Rage or reason

Antiwar activists debate: Should they take over the streets or work to defeat Bush in 2004?


Michelle Goldberg
March 28, 2003 5:35AM (UTC)

As battle rages in Iraq, despite howls of protest across the world, American antiwar organizers contemplate whether they should focus on stopping this war or the next one. Some activists still believe that Operation Iraqi Freedom can somehow be halted -- or, at least, that they have a duty to keep fighting for that goal -- and that business in America should be disrupted until it is. Others, hearing the murmurs from America's foreign policy elite that Iraq is but the first step in a grander plan to remake the Middle East and the world, are using their energy to lay the groundwork for a broader movement against George Bush's agenda and his reelection.

Right now, much of the movement is regrouping. The huge, centrally organized actions of the past few months are giving way to smaller local demonstrations and vigils -- and protesters on both levels are evaluating their protest strategies. "Most of the antiwar activism in the country right now is being planned at the local level," says Leslie Cagan, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, one of the country's major antiwar coalitions. "Local organizers need to figure out what tactics and activities they feel are most appropriate. There is discussion both at the national level and locally about where we go next in terms of civil disobedience, mass protest and the ways the movement expresses itself."

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The direction organizers choose -- locally and nationally -- appears to be shaped partly by their opinions of past protests, and by their analyses of how the country reached its current crisis. Painted broadly, the different approaches tend to fall into radical and moderate camps, with civil disobedience at the crux of their division. The view held by some proponents of direct action embraces the romantic legacy of the '60s and sees the current war largely as a corporate-sponsored evil that defies the will of the people. For them, immediate action against the war profiteers is the necessary next step. Says the Web site for Direct Action to Stop the War, the San Francisco group that coordinated the last week's acts of massive civil disobedience in the city: "We hold corporations including Bechtel, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group and ChevronTexaco accountable for not only their profits from this war, but the fact that they made this war possible through their investments, operations, weapons, lobbying, political contributions and drive for unending profits regardless of the toll on human life, the environment or society."

Moderate groups like MoveOn.org and the National Council of Churches don't wholly disagree with this analysis, but their emphasis is on long-term goals and expansion. They see the war as resulting from a breakdown in education and democracy, and their aim is to spread the word about the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda through teach-ins, Web sites and church meetings. They also plan a parallel effort to work to elect progressive candidates who they hope will return a measure of accountability to government and start mending international institutions like the U.N.

Radicals want to shock people out of their torpor, moderates to coax them. In all likelihood, neither can do much to stop this war, but their successes or failures could help determine what follows it.

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In the next few days, the radicals are most likely to be in the news as frustrated activists turn increasingly to civil disobedience. Such direct action has already caused chaos in San Francisco, where around 2,300 people have been arrested over the past week. Now a loose coalition of activist groups calling themselves the M27 Coalition plans to bring that kind of civil disobedience to New York.

Wednesday afternoon, 16 protesters covered in fake blood lay in the intersection of 5th Avenue and 47th Street, blocking traffic and chanting, "Occupation is a crime, free Iraq and Palestine." But that was likely just a tiny prelude to a wider attempt to disrupt the daily routine in the city. Starting Thursday morning, the M27 Coalition, which includes members of 35 progressive organizations including United For Peace and Justice and the War Resisters League, plans acts of civil disobedience throughout Manhattan modeled after last week's events in San Francisco. The day will begin with a mass "die-in" at Rockefeller Center, coupled with "smaller coordinated actions throughout the city aimed at disrupting 'business as usual,'" according to the group's Web site. Such actions, says Cheree Dillon, one of M27's spokespeople, might include protests at military recruitment offices and the blocking of bridges and subway entrances. She hopes hundreds will participate.

According to Dillon, the aim of the action is to make sure New Yorkers can't ignore what's happening in Iraq. "Our intention isn't to alienate people," she says. "Our intention is to inform people and to make them aware of people that are dying, of the covert actions that are happening in the name of the U.S. government and the war against terrorism."

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Dillon says her group wants to stop the war now, regardless of the immediate impact that would have in Iraq, where some in the South have already risen up against Saddam Hussein. "If the war stopped right now, I couldn't say that there wouldn't be consequences," she says. "I just think that war is not the answer, and going back to what is the question: Why are we involved in these events? Is it really to free people or are there other motives involved in this issue by President Bush? How did our oil get under their sand?"

Like the organizers of the recent actions in San Francisco, the M27 coalition takes as its starting point the nexus between corporate rapacity and Bush's foreign policy. The group's Web site proclaims, "We target corporate war profiteers and the media/corporate/government collusion that is promoting this war. We target the Rockefeller Center area since many media and corporations have offices there or nearby. We target the corporate structure that is profiting from this war."

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Of course, activists will also end up targeting lots of regular people trying to get to work. To quell any hostility that may result, some of the disobedient have plans to be civil, preparing a flyer to hand out that explains to anyone put out by the action: "We are aware that shutting down the city will inconvenience many people. While we and others may suffer disruptions and lost wages on this one day, ask yourself, what is a human life worth? What are the lives of thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians worth? ... We feel strongly that any inconvenience on this day is dwarfed by the horror of death that will be experienced around the world during this time and beyond."

Yet there's no guarantee that ordinary New Yorkers will agree that the protesters' reasoning is, as the letter says, "both deeply moral and patently pragmatic." They might just find it annoying, or worse.

Civil disobedience, Cagan says, is useful when the purpose of it is clear. "It's an effective tool for highlighting something that's been overlooked before. If civil disobedience was done in the corporate offices of some of the arms manufactures who make a lot of money off of war, it's an opportunity to bring greater attention to that," she says. "You can even actually stop part of the horrendous war machine," as at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a target for activists because much of the targeting for the Iraq bombing campaign is done there.

