In Defense of Cacophony

March 20th, the day after the United States began to drop bombs on the Iraqi people, San Francisco was the stage for widespread creative dissent to an illegal and unjustifiable war. A nascent, loosely-knit pro-peace movement in this city and across the world burst onto the scene with a cacophony of voices and tactics that mirror the living, thriving human ecosystems we inhabit.

That day crystallized the willingness of hundreds of thousands to stand with the global majority in opposing this war. The reasons for people's actions are not monolithic, just as the tactics are not. Like an ecosystem, this movement's strength lies in the symbiotic exchange and interweaving of diverse voices raised to inscribe a new cultural narrative upon the American consciousness.

Wandering around San Francisco on the first day of the war, I was exhilarated, moved, and occasionally both tearful and frightened. While there were low points in the day, the overwhelming feeling was one of awe and wonderment at the colors and sounds and smells of resistance.

On one corner, 40 "yogis for peace" silently exhibited perfect yoga positions in front of a line of riot police. Down the street, Tibetan prayers flags flew as I saw a father answer his son's boisterous call to occupy the intersection. At the Federal Building, when the late afternoon winds blew in and the sun ceased to shine on the alley, shivering protestors blocking the doors were infused with new energy by an impromptu dance party when a sound system arrived on a bicycle. There was no knowing what was around the next corner, but whatever it was it was sure to delight the senses and highlight the lengths people were willing to go to oppose the death occurring at that moment in our name. Who were all of these people and where did they come from?

The nonviolent grassroots uprising that occurred in San Francisco in the last two weeks was purely organic. Mix the right ingredients and the outcome is sure to be even more impressive than predicted. This is the model that Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) counts upon. DASW is not an organization. There is no paid staff, no office, no elected leaders. There is only one requirement for participation -- you must act in accordance with your conscience in opposing this war.

The organizing and the meetings were open and transparent. The goal was clearly articulated: If the government of the United States chose to drop bombs on Iraq, we as citizens of San Francisco and the surrounding cities would unplug the war machine by paralyzing traffic where the government and corporations operate. The DASW network served to set a stage where each individual had the opportunity to cast himself or herself in the unfolding drama dedicated to celebrating life.

2,600 people were arrested in the subsequent 48 hours. Many of them had never protested anything before in their lives. Among the incredible pulsing diversity in the streets, we found common ground in defining positively our collective identity.

We are for the troops coming home safely and we are for stopping the killing of innocent men, women and children. We are people who work each day for positive change in our communities and our world. We are teachers, artists, nurses, business people, students, activists, parents and clergymen and women. Like any functioning ecosystem, this diversity is our strength and among it live the solutions that are necessary for global sustainability.

By listening and talking to people on that day, I gathered more strands of an alternative story -- one that challenges the prevailing narrative playing on CNN and Fox News Tonight, and that speaks of an end to war in communities and abroad. The resistance in the streets in essence creates a future where individuals in communities know each other and work together toward this goal.

Civil Disobedience vs. Civil Obedience
I have seen those next to me in the streets in other places recently. I have seen them marching next to me in the permitted rallies that preceded the war. I have seen them writing to their elected officials; I have seen their names on petitions. I have prayed next to them and attended vigils with them.

Yet these efforts fell on deaf ears.

I have learned that social justice is rarely achieved without willing individuals and groups escalating their voices in the face of overwhelming odds. In fact, in a world where violence reigns, civil disobedience is a dignified response and a moral call. From the Boston Tea Party, this country was born and nonviolent direct action has served to shape its moral compass ever since. Without it women would not vote, and the working people would have no weekends. Basic rights we take for granted were won through nonviolent struggle in the face of overwhelming odds.

These actions give rise to legends that inspire us to achieve moral greatness. The stories of Gandhi and the Great Salt March are told in classrooms round the world. Amid the atrocities of the Holocaust, every Jewish child learns of the nonviolent resistance that saved the lives of Danish Jews while their brothers and sisters were being systematically exterminated through the rest of Europe. Acting against injustice should be done in a way that exemplifies our vision of a just and peaceful world. When it works, the actions of the individual and collective movements have left indelible marks on our historical narrative.

Using mass nonviolent action, the civil rights movement changed the face of the South: The successful Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, sit-ins at lunch counters and other facilities, freedom rides, freedom schools, voting registration drives, jail-ins, and the 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 participants. And on May Day, 1971 in Washington, D.C., 11,000 opponents of the Vietnam War were arrested for blocking traffic.

Protesting in an "Anti-War City"
It is exactly because San Francisco is an anti-war city that these demonstrations were as successful and representative as they were. Silence and passivity in these grave days can be too easily interpreted by our government as consent. Remember, we are all characters in the story unfolding, and it is our imperative to struggle for the soul of this story. Will the prevailing tale be one of war or peace? Complicity or resistance?

