Turns out the peace movement was right about the war in Iraq. What that means for us going forward, and what it says about our democracy
It was a time without precedent in American history. The commander-in-chief voiced his intention to take the country to war — a voluntary, preemptive war with no clear catalyst, no faraway invasion or Pearl Harbor or sinking of the Maine — and millions of people shouted their opposition. With plenty of time to avert war, the protesters warned the invasion would be a costly disaster.
They were right. And it didn’t matter.
The war in Iraq was a test of our democratic ideals. It was a test that this country failed, a failure that has been felt by the people of the United States, Iraq and elsewhere for the last five years. For many, the refusal of the U.S. government to heed the demands of its citizens left them feeling disillusioned and disempowered.
But others say it sparked a political change that awakened an apathetic citizenry, pulled the Democratic Party back to the left and may have averted war with Iran.
It is certainly arguable that the presidential campaign of Barack Obama owes its energy and success in part to the antiwar movement — and if Obama wins, he will be the first president in a long time who took office thanks to the support of a strong grassroots progressive movement.
Nowhere was the clash of people power and government will more acute than on the streets of San Francisco, where a series of massive marches, some drawing nearly 100,000 people, filled the streets before the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. The onset of war led protesters to effectively shut down the city, resulting in about 2,300 arrests and millions of dollars in costs to the city.
President George W. Bush dismissed the protests, of course, but he wasn’t the only one. Political leaders such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then-Mayor Willie Brown and soon-to-be Mayor Gavin Newsom (who didn’t attend any of the marches, unlike progressives on the Board of Supervisors) condemned the peace movement for hurting an innocent city. But with the “battle for San Francisco” making international news, the protesters were more concerned with the global audience.
A month earlier, on the weekend of Feb. 15-16, there were coordinated protests against the impending war in about 800 cities around the world, drawing around 10 million people. The peace march in Rome included about 3 million people, earning a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest antiwar rally in history. People have never made such a loud and clear statement against an incipient war.
Beyond the numbers, the antiwar movement was also right. On every major issue and prediction, the messages from the street proved correct while those from the White House were wrong. The United States wasn’t welcomed as a liberator. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq after the invasion isn’t a stable democracy or shining beacon to anyone but the new generation of jihadis Bush created.
We can blame a hardheaded president, ineffectual opposition party, failure of the national media or the national climate of fear following Sept. 11. But rather than re-fighting that lost battle, now is the time to gain perspective on the events of five years ago and determine what it means for democracy and the post-Bush national agenda.
To the streets
Two main umbrella groups organized protests before the war: Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) and International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). ANSWER has remained active, and DASW was recently reconstituted for the fifth anniversary of the war, using direct action in San Francisco as well as other urban centers and outposts like Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, Calif., which has reportedly been processing Iraqi oil.
“With the fifth anniversary … we’re going back to direct action on the streets,” said Henry Norr of DASW. “But I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to be like it was five years ago.”
The maddening march to an ill-advised war created a political dynamic in which a broad cross-section of Americans was willing to hit the streets.
“We had a wonderfully diverse group of people, from soccer moms to anarchists,” said Mary Bull, who cofounded DASW, a collective of various affinity groups and concerned individuals formed in October 2002, as Bush started beating the drums of war. It was a group fiercely determined to prevent the war — and really believed that was possible. In fact, Bull recalls how she and other members of the group burst out crying at one meeting when a key activist said the war was going to happen.
Richard Becker, who co-founded ANSWER and serves as its West Coast coordinator, said that in the summer of 2002, “we came to the conclusion that (the war) was going to happen.” The group called its first big protest for Sept. 15, 2002, and another one two weeks later. But the movement really exploded on Oct. 26, when almost 100,000 people took to Market Street, much of it a spontaneous popular uprising.
“We were overwhelmed,” Becker said. “We were in a perpetual state of mobilization to keep up with what was going on. But then it didn’t stop the war.”
Did he think they could?
“I think a lot of people thought maybe it was possible to stop it. And we thought maybe it was possible to stop it,” Becker said.
The high point, according to Becker and Norr, was Feb. 17, 2003, when The New York Times ran a front page analysis piece titled “A new power in the streets” that claimed “the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” But then Colin Powell went to the United Nations to argue for the invasion, and the Democrats in Congress did nothing, and it became clear war was coming.
Norr stayed out there protesting, being arrested several times and even shot in the leg by Oakland police with a rubber bullet during a protest at the Oakland docks. And he thinks that some good came from the experience.
“The lesson for people is the political and economic elites are committed to preserving and extending empire. And they basically say as much in their own writing,” Norr said. “Wars are not anomalies.”
Despite being a frustrating and depressing exercise, most saw benefits to the failed movement. “People got an incredible education about how the system really worked,” Becker said. “Building a movement is mostly about a series of setbacks.”
