A New Youth Peace Movement Takes Root

News & Politics

Sarah Williams couldn't stop grinning. Her white teeth glistened against her opal wire frames and windblown dark hair. She twisted her hands anxiously above her discarded rain jacket. The once rainy, gray Washington D.C. morning had turned into an afternoon of warm sunshine.

The 20-year-old NYU junior could vividly remember this time last year when she was struggling to find any resemblance to what she found today -- the beginning of a united American peace movement.

"You couldn't tell the media or anyone last year that there existed an anti-war movement in the U.S. But look around, you can't hide it anymore," she said dropping her "Regime Change Begins at Home" poster to motion toward the diverse grouping of people who were making their way across the muddy ground in front of the sound stage in D.C.'s Constitutional Plaza.

Williams wasn't alone in breathing a sigh of relief at the crowd gathered at the October 26th March on Washington against the War on Iraq. Most of us on the left were thinking the same -- it's about time. In a way we were tired of listening to underground news reports about the hundreds of thousands of people gathering across the world, from Brussels to Paris to London, to shout down Bush's war, while many of us were struggling just to get people interested at our campuses and in our neighborhoods. But it seemed that all changed overnight.

Planting a Seed for Peace

Drop a seed into the ground and watch it take root, my mother always says. The same can be said for social justice movements. The political landscape of youth activism is fertile ground for a new peace movement. Trained in the activism of the anticorporate globalization and anti-prison movements, young activists are already spending their time in politicized highs school and college climates -- ones made more charged with every move of the Bush administration. Sociologists are reporting that today's incoming college classes are the largest and most political in the United States since the 1960s.

But this new movement can hardly be said to look the same as those of the last few years. It's older. It's tremendously diverse. It's not just the radical white left or sectarians hawking papers for solidarity donations. It's your best friend's parents. It's veterans of the Vietnam War protests, Muslim Arabs and Black nationalists. It's high school students, the elderly, and all the ages in between. It's your run of the mill vegan neo-hippies from schools like Oberlin, anti-globalizers and Black Blocers from Eugene, standing beside families from the Deep South.


It's even a 78-year-old curly gray-haired woman my cohorts and I referred to as "Mama Revolution." She stood for hours at the corner of 17th and Constitution waving down cars. For us, still recovering from our 15-hour drive to D.C. in a cramped van from Chicago, "Mama" represented a snapshot of the perseverance of the day's protest -- the largest anti-war protest in America since the Vietnam War era. In cities across America like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and across the world in Belgium, Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo and Mexico City, hundreds of thousands marched into the streets to "stop the war [on Iraq] before it starts."

To many of us, this peace movement has been a long time coming. A youth movement that seemed so on point when it came to fighting sweatshops, fighting for living wages or organizing against the prison systems, was alienated when searching for a united response to the pro-war consensus in mainstream America.

But it seems that older sectarian activists, like the organizers behind Not in Our Name (NOIN) and International A.N.S.W.E.R (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), although criticized for their questionable allegiances, have been successful in providing somewhat rare infrastructure for large-scale anti-war protests in this post 9/11 void. In this they have given a voice to the anti-war left that many thought would not survive 9/11 in one piece.

Last October 6th and 7th, the Not in Our Name Project, a coalition of anti-war organizations started in March of this year, hosted protests throughout the United States to mark the anniversary of the bombing of Afghanistan. The events were a successful prelude to the March on Washington this weekend. NION demonstrations were held in over 28 cities, bringing out more than 25,000 participants in New York and 10,000 in San Francisco alone. And the Not in Our Name pledge has been read at almost every peace rally since it was written by poet Saul Williams last year.

Xochitl Johnson, a NION Bay Area organizer, even quit her job in order to organize full time against the war, spending most of the summer at Bay Area events promoting Not In Our Name. Johnson and others have emphasized a need for a louder discourse in the youth movement. "This is the moment now to make vision into reality. We need more than a protest, we need to be louder, bolder, undeniable," Johnson said at an NION organizing meeting.

Other long-standing nonprofits such as the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action, Black Radical Congress, War Resisters League, Global Exchange, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Voices in the Wilderness have also taken up the cause. Medea Benjamin, a founder of Global Exchange, explained at the Bay Area's Power to the Peaceful Festival in September that many anti-war supporters in Congress were constantly asking her where was the anti-war youth movement. "It's coming," she would tell them on many occasions. In response, Global Exchange began to host a youth site under its United for Peace campaign. Many youth are finding opportunities to work within these organizations while also founding their own campus groups. While uniting church leaders, mainstream politicians, Baby Boomers and old-school activists, the peace movement has given youth a chance to become the organizing engines in their own local communities and university campuses.

No, We're Not the 60s...

