To March or Not to March: Why are the Streets Nearly Empty?

I couldn’t get to the January 25th antiwar rally. Viewing photographs of that sparsely attended rally drives home the fact that the antiwar movement is nearly dead in the US. Perhaps it is dead and I cannot bring myself to accept that fact? Only days later, bellicose Trump presented a laughable plan for peace in the Middle East (New York Times, January 28, 2020) that endorsed the land-grabbing policy of Israel that has been a de facto reality on the ground for decades. Only a few weeks before, Trump had ordered the assassination of an Iranian general (Suleimani) and others in drone attacks. Abraham Lincoln said that assassination was “international outlawry” in 1863, but the lessons of history or moral compass of so-called contemporary leaders never gave that pronouncement much attention.

Following Trump’s election in 2016, many left protesters and theorists advised that doing anything material (protesting, writing, working for left causes, etc.) was of the utmost importance in the face of the far-right’s fascistic juggernaut. Not so! Without nonviolent civil disobedience in the streets, a movement withers and remains ineffective. The failures of the peace, women’s, environmental, and pro-immigrant movements are examples. Mass incarceration is yet another glaring example. That’s how fascism works. It eats up, intimidates, and marginalizes otherwise valid movements. Then it outlaws those movements. A friend from college told me that she was afraid of violence breaking out at the first women’s march in 2017 and did not attend.

Antiwar activism became so diminished under Obama (“How Obama demobilized the antiwar movement,” Washington Post, August 29, 2013) that studies documented the retreat from the streets, even as his administration conducted a troop surge in Afghanistan, a county that has been devastated as much by the US as it has been by warlords, the Taliban, and the former Soviet Union. US support for warlords during the Soviet war there left an opening for the ongoing destruction of that country that continues today. A training ground and base for the murderous henchmen of al-Qaeda was yet another outcome of endless wars there. According to the Guardian, the US dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan last year and the reaction of the remnants of the antiwar movement seems to have been a yawn.

The late antiwar demonstrator and co-founder of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman, said that “the young must be there.” The young never came back to the streets in large numbers following the Vietnam War and with no skin in the “game” they’re not likely to return soon. Readers may cite the enormous outpouring of people on the streets during the Nuclear Freeze Movement, or the protest in the run-up to the 1990-1991 war in Iraq (first Gulf War), but neither of those movements changed the reality of war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In both movements, an older and graying cohort of demonstrators seemed to be the norm.

What is the effect of street demonstrations and rallies in 2020? I think the answer is likely nothing or close to nothing at all. I would like it to be otherwise, but the handwriting is on the wall and it has been there for sometime now. It is no longer a case of the White House feeling besieged by protest as it felt during the Vietnam era. A guess is that not one person in the White House gives a damn about street demonstrations anymore and they aren’t about to break into a sweat over the issue. Trump orders the assassination noted above and not many seem to care and nothing even near a critical mass arises.

Anyone, or any group, that is perceived to be a threat to the military-industrial-financial complex will be dealt with in a Draconian manner, or simply dismissed by the mass media. The case of Chelsea Manning comes to mind. She languishes in jail and the government seems to be content at having thrown away the key to her cell. Where is the outrage?

When people take direct action against the military-industrial-financial complex such as the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Movement, they are likely to be imprisoned for years. If radical environmentalists dare to do something illegal such as trashing SUVs in a dealer’s lot, then the same Draconian forces will come down with the wrath of God on their heads. But the political and economic systems around the world can despoil the environment with abandon and nearly nothing is done!

During the Vietnam War, there were contending forces beyond the street demonstrations of the 1960s and early 1970s. One movement, and I was a proud member of that group, actively resisted the war in meaningful ways such as draft and military resistance. Others, such as the Weathermen, committed and planned incredibly dangerous, illegal, and counterproductive acts such as planning an attack on a dance at a military base in the US, and killing police and a security guard during the Brinks robbery (carried out by former Weather Underground members and others) in New York. They killed three of their own while manufacturing bombs in the West Village of New York City. One faction of the Weathermen thought a Maoist movement among youth in the US would come out of their actions. Such delusional thinking!

Sometimes attacking innocent people in war zones has long been the modus operandi of the US government, one such attack is graphically illustrated in Iraq called “Collateral Murder.” Drone warfare is another tactic that the government uses and almost always involves the death of innocent civilians in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. Illegitimate state-sponsored violence has generally been accepted by many people in the service of empire and profit.  Notice that the vile Trump does not face impeachment for acts of war outside of the rules of war, incitement to violence, or profiting from the office of president. The ruling class would never allow those charges, and where are the thousands who need to be in Washington, D.C. to protest that travesty?

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).