"We want to poison your mind," teases the woman with slate-colored hair outside
First Baptist Church in Koreatown. Swathed in natural fibers and sporting an anti-Dubya
button, she's minding a table piled high with books, pamphlets and stickers decrying
the sorry state of the planet--wars, corporate malfeasance, environmental disasters-in-the-making,
and so on--along with half a dozen copies of the revolutionary rabble-rousings
of Chairman Mao.
Change a few names and haircuts, and the scene could be an outtake from the
American peace movement's tie-dyed past--Berkeley or Chicago, circa 1960-something.
But inside the Romanesque-Revival church's packed sanctuary, a fired-up multilingual
L.A. crowd mirrors the complex and rapidly changing profile of Americans opposed
to a new war with Iraq.
As the Bush administration turns up the rhetorical heat on Saddam Hussein
and an anxious world braces for a possible Desert Storm redux, American peace
activists are busy marshaling their own forces. And while the choreography of
dissent sometimes stirs up ghosts of Selma, Vietnam and the anti-nukes protests
of the early 1980s, the current peace movement seems eager to find a voice and
image suited to a very different America than existed 40 or even 20 years ago.
Barry Amundson, whose brother was killed in the attack on the Pentagon, at the
Oakland home of his widowed sister-in-law, Kelly Campbell. Both are members of
a peace group composed of relatives of Sept. 11 victims.
(ROBERT DURELL / LAT)
In that process, some observers say, peace activists are moving beyond a singular,
post-Vietnam cultural stereotype that depicts them as clueless hippies hopelessly
mired in the peacenik past, as apologists for whatever power-mad dictator is on
the prowl, or as cynical trouble-makers of questionable patriotism whose "fringe"
antics give aid and comfort to America's enemies, as Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft
"Dissident political activity that's portrayed in this country leads people
to believe that anyone who gets out in the street must be kind of crazy," says
Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin,
who became a marked man in the Lone Star State last fall after writing several
columns attacking U.S. military policy in Afghanistan.
There was a vague feeling of the torch being passed at First Baptist's recent
two-hour rally, an evening of agitprop theater that mixed old-time progressive
sentiments with a newfound sense of urgency. And if anyone present was worrying
aloud about finding the peace movement's next Martin Luther King, Tom Hayden or
Helen Caldicott, it was drowned out in a poly-lingual chorus of shared convictions.
Filling the pews of the 1,500-seat church were the movement's traditional
shock troops: trade unionists, middle-age progressives of various creeds, battle-hardened
veterans of the civil rights and Vietnam War struggles. But clapping and singing
alongside them were young anti-globalization activists, interspersed with many
Central American and Asian immigrants, some of whose countries have suffered their
own, albeit less publicized versions of 9/11-style terrorist atrocities.
Many of the speakers and much of the symbolism were familiar. Labor leader
Maria Elena Durazo extolled a union member who perished at the World Trade Center.
Syndicated columnist Bob Scheer chastised Taliban brutality and Washington demagoguery.
Hollywood star Alfre Woodard gave soothing line-readings from the Koran, the Bible
and the Bhagavad-Gita. Between speakers, a mixed-race choir delivered a thin but
plucky rendition of "Down by the Riverside."
But the rally's emotional climax occurred when Kelly Campbell and Barry Amundson,
members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group composed
of relatives of 9/11 victims, embraced beneath a giant video screen where images
of the burning twin towers had flashed by moments earlier. Barry Amundson, 32,
is the brother of Craig Amundson, a 28-year-old Army multimedia specialist who
was killed when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon;
Campbell is his sister-in-law. Both were in Los Angeles to voice their conviction
that the response to last year's attacks on New York and Washington shouldn't
be more mangled bodies and grieving relatives.
"Join us in a new peace movement," exhorted the Rev. George Regas, catching
the evening's forward-looking tone. "We will change the face of this earth!" Rising
to its feet, the congregation roared its approval.
Less easily pigeonholed than their predecessors, and more reliant on Internet
mailing lists than sloganized placards, today's peace activists are more globally
attuned and media-savvy than the bearded and sandaled legions of yore, some say.
"Our general argument is the same one: that we've got to find alternatives
to war because we don't like the notion of killing people," says Medea Benjamin,
a former U.N. economist and Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate whose face was
on front pages from New York to Hong Kong last week after she and a colleague
heckled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld while he was testifying on Capitol Hill.
But her group's message, Benjamin says, "has to be tailored almost on a daily
basis to what is the message of those who want to go to war."
"They have so much more access to the media and to the American people that
we're always on the defensive."
Unfazed by polls that show a majority of Americans would support going to
war with Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein from amassing weapons of mass destruction,
today's activists say their aims aren't that different from those of previous
generations. What's changed is the movement's composition, focus and tactics,
which have been conditioned by a sound-bite culture where world politics gets
simplified and perceptions often rule.
Nonviolence Isn't a Fad
In the calculus of the contemporary peace movement, two numbers have logarithmic
power: 9/11 and the 1960s. The first is a date that no American will soon forget.
