Fog of War
Fayetteville, N.C. – home to Fort Bragg, the Green Berets, and the 82nd Airborne Division – seems as good a place as any "to bring a self-sustaining GI anti-war movement into being."
At least that was the goal of North Carolina Peace and Justice Coalition organizer Chuck Fager for Saturday's anti-war demonstration in Fayetteville.
The Fayetteville demonstration, more like an Americana July 4th picnic than any Days of Rage, was as placid and serene as the weather that day, temperatures in the low 60s, dry, cloudy skies. No one keened or got red in the face, nobody clashed with the fascists, and policemen's boots didn't lose their spit-shines. The protestors were clad in loose-fitting, informal garb, jeans, cotton windbreakers and sweatshirts, athletics shoes and baseball caps. More than 90 percent of them were white – "middle-class hippies" of all ages, one participant quipped.
The North Carolina Peace and Justice Coalition had called the Fayetteville action to place Iraq war veterans, bereaved families, active-duty soldiers and their kin in the center of the antiwar crusade. Sponsors included Veterans For Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Quaker House, Military Families Speak Out, Bring Them Home Now, Fayetteville Peace with Justice, N.C. Council of Churches, and United for Peace and Justice.
Turnout for the festival in Fayetteville, a town of 120,000, may have been the largest in any American locale. While London and Istanbul staged six-figure rallies, according to the mainstream media, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. probably failed to top turnout in a Southern town less than a tenth their size.
And not even the North Carolina rally, by the standards it set for itself, was an unqualified triumph. Only 13 buses arrived from out of town, four times as many as in 2004, a fifth of what this year's organizers hoped to bring.
The numbers may be forever in dispute, but reports from the MSM are anything but encouraging. Four thousand marched out of Hollywood, the Los Angeles Times noted, and "several thousand" took to the streets in New York and San Francisco, their dailies said. But across the board, The New York Times pointed out, anti-war actions were "nowhere as big as those in February 2003."
Fayetteville's count, like all the others, is a bit rubbery, and subject to crunching. The Associated Press put turnout at 3,000; its organizers claimed 1,800 more. By my own estimate, 4,200 people were gathered at the protest at its peak, about 2:00 p.m. Saturday.
What Democracy Looks Like
The anti-war crowd formed in a downtown parking lot before noon, buses disgorging pilgrims from afar, contingents forming beneath banners and signs. Lead by a woman blowing a bagpipe – as if in a military parade – about 1,200 marchers, led by some 200 soldiers, ex-servicemen and kin, strolled some20 minutes over gently sloping residential streets to the north side of Rowan Park.
From the park's pavilion, a ten-foot banner bearing the slogan of the event – Support the Troops for Real! Bring Them Home Now! – beckoned in a gentle wind.
Sheriff's deputies at two entry points conducted airport-style security checks, metal-detecting wands in hand. The procedure was congestive – some participants stood in line for nearly an hour, waiting to pass – inspiring a chant that has become a litany from shore to American shore:
"This what democracy looks like!" the protestors intoned, pointing at their own ranks.
"This is what a police state looks like!" turning towards the police.
"This is what democracy looks like in a police state," one of them observed.
But after a few minutes passed, almost nobody complained about the security screening, because on the north side of the scene, along the rim of the park, stood a hundred counter-demonstrators: "Fry Mumia," their T-shirts harrumphed, "Caution: Red Diaper Doper Babies in the Park," a big pasteboard sign proclaimed.
North Carolina is a Republican, gunplay state, and perhaps that's why dozens of deputies, plus cops on horseback, stood by.
A cadre of seasoned regional activists – one of whom, graybearded Quaker Chuck Fager, has been agitating since the days of the Selma voting rights march – had spent six months making national appeals and local arrangements to build the protests. As the marchers passed through the security screens, early counts were low.
But a couple of hundred peace advocates were already lounging on the greens, as late-comers arrived by the score. By the time that music groups and speakers began addressing the assembly, about 1 p.m., the crowd had doubled its size – and it didn't quit building for an hour after that.
Commerce and Coffins
Americans, complain as they may, are never, ever, alone. Commerce accompanies us from conception to the far side of the Golden Gates. By the time that the marchers arrived, politically correct vendors had laid merchandise atop 40 tables on the east side of the speaker's kiosk. Merchants at this Green-Beret-city bazaar brought with them pins and buttons of 900 designs, and probably more books than escaped the looting and fires at libraries in Iraq.
Most of the merchants represented pastel peace groups and mild-mannered petition societies, but Trotsky's disciples – of a half-dozen stripes – brought tables too, laden with literature that scientifically proves that pacifists, peace Democrats and former comrades from the adjoining Trotsky table have all taken part in the Revolution Betrayed.
