This weekend's anti-war protests were the first mass demonstrations in memory to occur before a conflict, a testimony to the organizing power of the Internet, observers say.
While the Vietnam-era anti-war movement took years to gather momentum, hundreds of thousands of protestors turned out in dozens of U.S. cities on Saturday to protest a possible war in Iraq.
The two biggest gatherings took place in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Estimates of the turnout are contentious -- authorities cited 100,000 for both cities, while organizers say crowds topped 850,000 -- but it's probably safe to say the marches were the biggest since the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s.
The rallies attracted a broad spectrum of protestors, from campus firebrands to elderly Republicans. Many religious groups were involved ("Who Would Jesus Bomb?" read one banner), as well as trade unions, a wide range of political groups and a lot of ordinary citizens.
The disparity of protestors is a sign the anti-war movement has gone mainstream, observers said, and it's thanks not to the media, but to hundreds of anti-war websites and mailing lists.
"Never before in human history has an anti-war movement grown so fast and spread so quickly," wrote historian and columnist Ruth Rosen in the San Francisco Chronicle. "It is even more remarkable because the war has yet to begin. Publicized throughout cyberspace, the anti-war movement has left behind its sectarian roots and entered mainstream culture."
Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, also believes the Internet played a defining role in bringing the movement together.
"The last time the U.S. contemplated war -- 1991 -- the Internet was still an isolated phenomenon, confined to a relatively small population of enthusiasts," he wrote in an e-mail. "Now, not only are most of the citizens online, but online activism has had years to mature and perfect its techniques."
"Saturday's rallies were unique in the long history of anti-war activism in the U.S. in that, to my knowledge, never before have hundreds of thousands of people protested a possible war," wrote Peter Rothberg, who is associate publisher of The Nation and maintains the ActNow weblog, in an e-mail.
However, Rothberg said people took to the streets not because of the Internet per se, but because of their shared opposition to a pre-emptive, unilateral strike against Iraq.
"There's no question that the Internet has provided a terrific new tool for organizers who are growing increasingly adept at employing the medium to best advantage," he wrote. "I hesitate to give all or even preponderant credit to the medium, though. I think the message, and the very real fact that lots of folks oppose an invasion of Iraq, are what got people out on the streets."
Nonetheless, protest organizers said the Net played a key role in disseminating the anti-war message, motivating and mobilizing people, and efficiently communicating details like travel plans.
"The Internet played a very significant role," said Sarah Sloan, an organizer with International ANSWER, the group that planned the rallies. "It made a major difference in getting our message out there, especially because the mainstream media isn't covering the anti-war movement."
Sloan said for many people, joining the movement was as simple as typing "anti-war" into Google and being directed to hundreds of anti-war websites.
The United for Peace website, for example, one of the anti-war movement's major clearing houses, includes news, contacts, background information, fliers, printable posters, contacts for scores of local activist groups and comprehensive travel arrangements to the protests from 300 different U.S. cities.
"Without that resource, it's hard to find out how to get involved," Sloan said.
Sloan said the Internet also allowed the Sunday protests to go international. Protestors in 32 countries held street demonstrations. "There's no way the event would have been international without the Internet," she said.
Of the hundreds of different groups involved, almost all have websites and e-mail lists. As well as inspiring, organizing and mobilizing people, the Internet gives protestors the sense they are part of a larger movement.
"Before the Internet, people felt blacked out by the media, because it doesn't represent their views," said Andrea Buffa, a spokeswoman for United for Peace. "Now, because of the Net, they feel like they're part of a movement. They're no longer isolated. It helps mobilize people, gets them to move."
United For Peace is organizing an Oil and War protest action on Feb. 4 at local gas stations around the United States. Activists are encouraged to print out the Web page and hand out copies at the pumps. "There's no way we could get that information out all over the country without e-mail and the website," said Buffa.
The range of online anti-war resources is big and growing. MoveOn.org, a political website based in Silicon Valley, recently raised $400,000 through 10,000 or more individual donations to remake the 1960s "Daisy" anti-nuclear-war ad.
MoveOn has proven adept at fundraising and lobbying politicians, and has built a mailing list 600,000 strong.
A good example of the Internet's power to reach many people is the Protest Posters website. Thrown up late last week, the site attracted 2,400 visitors and 1,155 poster downloads by the weekend on the strength of a few e-mails and links from other websites.
"I saw some of the posters at the San Francisco march," said Frank Leahy, who helped create the site. "I thought that was pretty cool. Word gets around fast."
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