The People Speak:
Crowd in DC says, "Give Peace a Chance"; Activists Not Swayed by Powell’s UN Address
WASHINGTON D.C.—On Saturday, Jan. 18, the nation’s capital was the epicenter of a series of worldwide demonstrations advocating a peaceful resolution to the standoff with Iraq.
Crowd estimates climbed into the thousands in Rome, Florence, Vienna, Tokyo, and across Ireland, France, and New Zealand; into the tens of thousands in Portland OR, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal; and into the hundreds of thousands in San Francisco and here in Washington. While the U.S. Park Police no longer tally figures for demonstrations on the Mall in Washingtion, estimates from D.C. police, media, and organizers vary from around 100,000 to 500,000.
To put these numbers in perspective, if the actual number lies in the middle of these two figures, then one percent of the entire population of the US marched against the war in Washington alone, on a day when the temperature never rose above 24 degrees.
According to A. Robert Kaufman, a Baltimore resident who ran for U.S. Congress from Maryland’s Seventh District in the 2002 Democratic primary, the Bush administration has manufactured its rationale for going to war with Iraq.
"There’s no logical reason," Kaufman said. "If [Saddam Hussein] were a threat to his neighbors, his neighbors would want war against him. You have an impoverished Third World nation that we’ve been bombing for thirteen years, and this huge threat to the world can’t even shoot down one of our g*ddamn bombers!"
An organization called Veterans for Peace was one of the most visible groups at the demonstration, thanks to the "chickenhawk" placards many veterans carried. Veterans for Peace defines a "chickenhawk" as a hawkish national leader or pundit eager to send troops into conflicts though he himself declined the opportunity to serve in a foreign war. Each sign had a picture of a grinning politician such as Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Joe Lieberman, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Trent Lott, or Elliott Abrams, topped by the words "NEVER SERVED."
According to Korean conflict veteran Bill Ney, "Since I was born, it’s only been ten years total that we haven’t been at war with someone. And probably during those ten years, we had some kind of war that I didn’t know about. It just goes on and on and on."
Wearing a stars-and-stripes-colored hat in the shape of the peace sign, Teresa and her husband Keith, who describe themselves as "pro-capitalists against the war," came from Houston, Texas, to participate in the rally.
"We’re very concerned about Bush endangering more Americans," said Teresa. "And we can’t afford it. There are budget deficits everywhere: the state of Texas has a budget deficit. He’s going to start cutting social programs."
In addition, Teresa blamed rising fees and tolls in Texas on the federal government’s prioritization of military build-up in Iraq over aid to struggling state economies.
Communities of faith were especially prominent at Saturday’s march. One of the largest church delegations came from Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC. Nearly forty church members, from pre-teens to seventy-somethings, chartered a bus and slept on the floor of a D.C.-area church gymnasium in order to attend the march.
"As a Christian, I believe we’re called to be peacemakers," said Grace Episcopal member Don Richter, "particularly in relation to Iraq and our threat of a ‘preemptive strike’ and an invasion of that country.”
Richter stressed that his political stance is not a matter of religious dogmatism, but of religious compassion. "We’ll be joined today by people from all faith traditions, by people who don’t have faith. In the public square, we have to be open and tolerant. We can have a zeal for truth, but we also have to have a zeal for tolerance."
Political consultant and fellow Grace Covenant PC member Marcy Onieal agreed. "Nobody should force their own religion on somebody, but on the other hand, we are all moral creatures," said Onieal. "I want my political leaders to act in a moral fashion, so I have to live that and set that example as well. This is one of the single most important moral issues facing us right now. If we can’t apply our religion and faith to the real world, what good is it?"
Onieal also insisted that an attack on Iraq would be unwise for pragmatic reasons. "By unilaterally taking action against a ‘rogue’ nation, all we’re doing is setting up a scenario whereby people there would feel justified in taking action against us."
War and its attendant civilian casualties, she said, would only fuel the resentments that inspire terrorism. "I don’t think you can ask the world for peace when you yourself are being the aggressor."
At the march, many Grace Episcopal members carried signs with Bible verses on them, such as "Blessed are the peacemakers—Matthew 5:9," "Seek peace and pursue it—Psalms 34:14," and "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation—Isaiah 2:4."
Others in the march carried signs ranging from the sincere ("Peace is patriotic") to the subjective ("Conservatives against a war in Iraq") to the sardonic ("We’re from Texas and we’re here to take George back").
From a balcony overlooking the march route, a handful of College Republicans unfurled a banner reading, "Hippies go home!"
Several protestors shouted in response, "We are home!"
Scott Stewart, national chairman of the College Republicans, explained why he supports the use military force against Iraq. "I’m not interested in seeing Iraq be able to threaten the United States in the way that North Korea is able to threaten the United States. The reason why the United States cannot go after North Korea right now to prevent terrorist acts or the use of their nuclear weapons is because they have them already. Iraq is on its way. We have to prepare for that."