At a table in the middle of the money-and-mailing-list exchanges stood two Seventh-Day Adventists, collecting signatures for a petition against Sunday closing laws.
On the west side of the grass-lined bowl, just across a tiny creek that courses in front of the speaker's pavilion, vinyl doors were opened and shut on 19 portable outhouses, a number sufficient to prevent the formation lines. But the rally's half-dozen "poppers," or food-and-drink stands, weren't up to speed: demonstrators stood 20 minutes in line for plates of curry and hastily-steamed hotdogs.
As they stood in line, the participants gazed southwards up the hillside, at 100 mock caskets draped in flags. Dozens of black umbrellas, resting on the ground, were strewn across the eastern incline, their surfaces inscribed at previous protests with the names and ranks of the war dead. Children daubed flower motifs and adults lettered slogans on new umbrellas, just to pass the time. The supervisors of this project, called Parasols for Peace, supplied brushes and colors. "We are doing this to provide a free and cheap way of breaking the silence in this time of fear," one of them told me.
Peace At Last?
"President Bush did not comment on the protests, which seemed unlikely to have any significant effect on national policy or on the glacial movement of public opinion" The New York Times opined at the end of the day
About 1 p.m. the procession of speakers got underway. Among those who addressed the crowd were the stars of Fager's burgeoning submovement, among them pacifist Camilo Mejia, only two days earlier out of an Army brig, retired Green Beret Sgt. Stan Goff, and Cindy Sheehan, the sparkplug in a group called Gold Star Families for Peace. Sheehan wore a white T-shirt stenciled with a photo of a soldier in uniform, her son, Casey, killed last year in Iraq.
But it was the content of the speeches – some of them, lively, and a couple, powered with pathos – that exemplified the anti-war movement's key challenge, not only in Fayetteville, but from coast to coast.
In Rowan Park, and in many locales elsewhere, organization democracy precluded inspiration. The rally's organizers drew a list of nearly 30 speakers, practically one for every group in the Coalition's fold. Apparently guided by a principle that might be called One Organization, One Speech, the rally's steering committee limited addresses to three minutes each. Admirably, most of those who stepped up to the microphone stayed within their allotted time.
But not even a Jefferson, a Frederick Douglas or Karl Marx can convey a life-changing message, nor present any significant analysis, in a 90-second span. Perhaps for brevity's sake, almost all of the speakers drew from a well-worn repertoire of ten:
1. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction;
2. Terrorists didn't take harbor there;
3. Most of the world disapproved of the invasion, and still does;
4. 1,500 American soldiers have died in combat
5. American troops were sent to war in ignorance, with insufficient tools;
6. Many can't know when, or if, they're coming home;
7. American weapons have killed as many as 100,00 civilians;
8. The war is a luxury that our nation call ill afford;
9. The "War on Terror" has put American civil liberties in peril;
10. George W. Bush is unfit for the presidency.
It's all like a game of Texas Sweat: players draw distinct hands, arrange their cards into suits, and with individual styles and rhetorical flourishes, stake their hopes and livelihoods. But as Saturday's national turnouts demonstrate, the house of Bush deals us hand after losing hand.
It may be that you can't fight city hall, that rulers have been hoisting and crucifying their subjects since the days of Spartacus, and always will. But our pose, or posture, and even our performance at the table could be improved – or at least that's the message from North Carolina's leading leftist sage.
Michael Hardt, an English professor at Duke University, is co-author with Italian Antonio Negri of two recent tomes on globalization and the perspectives of protest. Though he did not attend the Fayetteville action – he was on a plane in return from France – Hardt claims to know why the demonstrations were not bigger and better, everywhere.
"When movements grow is when they propose the agenda for change," he declares. "One of the effects of the war on terror is that all we are doing is reacting. The anti-war movement has become a failure because it has conceded the terrain of issues to the pro-war people."
Hardt's general argument is that oppositionists should struggle to implement their unredacted dreams, for a full vision of the lives they want to live, not for a list reforms, bargain items underlined in red.
The strategy is unlikely to provide any immediate aid to the antiwar and oppositionist camps: sedation, denial and adherence to routine, are after all, early stages in coping with any setback. It will probably be weeks before most activists recover from the thinning of their ranks on March 20.
To return to a stage of growth, Hart argues, the movement will have to recall what it was that it hoped to gain by closing ranks to challenge Bush's adventurism is the first place.
Was it only a preemption of war, or peace once the invasion came? Or was that, as the slogan went, that Another World Is Possible – and that we wanted to live there today?