Because what exactly does it mean to be from an anti-war city? Does it mean we put stickers on our cars, write letters to the editor, and call it a day? Does it mean we do not hold our elected officials accountable who have done so little to prevent this human catastrophe? Does it mean we do not voice our dissent in our homes and the places in which we work because it is "anti-war" while the war rages around us?

I see so many false dichotomies being put forward in an effort to undermine the credibility of those who have acted on their conscience, such as the idea that civil disobedience costs local governments money at a time when teachers and health workers are being laid off. The only thing that links the two is that both the war and a lack of funds for education and public health are signs of skewed national priorities. In challenging these assumptions, we have the potential to articulate the values crisis that faces our nation and our world. I choose not to choose between speaking my truth and educating the children in my community. I choose the narrative that allows both.

Current estimates are that Californians will pay between $300 and $6,000 a piece in taxes to foot the $100 billion price tag for this war. These funds could be spent to jump-start the ailing economy in California, revive our debilitated school system, or invest in clean energy to get us off imported oil. This speaks nothing of the moral and psychic costs our country will bear. Ultimately, we cannot afford to repress the honest dissent in this country, because the cost to democracy will be too high; it makes as much sense as liberating a people by bombing them.

What's not to Understand?
I spoke to a friend from college yesterday. He called after 12 years because he had seen my name associated with the anti-war protests. He told me he too is anti-war. Further, he is a doctor in the addiction unit at the VA hospital in San Francisco. He treats the American victims of the previous wars for manifestations of their psychic wounds. He told me his funding has been cut. The VA has laid several people off in the last year at the same time as the Bush administration is creating new veterans.

He told me of going downtown on the morning after the bombs started falling, frustrated by his impotence. He wandered with the crowd and wondered what was being accomplished by the chaos and confusion, littered with beautiful and horrific images, and all sorts of people. He left confused and unsure. He says now, two weeks later, that he is no longer unsure of that day. He said he feels as though the war is too easy to ignore and he will be left to pick up the pieces of human beings who souls were shattered by carrying out this awful deed.

I have heard his cry echoed by the Gulf War veterans that have come out against this war in large numbers. They say the best way to support the troops is to bring them home. The Bush Administration sent troops into war the same week they proposed cuts in health and family programs for veterans. Is this a cultural narrative that makes sense? My friend has come to the conclusion that if stopping traffic for a day forces people to examine these questions it should be looked upon as a gift rather than an inconvenience.

Ecology of a Living Revolution
As a trained ecologist, I understand that the most vibrant and vital ecosystems are those that encompass a broad array of life. Individual components assume their place in the cosmic order while quite naturally operating in symbiosis with others around them. Ecosystems are modeled in human culture and activity, with the most highly evolved ones defining aspects of our culture. Think of a symphony, with each musician concentrating on his or her own piece while matching the cadence and rhythm of all the other musicians -- or the brilliant display of resistance that occurred over the last few weeks, around the world.

Many will be tempted to call the pro-peace movement a failure as American troops are taking Baghdad. I answer that to do so would be a misinterpretation of how transformation of culture occurs. The real victory lies in throwing our hat into the ring in the struggle for this cultural narrative. By building a community of resistance, we plant the seeds for this cultural narrative. Through positive identification, we learn how our differences blend to create a thriving ecosystem. My neighbors now have names and their struggles become mine. In essence, we have already won.

Don't misunderstand me; this does not mean I quit. It is too easy to get caught up in running errands, going to work, walking the dog, all while bombs continue to rain on women and children in Iraq. However, it is impossible to predict what comes "next" for the peace movement; only the next meeting or the next action are easy to identify. As long as there is a war, there will be a next act of resistance. As I search the faces of those inquiring, I cannot help but wonder if what they are really asking is the unanswerable question of WHAT COMES NEXT?

The peace movement is as diverse as each individual whose heart propels him or her to take action against this war. Acts of creative resistance continue to spring up around the world on a daily basis as more people are invigorated by understanding their own power to take a stand. It is as impossible to predict how the pro-peace movement around the war will proceed as it is to predict the next evolution of a given ecosystem. What is certain, though, is that the impacts on the global culture of this spontaneous and widespread uprising will alter the cultural narrative as indelibly and profoundly as evolution alters the global ecosystem in which we live.

As you think about what comes next, I leave you with this question: When you look back on this turning point in human history years from now, will you be proud of the action you took to change the course laid out before us? What strand did you weave into the emerging story?

Ilyse Hogue is the Global Finance Campaign Director for Rainforest Action Network and a co-founder of the Smartmeme Project.


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