A few times a year, thousands of people break out their tied-dyed t-shirts, collect all of their peace buttons, make snarky yet provocative posters, and hop on a bus to what has become a political and social ritual: the protest.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Not being silent has in fact become a staple of the American people’s diet, and one can see that with the consistent anti-war activities that have been organized over the past four years.
On January 27, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) is holding a massive protest against the Iraq War in Washington. We (I’m a member of the coalition’s steering committee) will once again not be silent. Buses and vans are coming from at least 30 states and 111 cities packed with people who will bestow a historic welcome to the new Congress that we just helped elect and aim to change the trajectory of this war.
Since even before the war started, UFPJ and its more than 1,400 member groups have organized countless events, both nationally and locally, demonstrations large and small, have educated millions of people, and helped to mobilize and make visual the citizenry that is actively opposing this war. The coalition has led and expanded the peace movement and provided a steady, consistent anti-war message, which has been the major force behind the swaying of public opinion from supporting this administration’s decisions in the wake of 9/11, to the realization that this war was and still is illegal and immoral.
In the wake up 9/11, the president had the highest job approval rating since Franklin D. Roosevelt, at 90%. Today, the Presidents approval rating stands at lowly 34%. The public’s approval on the Iraq War has virtually flipped from the beginning days of the war when 71% of the country approved of Bush’s war, to now 70% disapproving of it. Public sentiment is a powerful thing and the drastic change can be attributed to the constant message of the peace movement – that this war is illegal, immoral, and destroying our country and the world.
Now that the majority of the country shares our opinion, The Jan. 27 peace march will trumpet UFPJ’s unwavering message once again of “Bring All the Troops Home Now” to the streets of Washington, and we are going to make the new Congress listen.
Most wars have two things in common: a few people make the decision to go to war and the majority of the people suffer from those decisions. There has been this divide in this country for too long, and we need to consistently fight it. Young American soldiers are the ones who have to fight the war and die. Veterans are the ones who have to come back from war and be abandoned by their governments. Military families are the ones who day in and day out have to worry about whether their loved ones will come back. Young people are the ones who can’t go to college because money for student loans has gone to pay for the war. The people of the Gulf Coast are the ones who see everyday first handedly what it looks like when their own government invests more into immoral wars than rebuilding our communities.
That is just in the United States. The Iraqis are suffering on a massive scale. An estimated 600,000 Iraqis have lost their lives since the March 2003 invasion and many people across that country have no clean water or electricity. This madness has to stop.
Even if you, like most Americans, oppose this war, why march? Why protest? Why hold up signs in the middle of winter and walk around in a big circle? And how is that going to end the war?
Plenty of critics of mass peace movement mobilizations say that this practice is outdated and stale. Essentially, they are asking, “Why bother?”
Sure, it’s hard to see sometimes how a public demonstration helps to achieve any political goal. But for me, a protest is not only one of the various means that activists can use to achieve a political end. It’s also is something deeply and sincerely personal.
Here are the reasons, both political and personal, that I will be marching with thousands of others on January 27th. I hope you are convinced that you should be there too…
1) Build on political momentum: The political moment is now. After the remarkable election last November, in which people overwhelming voted for a change in Iraq and therefore a change in Congress, we as the peace movement need to build on that momentum. Although public sentiment completely disagrees with President George W. Bush and agrees with UFPJ on ending this war, the commander-in-chief intends to send more troops into Iraq. Voting and public opinion are evidently not sufficient to change Bush’s course. We have been right all along, not the Administration or the 108th and 109th Congress. We have helped to change the overall sentiment about the war in this country. We have a new Congress, which will only do something about the war if people from across this nation come to their doorstep, knock loudly and demand they end the occupation and bring the all the troops home now.
2) Strengthen Community: It is a truly amazing sight to see thousands of people, from every corner of this country, demonstrate for peace and justice. The endorsers of this march include everyone from the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition to Grandmothers for Peace, from religious organizations like Pax Christi to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, political organizations such as the Progress Democrats of America and MoveOn.org. This is, with certainty, a community of people fighting for the same thing. People save up money, take days off from work, organize buses from their towns and when they get here, they sleep on couches and floors, all for a cause bigger than their individual selves- for peace. We do it to build a community that consistently comes together to resist those who send ordinary young people to war. It is extremely important that this community of dissenters remains constantly visible, not only to the rest of this country--but also to the rest of the world.
3) Learn from People: My father always told me the best way to learn is from other people. Whenever I go to a demonstration I meet some of the most intelligent and altruistic people I have ever met. Literature is distributed with information that you can’t read in newspapers, events are planned that you can’t attend elsewhere, and bright people, eager to engage in conversation, are in abundance. From the 22-year-old Iraq veteran, to the mother who tragically lost her daughter in the war and Iraqi-Americans against this war, from the first-time protester, to veterans of the Vietnam War era protests--it’s a privilege to hear those perspectives with one’s own ears. A collective grouping such as this is bound to have valuable information and ideas exchanged that will further propel this movement.
4) Be Part of History: Thirty-nine years ago Dr. Martin Luther King led a group of protestors in Chicago against the Vietnam War. Seventy-six years ago, Gandhi led the Salt Satyagraha where he and his followers marched to Dandi to protest the unjust taxation of salt by the British Empire. And 87 years ago Helen Keller protested by marching with actors for labor rights. It is because of that tradition that I love to march, knowing that I am part of something much bigger than myself. The consistency of photographs of people expressing themselves in the streets is vitally important to have in our history books. When people look back at January 2007, they should remember the march on Washington as the defining moment of our time, just as Dr. King’s, Gandhi’s, and Helen Keller’s marches did during their time.
5) Have Fun: Lastly, and most importantly--it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It is almost like being a rebellious kid again. You get to yell and scream, hold up signs and banners, bang on random objects--all aimed at people in power. At the same time you have opportunities to learn, meeting interesting people, be part of history, all while playing a part in the movement for peace.
I believe when people question the effectiveness of these marches, they do have a point. It’s hard to measure the impact of demonstrations. Immediate policy outcomes aren’t the only factor. How do you measure how much thousands of people might have learned? How do you measure bonds being built and communities strengthened? How do you know how history would have unfolded if people did not consistently organize and mobilize against injustices?
Ending a war is no easy task. If one were to size it down to a simple plan, the peace movement has completed the first few steps: 1) We have helped drastically shift public opinion against the Iraq War; 2) We have helped fundamentally change the composition of Congress, which as Senators George McGovern and Mark Hatfield proved with the Vietnam War, has the power to end this quagmire.
All we have left to do is make this new Congress end this war…now.
How is this demonstration going to help accomplish this last step?
Iraq Veterans Against the War member Geoff Millard (who served in the Army for more than eight years, and spent 13 months in Iraq) I believe answered that question best at a United for Peace and Justice organizing meeting for the demonstration,
“When members of Congress say that cutting funds for this war and immediate withdrawal is ‘off the table’ – they are dead wrong. They don’t set the table. We set the damn plates down. We set the damn forks down. And we tell them what is for f’ing dinner. And if thousands of people come to their door, sit down at the table, and tell them that--they will listen.”
It is because of people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Geoff Millard that I am helping to mobilize this demonstration, and why thousands of us will march in Washington. It is because of them, and your need not to be silent, that I think you should march on January 27th too.
Saif Rahman is the Movements Coordinator for Institute for Policy Studies and Youth and Activism Editor for Foreign Policy In Focus. He is on the Steering Committee for United for Peace and Justice.
Copyright 2007 Foreign Policy in Focus