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The symbolic import of snarling traffic in midtown, though, might not make sense to onlookers who don't share the organizers' analysis of the relationship between media, capitalism and war. Thus Todd Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, '60s historian and Columbia University professor, cautions that actions some activists find cathartic may alienate the unconverted. Speaking of the San Francisco protest, he says, "I can only imagine corks popping in Karl Rove's living room at the spectacle of demonstrators disrupting the lives of people in the least Republican city in America. What a gift to them, or at least an amusement."

That doesn't mean he thinks civil disobedience is a bad idea, but, like Cagan, he believes it has to be targeted at places like Halliburton or Clear Channel Radio, not at the city at large. "That just seems like self-indulgence to me," he says.

After all, like fellow '60s historian Paul Berman, he's long argued that, contrary to popular mythology, the radical elements of the Vietnam era only undermined the left's political power. Gitlin calls it the "inauspicious paradox of the late '60s," explaining, "as the war became less popular, so did the antiwar movement. In fact the antiwar movement was hated. That had huge political implications. It basically dismantled the political advantages that had accrued to the antiwar movement and left the left isolated."

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The answer to this paradox, Gitlin argues, isn't for war opponents to stay home and shut up -- it's for them to get involved in practical as well as symbolic politics. "The political actions that are most necessary over the next years entail the political defeat of George Bush," he says. "If you were asking the right political questions, you would be reasoning backward from 2004. If you ask how did we get here, the answer will track you through the rise of the right wing of the Republican Party and the election of 2000 and Ralph Nader and Florida.

The serious political person now asks, 'How do I focus my energy? How do I weigh in against the continuation of the Bush foreign policy?'" says Gitlin. "That's an absolute prerequisite to disrupting this very dangerous march we're on."

Cagan calls Gitlin's thinking "totally ridiculous." The Vietnam War, she says, "became less popular because of the work of the antiwar movement." She questions his call for war opponents to work for the Democrats, saying, "It is important that Bush loses, but it's also important that somebody with a little backbone and a little leadership capability wins. Some of these Democratic candidates, I don't know if they would be handling things any better right now in terms of foreign policy questions."

She continues, "I also think that the progressive community in this country falls into the trap of the presidential election and puts too many eggs in that basket without paying enough attention to congressional and Senate races that will be happening in that same year." Regarding the war in Iraq, she says, "Congress basically rolled over."

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Some activists are working to try to prevent that from happening again. According to Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and co-chair of United for Peace, his group now has three priorities. The first is ministering to soldiers and their families, the second is working on humanitarian aid for Iraqi victims, and the third is a huge political drive to let legislators know that the public doesn't support preemptive war.

"This is going to mean a massive educational effort on the part of our constituents, to help them understand that a new imperialism is not something people of faith support," he says.

According to Edgar, part of that means teaching people throughout America that this new imperialism is rooted in a powerful ideology, not solely a response to Sept. 11. He, and others on the left, believe that much of the current administration's foreign policy was laid out in a 1997 manifesto issued by Project for a New American Century, a think tank run by neoconservative luminary William Kristol.

"The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire," the manifesto says. "The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership ... [W]e need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values ... [W]e need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles." Its signatories included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Council senior director Elliott Abrams, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and presidential brother Jeb Bush.

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On Sept. 20, 2001, the Project issued a letter calling for "appropriate measures of retaliation" against Iran and Syria if they refuse to cut their ties to Hezbollah. It was signed by Richard Perle and much of the neoconservative intellectual elite. In the New York Times last Sunday, an administration official was quoted saying, "This is just the beginning. I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and North Korea as for Iraq."

Such talk leads Edgar to say that the antiwar movement "absolutely" needs to do some preemption of its own. "I'm co-chair of the Win Without War Coalition and I tongue-in-cheek suggested the other day that we added an 's' to the end of our name," he says. "What's so bad about this preemptive policy is that we've now invaded Iraq, and it would be easy for the conservatives in the administration to urge now that you have all those troops in, let's invade Iran. If you take Iraq and then take Iran, North Korea's going to be concerned, Syria's going to be concerned, and we look very much like the British did a century or two ago."

Edgar says churches have a role to play in educating parishioners about the moral implications of a policy that seeks to rule by unilateral force. "In the National Council of Churches we have 140,000 congregations and every Sunday they gather, so we have at least an audience to begin to communicate with," he says. "There will have to be a long-term effort to reeducate ourselves to the value of diplomacy and the value of conflict resolution, and helping Christians to understand that Jesus was a man of peace, not of war. It's a big job, but it's one that we will tackle and it's what gives us motivation to work for peace."

At the same time, says Edgar, a Democrat who served as a congressman from Pennsylvania from 1975 to 1987, there needs to be an effort by antiwar progressives to take back the government. "I'm interested in getting young men and women of both parties to run for the House and Senate," he says. "Essentially, since 9/11 we have only had one political party. The Paul Wellstone vision is completely absent from either political party. I want to see young men and women step forward and rebalance our political structure."

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MoveOn.org, a prominent antiwar group that mobilizes progressives on the Web, is doing something similar. The group has started an online campaign to raise money for humanitarian aid to Iraq -- according to Joan Blades, one of MoveOn's co-founders, $500,000 was raised last weekend -- and is lobbying Congress while looking ahead to the 2004 election.

"I think looking at the big picture is what's vitally important," Blades says. "That means getting involved in the long run to make sure our government does not have a policy of preemptive wars. We want the rule of law and United Nations participation."

And the group wants to make sure that's a major issue in the next election. "That's the beauty of the American system," she says. "We are supposed to be electing people that govern in a way that we do support. If we don't get involved, we're betraying ourselves and betraying our country."


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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