Every year Greensboro, North Carolina, holds a Fourth of July parade in which
local organizations form the units. This year members of the Greensboro Peace
Coalition decided--"after some hesitation," admits chairman Ed Whitfield--to join
the line of march. They bought an ad in the local paper, printed leaflets and
developed their own variation on this year's theme of "American Heroes": large
posters of Americans, including Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr., who have spoken out against the folly of war.
Though members had been participating in vigils since last October, when the
bombing of Afghanistan began, many expressed qualms about marching into the thick
of their hometown's annual patriotic celebration. But fifty activists showed up
on the Fourth and got the surprise of their political lives. Along the mile-and-a-half
parade route through downtown Greensboro, they were greeted mostly with applause,
and, at the end of their march, they were honored by parade organizers for "Best
Interpretation of the Theme."
Says Whitfield, "There is a real lesson in this. If you scratch the surface
of the poll numbers about Bush and Ashcroft's overwhelming support, you get down
to a lot of people with a lot of questions. Some of them are afraid that they
are alone in what they are thinking. What it takes to get them excited and to
get them involved is for them to see someone standing up so that they will know
they are not alone."
The post-September 11 experiences of the Greensboro Peace Coalition, Berea
College's Patriots for Peace, the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice, and
dozens of other grassroots groups serve as a reminder that while dissenters have
not always spoken in a single voice, they have had in common not just their unease
with the bipartisan Washington consensus but the often inspiring experience that
there are many Americans who share their discomfort. Take Jennifer Ellis of Peace
Action Maine, who recalls how overwhelmed Down East activists felt after September
11. "But then we started to get calls from people saying, 'I don't know what your
organization is, but it has the word "peace" in the title. What can I do?'" Some
callers were already holding vigils, and her group started sending out weekly
e-mails listing them. "We linked people up with local efforts to fight discrimination
against Muslims, and we told people how to write members of Congress about civil
liberties issues," she says. "Before long, all these people, in all these towns
across Maine, were working together."
As with anti-World War I activists who looked to Wisconsin Senator Bob La
Follette, critics of McCarthyism who celebrated Maine's Margaret Chase Smith's
statement of conscience or foes of the Vietnam War who were inspired by the anti-Gulf
of Tonkin resolution votes of Oregon's Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening,
post-September 11 dissenters found solace in the fact that at least a few members
of Congress shared their qualms. Three days after the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, cast
the only vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force to respond.
Lee's vote earned her death threats and pundit predictions that she was finished
politically, but she won her March Democratic primary race with 85 percent of
the vote. And the "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me" movement that started in her Oakland-based
district has spread; in July several thousand people packed a Santa Cruz, California,
movie theater to celebrate "Barbara Lee Day." Said Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher
Krohn: "She's become a national moral leader in awakening the movement for justice,
peace and a thorough re-examination of US foreign policy." Responded Lee: "It
must not be unpatriotic to question a course of action. It must not be unpatriotic
to raise doubts. I suggest to you it is just the opposite."
Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate vote
against the USA Patriot Act's assault on civil liberties, still marvels at the
standing ovations he receives when his vote is mentioned. "I thought this would
be a difficult vote," says Feingold, who recently earned the best home-state approval
ratings of his career. "What I didn't realize was that a lot of people are concerned
about free speech and repression of liberties, even in a time of war. I didn't
realize until I cast my vote that there was so much concern about whether it was
appropriate, whether it was allowed, to dissent after September 11. I think that
for a lot of people, my vote told them it was still appropriate to dissent."
Some members who have challenged the Bush Administration have suffered politically--notably
Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who lost an August Democratic primary.
But most are secure in their seats, and one is even being boomed as a potential
Democratic presidential contender. Representative Dennis Kucinich's February speech
condemning the bombing of Afghan civilians and the repression of American civil
liberties drew an overwhelmingly positive response that Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat,
says is evidence of broad uncertainty about militarism abroad and economic and
constitutional costs at home.
Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin led several House members
in writing a letter in December questioning White House policies that emphasize
bullets and badgering as opposed to diplomacy and development; and John Conyers
of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has kept the
heat on the Justice Department regarding civil liberties--often with the support
of Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican. Still,
says Kucinich, "our constituents are perhaps more prepared than Congress for the
debate that should be going on."
Bill Keys, a school board member in Madison, Wisconsin, shares that view.
Keys's October 2001 refusal to require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance
in city schools earned three days of broadcast rebukes from radio personality
Rush Limbaugh, physical threats and a movement to recall him from office. The
recall drive fizzled before winter and, this spring, Keys was elected president
of the board. "The strange thing is that once I became identified as this awful
radical, people started coming up to me and saying, 'Don't you let them shut you
up,'" recalls Keys. "If the last year taught us anything, it's this: Yes, of course,
if you step out of the mainstream you will get called names and threatened. But
you will also discover that a lot of Americans still recognize that dissenters
are the real defenders of freedom."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive
politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade.
Formerly a writer and editor for The Toledo Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
newspapers, he is now editorial page editor for The Capital Times in Madison,
© 2002 The Nation Company, L.P.