LONDON, March 2 -- The people who helped organize the largest worldwide peace demonstration in history last month say they are not through yet.
More than 120 activists from 28 countries emerged from an all-day strategy session here this weekend with plans not just to protest a prospective U.S.-led war against Iraq but to prevent it from happening. They want to intensify political pressure on the Bush administration's closest allies -- the leaders of Britain, Italy and Spain -- and force them to withdraw their support, leaving the United States, if it chooses to fight, to go it alone. And they intend to further disrupt war plans with acts of civil disobedience against U.S. military bases, supply depots and transports throughout Europe.
Finally, if war breaks out, they say, they will demonstrate in towns and cities around the world on the evening of the first day, and hold a worldwide rally on the following Saturday that they hope will rival or surpass their efforts of Feb. 15.
"We still believe we can stop this war before it begins," said Chris Nineham, one of the British organizers of this weekend's conference, held at the Stop the War Coalition's offices in northeast London. "But if not, we're putting the warmongers on notice that there will be massive protests on the day war breaks out and the following weekend."
In interviews last week, several of the organizers of the Feb. 15 protests traced the origins of the antiwar movement, described how they put together that event and discussed where they go from here. For the most part, the organizations are tiny, shoestring operations -- the London-based coalition operates out of two cubbyhole offices with four desktop computers, a handful of phone lines and a half-dozen paid staff members. But they use the Internet, cell phones and their connections with trade unions and local governments to establish links and coordinate with other organizations around the world.
Their plans might sound grandiose. But these are the same activists who pulled off the stunning success of two weeks ago, when between 6 million and 12 million protesters gathered in about 75 countries to oppose military action.
"We've never really seen a movement like this before -- it's unpredictable because it's so unprecedented," said Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University in Britain. "But it does seem that a large proportion of the people who participated two weeks ago are becoming quite politicized just by going on the demonstration. If war begins, and it doesn't have U.N. approval, we could see mass demonstrations again."
The huge turnouts that day in cities including Rome, London, Madrid, Berlin, Paris and New York reflected popular disaffection with U.S. military power and the prospect of war among a broad swath of the public -- from political radicals to church groups, trade unions and ordinary citizens. But it was organized for the most part by a small network of activists from the ideological left, the anti-globalization movement and peace groups. For years these activists have stood on picket lines and organized demonstrations seeking ways to ignite mass popular support, with mixed results at best. But the increasing likelihood of war has given them an issue that resonates with public opinion throughout the world.
Many of the organizers confess that they were stunned by the size and scope of the demonstrations two weeks ago. "A big part of our meeting was about digesting the shock of the earthquake that was February 15," said Larry Holmes, an organizer in New York for International ANSWER, one of the U.S. groups organizing the rallies. "We were just as surprised as everyone else. But you're seeing a new sense of confidence among organizations. People don't want this war, and they're giving us a mandate to do whatever it takes to stop it."
The organizers say the February rallies were first agreed upon at a small strategy session in Florence in November. But their roots go back to the days just after Sept. 11, 2001, when activists say they began meeting to map out opposition to what they anticipated would be the U.S. military response to the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
In Britain, according to organizer John Rees, several hundred activists first got together the weekend after Sept. 11. Most were from the hard core of the British left -- the Socialist Workers Party, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the anti-capitalist organization Globalized Resistance, along with Labor Party legislators Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway. Within weeks, they had combined with representatives from two more important elements -- Britain's growing Muslim community and its militant trade unions. By October they had a name: the Stop the War Coalition.
More than 50,000 demonstrators came out in London for an October 2001 peace rally; the same numbers protested in November against the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. A demonstration last Sept. 28 brought several hundred thousand people to Hyde Park in London to protest war in Iraq and demand "Freedom for Palestine." After that, activists decided to push for a worldwide demonstration.
About 30 organizers from 11 European countries met on a Saturday morning, Nov. 9, at the Fortezza da Basso, a 16th-century fortress in the northwestern part of Florence, as part of a week of protest activities sponsored by the European Social Forum, an anti-globalization network. The Italians pushed for a date in December, Rees recalled. But British representatives persuaded them to wait until Feb. 15, when the Christmas holidays would be over and universities would be back in session throughout Europe.
Originally, the activists believed the Feb. 15 protests might be confined to a few European capitals. But at a follow-up meeting in Copenhagen in December, representatives of peace groups based in the United States and the Philippines pledged their support for the February date. In Cairo that same month, 400 representatives from several Middle Eastern and Asian countries joined in signing a declaration of support for the Iraqi and Palestinian people and appointed a coordinating committee headed by former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella that pledged to join in the February rallies. Finally, in late January, the activists got together once more for a gathering of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the number of countries from which people agreed to take part on Feb. 15 rose from 30 to 74.
"We realized then that this had evolved into a worldwide coalition," said an Italian organizer who insisted on anonymity.
Since Feb. 15, the activists have sought to keep up the pressure, especially in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is ranked as President Bush's top international supporter. While the House of Commons debated Blair's stance on Wednesday, dozens of activists protested outside St. Stephen's Gate at Parliament and lobbied Labor Party lawmakers, seeking their commitment to oppose Blair. The prime minister won the vote that day in the face of a large revolt by Labor backbenchers that has left him wounded politically. Hundreds more activists visited lawmakers this weekend at their local offices.
"We know that a lot of [lawmakers] were really rattled by the February 15 demonstration," said Ghada Razuki, a British Iraqi activist who led Wednesday's protest. "We want to keep the pressure on to get them off the fence."
Campaigns to disrupt U.S. forces have also been launched. Besides the dozens of activists who have traveled to Baghdad to volunteer as "human shields" against a U.S. attack, nine Dutch antiwar activists were arrested Tuesday for chaining themselves to the gates of a U.S. military center outside Rotterdam. In Italy, hundreds of protesters occupied train stations and railway tracks for nearly a week to delay trains carrying U.S. military equipment from northern Italy to the Camp Darby military base near Pisa. Irish protesters broke through the perimeter fence at Shannon airport in January and damaged a U.S. Navy plane, causing other planes to divert their flights and refuel elsewhere. Trade union movements in Italy and France are pledging work disruptions and considering general strikes if war breaks out.
Organizers say they would like to find a way to channel the newfound enthusiasm and activism into a worldwide political movement. But they say the disparate nature of those participating would make such a movement difficult if not impossible.
"This was caused by social forces, and it's not something that organizations produced," said Andrew Burgin, a member of the coalition's British steering committee. "They're not in our control. . . . You don't lead a movement like this, the movement leads you."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company