“We need to make it very clear,” said one veteran activist at a recent meeting of a nascent New York City antiwar coalition, “that we want to punish the criminals.” She meant, of course, any living accomplices in the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. That night, activists were unable to come to any kind of agreement on the need to bring the murderers to justice, and their confusion and division mirrored that of antiwar demonstrators around the nation. During the last weekend in September, antiwar protests in the nation’s capital underscored the movement’s difficulty in articulating a message that might make sense to a broader public. That difficulty was amplified by the happy fact that, as one demonstrator put it, “it’s hard to protest a war that’s not happening.” While things may yet get brutal, George Bush is not presently proposing to take any military action against innocent Afghan civilians, and the Administration is now seriously considering schemes that, when suggested by peace activists a week ago, sounded absurdly whimsical–like “bombing” Afghanistan with food.
Originally, more than 10,000 foot soldiers of the global economic justice movement, from the controversial hooded Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or “Black Bloc”) to the AFL-CIO, had planned to show up to protest September 30’s IMF/World Bank meeting. That meeting was canceled. Most protest groups canceled their actions too, and not only because there were no meetings to oppose. At a moment of sorrow and panic, demonstrators risked being ignored–or worse, reviled as unpatriotic or insensitive to the memories of the dead. In a statement explaining their withdrawal from the protests, United Students Against Sweatshops declared September in the capital “neither the time nor the place to gather in opposition.”
Not everyone felt that way. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence decided to hold an antiwar demonstration Saturday morning, using, according to David Graeber of New York City’s Direct Action Network, who works closely with the ACC, “less controversial tactics. None of these,” he laughed, pointing to a brick in the middle of the sidewalk. The Black Bloc anarchists, known for illegal actions, refrained from any destruction of property, and the weekend ended with only eleven arrests. The ACC march drew about 1,000 (organizers claimed 2,000-3,000). Some–being anarchists–rejected any action that the state might take, even against terrorism, and rejected any international tribunal as a tool of the state.
The second, and best-publicized, march was organized by an antiwar front group assembled by the International Action Center (IAC), in turn a front for (if you’re still following) the Workers World Party, which is justly reviled for supporting Slobodan Milosevic, among other gruesome dictators. Still, a few thousand people, from high school students to graying peaceniks, eventually joined by the ACC, showed up. IAC organizers subjected these demonstrators to three hours of speeches, none of which mentioned bringing the killers to justice, before the all-too-brief march from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol began. Bland sloganeering and predictable references to eclectic causes (Free Mumia!) had the effect of reducing the peril of World War III to the trivial status of another pet left crusade. There was no doubt about the sincerity of the demonstrators, who carried signs like Another Alaskan for Peace, but the IAC’s involvement gave the event–which drew maybe 7,000 at its peak, though organizers claimed 20,000–the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest.
The third march, held on Sunday and organized by the Washington Peace Center and other groups, was smaller than the IAC event but achieved an appropriately serious tone. Some of Saturday’s demonstrators (from the well-behaved Black Bloc to the Bread and Puppet Theater) turned up, along with many locals–a crowd of some 3,000. Speakers, many of them clergy, quoted venerable sources: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Signs often bore scriptural messages, and one playfully queried George Bush, WWJD? Speakers read letters from family members of September 11 victims who did not want war in the name of their loved ones. Others stressed the need for reflection and the challenges of turning our grief into a cry for global peace. The event also suggested some practical alternatives to war, emphasizing justice and law over military force. Alan Mattlage, an organizer of the Washington Peace Center event and a member of the Maryland Green Party, echoed many of his fellow protesters in saying that the World Trade Center attacks should be treated not “as an act of war but as a criminal matter. [Those accused] should be tried before an international tribunal.”
All three antiwar marches attracted activists who had planned to protest the IMF. Students showed up in large numbers (a nationwide network of more than 150 student antiwar groups, some calling themselves Students for a Peaceful Justice, has been holding campus vigils, protests and teach-ins). Labor organizations, by contrast, from the AFL-CIO to Jobs with Justice, were conspicuously absent. That makes some sense, given that many of their constituents may support military responses to the September 11 attacks. One of countless reasons to hope for peace is that a prolonged war–and antiwar activism–could test the warm solidarity developed in recent years between labor and other progressives, especially students. On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see how quickly the global economic justice movement has embraced peace and security issues–and that peace organizations seem ready to tackle the economic roots of violence and to connect US militarism to global economic inequality.
Activists were united on a few points: There will be no peace without economic justice, and US civilians will not be safe until our government stops waging–and funding–war on other innocents. Some offered hope that our nation’s suffering could open our eyes to the rest of the world’s pain. At an interfaith service on peace and justice at St. Aloysius Church Saturday night, Njoki Njoroge Njehu of the 50 Years Is Enough Network advised Americans to “hold that vulnerability, to understand how people around the world live with US violence. And let us finally understand the obscenity of the phrase ‘collateral damage.’ Will it ever have the same casual reference again?”