On April 29, over 300,000 people gathered (depending on who you ask) at 22nd Street and Broadway to begin New York’s latest large-scale march in protest of the war in Iraq.
Headlined by war-bereft military mother and peace activist Cindy Sheehan and actor Susan Sarandon, the marchers charged their way through downtown New York, culminating their processional with a “Grassroots Action Festival” at Foley Square.
The next day, they can hardly have been surprised that the protest didn’t rate an A1 treatment from The New York Times.
But more galling was the reaction of New York’s oldest lefty newspaper, The Village Voice.
In an article headlined “How to Kill a War in 10 Not-So-Easy Steps,” the newspaper founded by Norman Mailer in 1955 wagged a patronizing finger at the organizers, then archly offered suggestions from lobbyists and consultants on how to actually end a war.
Not, it seems, by protesting.
Inside the ranks of many of these protests, there’s a certain sluggish, defeatist feeling. One wants to contribute to the event’s body count. But will it be reported accurately? And does it matter how many people show up at a protest anymore?
“The peace movement’s floundering,” said Bill Dobbs. Mr. Dobbs served for three years as the media coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, one of the largest activist coalitions in the city. But he left earlier this year.
“People really have to sharply focus on why Congress is allowing Bush to continue this war,” he said.
Many who grew up in the protest politics of the Vietnam era remember a city engulfed in anti-war sentiment, the streets teeming with protesters. The comparison with those heady times is inevitable—and only makes the current street culture seem relatively anemic.
“During Vietnam, which was obviously more unpopular, but even before it became this unpopular, there were lots, lots, lots more protests,” said Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?
So what’s the matter with New York?
“Movements tend to thrive when some critical mass of people have reason to believe that their activities are actually going to have an impact on policy,” the old-school lefty, 60’s protest leader and Columbia professor Todd Gitlin said. “And they don’t think there’s one chance in a billion that demonstrations will change the mind—if that’s the right word—of George Bush, so there’s a sense of futility as well as uncertainty.”
Peter Yarrow, one-third of the eponymous protest-pop trio Peter, Paul and Mary, knows the feeling.
“I’m not surprised. Dismayed, but not surprised,” he said.
He said there was a marked difference in the political climate today.
“You don’t have a ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’” he said. “You have Michael Moore, and that was a powerful piece of propaganda, but it was not something that made people rise to the occasion. Propaganda is most effective in terms of making people function deliberately out of animosity and with a sense of rejection of something.”
And a combination of the first two leave people feeling disempowered. “People say, ‘We’re whipped,’” Mr. Yarrow said. “That’s all a very serious recipe for the breakdown of not just dissent, but reasonable democratic dialogue.”
Even Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, admits it’s been quieter in the peace movement of late—despite the fact that polls show widespread disenchantment with the war.
“Like any movement, there are moments when it’s stronger and more visible, and moments when it seems to be quieter, because it’s less visible,” she said.
Ms. Cagan pointed out that there is small-scale anti-war activity bubbling up every week—a vigil here, a few placards there—but said that since the media tends to overlook them, nobody really knows about it.
“I think the anti-war movement has not gone away, has not shriveled up,” Ms. Cagan said. “It’s not dying.”
It may not be dying, but it isn’t a growth industry either. If the goal is to bring about social change, and that doesn’t seem to be happening as a result of street demonstrations, then there must be other motivations (pet causes like Mumia, zealous obsession with one’s opponents) that drive people to participate in protests—which then turns certain other people off of protesting at all.
Mr. Frank said that he was interested in doing research into the topic, but his sense was that the way Americans regard protesting now is as more of “a therapeutic thing.”
Another survivor of the Vietnam culture wars seemed to agree.
“There are always people around a social movement who feel so passionately that they have to do something. They’re not making calculations about consequences, they just want to let everybody they can know how they feel,” said Mr. Gitlin.
The Peace Lobby
But those who remember the Vietnam War protests also know that this anti-war movement isn’t the same in ways that go beyond numbers. Perhaps there is a vibrant anti-war movement, but it’s not conspicuous, with people working mostly behind the scenes.
