On June 4, a reported 150,000 Italians rallied in Rome to protest the Iraq war during a state visit by President Bush. A day later a disconcertingly small, if energetic, contingent of some 2000 Americans rallied in front of the White House and marched to the private home of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Though a steady drizzle on Saturday certainly hurt attendance somewhat, the dismal turnout at this latest U.S. protest event, organized by A.N.S.W.E.R., may be an indication of the challenge ahead for the U.S. left, as a combination of protest burnout (the women’s march a month ago had brought over a million demonstrators to the city), the lack of a Democratic alternative on the war, and the at least short-term success of the administration’s efforts to “tamp down” the crisis in Iraq have made organizing protests a lot more difficult.
The Washington event, while sparsely attended-mainly by hard-core radicals and protest veterans, but with a broad age and racial mix– did its best to compensate in creativity and passion for what it lacked in numbers. The idea of marching into the posh residential district in northwest Washington where Rumsfeld’s historic old brick home is located, to bring the war and the protest literally to his doorstep, was a dramatic touch. So too was the Arab-looking guy who came dressed in black pajamas, and stood silently on a wall opposite the Rumsfeld’s home, arms spread, a black hood over his head, and two electrical wires dangling from his hands, the spitting image of the Abu Ghraib prisoner whose picture had so shocked the nation and the world a few weeks earlier.
The demonstration also featured a powerful speech by Michael Berg, father of the Nick Berg, who was decapitated by a group of fanatics in Iraq in April. Berg, a former high school history teacher, while condemning his son’s murderers, lashed out at the Bush administration and the occupation authority in Iraq for “callously” detaining his son for nearly two weeks, “in effect tying him to the track until it was no longer possible to escape that speeding hate train.”
His voice cracking with emotion, Berg evoked the “I Have a Dream” speech of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., saying that the war itself, like the killing of his son, was racist act, and that the way to combat it was “peaceful direct action now.”
Most of the rhetoric at the demonstration in Lafayette Park, and later in front of Rumsfeld’s home, was aimed at the Bush administration, and at America’s imperialist foreign policy. Surprisingly little was said about either the Democratic Party or its presidential standard bearer John Kerry, though both the party and Kerry himself were accomplices in the run-up to the war, and though both have offered little in the way of a critique of the ongoing conflict.
The police presence at this legally permitted rally and march was minimal and uncharacteristically low-key, with few officers in riot gear visible anywhere near the demonstrators. For the most part, the National Parks Service Police and local Washington cops on duty seemed relaxed and at ease. The only tense moment came when police initially sought to block the marchers from entering the narrow street on which Rumsfeld’s house is located. As the marchers piled up against a police barricade, and demonstrators took up a loud chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!” the police reconsidered, and eventually withdrew their barricade, allowing the marchers to surge through. A police cordon was re-established on the sidewalk in front of the Rumsfeld house.
Although this Washington demonstration was tiny (ANSWER Claims there were 5000 demonstrators, which seems highly optimistic, and notes that there were two simultaneous rallies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they say attendance was slightly higher), especially compared to other such actions over the past year, the protesters were greeted enthusiastically along their march route, with people waving from the sidewalk and from apartment windows, suggesting that support for the anti-war movement is much broader than the demonstration’s turnout might suggest. With the exception of a noisy little crew of yamukah-wearing Zionists carrying signs saying that “There is no Palestine” and a small mixed chorus of La Rouchies singing some incoherent ditty, there was almost no heckling either at Lafayette Park or
along the protest route.
There appeared to be no violent incidents on the part of either demonstrators or police, and there were no reported arrests. The march broke up around 4:30 pm.
No one can predict the weather, of course, but the poor turnout at this latest protest was not just the fault of the elements, and suggests that the U.S. anti-war movement needs to organize harder, to reach out more broadly, and to time actions to correspond with dates or events that will make it easier to galvanize support.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of Counterpunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press.