April 29, New York City. The sun was shining. It was cool but not cold. You might say it was a picture perfect day for a demonstration. We were at Broadway and 22nd Street.
The plan was to proceed down Broadway to Foley Square in lower Manhattan for a “peace and justice festival.” All the usual suspects were there: some with costumes, some with signs, some with musical instruments, some with video cameras, and a few with “stop bitchin’ and start the revolution” T-shirts. For over an hour we waited in place.
Then slowly, peacefully, between metal police barricades we began to make our way downtown. When we reached Houston Street in Greenwich Village an officer with red cheeks, white hair, a policeman’s paunch, a bullhorn and a New York accent instructed us to stop so he could let traffic pass through our line. We did as he instructed.
“Thank you folks for your cooperation,” he bellowed moments later. “Hope you are enjoying the beautiful weather. Isn’t it a great day to be out in the sun?”
Was this man ridiculing us? Was he showing off for his fellow officers? Had we become a joke? No matter. People applauded his good natured aplomb. Meanwhile in Iraq United States soldiers were breaking into houses and shooting innocent Iraqi civilians.
Soon we reached Foley Square. There you could buy buttons, bumper stickers and t-shirts or sign petitions at information booths that progressive organizations had set up. There, too, you could listen to the raging Grannies sing. Meanwhile, in Guantanamo another prisoner was being tortured.
And so it went. And so it goes.
We are law abiding citizens in an outlaw nation. For three years now we have taken to the streets to protest the war and the occupation. Yet our protests have become steadily smaller, less focused, more anemic and ineffectual. Hence, one could not be faulted for wondering whether they are organized by the Bush administration to allow us to blow off steam.
We came, we marched, we went home. The next day a story in the New York Times reported we had “waved signs, slapped drums or simply enjoyed the pleasant weather.” The story appeared on page 35.
Yes, we had become a joke.
We had done nothing to prevent business as usual. We hadn’t blocked traffic, or taken over universities, or prevented army recruiters from visiting high schools. Our march, therefore, was a parody of a protest. It was nothing like the demonstrations that took place during the war in Vietnam. But then the organizers of anti-war demonstrations had two advantage we don’t have now: body bags and charismatic leadership.
Of course, in this war we have body bags too. But apparently not in sufficient numbers to make people stand up and pay attention. In Vietnam nearly 50,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in action. So far in Iraq there have been about 2,400. Most citizens, therefore, do not have the visceral understanding of the cost of the war in Iraq that comes through the loss of a loved one. Hence, it is that much more important for us to help them understand the war’s other costs. We need to realize, in other words, that while many may not be motivated to man the barricades out of concern for the lives of others be they Iraqi or American, most will take to the streets to end the war if they realize it is one of the reasons they can’t get health insurance.
Charismatic leadership is another advantage organizers against the war in Vietnam had which organizers against the war in Iraq don’t have. During the Vietnam era, for example, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and J. William Fulbright were among numerous Democrats who, following the lead of Martin Luther King and other prominent individuals, took up the anti-war mantle. Today there is not a single member of either major party or a single prominent individual that can be singled out as a leader of the anti-war movement. Furthermore, in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh led an anti-colonialist movement which attempted to unify his country under a socialist government. Hence, many progressives in the United States saw his cause as just and supported his struggle against the attempt to prevent him from achieving his goals. Unfortunately, however, there is no comparable leader in Iraq today who can help generate enthusiasm for the anti-war effort.
Nevertheless, present day activists against the war in Iraq have two advantages that the organizers against the war in Vietnam did not have. First, as an illustration of just how undemocratic our foreign policy is they can point to the fact that though 70% of the people are opposed to the war or “occupation” few members of Congress vote against the appropriations that keep it going. Second, in an effort to debunk the myth that our government has an enviable record of promoting democracy they can point to its involvement in the 1973 overthrow of the democratically elected government in Chile along with its previous involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Iran and its long history of support for repressive dictatorships around the world.
In summary, as anti-war activists most of us are aware that the Bush administration is killing and torturing innocent civilians, undermining democracy and violating the law at home and abroad, and harming everyone of us in a myriad of ways in the process. Our job, therefore, is to force it to change course. We cannot do that by organizing additional peaceful marches. Hence, we need to rethink our strategy. We need, in other words, to up the ante. Our enemies are in Washington, D.C. not Baghdad. It is time to bring the war home.
PAUL CANTOR is a professor of economics who lives in Norwalk, CT.