Not surprisingly, Micah White, a founding member of the pro-peace student activist group "Why War?," took a different view. According to White, it is unreasonable to expect military action to neutralize the crisis in Iraq since U.S. military aid in the Iraq-Iran War made their weapons programs possible.
Moreover, White asserted, military solutions have only further destabilized other crisis areas in the Middle East. "The Israel/Palestine situation, for example, is arguably the result of America’s endless drive to feed our military-industrial complex," White said. "We have militarized Israel to such a degree that war is simply inevitable."
Since the march, the Bush administration laid out its case for war in at presentation given by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN on February 5. Secretary Powell showed satellite photographs, played recordings of intercepted communications between Iraqi officers, and quoted mostly unnamed sources to support their allegations that "Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction."
But the presentation did not seem to change many minds among the January 18 demonstrators. Jason Kafoury, media coordinator for the advocacy group United for Peace and Justice, was particularly unimpressed. "I saw no evidence from this presentation that Iraq presents an imminent threat," said Kafoury, who helped organize the Veterans for Peace "chickenhawk" campaign. "I was shocked how many billions of dollars we spend on our intelligence and defense and how little evidence we had to show for it. It was totally speculative with nothing concrete to back it up."
Kafoury said that even if Iraq is hiding forbidden weapons, that does not justify a preemptive strike. "If we have intelligence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, we should give that information to inspectors and allow them to destroy those materials."
White found it is telling that Bush is having trouble gaining international support to use military force. "Essentially it is becoming undeniable for many people that Bush’s approach is ineffective and detrimental to the world."
For some of the DC marchers, such as Kaufman, anti-government feelings motivated them to demonstrate. "We have a whole government that’s absolute bullshit and the people of this country ought to recognize that," said Kaufman, who said he is no longer affiliated with any party, though he professed socialist leanings. "Knowing what I know, if I wasn’t out here I’d be like a good German."
According to Kaufman, "When we complain that ‘Gee, this guy used poison gas on people’—He was our good buddy when he did that. We gave him the paraphernalia to make the poison gas. And then we did his spin doctoring for him when he poisoned the Kurds by saying ‘it’s probably the Iranians,’ and when that didn’t float we just shut up about it.
"Then we say, ‘Well he’s invaded his neighbors twice.’ We put him up to it in both cases. We encouraged him to invade Iran, and a million people died because of that. And then we encouraged Kuwait to slant-drill [oil] from Iraq under their border. Why else would Kuwait want to do that unless we had said, ‘Do it and we’ll take up for you, we’ll protect you.’? And then when [Saddam Hussein] asked our ambassador, ‘What would you do if I invaded Kuwait, because it’s hurting us economically?’ He was told in so many words, ‘Go ahead, do it! We’ll do nothing! This is an inter-Arab thing, it’s none of our concern.’
"Then," Kaufman continued, "it took weeks and months [for Hussein] to gather his troops to invade, and we’re just whistling in the dark while it’s all going on. And when he invades, Bush [Sr.] is shocked, like the scene in Casablanca—shocked!—to see this invasion."
Adam Eidinger, who has been organizing protests against bombing Iraq since Clinton’s presidency, claimed the current standoff is more about control of oil resources and boosting Bush’s popularity than any threat Iraq might pose, though Eidinger supported the Gulf War in 1991.
"I would say I was pretty much brainwashed by the media and by my own family," said Eidinger, who also briefly served with the Israeli Defense Forces, strong advocates of a military overthrow of the Iraqi regime, in 1996. "In hindsight, I think Iraq was convinced by the U.S. [in 1990] that they had a greenlight to go ahead and invade Kuwait and take the resources because Kuwait was considered one of the provinces of Iraq."
Eidinger and Kaufman’s claims appear to be based on transcripts of negotiations just prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. For example, according to transcripts from July 25, 1990—eight days before the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion—the United States’ then-ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told Hussein that Washington had "no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. Secretary [of State] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960’s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."
Days later, according to the late King Hussein of Jordan, Kuwait’s foreign minister told him, "We are not going to respond to [Iraq, which was calling for negotiations]. If they don’t like it, let them occupy our territory. We are going to bring in the Americans." The Iraqi government later confronted the minister with a memo, allegedly found post-invasion in a Kuwaiti intelligence file, recounting an agreement between the Kuwaiti security chief and then-CIA director William Webster that Kuwait could rely on the highest level of U.S. cooperation in its border dispute with Iraq.
Nonetheless, Scott Stewart, national chairman of the College Republicans, characterized protestors like Kaufman as unpatriotic.
