The Only Way Out is Through Protest

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Carl Sagan, an astronomer and a humanist, would have been heartened by the march of tens of thousands in Manhattan as a pushback against climate destruction. Sagan was immersed in the humanities and a public intellectual. He held his banner high for action to stop the heating of the planet by burning fossil fuels and the folly of war and superstition.

Sagan spoke eloquently of the power of science: “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

The fossil fuel industry knew, as early as the 1950s, that the use of the fuels they produced would create global warming. The industry suppressed its own research.

In 1982, a million people marched against nuclear proliferation and for nuclear disarmament in New York City. It was breathtaking to look east across Manhattan and see avenue after avenue in the distance filled with people demanding an end to nuclear weapons madness!

The difference in attendance between the two demonstrations, both protesting an existential threat, has more to do with the times than with the pressing need for demonstrative action on both issues. The Nuclear Freeze Movement that culminated in the march was close in time to the Vietnam antiwar movement and benefited from the latter and the masses of people were still willing to come out in protest. Although there have been large protests against issues such as income inequality and war, as with Iraq in 2003, the trajectory of protest has been in steady decline. Some of the latter may have been caused by the atomization of protest in movements of narrowly defined interests.

It may be that the Nuclear Freeze Movement helped, to some degree, motivate Gorbachov and Reagan to negotiate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987, but the influence of protest years earlier is impossible to discern. Donald Trump abrogated the treaty in 2019, one of the most significant treaties of the nuclear era and immensely important in Europe today.

There are public intellectuals today, but the rightward move of people and governments diminished their influence across the globe. Ignorance, greed, power, religious fundamentalism, and a meanness of spirit seem to infect our times. The effects of right-wing activism are called by many names: American Exceptionalism, populism, nativism, militarism, racism, nationalism, consumerism, and Americanism. The same infectious epidemic of the political, economic, and social right moves well beyond the borders of the US. Ordinary people are hurt by corporate greed and domination.

I recently completed a Google search looking for major companies in the US that support war and militarism. Repeated rewording of the search led to a cul-de-sac that filled my computer screen with references to the Russia-Ukraine war. With every search, the results were the same. Changing a search term did little to the results. The same result happens daily in the mass media, both print and online. That there was ever a strong and vibrant antiwar movement in the US is a chimera according to the talking heads, the influencers, and the mass media pundits.

I learned the habit of recognizing companies involved in war from the Vietnam era. One example from that era was Dow Chemical, which for a time produced napalm, an antipersonnel weapon that already had a long history of use in war. The masters of war adopted the euphemism of collateral damage to explain the effects of weapons such as napalm to justify the unjustifiable. International law, codified in the Geneva Conventions, was rejected. The UN Charter and other rules and laws of war mean nothing in the current full-spectrum dominance of US hegemony. One of the major photos of the war was of a young girl running down a road in Vietnam, her flesh burned by napalm.

That photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc had an untold influence on those opposed to war and who would continue to hold opposition to war as a defining feature of their lives and their protest.

Despite the hesitancy of the US public to endorse wars following the war in Southeast Asia, the Reagan administration would soon monopolize on the just-ended Iran hostage crisis to begin the incremental movement toward the acceptance of war. Reagan’s drive to sanitize war was called low-intensity warfare. It was an incremental movement to make the world safe for war.

George H.W. Bush took Reagan’s so-called low-intensity warfare in nations in Central America and South America, long the Monroe Doctrine’s backyard, and destroyed the Vietnam Syndrome. One US pilot called the strafing of Iraqi troops fleeing Kuwait a “turkey shoot.”  Bush’s bellicosity may have been, to some extent, an attempt to shore up the public’s perception of him. There were elements of exponential bellicosity in George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” regime change war in Iraq in 2003 that successfully removed his father’s nemesis from the international and Middle East stage. Nearly two decades of civil war in Iraq followed. US troops remain in Iraq today. Iraq never had the so-called weapons of mass destruction or a nuclear bomb. It was a simple regime change operation with false so-called intelligence reports in the mass media, a part of which would become cheerleaders for war. There were no valid sources about Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons programs. The reporting of the mass media, and particularly of the New York Times, was worse than shoddy. The Iraqi government had shown support for the so-called War on Terror unleashed following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Soon after the terror attacks, the government launched a frontal assault on the rights of ordinary US citizens that contravened Constitutional guarantees about unwarranted searches and seizures and privacy. The Bush administration, with the full support of Congress and the federal courts, went to ludicrous lengths in attempts to destroy Constitutional protections. The Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to monitor the library reading habits of ordinary people.

The US entered its epic of full-spectrum military dominance across the globe using huge amounts of fossil fuel and leaving a military imprint on places as diverse as Somalia, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and a whole host of other sovereign nations. Additionally, US economic sanctions could affect civilian populations, in contravention of the rules or laws of war, if a nation was in the crosshairs of US militarism. Iran is a prime example of a broken nuclear agreement by the US. Donald Trump abrogated decades of nuclear weapons agreements and stoked the current Ukraine war with arms to fuel Ukraine’s military.

Domestically, the US war against poor people reached new plateaus with mass incarceration and militarized police on the streets enforcing racism with brutal attacks against unarmed members of minority groups. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011-2012 saw similar police actions across the US with brutal repression at the movement’s epicenter in New York City. A spate of police murders from Freddie Gray in Baltimore to Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner murdered for the capital offense of selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island. Militarized police were a direct result of the attempt to squelch domestic dissent as far back as the Vietnam War antiwar protest movement.

The late war resister, journalist, and writer, David Harris, said that we couldn’t have anticipated the magnitude of the reaction against the inroads of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Harris was right. The culture wars began and Reaganism was the first major pushback that continues today in the coalition of the religious and the political right with militarism and economic inequality as its hallmarks. The Democratic Party’s march toward neoliberalism began soon after the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and his administration’s New Deal. Joe Biden is the heir and champion of neoliberalism with environmental destruction through expanded fossil fuel production and use, gross domestic inequality, and endless wars carried out in the trillion dollar massive military presence across the globe.

Besides a very small segment from the Weather Underground, part of the Revolutionary Youth Movement, who believed masses of young people and the poor would form the so-called vanguard of the revolution, most who were active members of civil rights, antiwar, and environmental groups were reformers of various kinds. Many favored nonviolent direct action. Most wanted a reformed system not so unlike the society during the New Deal, a movement that enjoyed substantial union rank-and-file support. US official acceptance of racism during the New Deal was eschewed by most activists.

The government and society have moved far away from even moderately liberal New Deal ideals and actions. Masses of children, harmed in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, fell back into poverty because the government here has no backbone or principles of fair play and common decency.

Rallies are great and they serve, in a small way, the purpose of organizing people. However organizing for demonstrative action seems to be on the agenda of only small atomized groups. The power elite, as was true during the suppression of the Occupy Wall Street movement, will act swiftly in response to organized efforts to stop their nefarious and deadly objectives.

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