The occasional sign at an antiwar demonstration used to ask, "What if they had a war and nobody came?" Unfortunately, right now the question is more like "What do we do when they have an antiwar demonstration and nobody comes?" While I can't readily come up with a satisfying answer to that one, I thought it might at least be a useful first step to find out why they're not coming.
A couple of weekends ago, there was a demonstration against the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle put the crowd at 1,000. I might have said something more - not over 2,000, though - and certainly wouldn't argue with the paper's headline: "S.F. anti-war march smaller than some hoped for."
It reported that "by 2 p.m., the crowd had dwindled to just a few dozen ... when peace activist Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, took his turn at the microphone" (a claim whose veracity I cannot judge as, I too had left for another commitment by that point.) Since more people had turned out to hear Noam Chomsky at a couple of Bay Area appearances the prior weekend than came to the demonstration, the problem obviously wasn't lack of interest in the issues it raised. But as a quoted demonstrator said, "It should be 10-fold" and that probably was about the size it would have had to be to make people feel really good about it.
I decided I'd ask - mostly via email - a group of people, whose likelihood of attending the average antiwar march seemed to range from possible to probable, to "give me some idea of what your reasons were for not coming." The responses will not be confused with a scientific sampling, to be sure, but I was struck by the breadth of the reasons cited as well as by a certain eagerness in putting them forward. People seemed to want to talk about why they weren't there. This appeared to be a question they were asking themselves.
There were, of course, the routine everyday reasons: People didn't hear about it, or at least not soon enough. Some had to be at the kid's soccer game or they were in Portland, Oregon, and the like. Certainly the lack of reach of the publicity on this one did seem particularly pronounced. San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who came to the rally and ultimately spoke at it, told me he'd only heard about it two days earlier through an email reminder I'd sent out. One organizer of the event noted that the two public radio stations most likely to give it advance notice didn't and/or couldn't. (Pacifica station KPFA had been in the midst of an extended on-air fund-raising drive - times are tough there too.)
But some people who cited mundane reasons didn't let it go at that. One who felt he was "suffocating under a blizzard' at work," allowed that it was "not the full story" in that "in the past, I've made the decision to put things off," but "in this case, I have to say that I couldn't face another dispiritingly underpopulated demo." One who'd been out of town for the event noted that "I heard no one say they were going." Her sense was "that people haven't quite ramped up to be full out in their critique of Obama," a theme echoed personally in a reply that "I'm giving the president the benefit of the doubt" and another expressing the desire "to give Obama a chance. I'd hate to see the left do to him what we did to Jimmy Carter; look who that got us as President!"
At this point, the only surprising element about the "Obama factor" is how strong it's stayed for so long. The diminished enthusiasm for antiwar demonstrations aimed at Obama rather than Bush was obvious last spring, but with about half of the population now leaning against the proposal that the Administration increase Afghanistan troop levels a second time in its first year in office, it seemed that the bloom might be off the Rose Garden, but apparently not so much that you'd notice in the streets, anyhow.
And, while those of us devoted to stopping the wars he now presides over may cringe at the thought, let's not forget that Nobel Peace Prize. There were a few who first hoped that the awarding of the prize might be some subtle Scandinavian shaming exercise - giving the award to someone who really hadn't yet done much to promote world peace but, by virtue of his office, had the potential to do so. But Thorborn Jagland, past prime minister of Norway, has since clarified matters. According to Jagland, who currently serves as the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, "we have to look strictly to what Alfred Nobel said in his will - namely, to give the prize to the person who has done the most for peaceful development in the world in the last year. So we got to the conclusion unanimously that it is President Barack Obama." So, absurd as it may be, there are lots of people out there who think that the Administration's performance over the past year is what peacemaking looks like.
And the idea that a Democratic President must be "strong on defense," which is to say that he might have to wage wars that his supporters don't like, is a familiar one anyhow. The thinking goes that he won't be able to fulfill the rest of his agenda if he doesn't, presumably a consideration of some importance to a couple of respondents who cited their engagement in other issues like the national health insurance debate and "fighting the cuts to public higher education" as reasons for their not focusing on the ongoing wars.
The very busy leaflet that announced the October 17 San Francisco rally did address concerns such as these in calling for "Money for jobs, pensions, education, healthcare and housing, not wars & corporate bailouts." But perhaps the nation's track record of producing fabulous wealth - for some - while continuing to spend almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined has made the argument that we can only have "guns or butter" less compelling for some. Maybe we should engage those who want to "give Obama a chance" on a more fundamental point.
The situation we face today is quite a bit different than during the administrations of either Carter - who almost pulled off the feat of having no one killed in combat on his watch - or Clinton - who did order the bombing of five countries and arguably greased the skids for Bush's "humanitarian invasion" of Iraq, but engaged in no sustained combat. We have to go back to the Kennedy/Johnson years to find a Democratic President so heavily involved in military action as Obama is now.
Just as a thought experiment, we might pose to those wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt the question of what we would think if Obama were to actually end our military engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but failed to win reelection to a second term as a result. Would that make him a failure? Is it more important that he walk out of the White House having fixed the home mortgage situation than having stopped eight years of killing than has produced little but coffins and enemies for this country and unmeasured death and destruction in the countries where the wars are actually fought? Or wouldn't we consider his one term the most successful stint served by a President in a very, very long time?
