Americans of All Stripes Gave Peace a Chance

The silence over the Iraq war is over. This past weekend’s anti-war march in Washington was a huge success. The hardcore left organized it, but everyday people gave peace a chance. The crowds that rallied in Washington would have felt right at home in Manhattan.

Critics of the march were offended by its demand that the U.S. “get out of Iraq now.” The crowd supported more than ending the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The people I talked to supported the end of large scale defense spending and a drastic increase in domestic spending and humanitarian aid. They want the Democrats to move left. Had mainstream Democrats participated they would have had to chance to reach a new and energized constituency. But most leading Dems look to prove themselves with a tough national security policy, and they’re not busy boning up on the potential benefits of diplomacy.

Current thinking has it that the United States was attacked, that terrorism is real, and that an unwavering global response is required. But do we really need 12 humongous attack aircraft carriers to stop airplane hijackers and guerrilla warfare? The end of the Cold War did not bring a reassessment of our military buildup. That opportunity was lost when the Gulf War created a new pride in the American military. The bipartisan support for this new fangled bias in American foreign policy toward military solutions is detailed in “The New American Militarism” by Boston University Professor Andrew J. Bacevich.

Leaders of the nation’s liberal left to a large degree stayed away; it was the hard left groups related to the Workers World Party that showed the greatest presence as organizers of the event. The group is so hardcore that it still has a “secretariat.” ANSWERS, their peace group, had the greatest visibility with huge tents close to the stage. A separate coalition, United for Peace and Justice, that organized protests against the Republican National Convention last year and pre-war rallies in early 2003, was the lead organizer for protesters traveling to Washington from the city, but relations between ANSWERS and UPJ had become frayed by this past weekend. They issued separate press releases.

Liberal critics of the rally are harsh. They despise the event organizers who they say make no effort to reach the moveable middle. Their critique focuses on the speakers and the insiders behind the scenes. David Corn, Washington correspondent for the Nation magazine, slammed the rally organizers. It “was a pander fest for the hard left. The burgeoning anti-war movement has a large recruiting pool, yet the demo was not intended to persuade doubters,” he wrote in a column for the LA Weekly. Corn believes peace Democrats must recruit the voters who don’t want abrupt, unilateral action on the war question.

But if one focuses on the crowd, the peace rally represented the nation and did not fit the negative picture critics painted of the march. They came from all 50 states and included lesbians from Omaha and a busload of activists from North Carolina that was followed by the local television station. There were veterans and their friends and families. They were the students who join the gay-straight alliances in their high school, and who wear pins supporting gay marriage. They will be the physicians, lawyers, schoolteachers, and physicists of tomorrow.

A group of Franciscans whose provincial chapter had voted almost unanimously against the war attended. Rob Mayer of Washington, D.C. explained, “It’s part of who we are. If we were not here, we’re not where we should be.”

Janet Pitts of Pittsburgh, with two children in the military, said, “I don’t want to become a gold star mother, and I don’t think it’s a noble cause.”

An Air Force retiree who never saw combat said his views about war hardened in 1971. He was in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital for his retirement physical and saw the double and triple amputees recuperating from the Vietnam War. He said he sympathizes with the poor kids who “are being lied to by recruiters.” William Hines of Tampa spends his time talking to high school students, but the school board in Hillsborough County, Florida won’t let him into the high schools.

Jon Plotz, an English teacher at Anoka High School in Minnesota, said, “I don’t believe war is the answer. There are other alternatives.”

Many New Yorkers who hoped to be on hand were missing for most of the day. An electrical failure prevented their chartered train from reaching Washington on schedule.

The crowd knew what it wanted—spending on domestic affairs and cutbacks in military spending. “Make Levees, Not War” reflected the crowd’s spending priorities—a drastic change in emphasis that would make the U.S. more like Europe with its free healthcare and higher education.

Several themes were constant—Bush lied, bring the soldiers home now, end racism, and the U.S. should follow different goals. The crowd was overwhelmingly white but agreed the nation is divided along crippling racial and ethnic fissures. The organizers equated the war on terrorism with racism against Arabs and Muslims, though whether the crowd explicitly agreed was less clear. They definitely believed American soldiers were serving because they were poor, and had few choices for earning a living.

The huge crowd filled a space the size of four or five city blocks. An anti-war rally was long overdue. Even without the right to assemble in Central Park in August 2004, UPJ turned out hundreds of thousands during the Republican Convention to protest the war. The organizers of this past weekend’s event exceeded their goal of 100,000, the hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, agreeing with the District’s police chief estimate of 150,000.

Some in the crowd may have been turned off by the anger of the hard left, but for the vast majority the speeches were pitch perfect. The crowd went wild when Cindy Sheehan appeared because the loss of her son gave her a special legitimacy, which she has nurtured since she camped out near President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Her activism has clearly encouraged other servicemen and their families to speak out against the war.

Bob Borsage, a veteran of the Students for a Democratic Society that grew up in the ‘60s, still advises progressive causes. He told Corn, “Organizing against the silence is important. History shows that protests are organized first by militant, radical fringe parties and then get taken over by more centrist voices as the movement grows.”

It’s too bad that so many New Yorkers let themselves be put off by this past weekend’s organizers. Had mainstream liberals embraced the marchers, they could have made new friends. Had the New Yorkers participated in big numbers, the peace turnout in Washington would easily have topped a quarter million.