"Most of them are anti-America. They’re not necessarily anti-war protesters. They’ve been hating America for a long, long time. They hated America back during the IMF thing," Stewart said, insisting the protest-at-large was a consortium of fringe groups. "This is not really representative of the American public."
Micah White objected to such charges. "I am troubled that anyone would be disillusioned by protests being anti-American," he said. "Most people are protesting the way America currently is because it has deviated from the way they think America should be.
"America as it is now needs drastic change," insisted White. "We need to stop being a world superpower who exports military aid and sweatshops to every conceivable nation and we need to build a better world. If holding this position alienates people from the movement then I really don’t know what to say."
Stewart questioned whether the protestors were part of a viable political "movement" at all. "This is amusing for these people to be doing this," he said. "They fly across the country and make puppets and have fun together. It’s a peer group that enjoys themselves, they enjoy each other’s company, and they’ve been doing this since Seattle years and years ago."
Stewart’s allusion pertains to protests organized by groups such as the Mobilization for Global Justice that began in Seattle in 1999. A regular fixture of these protests is street theatre, including puppetry, on political themes. Once again, the drumming troupes, puppets, and men on stilts were out in force for the D.C. event, lending some sections of it a carnival-esque atmosphere.
"This time around I helped organized a drum corps," Eidinger said. "We had a couple of hundred people with drums. Very loud group. We just stuck together the whole day. We didn’t even watch the speakers. We just were drumming the whole day. We wanted to make noise. Hanging out with a bunch of people drumming who are screaming and yelling and just having a great time is a good way to keep people’s energy up."
Despite these staples of contemporary American protest, all the participants interviewed for this report agreed that there was a greater diversity of age, race, class, and political affiliation on display in the January 18 rally than in previous protests sparked by the Seattle event.
White claimed the increasing number of participants from veteran, youth, union, church, and university groups in protests of the past year indicates a popularizing of dissent. "I think what we are seeing is that more people are willing to put themselves in direct opposition to Bush’s politics," White said. "This has a lot to do with Bush’s inability since Afghanistan to deal with multifaceted foreign policy."
However, White said he worries organizers’ focus on the war with Iraq at the expense of the broader global justice movement represents a missed opportunity to educate the people within the broader coalition who only came to protest the war.
"My fear is that people will lose sight of this larger political goal and instead focus on issues that are symptoms, not root causes, of the problems in today’s world," White said.
Despite the large turnout, participants had to acknowledge that there are no prominent congressional leaders from either party, including all the front-runners campaigning for the 2004 presidency, willing to oppose a military strike on Iraq.
"I tend to side with Democratic leadership in most cases," Grace Episcopal PC member Richter said. However, on the issue of war and national security, he said his party’s leaders, including his senator from North Carolina, presidential hopeful John Edwards, have let him down.
"I felt very discouraged by the debate to give Bush the right to move forward on this," said Richter.
Likewise David Williams, who came to the protest with his teenage daughter. "I can’t see that they [i.e., the Democrats] are willing to stand up for what the people believe and what they sense-they have to be able to have some sense-that [war] is not a healthy choice," said Williams.
Kaufman, who abandoned the Democrats after his congressional bid met with defeat in the party primary, said he is not surprised by the party’s stance. "The Democrats are just kind of soft Republicans on this," he said. "The foreign policy of our country exclusively exists to maximize the profits of the international corporations who in turn finance the elections, Democrats and Republicans."
Onieal said she too is fed up with the two-party system. "Both parties are pretty much owned by corporate interests. It’s big money that talks and big money that has power, but I don’t personally feel that either of our parties represents my true interests. Probably the Green Party would come closest."
Eidinger, who was fired from a Democratic consulting firm for his activist activities and has since served on D.C.’s Green Party steering committee, culminating in an unsuccessful 2002 campaign for the D.C. Shadow Representative seat in Congress, described the current political climate as a "one-party system."
"I don’t think there’s a big difference between Democrats and Republicans when Democrats can’t muster enough of their own party to oppose the war," Eidinger said. "I think it’s clear that if the entire Democratic Party opposed the war in Iraq we would not be looking at it as if it’s inevitable."
Some, such as White, see the lack of an articulate spokesperson as an even bigger problem. Since the march was held on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, speaker after speaker invoked King’s legacy. But White flatly stated the peace movement of today has no speaker or orator of his stature, capable of galvanizing a broad base of people.
"There are regional and intramovement speakers but there is no one who has yet been given the role of the voice of the movement to the wider population," White said. What is needed, according to White, is "someone who is able to articulate a very systemic critique of America that is palpable to John Doe watching television. The problem is that no one will satisfy everyone, but someone is definitely needed."
The question becomes, if an antiwar movement does not have anyone speaking for it in the halls of power, can it be effective?