Medea Benjamin, cofounder of both Global Exchange and Code Pink and a fixture of the anti-establishment peace movement for years, was upbeat about the protests. “We did our job as citizens. We did what we were supposed to do: organize, get people to take action, get people onto the streets,” she said. “We did everything we could think of.
“What you take from it is, we don’t have a very well-developed democracy because the people spoke and the government didn’t listen.”
The collective action of five years ago starts with a series of personal stories — tens of thousands of them — so let me briefly begin with mine.
My arrival in San Francisco was closely tied to the march to war. I was living in Sacramento and working as the news editor of the Sacramento News & Review when Bush began his saber rattling against Saddam Hussein, but by the end of 2002 I had a falling out with my boss and found myself jobless. Like most Northern Californians who opposed the war, I came to San Francisco on Jan. 18 to make my voice heard and experienced a bit of serendipity on my way to Justin Herman Plaza: while reading the Guardian on Muni, I saw their advertisement for a city editor, a job that was ideal for me at a paper I’ve always loved. Needless to say, it was a great day, empowering and full of possibilities.
Less than two months later I was on the job, and on the second week of that job I was back on the turbulent streets of San Francisco, part of a Guardian team covering the eruption of this city on the first full day of war. When I stepped off the cable car just after 7 a.m., people were streaming up Market Street and I joined them.
When a large group stopped at the intersection of Market and Beale, I stopped too, taking notes and bearing witness to this historic, exciting event. I had a press pass issued by the California Highway Patrol that allowed me to cross police lines, so when police in riot gear surrounded us and threatened arrest, I held my ground with 100 or so protesters.
After interviewing about a dozen people about why they were there and that they hoped to accomplish, I was arrested with the others and taken to a makeshift jail and processing center at Pier 27 (no charges were filed in my case, and charges against all of the 2,300 people arrested here in those first few days of the war were later dropped).
I recently tracked down a few of the people who appeared in my article, including Daphne and Ross Miller, who were at the center of the most interesting drama to play out during our standoff with the police. She’s a family practice physician, he’s an architect, and they live in Diamond Heights with their two children, Emet, who is almost 9, and Arlen, 12, who was away on vacation when the war began.
“We were genuinely shocked that the war started,” Ross told me. “We were at some of the earlier protests and really thought there was no way (Bush) could do it.”
They woke up March 20, 2003, to news that the war had begun and immediately walked to the BART station with Emet and rode to the Embarcadero station, not really planning for the day ahead but just knowing that they had to make themselves heard.
“We were pissed as hell. I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry in my life,” Daphne said.
They quickly came up with a plan. “We basically decided that if anyone was going to be arrested, it was going to be Ross and I’d stay with Emet. But it didn’t end up that way and I ended up in the arrest circle.”
Daphne had their house keys and threw them over the police line to Ross at one point. A photographer in the circle had gotten shots of a man named Roman Fliegel being roughed up by police as they pulled him off his bicycle, which was towing a trailer with a sound system, and decided to throw his backpack with camera gear out as well. When Ross — who had four-year-old Emet on his shoulders — caught it and refused police orders to give it to them, police grabbed Emet and roughly arrested Ross, leaving a gash on his forehead.
“Rage surged through the crowd, and it seemed as if things might get ugly, but the police kept a tight lid on the situation, using their clubs to shove back protesters who had moved forward,” I wrote at the time.
Emet was delivered into the circle with Daphne as the arrests continued, many quite rough. “At that point, as a mom, I had to exercise the most restraint ever,” said Daphne, who was angry about the situation but fearful about what she was exposing her son to. “Please, don’t let any violence happen here,” she pleaded with the crowd. Eventually, commanders on the scene let the mother and child go.
“The officer who let me go said that if he saw me again out there, he would call Child Protective Services on me,” Daphne said. But two days later, still brimming with outrage at her country’s actions, she ditched a downtown medical conference to rejoin the street protests, this time solo.
The couple say they’ve lost friendships over the war and have become more engaged with politics, coming to believe that Bush and the neocons are malevolent figures who knew how badly the war would go and did it anyway to establish a large, permanent military base in Iraq.
“Since that day, we’ve been far more active,” Ross said. “We realized you can’t just trust the system. You have to push.”
But that determination was mixed with feelings of disempowerment and depression. They attended some of the protests that following year, but the couple — like most people — just stopped going at some point because they seemed so futile.
“There was a horrible sense of resignation and a genuine depression that followed,” Ross told me.
The nadir was when Bush was reelected and they considered leaving the country. But then, Ross said, “We decided we’re not just going to run away and we’re not going to accept this.” Looking back, even with the scare over Emet, they express no regrets.
