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'Direct Action' Seen as Next Step If War Begins
Published on Saturday, March 15, 2003 by the Washington Post
Antiwar Protesters Plan to Escalate
'Direct Action' Seen as Next Step If War Begins
by Evelyn Nieves
 

SAN FRANCISCO -- Warren Langley knew where to go to get arrested. As the former president of the Pacific Stock Exchange, he knew that the pillared entrance to the exchange was the busiest, and that at 7 a.m., brokers would be spilling from the doors for their first morning coffee break.

Warren Langley
Former President of the Pacific Stock Exchange, Warren Langley, is arrested by police outside the Stock Exchange in San Francisco, after he blocked a street as part of a protest against a possible war in Iraq, March 14, 2003. Protesters against a war with Iraq blocked major intersections near the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco's financial district on Friday, snarling traffic, idling city buses and sparking at least 70 arrests, according to organizers. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne
So, shortly after 6:30 a.m., Langley, a silver-haired man in a navy blue suit and red striped power tie, marched through the financial district with about 200 other antiwar protesters -- Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, nuns, war veterans, students, families of 9/11 victims and average citizens -- and planted himself at the stock exchange's doors. Then he and dozens of others sat down at the busiest intersections of the financial district, tying up traffic for hours.

For Langley, 60, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, as well as many of the other 70 protesters who were put in plastic handcuffs and arrested this morning, this was the first act of civil disobedience in a lifetime of abiding by the rules.

Today was a prelude of civil disobedience to come. If bombs start dropping, thousands of people across the country opposed to a unilateral attack on Iraq plan to commit acts of "direct action," as civil disobedience is commonly called. The day -- or days -- after war begins could see the largest coordinated displays of civil disobedience in the United States since the civil rights era. Protesters around the country plan on blockading avenues, stopping traffic and generally disrupting business as usual.

"It's my history and my lifetime," said Langley, who presided over the Pacific Stock Exchange from 1996 to 1999. "This war seems very wrong for the entire world. I decided I was willing to do whatever it takes to show a strong stand against it."

But civil disobedience does not mean that rallies and other forms of legal public protest are going away. This weekend, large rallies are planned in Washington, San Francisco and other cities. In Sacramento, a rally is planned Saturday at the state Democratic Convention to demand that the presidential candidates in attendance speak out against war. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, as well as other religious leaders, have called for worldwide candlelight peace vigils on Sunday. (As of today, 3,300 vigils were planned in 102 countries.)

Even so, antiwar organizers advocating direct action say global rallies with millions of people, not to mention hundreds of thousands of letters to the White House and Congress, have failed to make an impact on President Bush's determination to wage war. For them it is time for the peace movement to become more aggressive.

"People want to do more, and those of us who have been activists for a long time have become demoralized by protesting that has not resulted in any recognition," said Zein El-Amine, a Washington, D.C.-based organizer. Civil disobedience, he said, "is just the next logical step."

Frustrated dissenters plan sit-ins and blockades at government buildings, financial centers, congressional offices and military bases and installations. The day after war begins, dissenters in at least 50 cities are planning direct actions. In New York's Times Square, protesters are planning to stop traffic. In Detroit, protesters are planning 72 hours of nonviolent disruptions at government installations. In St. Louis, they are planning to block the entrance to a Boeing bomb-making factory. North of Santa Barbara, Calif., activists -- many of them religious leaders experienced in civil disobedience -- are strategizing to shut down Vandenberg Air Force Base. In San Francisco, perhaps the country's most organized city in terms of planned protests, a menu of events is planned -- from stopping traffic with slow-moving car and bike caravans, to shutting the stock exchange to a general strike.

Many protesters are not waiting until U.S. missiles strike Iraq to risk arrest. In a last-ditch effort to try to stop a war, United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of more than 120 organizations opposed to a unilateral war, including the NAACP and the National Council of Churches, has designated the week of March 17 as "A Week of Nonviolent Direct Action." The direct action project of the coalition, the "Emergency Campaign to Reclaim Democracy And Stop the War Now," is launching seven days of civil disobedience at the Capitol, including sit-ins in congressional offices, to "demand that Congress represent the will of the people and repeal Bush's war authorization," according to the coalition's Web site, unitedforpeace.org. Civil disobedience is also planned at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.

Scores of groups are heeding the call from the coalition and from Direct Action to Stop the War, a loose-knit network of organizations based in San Francisco that is offering advice and suggestions to groups across the country planning acts of civil disobedience. "We can't really even keep track of them," said Jason Mark, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice. "Many of the groups are still organizing."

Rayan El-Amine, an organizer with the Direct Action to Stop the War Project, said the project, through its Web site, actagainstthewar.org, is noticing that people are following the suggestion to form "affinity groups," small teams of five to 20 people who work together on planning actions. In San Francisco, he said, about 1,500 people organized into affinity groups would lead the planned actions for the day after the bombs drop. These are the people, he said, who will risk arrest.

"But the purpose of direct action is not to get arrested," El-Amine reminded demonstrators gathered at the Pacific Stock Exchange this morning. "The purpose is to stop the war machine. The hope is that they'll be so many people participating that they can't arrest us."

Many of the antiwar protesters are so new to civil disobedience that they are signing up for training sessions. Joseph Gerson, director of programs for the American Friends Service Committee's New England office, based in Boston, is offering training for civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action. He said that since his office began training sessions three weeks ago, people have clamored to join. Civil disobedience trainers have begun taking collections to pay for teaching others to become trainers because the demand is so high. "There is a sense that we have to do everything humanly possible to prevent this war," Gerson said. "Boston is in overwhelming opposition to this war."

Langley, who attended his inaugural protest when he turned 60 on Jan. 18, said he has been deluged with critical e-mails from former classmates at the Air Force Academy, where he graduated in 1965. "Protesting against the war gets confounded with being against the troops," said Langley, who helped fund a 1998 documentary on Vietnam War prisoners of war, "Tom Hanks Presents: Return with Honor."

"I tell critics that I support the military," he said. "But this war just feels very wrong."

He is still trying, he said, to come up with strategies to change the administration's course in ways that are not disruptive to the point of being destructive, as he believes the Vietnam War protests became. "What I really want is for this whole unilateral, arrogant action that we've been imposing to change," he said.

This morning, Langley stood next to Eric Johansson, a 32-year-old former Army paratrooper who served in the Persian Gulf War. Johansson, a leader of a group called Veterans Against the Iraq War, suggested it is easy to respond to the charge that protesters are not supporting the troops. "You don't support the troops by thrusting them into the hell of war," he said. "Support the troops: Bring them home!"

Like Langley, Johannson was arrested and looked glad about it.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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