“I would have expected more [from the movement], given the absence of finding weapons of mass destruction and the unexpected way this war has transpired,” said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University who studies war and public opinion.
But, he added, “it’s probably normal, and probably Vietnam wasn’t. The Vietnam protest movement was unique. We’re getting the same reaction at home now as there was during the Korean War and others.”
And it may be that the politically powerful protests against the Vietnam War were indeed a sort of anomaly. This is the peace movement in its midlife crisis, re-evaluating, strategizing.
Increasingly, groups like United for Peace and Justice are resorting to small-scale methods to advance their agenda.
One of the primary targets of their attention is presumptive Presidential nominee Senator Hillary Clinton, whose vague, hawkish stance has hardened into protective body armor as she frets about her standing in the red states.
“I can’t tell you how frustrated some of my colleagues have been, because many of them probably worked to help elect Senator Clinton six years ago,” said Sally Jones, the chair of Peace Action New York State. “Then when she voted for the war in November 2002—she, who would know more than anyone what kind of power that gave a President—people sat down in her office, they called her, there was intense lobbying on both of the Senators, and it didn’t do anything.”
“A lot of our member groups have tried to meet with Hillary and have gotten nowhere,” said Ms. Cagan. “There have been meetings with people on her staff. That’s an opening. Obviously, it would be better if we could meet with her directly, especially since she’s supposed to be the listening Senator.”
Ms. Cagan said that dogging the Senator over the war has become something of a full-time job for a small but dedicated group of rebels. She herself had just returned, earlier that day, from a demonstration outside the Hilton where Ms. Clinton was hosting a luncheon. “There were 25 or so people out there, because her position on the war is so atrocious,” Ms. Cagan said. “That’s just one indication that people are as determined and committed as ever.”
The petition that has been circulating in the House of Representatives calling for a debate on the war may seem farfetched, but if a majority signs onto it, they’ll have to argue for something like 35 hours. And then there’s the New York City Council’s registered stance (along with about 100 other cities across the country, according to Ms. Jones) opposing the conflict.
One action that Ms. Jones and her group are taking is to encourage individuals to sign a “peace voter pledge,” which is going around the city (and nationwide) via paper and online petitions. It commits the signer to casting a vote only for candidates who take a clear position that “we need to exit from Iraq.” Ms. Jones added: “Which means you can’t vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Other tactics that only require small handfuls of people have also proven effective—and given that Congress is the only body in a position to influence the President, some activists, including Mr. Dobbs, are urging the full focus of the anti-war movement’s resources on it.
Last week, for example, demonstrators gathered at 14 Congressional offices around the state of New Hampshire, reading the names of soldiers who’ve perished in Iraq. The whole operation involved around 50 people, according to the Associated Press, and six of them were arrested for refusing to leave Representative Jeb Bradley’s office. But so far, nothing like that has unfolded in New York.
“Thinking back to the early years of ACT UP … ,” said Mr. Dobbs, “in politics, you’ve either got to have a lot of money or votes to deliver—if not, pressure, clamoring, noise in Congressional districts around the country.” The key, he added, was to have even a small group of agitators relentlessly heckling and embarrassing the members of Congress in their hometowns on the weekends. “When they go back to Congress, they’ll tell their colleagues in the cloakroom, ‘We’d better do something about this war.’”
“Protests as a tactic are about raising public awareness, and it helps organize people who are not engaged,” said Tom Matzzie, the Washington director for MoveOn.org. But “the theory our members share when they join with us is that they’re going to create change in an election.”
They are mostly focused on the election in 2006, he said, and nudging the House of Representatives into Democratic Party hands is the critical end goal. Which is offering a delicious hint of hope. “Six months from now, you could be heading into a Congress where some of the most powerful chairmen are staunch opponents of the war,” Mr. Matzzie said, citing the anti-war Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha and the primary in Connecticut, where Ned Lamont is challenging the hawkish Joe Lieberman for his Senate seat. “That would be as big, or bigger, than we’d be able to win on any weekend protest right now.”