"You look beautiful," shouted more than one speaker to the crowd that
gathered in New York's Central Park on Sunday, October 6, to protest George W.
Bush's "war on the world," most urgently the impending invasion of Iraq. The lively
and youthful demonstration--some 20,000 strong--was a beautiful sight indeed.
A largely regional protest, it did draw some visitors from Ohio, Massachusetts
and elsewhere, and a Swedish couple was overhead saying something incomprehensible--except
for the words "Not in Our Name."
"Not in Our Name" began as
an indignant rallying cry among some relatives of 9/11 victims, who formed an
organization called Peaceful
Tomorrows to oppose the bombing of Afghanistan. The slogan was then embraced
by other antiwar New Yorkers, and in March 2002 a broad coalition conceived the
idea of a national gathering around the theme at which congregants would take
a pledge of resistance. ("Not in our name will you wage endless war... Not in
our name will you erode the very freedoms you have claimed to fight for.") Somewhat
infelicitous and arrhythmic on paper, the pledge is powerful when chanted out
loud by thousands.
The all-volunteer Not in Our Name network established a national office in
New York (sharing space with the Women's
International League for Peace and Freedom), and activists all over the world
adopted the slogan and organized events on the same day. Demonstrations were held
in more than twenty-eight US cities, including not only big cities like Los Angeles,
Seattle and Chicago, and progressive strongholds like Chapel Hill (North Carolina)
and Portland (Oregon), but also in Corvallis (Oregon), Kickapoo region (Wisconsin),
Westerly (Rhode Island), Houston, Salt Lake City, Greenville (South Carolina),
Atlanta, Fort Wayne (Indiana), Sandpoint (Idaho), Charlottesville, Nashville,
Kansas City and Anchorage. Outside the United States, Not in Our Name events drew
demonstrators in Adelaide, Rome, Brussels and London.
Despite a media blackout, a nascent US peace movement has gradually been gathering
momentum. In September, at least 300 peace events were being held weekly in cities
from Pensacola to Fairbanks. Organizers say they're attracting many who oppose
the war in Iraq but were ambivalent about, or supported, war in Afghanistan. Reecha
Sen, a volunteer for New York Not in Our Name, observes, "People who wouldn't
have come out last year are joining us. They say, 'This is ridiculous; we have
no support from the world.'" Church leaders--including many from conservative
institutions, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as the outspoken National
Council of Churches--are against this war. Some mainstream politicians and many
liberal Democrats have expressed doubt or outright dissent. An early October Gallup
poll found 38 percent of Americans opposed to the war.
At first, the "war on terrorism" seemed to bring out the worst in the left--sectarianism,
racial tensions, dour moralism, posturing, self-marginalization and badly muddled
analysis. This was in sharp contrast to actions on economic issues like trade
policy and living-wage laws, which have in recent years inspired creative actions
and coalitions, resonated with many ordinary people and even yielded small victories.
In the past few months, however, many activists have made an effort to transcend
their divisions and to reach mainstream Americans. As Global Exchange co-founder
Medea Benjamin--who has organized some of the most visible protests, even personally
disrupting Donald Rumsfeld's September 18 Congressional testimony--wrote in August:
"We've got to talk to our friends, our relatives, our co-workers and let them
know that yes, Saddam Hussein is evil, but he is not threatening us, he had nothing
to do with September 11, and attacking a Muslim country...will put us and our
families in danger." In the same vein, sociologist and author Todd Gitlin, who
supported the war on Afghanistan, reminded protesters at a September rally in
front of the United Nations to be "careful" to condemn the crimes of Saddam Hussein
as well as those of Bush, calling the Iraqi leader a "brutal dictator." His speech
rankled some of the faithful--one grumbled, "That's their propaganda! That kind
of talk has no place at an antiwar rally"--but it's just the sort of message that
will help the antiwar movement reach a broader public.
What's more, the media-savvy creativity of the globalization activists is
rubbing off on antiwar organizers. Activists protested Bush's September UN speech
by unfurling a 1,500-square-foot banner over the East River; the banner, which
read Earth to Bush: NO WAR IRAQ!, was hoisted by four giant helium weather balloons.