The second is a cultural epoch that simply refuses to go away.
Campbell, co-director of Peaceful Tomorrows, says that while
taking part in marches over the last year she's been taunted by people yelling,
"Go back to the '60s! This is the '90s!" Never mind that the '90s went out with
the Clintons and high-tech start-ups. What Campbell objects to is the hecklers'
presumption that nonviolence is somehow passé, a fad with no more intellectual
staying power than a lava lamp.
"I was born in 1972. I don't appreciate being considered a throwback," says
Campbell, speaking by phone from her Bay Area home. "I don't think war is a good
idea under any circumstances. So partially I believe that nonviolent alternatives
to war are always better. And that doesn't mean doing nothing. That means taking
While professing their abhorrence of the Iraqi dictator, Peaceful Tomorrows
members have been crisscrossing the country this year preaching nonviolent alternatives
to the Baghdad street-fighting scenarios being aired in Washington. Some members
also have visited Afghanistan to meet with families who lost loved ones during
the U.S. bombing campaign to oust the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden's terrorist
Their pacifist stance has surprised and angered those who thought revenge
and retaliation the only sane response to 9/11. But group members say they don't
want their personal tragedies used to justify more bloodshed. "We don't really
want to live with Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq," Campbell says. "On the other
hand, what's the price of killing a whole bunch of other people to get rid of
Saddam Hussein? That is not going to make us any safer in this country. It is
going to promote terrorism, if anything."
Activists acknowledge that "make love, not war" can be a pretty tough sell
when Americans still live in fear of stepping on commercial jetliners or taking
a high-rise elevator. But David Krieger, founder and president of the Santa Barbara-based
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, predicts that more people will find the nerve to
speak out for peace if war draws nigh.
"Many Americans have felt reasonably comfortable with going after Al Qaeda
and the Taliban," he says, "but I think doubts crept in with the number of civilians
that have been killed in Afghanistan. And I think now, shifting gears to Iraq,
that's a disconnect for many, many people."
Despite the grizzled image some have of it, the peace movement gained new
recruits during the prosperous, relatively peaceful '90s from young people who
came to the cause via environmental and globalization-related issues, says Jeff
Guntzel, 27, co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, a 6-year-old Chicago-based
"Some of these folks are experienced in the anti-globalization movement, and
bring a new environmental awareness that we're wanting to build on," he says.
"But it has to go further than that."
Guntzel says that Voices in the Wilderness devotes its resources less to marching
and picketing than to bearing witness to acts of war and human rights violations.
It also tries to be a conduit for anecdotal, firsthand reports from areas of conflict
and strife, the kind of e-mail-like, personalized reportage that isn't always
available from the mass media. "We want to kind of learn the lesson of the first
Gulf War, when there was such a black hole of information coming on Iraq," Guntzel
Since 1996 the group has sponsored four dozen trips to Iraq by members bearing
small quantities of medicine--technically in violation of U.N. sanctions that
bar trade with the regime.
"I had been to a protest here and there, but I was always frustrated by protests
because I felt like it didn't give me the right venue for discussing an important
issue," Guntzel continues. "I'm very anti-slogan."
Looking at this new generation of activists, professor Jensen suggests that
popular perceptions of the peace movement need updating. "There's an image in
people's minds of what a left-progressive political activist is: a young person
with green hair and multiple piercings out in the streets of Seattle throwing
rocks," he says, referring to demonstrations against the World Trade Organization
meeting in Seattle in 1999. "These movements are much more complex, much more
Jensen believes that the current movement against war with Iraq comprises
at least three distinct elements: traditional American peace groups rooted in
faith traditions, such as the Quakers; the left-progressive wing of American politics;
and Muslims and people of Middle Eastern heritage.
So far, he believes, serious, informed debate over the possibility of war
has been stifled by a simplistic mass-media culture and a quiescent Democratic
Party. "No one in the peace movement that I know really looks to the Democratic
Party to kind of carry the banner for a global justice movement," he says.
Some question whether the American left even functions as the peace movement's
base camp anymore. In an essay in the Aug. 23 issue of the Nation, Adam Shatz
observed that the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath had created a crisis for the
American left, wrecking intellectual friendships and causing rifts not seen since
the McCarthy-Stalin era.
"What the left needs to cultivate is an intelligent synthesis, one that recognizes
that the United States has a role to play in the world while also warning of an
imperial foreign policy," Shatz wrote.
With or without the Democratic Party, the Old Left, the New Left, love beads,
the Port Huron Statement or the collected works of Herbert Marcuse, the American
peace movement has leapt into the post-9/11 political fray. And what's wrong,
some ask, with having a peace movement that's made up of many different pieces
and no clear leaders or spokespersons?
Krieger, briefly at home in Santa Barbara last week before heading off to
address an Indiana church group, argues that going to war or not going to war
shouldn't be a decision left only to preachers, professional agitators and the
relative few in any generation willing to take a controversial stand or take to
the streets. "I don't think it's the responsibility of peace organizations to
provide a conscience for people," he says. "It's a responsibility that we all
share in a democracy."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times