world.'"

Church leaders -- including many from conservative institutions, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as the outspoken National Council of Churches -- are against this war. Some mainstream politicians and many liberal Democrats have expressed doubt or outright dissent. An early October Gallup poll found 38 percent of Americans opposed to the war.

The group Not in Our Name began as an indignant rallying cry among some relatives of 9/11 victims, who formed an organization called Peaceful Tomorrows to oppose the bombing of Afghanistan. The slogan was then embraced by other antiwar New Yorkers, and in March 2002 a broad coalition conceived the idea of a national gathering around the theme at which congregants would take a pledge of resistance. ("Not in our name will you wage endless war... Not in our name will you erode the very freedoms you have claimed to fight for.") Somewhat infelicitous and arrhythmic on paper, the pledge is powerful when chanted out loud by thousands.

The all-volunteer Not in Our Name network established a national office in New York (sharing space with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom), and activists all over the world adopted the slogan and organized events on the same day. Demonstrations were held in more than 28 U.S. cities, including big cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago, and progressive strongholds like Chapel Hill (North Carolina) and Portland (Oregon), as well as Corvallis (Oregon), Kickapoo region (Wisconsin), Westerly (Rhode Island), Houston, Salt Lake City, Greenville (South Carolina), Atlanta, Fort Wayne (Indiana), Sandpoint (Idaho), Charlottesville, Nashville, Kansas City and Anchorage. Outside the United States, Not in Our Name events drew demonstrators in Adelaide, Rome, Brussels and London.

At first, the "war on terrorism" seemed to bring out the worst in the left -- sectarianism, racial tensions, dour moralism, posturing, self-marginalization and badly muddled analysis. This was in sharp contrast to economic issues like trade policy and living-wage laws, which have in recent years inspired creative actions and coalitions, resonated with many ordinary people and even yielded small victories.

In the past few months, however, many activists have made an effort to transcend their divisions and to reach mainstream Americans. As Global Exchange co-founder Medea Benjamin -- who has organized some of the most visible protests, even personally disrupting Donald Rumsfeld's Sept. 18 Congressional testimony -- wrote in August: "We've got to talk to our friends, our relatives, our co-workers and let them know that yes, Saddam Hussein is evil, but he is not threatening us, he had nothing to do with September 11, and attacking a Muslim country...will put us and our families in danger."

In the same vein, sociologist and author Todd Gitlin, who supported the war on Afghanistan, reminded protesters at a September rally in front of the United Nations to be "careful" to condemn the crimes of Saddam Hussein as well as those of Bush, calling the Iraqi leader a "brutal dictator." His speech rankled some of the faithful -- one grumbled, "That's their propaganda! That kind of talk has no place at an antiwar rally" -- but it's just the sort of message that will help the antiwar movement reach a broader public.

What's more, the media-savvy creativity of the globalization activists is rubbing off on antiwar organizers. Activists protested Bush's September UN speech by unfurling a 1,500-square-foot banner over the East River. The banner, which read "Earth to Bush: NO WAR IRAQ!" was hoisted by four giant helium weather balloons. Increasingly, too, peace activists evoke the globalization movement's optimistic idiom. At the Central Park rally, the last line of the Not in Our Name pledge drew the most enthusiasm: "Another world is possible and we pledge to make it real."

Global Exchange's Jason Mark says the challenge now is to oppose "the idea of American empire without sounding like 1970s leftists. People don't want to sound off-the-wall, but the words 'empire' and 'imperialism' are fair game because they're using them" -- "they" meaning right-wing think tanks and Bush advisers. This new anti-imperialism is showing up in some surprising quarters. "The Administration's doctrine is a call for 21st-century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept," Ted Kennedy has said. Anti-imperialism, Mark observes, could unite the globalization and antiwar movements.

Of course, not all the recent antiwar organizing has been this appealing and sensible. Even the smartest groups are making some questionable decisions, continually harping on the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, a fait accompli that was enthusiastically supported by most Americans. At some protests, demonstrators have signs proclaiming Bush Knew, suggesting that the President was directly implicated in the 9/11 carnage.

Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER), an international coalition, doesn't go in for such wacky conspiracies, but its rhetoric makes few concessions to Americans who may be concerned about security as well as imperialism. ANSWER's organizational skills are a blessing or curse for the peace movement, depending on whom you ask or, as one organizer laughs, "depending on the day."

The coalition has called a national march on Washington against the war in Iraq (Oct. 26) and in many parts of the country provides the only organizing structure for antiwar protests. Their calls to action are usually commendably simple, drawing large numbers of people. Yet ANSWER doesn't work well with other groups, and its rallies have a robotic, soulless feel. Some organizers say they would not work with ANSWER, while others, like Biju Mathew of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, find that attitude intolerant and "sectarian." Mark complained about ANSWER but, citing a successful joint rally in San Francisco, said, "We've tried to mend fences."

To its credit, and in contrast to ANSWER's approach, Global Exchange has been appealing to those who fear that war on Iraq may distract the government from the al-Qaeda threat and even breed more terrorists. Global Exchange has been distributing thousands of fliers with the image -- originally from a New York Times ad taken out by TomPaine.com -- of bin Laden in an Uncle Sam-like posture saying, "I WANT YOU to invade Iraq." Says Mark, "It resonates with a lot of people who think this [war] is going to erode rather than enhance U.S. security."

Undeterred by apparent indifference to their arguments in Congress, antiwar citizens have been taking up the issue with their elected representatives -- in person. On Oct. 3, 16 protesters were arrested after occupying Republican Senator Rick Santorum's Philadelphia office. Democrats who have received similar "visits" include Representative Tom Lantos of California, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patti Murray of Washington, and Senators Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton of Minnesota.

At this writing, activists are occupying war enthusiast Dick Gephardt's office. On Sept. 29 some 3,000 antiwar protesters showed up at Dick Cheney's house in Washington, DC. And most of George W. Bush's recent appearances -- from Portland, Oregon, to Manchester, New Hampshire -- have sparked demonstrations. At the Cincinnati Museum Center, as Bush gave a nationally televised speech attempting to make the case for war, more than 2,000 people gathered in peaceful protest; after the speech, dozens blocked exits to the museum's parking lot.

In the coming weeks, more than 250 antiwar actions are planned nationwide, and Global Exchange's Jason Mark says he's getting calls constantly from people who want to contact politicians: "They say, 'I haven't done this since the Nixon Administration.' The war is really bringing people out of the woodwork."

Liza Featherstone is a New York City-based journalist whose work on student and youth activism has appeared in The Nation, Lingua Franca, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Ms. She is co-author of "Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement" (Verso 2002).