“It was the right thing to do because it was the wrong war to have. I’d do it again and again and again if I had to,” Ross said.
They’re guardedly hopeful that Obama could begin to turn things around if he’s elected. “I think the right president can at least start to dismantle this,” Daphne said. “I think thousands of people marching in the streets is something he would listen to.”
Witness to history
Covering the peace movement in those early days was a heady experience, like reporting on a revolutionary uprising or working in a foreign country where the people are organized and active enough to be able to shut down society and brave enough to risk bodily injury for their beliefs.
I was at the founding meeting of Code Pink — which became the most effective group at personally confronting the warmongers and keeping the war in the public eye — one evening at Muddy Waters in the Mission District shortly after the war started.
Looking back, Benjamin rattled off a long list of the alliances the group built — with labor, churches, businesses and a wide array of social movements — and creative actions intended to build and demonstrate popular support for ending the war.
“We’ve done so many things and what did we get? We got a surge,” she said. “It shows the crisis in our democracy, the crisis of the two-party system, the crisis of a dysfunctional opposition party.”
Yet she said the peace movement has been remarkably successful in convincing the public that the war was a mistake and that it’s time for the troops to come home, even if the Democrats have been slow to respond to that shift.
“The progress we’ve made is turning around public opinion, and that’s going to play a big role in the upcoming elections,” she said. For Norr, the role of the news media is a particular sore spot. He was a technology reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle who called in sick on the first full day of war and was arrested on Market Street with his wife and daughter, resulting in suspension by editor Phil Bronstein for his actions.
I wrote several stories on the issue, which culminated in Norr being fired and Bronstein unilaterally banning Chronicle employees from peace protests. I even borrowed Code Pink’s guerilla tactics when Bronstein repeatedly refused to return my calls or address why he had singled out antiwar protesters for uniquely punitive treatment. I confronted him during a speech he gave at the Commonwealth Club. That was the tenor of the times: we were all tired of being lied to and we decided to push back.
Norr was particularly frustrated with his own paper’s reporting of the war and started sending articles by the foreign press to his paper’s news desk, trying to wake his colleagues up to the pro-war propaganda being passed off as journalism in this country.
He was also disappointed with the country and with the Chronicle — both the management and his fellow reporters, who did little to support him — but the experience caused him to return to his roots as a progressive activist.
“The war and losing the job and everything brought an abrupt end to my consumerist phase and dumped me back into the world of being an activist,” said Norr, who has made three recent trips to the Palestinian territories while working with the International Solidarity Movement.
Benjamin said Americans shouldn’t expect the next president to end the war — not without lots of pressure from a renewed and vocal peace movement. “This is the time to set the stage for the post-Bush agenda,” Benjamin said. “Don’t put your hopes in Barack Obama in getting us out of Iraq. Put your hopes in the people.”
One of the biggest barriers to galvanizing people and turning the fifth anniversary of the war into something that might make a difference is the presidential election, which is diverting the energy of many potential protesters — and at the same time, offering some hope that a new president may lead to peace.
After all, every single one of the Democratic presidential candidates had promised to withdraw troops from Iraq, with varying timelines and numbers of U.S. personnel left behind. And with enough encouragement, they might be willing to help change the status quo.
Many of the activists who volunteered their time and money to help move the Obama campaign into its front-runner position came out of the antiwar movement, and Obama’s strong stand against the war has been a key factor in his popularity.
Becker and some other activists don’t have much faith that a change in presidents will change the course in Iraq, although he agrees that much of the energy now surrounding Obama derives directly from the antiwar movement.
“There’s been a huge upsurge of hope for Obama and that he might bring about the kind of change we need,” Bull said, adding that she doesn’t share that hope, believing the only path to peace is to pressure Obama and other leaders to commit to more progressive positions.
Norr said, “On one level, people have illusions about the power of peaceful protests. People believe in democracy, as well they should. We feel like the rulers should be paying attention to public opinion.
“It’s a remarkable story how broadly and quickly the American people have turned against the war. Public opinion was certainly ahead of the Democrats.”
And people will only grow more disenchanted with Iraq and its multitude of costs. “The people here are paying for this war, and every day we have new stories about health clinics being shut down,” Becker said.
Becker was amazed last March as massive demonstrations for immigrant rights seemed to explode out of nowhere. “We think there will be more things like that,” he said.
Because after five years of organizing communities to resist the military-industrial complex’s plans, Becker thinks there’s been visible progress.
“There isn’t a town or hamlet in the U.S. that doesn’t have activism going on, but you wouldn’t know it from the corporate media,” Becker said. “It’s a mistake for people to feel discouraged.”
This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian (www.sfbg.com). Contact the writer at [email protected]