The woman next to me in the crowd is shuffling her feet impatiently. I couldn't blame her. We had been standing in an estimated 150,000-person crowd for the past three hours and we were anxious to begin marching (numbers are loose, organizers say 200,000 and newspapers won't even bother to count; but my friends and I estimated more than 100,000 participants). All I know is that I hadn't been this excited since April 16, 2000, after attending my first large-scale post-Seattle demonstration in D.C. to shut down the IMF and World Bank meeting.

I wasn't surprised to see that many former anti-Vietnam war activists lead the chorus of dissent at the rally; many speakers referenced the Vietnam War in their speeches and alluded to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


But many youth activists cringe at the comparisons to the 1960s. "This is a different movement," reflected Marcus Fitzgerald, 19, from Brown University. "We've learned from the past and are ready to take those lessons and move forward."

Others feel the comparisons only hurt their movement organizing. "If we are constantly being compared to other times, it limits the potential for us to be defined as our own movement with new goals and objectives," said Anthony Wyatt, a senior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Still others use the movements of the past in analyzing and mapping out the future of the new anti-war activism. Carwil James, of Art and Revolution, gave a talk at a recent NION organizing meeting on how to bring American society to a halt, start student strikes, turn campuses into centers of organizing, and break the "illusion of consensus." He offered up tactics used in past anti-war organizing.

James underscored visibility. "We have to make it possible for the rest of the world to see that there is dissent in the U.S. in the same way we did in Seattle in 1999 when we showed that Americans were dissenting with the rest of the Global South against the policies of the World Trade Organization," James said. "We have to show the world that Americans are not fully on the side of our government."

But by the end of the day on Oct. 26th, I found myself maneuvering my way through a sea of faces and signs from my generation's newest anti-war battle. I heard slogans like "No Blood For Oil," "Drop Bush, Not Bombs," and "Regime Change Begins at Home" as fathers -- former anti-war activists of their generation, I suspect -- lifted their pierced, pink-haired teenage daughters to their shoulders so they could see the main rally stage, where even the celebrities and performers were diverse in their political spectrum.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson drove home the point that those present were taking their place in a long historical chain of struggle. "Dr. King would be happy to see so many young people participating in the peace movement. People say young people are our future, but we say they are our present... when young people move, the whole world moves."

Susan Sarandon railed against preemptive strikes, asking "How will the bombing of Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, cause a regime change?... the U.S. government has hijacked our pain, fear and loss... to spread profit at the cost of human life, to distract people from the problems in American society."

Speakers encouraged participants to sign an anti-war referendum (www.votenowar.org), started by peace organizations to allow the American public to vote against the war. Many speakers invoked the memory of recently deceased Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, while others concluded that America would never be safe if the U.S. government kept bombing innocents abroad.

Due to the past three decades of strong youth organizing, throwing a protest has become almost a synch. Using what made the anticorporate protests so successful is this generation's golden apple --the Internet, the major organizing tool in getting information, education and pubic debate into the mainstream. This has allowed veteran activists to connect with a large number of non-activists, many of them older, who have begun to oppose the constant drum beatings of war. For instance, many of the people present at the March on Washington on the 26th weren't veteran activists, and many more said they had never attended an antiwar rally before, much less any other rallies. Many more shied away from calling themselves "leftists." This offers the new movement an added legitimacy in that it reaches a much wider public opposition organizing on the ground -- that being anti-war is not just another left cause.

Most activists agree that now the real problem is getting the media to show this new visible opposition to the war. American mainstream media's lack of emphasis on the protest by not honestly portraying the attendance numbers or even giving much editorial mention to the protests has left many participants astounded.

I realize that anti-war organizing has always been glanced over in the media, until youth have found ways to create an undeniable commotion. My friends and I had spent the day before we drove out to D.C. dusting off old peace activist archives at my university. We examined a few old posters: "Free Burma."; "End Apartheid."; "Yes to Ethnic Studies."; and "Stop Sweatshop Abuse." And we finally came across the ones we were looking for, oddly entitled "Stop Bush's War for Oil." These are posters my school's peace organization used in 1991. It's eerie how little things change.

But by the closing of the protest in the late evening, protestors from every walk of life were still arriving in cars, vans, buses and trains to show that "America"--which is what the protestors felt we represented in our diversity and numbers-- believed any war with Iraq would be done against the will of the people. And indeed, if history is any example, this new peace movement is ready to blossom.

As for the future? Many activists point me to the last line of the NION pledge: "Another world is possible and we pledge to make it real."

Desiree Evans, 21, is a writer, activist and a journalism senior at Northwestern University.

Photos of the anti-war march in San Francisco on October 26, 2002 courtesy of Michael Gaworecki.

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