Of course, the more we pose the fundamental questions, the more likely we are to come up against the unpleasant fact that not all of our friends may support our call for immediate withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. For some who may have opposed this war for eight years now, it can be hard to come to grips with the fact that people we traditionally count in the antiwar camp may still be working their way through it. But, as recent statements of members of Code Pink following their visit to Afghanistan showed, there are, indeed, hardcore antiwar activists whose position is that the US needs to set a withdrawal date and work from there. While this does not mean that "Out now" activists should change their position, it may suggest a need to engage with proposals that fall short of the ultimate goal. After all, should we somehow succeed in blocking the troop increase currently under consideration, everything we know about the actual course of the war suggests that the facts on the ground will bring the logic of withdrawal to the fore.
Do they accomplish anything?
Clearly even those dead-set against the wars are not responding to calls to action. Some cite fundamental questions as to the ultimate value of demonstrations. One wrote: "I have to admit, the media blackouts do make me suspect that the mass mobe, however newsy and interesting and it-bleeds-it-leads it was 40 years ago, may have run its course. I don't think I'd argue the point very hard, but it's been on my mind." Another wrote that she "did attend the rally and subsequent march last March. I would say that I have attended about 75% of the peace events in San Francisco, including the one before the invasion of Iraq. I have attended one demonstration in Washington DC," but "my personal belief is that I continue to go to antiwar events because of the benefit I get from seeing and hearing other groups' perspectives on peace issues. I don't really think that the events have much of an effect on the opinions of folks who don't already agree with me that the wars should end."
And there are those who believe that demonstrations like the one on October 17 may actually have a negative impact: "I think it's politically a very bad idea to publicize one's weakness. In my view, that's a major, although unintended consequence of some of these things." For all we know, the demonstration skeptics may be right. We can certainly see how our failure to thwart the invasion of Iraq with the largest pre-war antiwar demonstrations the world has ever seen will suggest to some that they might just as well work around the garden. And if our ultimate argument is simply that it's important to do something rather than nothing, we shouldn't be afraid to say so. As one demonstrator the Chronicle quoted said, "People who have been out here year after year, they're demoralized. It's exhausting. But if I'm not out here, then I'm approving of the current policy."
And there are demonstrations and there are demonstrations - some stayed away because of their sense of what this particular one was all about. One long-time war opponent explained that he had another commitment at the time of the march, "but I cant say I would have shown up if I was free. I don't see any march in SF having much of an impact unless it is both large and broad-based. I think the two are connected. When I see a flyer that says ‘U.S. hands off Iran and North Korea!' it doesn't exactly inspire me to want to get involved."
Were there others who wouldn't come because they weren't comfortable with one or another aspect of the event's stated goals? Hard to say, but there were no shortage of positions to find fault with. In addition to all of the above mentioned issues, the rally's flyers argued to "End the siege of Gaza," for "Self determination for all oppressed nations and peoples," and to "End war crimes including torture! Prosecute the criminals!"
The event's multiple issues raise a fundamental question of organizing. Put in mathematical terms, that question is - When you're dealing with fractions of the population, do you add or multiply? For instance, if one-half of the population opposes the Afghanistan War and one-quarter is concerned with seeing the Israeli Army back off from Gaza, what is the result of combing the issues? Do we somehow add the two groups and wind up with more people on our side - potentially as much as three-quarters of the population if the two groups were entirely distinct? Or do we wind up multiplying the fractions and end up with support of as little as one-eighth of the population - one-quarter of the one-half who agreed with us on Afghanistan? While the goal of all events need not be to appeal to whatever polls tell us is our broadest potential constituency, we probably should at least consider whether we are placing so much on the agenda as to appeal to a vanishingly small sector of the public. In this case, the numerous slogans might have been more appropriately placed on individual banners at a rally that might have been more massive had it been called around fewer issues.
Finally, there were those who were not comfortable with the groups organizing the demonstration, or at least the groups they thought were organizing it.
One person whose absence I'd found particularly striking, given his seemingly perfect attendance record at such things, had been delayed by a meeting and arrived after the march had left, but noted that he couldn't say he "was inspired by seeing the same old radical sectarian tables" at the rally site.
Another said she "wasn't going to go because I don't like ANSWER demonstrations (because they have too many topics) but then I ended up with time on Saturday morning and felt that I'd like to stand against escalation of troops in Af/Pak." A couple of others also cited the fact of the ANSWER Coalition's organizing the rally as a factor in their non-attendance, either because they thought the group had tried to go it alone and failed to have sufficient reach or because they didn't like the type of event the group generally organizes. But they were wrong.
As the rally's emcee told the crowd at one point, the event was actually the product of the combined work of five separate coalitions. While the slim turnout raises the issue of whether the groups in question are really functioning as meaningful "coalitions," the inaccuracy of people's perceptions as to who was behind the demonstrations suggests they may have been looking for reasons not to turn out. All of which raises one of the most fundamental points of this entire discussion. This is not the place to debate the merits or demerits of the ANSWER Coalition, United For Peace and Justice, World Can't Wait, or any other group. The simple fact is, however, that they are the ones trying to do something. As Bay Area newscaster Scoop Nisker used to say, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Ain't nobody else going to do it for us.