A vast and diverse movement turns its energies to halting the Bush administration's war plans — and to creating a vision of the future in which the progressive left sets policy rather than reacts to it.
On the eventing of Oct. 26, after tens of thousands of protesters converged on downtown San Francisco to tell the Bush administration, in no uncertain terms, that they didn't support a war with Iraq, overhead TV news camera shots revealed a march that stretched for miles on end. On the ground it took hours for all of the demonstrators to reach the final rallying point at Civic Center Plaza. They just kept coming.
Even by San Francisco standards, it was a massive protest. And the folks there weren't just middle-class white liberals. They weren't just the young, black-clad antiglobalization anarchists the media love to scapegoat. In short, they weren't the usual crew of lefties you see marching down our city streets every now and then protesting the Gap's use of sweatshop labor or calling for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
And while the march that day — along with concerted efforts in Washington, D.C, and other cities — garnered the attention of the world, it was neither the beginning nor the end of antiwar organizing in the Bay Area. Activism has been taking place on every level — including legislative and educational campaigns, the creation of independent media, direct actions, and cultural work incorporating art, music, and street theater.
Plenty has gone on just in the past week or two: Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, California Peace Action, and the Western States Legal Foundation held a rally at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Veterans Day calling for weapons inspections and disarmament here in the United States. One week later activists locked themselves down at ChevronTexaco Corp.'s Market Street headquarters and splashed the walkway with red paint to symbolize blood spilled for oil. And on Nov. 20 students at campuses throughout the nation are holding teach-ins and walk-outs, conducting polls, and doing banner drops and guerrilla actions as part of the National Day of Student Youth Resistance called for by Not in Our Name. While these activities may not get the kind of press recent large-scale demonstrations have received, they attest to a groundswell of organizing that isn't about to disappear into the woodwork anytime soon.
The making of a movement
Organizing against a war in Iraq has grown rapidly over the past few months. But until masses of people flooded the streets of San Francisco and Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, hardly anybody — including most activists — fully grasped what they had on their hands.
"A lot of people came to a demonstration for the first time [that day]," says Alicia Jrapko, a member of the local steering committee of the International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition. Born out of the International Action Center shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ANSWER had called for the Oct. 26 actions, which attracted between 42,000 (according to the San Francisco Police Department) and 100,000 (according to march organizers) participants in San Francisco and another 100,000 to 200,000 in the nation's capital. Nineteen busloads of activists drove up to San Francisco from Los Angeles, Jrapko says. Countless others arrived from throughout the peninsula, northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and as far away as Tucson, Ariz.
"In San Diego," Jrapko says, "they ran out of buses [to rent]."
ANSWER did extensive outreach to prepare for the marches, but Jrapko says the movement took on a life of its own. "More and more people began calling and attending our Tuesday meetings. People we'd never seen before started dropping by our office," she says.
The magnitude of popular dissent to the impending war — before the United States has so much as begun its first (official) bombing campaign — is exceptional. The country was five years into the Vietnam War before such large numbers of protesters began to hit the streets (see "Planning Ahead," page 20). Groups from the traditional left have experienced exceptional growth. And new coalitions have formed in direct response to the war on terror. Like ANSWER, Not in Our Name has focused its efforts on mobilizing nationwide demonstrations. In February, 40 community-based organizations from across the nation formalized their relationship as Racial Justice 911: People of Color Against the War, a collective effort to stop the war abroad and at home. Among its local members are the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Women of Color Resource Center, Third World Majority, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and many others. A more recent coalition, United for Peace, includes labor unions, churches, and civil rights, women's, and youth groups.
And the numbers continue to swell, as senior citizens, high school and university students, a range of religious denominations, blue-collar workers, veterans, progressive businesses, and women's, minority, and special-issue activist groups put their weight behind the cause. Several constituencies have become engaged to a degree rarely seen before — Arabs, South Asians, and progressive Jews, working with groups such as the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, South Asians Taking Action, and Jews for Peace, have been organizing against the backlash at home and the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East.
Obviously, Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft's attempts to cripple dissent in the United States have backfired.
Activism in flux
While the surge in activism is truly inspiring, the past year has been rough on the left. The passage of the USA PATRIOT Act cleared the path for a fortified government crackdown on activists. Progressive intellectuals have found themselves targeted by Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Lynne Cheney, as well as by Campus Watch (a project of the Middle East Forum inspired by Lieberman and Cheney's report), which kept dossiers on "unpatriotic" academics who criticized Israel's role in the occupied territories and U.S. foreign policy. Activists continue to receive hate calls and death threats. People characterized as the "enemy" — that is, Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, and anybody else who looks the part — have become victims of hate crimes; some have lost their lives. Thousands of Arab men have been rounded up and detained indefinitely without charges.
As a result, the racial justice and anti-corporate globalization movements, which had been growing in maturity and gaining ground since the mid '90s, found themselves on the defensive. Years worth of efforts to gain amnesty for undocumented Mexicans were completely subverted by renewed anti-immigrant sentiment. And as public focus was redirected to the "war on terrorism," activists calling attention to issues that affect people of color, including high amounts of industrial toxins in poor neighborhoods and the burgeoning prison industry, lost the limelight — and with it, some of their momentum.
But a remarkable thing happened: rather than allowing themselves to be driven underground, activists have been spurred to rethink their tactics and work together.
