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A Hundred Peace Movements Bloom | The Nation

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A Hundred Peace Movements Bloom

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This article is part of the "Waging Peace" series, covering the movement that is emerging across America to oppose war on Iraq.
   --The Editors

Esther Kaplan is co-chair of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which has
endorsed United for Peace.

Click here for a list of activist groups opposing war on Iraq.

About the Author

Esther Kaplan
Esther Kaplan is investigative editor at The Nation Institute, and author of With God on Their Side: George Bush and...

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Even with an enemy as easy to hate as Saddam Hussein, the Bush Administration's war plans in Iraq have awakened "huge reservoirs of unease" in the American public, says Peace Action spokesperson Scott Lynch. The Administration's bullying autumn war drive, its explicit discussion of pre-emptive strikes and regime change, its overtly corporate agenda on energy and oil, and its early, arrogant attempts to make war without Congress, let alone the United Nations, unleashed a flood of antiwar sentiment and activity across the country. The sheer breadth of this opposition could help to birth one of the largest antiwar movements in US history--that is, if these politically diverse antiwar eruptions can join forces as a movement at all.

So far, the strength of the opposition is certainly not its unity, but its diversity. Here, for example, is a snapshot of the New York City antiwar movement in the final days of November: Uptown, black and Latino youth activists and tenant organizers huddle in a back room, discussing how to turn out bodega owners and taxi drivers for their December 14 march in Harlem "for schools and jobs, not war"; while downtown, a collection of apron-clad activists, from such global justice outfits as Reclaim the Streets, hold a "bake sale for the military," a propaganda stunt to promote an antiwar listserv. Some 2,000 high school students walk out of their classes to protest the war, organized by one antiwar coalition, Not in Our Name, and a week later, a thousand African-American congregants pack the rafters--and basement--of the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn for an antiwar town meeting sponsored by another national coalition, International ANSWER. Meanwhile, coalition-averse artists, interior decorators, restaurateurs and go-go boys calling themselves "Glamericans" meet to plan a star-studded antiwar bash designed to reach those who get their news from MTV.

Glance around the country and one sees this diversity multiplied: People came out for peace marches and vigils even in such conservative redoubts as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Anchorage, Alaska. An estimated 100,000 turned out for a march in Washington. Such mainstays of the institutional movement as NOW, the NAACP, the National Council of Churches, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the California Labor Federation--organizations that collectively represent millions of Americans--have all issued strong antiwar resolutions, as have some thirty city councils. Dissent--or at least discomfort--has cropped up even in conservative quarters, at the libertarian Cato Institute, which has called a war "unwise"; among former military and security advisers such as Brent Scowcroft, who have pushed against unilateral action; and, most impressively, from the likes of Colin Powell and George Tenet within the Administration itself. Combined with international opposition and lukewarm support for the war in polls, this resistance has already slowed an invasion and backed the Administration into negotiations with Congress and the UN. Former SDS leader Tom Hayden sees a level of ferment that was unimaginable at a comparable stage of the Vietnam War, say in 1965--when only 7,000 turned out for a national march on Washington.

The groundswell of opposition, however, was ahead of any leadership. As Bush launched his war drive, Democratic Party leaders, urged on by impassioned constituents, could have marshaled the opposition, but declined. Peace Action, a descendant of SANE/Freeze, has 100 chapters across the country and calls itself "the nation's largest peace organization." But last fall, says Lynch, "we just didn't have the capacity" to coordinate a mass action. Networks of the other longstanding peace organizations--Pax Christi, the Quakers, the War Resisters League--have provided the infrastructure for many of the tiny vigils in Middle America, but nothing in the way of national coordination. "The historic peace organizations are always there," says Leslie Cagan, lead organizer of the 1982 antinuke rally in Central Park, "and yet they always need to be regrouped whenever a new war comes along."

While these sectors regrouped, far-left groups stepped into the breach. The International Action Center has built momentum since the 1991 Iraq war through an antisanctions campaign and was ready to roll after September 11, convening its new antiwar coalition, International ANSWER, within days. It was ANSWER that organized the surprisingly large October 26 rallies in San Francisco and Washington, with groups like Peace Action coming along for the ride. Next in line was Not in Our Name, a more populist alternative to ANSWER, whose pledge of resistance struck a chord across the country, reproduced in small-town papers like the Sierra Vista Herald, which serves an Arizona military town, and inspired a national day of actions in early October. Much has been made recently in the left and mainstream press of these coalitions' ties to the Workers World Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party, respectively, but journalists' warnings about the risks posed by these groups lag behind conversations in the streets.

Peace activists have been strategizing about the International Action Center since an earlier guise forced dual marches during the 1991 Gulf War; at issue was their refusal to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait or to support economic sanctions as a war alternative. And newcomers like youth organizer Erica Smiley, 22, weathered painful squabbles over the DC demonstrations last April--with ANSWER moving the date of its Palestine-focused march to coincide with a national student peace march, nearly eclipsing the latter's call to "stop the war at home and abroad."

But students, antiglobalization street activists and old-time peaceniks alike appreciate ANSWER's knack for mobilizing the unaffiliated and turning out the Arab-American community--the latter due in great part to the leadership of groups such as the Free Palestine Alliance in ANSWER's coalition. Tom Hayden recalls "similar divisions, and rival organizations and factions," in the 1960s antiwar movement, but says there was an "ecology" to it, in which "most of us recognized that there was a certain inevitability about the other camp." While some antiwar activists shun ANSWER altogether, most adopt this ecological view, and say they are ready to work with--or at least around--the coalition. Most also agree that a sectarian approach--even a liberal sectarianism that seeks to isolate the far left--will never build a broad antiwar movement. And they share the confidence, says David McReynolds, a longtime activist with the War Resisters League, that "ANSWER's monopoly has to be broken, and it will be."

It's already being chipped away in a variety of ways. A broad spectrum of players--traditional peace groups; student, global justice and antiracist activists; mainstream labor, environmental, civil rights and women's organizations--piggybacked onto ANSWER's big march to convene an ambitious new national coalition, United for Peace. A hundred-plus celebrities, working in conjunction with the National Council of Churches and other liberal institutions, announced their opposition to the war on December 10 through the new Win Without War coalition--joining a national day of some 150 antiwar actions called by United for Peace. Student, labor and women's coalitions are in the works. And young anticapitalists, with their distaste for authoritarianism of any stripe, are honing creative strategies for cooperating with ANSWER while maintaining autonomy. On October 26 a local coalition spearheaded by the DC Anti-Capitalist Convergence organized its own feeder march, drawing attention to the potential domestic costs of the war, which preceded ANSWER's rally. DC ACC's Zein El-Amine considers the action a great success, because "it was done not by being separatist from the larger event but by building our own coalition and preserving our own ideas."

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