It's been most disturbing this year to hear pundits criticize the effectiveness of the peace movement.
Some grumble about the low numbers of protestors, which they equate with a lack of commitment to oppose the war. Others say the movement is a "dramatic failure" because it's a warmed-over 1960's-style approach to resistance. Still others complain that protesters should find ways to shape foreign policy.
Even the June 2007 edition of the Utne Reader raised doubts about the future of protest movements contending that citizens and government officials are instead coming to the table to solve problems through collaboration and consensus rather than to confront each other and bicker over who is right. Others argue that nonviolent resistance movements are essentially ineffective because they fail to change the power structures or to tap into the elite's conscience.
In other words, some experts are saying that public assembly (a.k.a. peace demonstrations) has gone the way of the buggy whip. How sad. The freedom to assemble is our First Amendment right. I don't think we want to give that one up, too, at least not without looking at what it means.
I have found that participating in peace demonstrations is both an important and an inspiring experience. Walking with other like-minded people in trying to avert the war helped me to realize that I was not alone in my perceptions or beliefs, that I was doing SOMETHING to counter an unjust and unwise government policy and that I wanted others to realize that our leaders were taking us down a dangerous path.
My first march occurred on January 18, 2003, in Washington, D.C. where 500,000 people showed up. It was exhilarating to hear the speeches, see the support, walk through the streets as a group and stand for something important. Making sure the demonstration was peaceful became an act of discipline. Riding a bus for 12 hours and then riding it back after the march made the experience an act of determination and sacrifice. It set the tone of the war for me to adopt a vision of peace and to enact it in my daily life. Such a commitment required a faith-filled belief that I COULD make a difference in the world-or as Gandhi reportedly put it: "Be the change you wish to see."
After the march I quickly recognized that being a peacemaker wasn't something to continue alone. I needed to be with other peacemakers who challenged me to continue my quest. Fortunately, activists in my local community supplied that support through public demonstrations as well as educational programs, congressional letter writing initiatives, newspaper ads denouncing the war, films, potlucks, fundraisers and friendship. Our mission through all of this was simple: to end the war in Iraq-and all war.
This summer during my travels to Italy I was also moved by the many public demonstrations I witnessed. Groups of people took to the streets for various causes. In Perugia I saw youth promoting the eco-friendly rally that would occur on Sunday, September 2 in Loreto (a hill town on the Adriatic) where half a million people would gather to hear Pope Benedict declare that world leaders must make courageous decisions to save the planet "before it is too late." In Assisi I saw people who had walked 10 miles in the hot afternoon sun to honor and emulate the peace saint, Francis, who regularly made spiritual pilgrimages in that area himself. In TrÃƒÂ pani, Sicily, I saw folk groups sing and dance during the passegiatta (the traditional evening walk) in celebration of their heritage. All of these groups attracted attention, excitement, awareness, and fun for the onlookers as well as the demonstrators. They were people on a mission who chose public demonstration as their vehicle of communication-and invitation.
On Sunday, October 7, hundreds of thousands of Italians will gather for a 20-kilometer walk from Perugia to Assisi as part of a biennial march for peace that has been going on since 1961. Many political activists and associations participate but mostly the march is comprised of citizens coming from all over Italy and abroad who use their presence to send a message of peace. This march also attracts 10,000 scouts and the Italian Scout Federation (FIS) is trying to make the event an international one by inviting scouts from all over the world to participate. Oh, how I wish I could be there!
Gathering for public assembly, peace demonstrations, marches for justice are important tools for a democracy. As far as the American peace movement is concerned, I think we ought to give these activists credit for what they have done over the past six years to keep the issue of the war on the front burner.
In 2003 millions of people in this country and all over the world demonstrated against President Bush's idea to start this war with Iraq. The media did not report these numbers or they severely low-balled the estimates of the demonstrations. They did not see fit to acknowledge that 43 percent of the American people were against the war.
Now over 70 percent of Americans are against this war but that's not all. Key Senate Republicans, like Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel and John Warner are abandoning Bush and his Iraq policies. After losing the 2006 congressional elections, the GOP is also worried that 2008 will increase its loses just because of Iraq. Pro-war legislators are bailing out of their bid for re-election. Generals are retiring out of protest to the administration's policies. Veterans groups, active-duty military and military families are speaking out against the war.
The argument against continuing the war has already been made. Only our Congressional representatives who fund the war and who gave Bush these extraordinary powers to wage it remain too queasy to stop it. They are obviously more concerned about re-election rather than saving the lives of American soldiers and Iraqis. A pretty flimsy way to look patriotic.
So let's get the story on the peace movement straight!
I am initiating a project that documents local peacemaking efforts all over the United States and would like to hear from your peace group. What have you been doing to promote peace in your community since 9/11? How effective have you been? Who are some of your local heroes who have made a difference in peacemaking? Send me your stories by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at email@example.com.