"After Sept. 11 our work took many steps back," says Raquel Laviña, program director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to fighting police brutality and advocating for alternatives to incarceration. Laviña is also a member of Racial Justice 911's interim steering committee. "The political environment changed. Funding changed."
Groups working individually in communities of color, she continues, were left with two options: "Either hunker down and hope to survive ... or come together, look at how we've been impacted, and figure out what to do."
Activists like Laviña recognized that, in the United States, low-income people of color are likely to bear the brunt of a war — as more resources are redirected toward military campaigns and social services diminish, and as disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos are sent to the front lines as foot soldiers.
Yet these new conditions also created new possibilities for action. The immigrant rights and criminal justice movements, for example, had for the most part functioned separately. Now those issues have become so intertwined that the people involved must, of necessity, pool their efforts.
"Those in the social justice movement must learn to deal with the war in order to advance their ongoing agendas," War Times editor Bob Wing says. "Those who, prior to Sept. 11, already incorporated a global analysis into their activism, like environmentalists and immigrant rights advocates, [are better prepared to make that transition]."
Keepin' it real
As traditional activists recoup and adapt to the shifting political terrain, one central question looms: How do you build a broad-based, inclusive antiwar movement without losing critical focus on the root causes of militarism and war? Without a deeper analysis of how corporate interest drives our domestic and foreign policy, leaving poverty and environmental destruction in its wake — and of the risks inherent in a single superpower unilaterally imposing its will on the rest of the world — new crises are bound to arise. And the left won't be prepared to avert them.
There's a tremendous amount at stake. "If the U.S. goes to war, it'll speed up U.S. aggression around the world and against its own people," Wing says. "If we stop the war, the Bush administration will lose some momentum."
Large numbers of people marching in the streets is crucial to this task. But as more and more join up, the peace movement becomes more mainstream. Wing and other activists argue that, in the long term, the movement must find ways to illuminate the broader political connections.
Antiglobalization organizers are well positioned to help make use of widespread discontent with Bush's war drive and place it in a more critical context. Since well before Sept. 11, many have been taking a hard look in the mirror and asking how they can make themselves more relevant to people who don't already share their views.
"We've been grappling with questions like, How do we build coalitions and alliances? How do we break out of single-issue work? How do we use our resources and strengths to support and build the capacity of communities that are the most impacted — communities that don't often have their voices heard in these struggles? How does corporate greed manifest itself on this planet?" says John Sellers of Ruckus Society. One of the core groups of the anti-corporate globalization movement in the United States, Ruckus specializes in training activists on strategy and the tools of nonviolent direct action. "It just takes tweaking the perspective a little.... Once you start connecting the dots, it ain't rocket science."
So groups like Ruckus have begun lending their efforts to local struggles — in immigrant and labor communities, for example — and infusing them with a global-justice perspective. And they've begun tailoring their messages to address mainstream Americans' concerns. If people at the center of the political spectrum are worried about their safety, the activists talk about education and health care at home — parts of our social infrastructure placed at risk by making the drive to war our spending priority. They talk about creating safety for Americans abroad through a just foreign policy and relying on international law as an alternative to guns and bombs.
The alternative media have focused significant attention on the fact that some of the key organizations driving the peace movement are rooted in hard-line left groups not known for their coalition building. It's a debate sparked by criticisms rallied against the two main organizers of the recent large-scale, nationwide protests, ANSWER and Not in Our Name.
But Communists and Socialists have played important roles in a lot of mass movements in the United States for nearly a century — including those to stop the war in Vietnam and in support of farmworkers and political prisoners. In many cases, the movements just grew beyond them.
"I find the level of spotlight on those groups highly objectionable and a form of [red-baiting]," Wing says. "I don't understand why, if they do something sectarian, it gets so much more attention than if another sector of the left does."
"Besides," Steve Mikulan argues in a Nov. 1 L.A. Weekly article, "who else has — or would — mobilize a peace movement? The Democratic Leadership Council? Christopher Hitchens?"
Still, some critics charge that the WWP and the RCP have hijacked broad-based movements in the past and, in doing so, robbed them of their vitality. Others worry about those groups' reluctance to incorporate other voices at their rallies. "If we get people from middle- and working-class neighborhoods to come out to a demonstration for the first time, we need to really inspire them, Sellers says.
After all, he says, "There's nothing more radical than ordinary people doing radical stuff."
The challenge ahead
Most people we talked to agree, however, that the activism happening today has the potential to bring about real social change, regardless of whether or not it actually succeeds in stopping Gulf War II — as long as organizers play their cards right.
"It's tough being in reactionary mode all the time," Global Exchange founding director Medea Benjamin says. "It forces us [to follow] the president's agenda.... We've been constantly distracted, since Sept. 11, from core economic issues. We need to get back to the fundamental issues."
The left also must learn to become relevant to people and must offer a viable alternative to the way things work now.
"We need to articulate a proactive program," says Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "In some ways the antiwar movement is a movement of opposition. We have fanatics trying to impose religious domination on the world. We have fanatics trying to impose corporate domination on the world. And us, what do we propose?... Nobody should take the left seriously if we can't make one neighborhood that works."www.sfbayguardian.com/37/08/cover_movement.htmlE-mail this article