Increasingly, too, peace activists evoke the globalization movement's optimistic
idiom. At the Central Park rally, the last line of the Not in Our Name pledge
drew the most enthusiasm: "Another world is possible and we pledge to make it
Jason Mark says the challenge now is to oppose "the idea of American empire without
sounding like 1970s leftists. People don't want to sound off-the-wall, but the
words 'empire' and 'imperialism' are fair game because they're using them"--"they"
meaning right-wing think tanks and Bush advisers. This new anti-imperialism is
showing up in some surprising quarters. "The Administration's doctrine is a call
for twenty-first-century American imperialism that no other nation can or should
accept," Ted Kennedy has said. Anti-imperialism, Mark observes, could unite the
globalization and antiwar movements.
Of course, not all the recent antiwar organizing has been this appealing and
sensible. Even the smartest groups are making some questionable decisions, continually
harping on the US intervention in Afghanistan, a fait accompli that was enthusiastically
supported by most Americans. At some protests, demonstrators have signs proclaiming
Bush Knew, suggesting that the President was directly implicated in the 9/11 carnage.
Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER), an international coalition, doesn't
go in for such wacky conspiracies, but its rhetoric makes few concessions to Americans
who may be concerned about security as well as imperialism. ANSWER's organizational
skills are a blessing or curse for the peace movement, depending on whom you ask
or, as one organizer laughs, "depending on the day." The coalition has called
a national march on Washington against the war in Iraq (October 26) and in many
parts of the country provides the only organizing structure for antiwar protests.
Their calls to action are usually commendably simple, drawing large numbers of
people. Yet ANSWER doesn't work well with other groups, and its rallies have a
robotic, soulless feel. Some organizers say they would not work with ANSWER, while
others, like Biju Mathew of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, finds that attitude
intolerant and "sectarian." Mark complained about ANSWER but, citing a successful
joint rally in San Francisco, said, "We've tried to mend fences."
To its credit, and in contrast to ANSWER's approach, Global Exchange has been
appealing to those who fear that war on Iraq may distract the government from
the Al Qaeda threat and even breed more terrorists. Global Exchange has been distributing
thousands of fliers with the arresting image--originally from a New York Times
ad taken out by TomPaine.com--of bin Laden in an Uncle Sam-like posture saying,
"I WANT YOU to invade Iraq." Says Mark, "It resonates with a lot of people
who think this [war] is going to erode rather than enhance US security."
Undeterred by apparent indifference to their arguments in Congress, antiwar
citizens have been taking up the issue with their elected representatives--in
person. On October 3 sixteen protesters were arrested after occupying Republican
Senator Rick Santorum's Philadelphia office. Democrats who have received similar
"visits" include Representative Tom Lantos of California, Senators Maria Cantwell
and Patti Murray of Washington, and Senators Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton of
Minnesota. At this writing, activists are occupying war enthusiast Dick Gephardt's
office. On September 29 some 3,000 antiwar protesters showed up at Dick Cheney's
house in Washington, DC. And most of George W. Bush's recent appearances--from
Portland, Oregon, to Manchester, New Hampshire--have sparked demonstrations. At
the Cincinnati Museum Center, as Bush gave a nationally televised speech attempting
to make the case for war, more than 2,000 people gathered in peaceful protest;
after the speech, dozens blocked exits to the museum's parking lot.
In the coming weeks, more than 250 antiwar actions are planned nationwide,
and Global Exchange's Mark says he's getting calls constantly from people who
want to contact politicians: "They say, 'I haven't done this since the Nixon Administration.'
The war is really bringing people out of the woodwork."
New York City-based journalist Liza Featherstone's work on student and youth
activism has appeared in The Nation, Lingua Franca, the San Francisco Bay Guardian,
the New York Times, the Washington Post and Ms. In 2002, she co-authored Students
Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement (Verso).
Copyright © 2002 The Nation