"No," Korean veteran Ney said. "[The government] is just so bent on this now, they’ve got thousands of troops now in the region. To turn back now would be a great act of courage, I think, on his [i.e., Bush’s] part. And I hope he has the courage to do it, but most politicians don’t."
"I’m getting cynical in my old age," Ney said, with a weary smile. "But I know this: the people in the streets stopped that Vietnam War. I don’t know think there’s any question about that."
Teresa from Texas expressed more optimism. "I think it’s already effective," she said. "It is slowing him [i.e., Bush] up. And the European protest will slow him up more because he won’t get that coalition."
She expects the protest movement to be even more effective in the long run. "I am going to believe that we can stop [Bush]. Women got the right to vote by protesting, blacks got the right to vote by protesting, and protesting does work."
Not according to Stewart. "I don’t think they [i.e., the demonstrators] have really any political clout to change policy," he said, "or else I think you’d see politicians talking about it. I don’t think that it’s particularly important."
White too questioned the efficacy of standard protest methods. "The movement must embrace new techniques, otherwise it will both alienate individuals who feel extremely strongly about these issues and it will fail to appeal to a new generation of activists," he said.
Though White applauded organizers for the protest’s turnout, ultimately, he said, gathering a crowd of people in one spot is not enough. "Now that the movement knows it can attract a sizable amount of people over the age of 30 to events, there needs to be a coordinated effort to spread information. There should have been teams of people writing down contact information" and doing community outreach to help empower people in nearby inner-city areas, White added.
Kaufman voiced his own qualms with the movement-at-large. "Too much of the peace movement is saying, ëIt’s all right to kill ëem [i.e., the Iraqis] if the UN agrees, but not if they don’t.’"
However, Kaufman said, he is encouraged by historical parallels. "I was very active in the anti-war movement around Vietnam, and it was years before there were mass demonstrations. Here there’s a mass demonstration before the g-damn war even starts. That’s symbolic as hell."
Williams agreed. "I choose hope over the idea that there’s none," he said. "We’ll see, but the more this happens the better chance that the people will make a difference."
However, Williams said demonstrations alone probably won’t be enough, and that people need to "make face-to-face confrontations with senators and congresspeople from the people and constituents, ask for evidence for war, and ask for other priorities to be considerd."
"There is more you need to do," echoed Teresa from Texas. "You need to write your congressman, you need to call the President, and let your legislators know that you’re against it. And come out into the street. And sign petitions."
White added that there needs to be a greater emphasis on nonviolent civil disobedience. Though there was a nonviolent "direct action" youth protest on Sunday, Jan. 19, in which several people were arrested, White said these strategies need to become part of the main event so that older participants can become involved.
"I find it problematic that the police are able to dictate the protest route," White said. "Seeing 40-year-olds being arrested because of their anti-war beliefs sends a very strong message to the world. As a movement we have to be willing to violate the laws because the laws are carefully crafted to silence our dissent to the greatest degree possible."
However, White stressed, "It’s very important that people understand violence is not at all what is needed. Once civil disobedience becomes violent the movement will be demonized, we will lose the sympathies of most people, and we will forcefully be broken up. We are, after all, a movement for peace."
For her part, Onieal said she is skeptical that activism, much less civil disobedience, can have a broad appeal in this country. "The average American, as long as they have a job and a place to sleep and are reasonably comfortable, doesn’t feel often moved to make a statement."
On the hand, marching with hundreds of thousands of like-minded people encouraged her. "I don’t think that any one march or any one protest in and of itself will change anything, but when other people see the magnitude and strength of these voices all raised in a united statement, then our leaders can’t help but pay attention to what’s being said," Onieal said. "Ultimately it will have an impact. I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t think I would have an impact. There were half a million people-whatever the number was-had they not been here we would have said nothing."
Richter explained, "When there’s a critical mass of consciousness in one place, it happens in other places too. I think we’ve seen that in the past with things like slavery, where people in different parts of the world even-it wasn’t always a cause and effect-started saying, ëThis is no longer right, we can no longer tolerate this as an institution, as a way of doing things.’ And so each time people engage in this kind of nonviolent witness for peace, that’s part of what we hope for: that it will be not just an episodic phenomenon, but that it will take root and blossom in other places, too."
But regardless of the outcome or effect of the protest, Richter said it is his duty to do what he feels is right. "In the life of faith we’re called to do things, to be faithful in ways that won’t always be successful by the world’s standards. When we bear testimony, there’s an efficacy in that in a greater sense, even though there may not be in the proximate, political sense. What appears at the beginning to be maybe inconsequential or ineffective doesn’t mean it will end up that way."
Meanwhile, Kafouri and other organizers are looking ahead to the next event. "All efforts are building for February 15 in NYC, where we’ll have the largest world demonstration against war in recent memory."
Brad Carlton is a contributing editor and commentator for The Baltimore Chronicle.
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This story was published on February 10, 2003.