Leigh Ferrara

Monday October 30

SAN FRANCISCO–“We Need Jobs, Healthcare, Education Not More War & Occupation” read the banner leading a march of 1,000 anti-war protesters here on Saturday. The event began with a rally at the U.N. Plaza at noon and was part of a North American call to action organized by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER). There were simultaneous rallies in cities across the United States and Canada, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Protesters came out to show their resistance to the Iraq War, but those that joined the events on this beautiful sunny day in San Francisco were not all there solely to protest that conflict.

Nor were their numbers very strong. Previous anti-war protests combined ANSWER with a broader, more mainstream coalition, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). But on Saturday, the absence of larger organizations could be felt.

The chants and slogans bellowed throughout the march were a clear indication of the myriad reasons why people attended. ANSWER’s cries of “No justice, no peace, U.S. out of the Middle East” competed with pro-choice slogans and pro-immigration shouts. Even ANSWER itself had other numerous messages that diluted its own anti-war calls. As the crowd passed by Westfield Shopping Center, a new downtown mall, ANSWER organizers shouted words of support for the pro-union workers of the mall’s food market. There were pro-Israel counter-demonstrators responding to those protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And slogans such as “Si Se Puede” (Yes we can!) from the immigrant marches this past spring were heard as well.

Ben Rozen, an organizer with World Can’t Wait, a group that works to “drive out the Bush regime,” expressed concern over the divergent messages and splintered factions at the rally. “It is unfortunate that there are separations within the peace movement,” Rozen said. “It keeps us back from going as far as we could go.” But when I asked Natalie Hrizy, national coordinator for Youth and Student ANSWER, whether the rally’s varied groups and agendas would temper the strength of its anti-war focus, she emphasized that the different groups serve to enhance it. “For instance, the lack of resources in the city is directly connected to the resources that are going to Iraq, so we feel that it is necessary to have those discussions,” Hrizy said.

Some agreed with Hrizy and found the mélange inspiring. “Most people come here because they are anti-imperialist, not just anti-war,” said Joyce, a member of Code Pink who preferred to be identified only by her first name. Others found the fractured message distracting. After the march, Tobias Sugar of Santa Cruz, Calif. lamented the lack of a united chant during the march and hoped there would be speakers to tie everything together.

The muddled message was not the only disappointment. The turnout was not what some had hoped. Brian Hegestad from Daly City, Calif. said he believes mobilizing can effectively stop the Bush administration’s actions, but only if there are enough people–many more than were gathered at the U.N. Plaza on Saturday. “This is a joke,” Hegestad said of the turnout. “Anyone that is not here is not doing anything about our situation. We need a public display of support.” Others echoed his sentiment. People “feel like demonstrating isn’t going to make a difference anymore. It bothers me that there aren’t more people taking to the streets, because I think that’s how change comes about,” said Mima Cataldo, a school librarian in Tiburon, Calif. who attended the march. Chris Banks, an active member of Youth and Student ANSWER, feels that “coming out to a march and supporting demonstrations is more significant than casting a ballot for one of two politicians who aren’t against the war.”

Others think demonstrations are not the most effective use of activists’ energy. Jim Haber, a Bay Area-based member of the anti-war group UFPJ’s steering committee, thinks there are other activities that need to be done, which means “sometimes we don’t come out on a Saturday.” And here in the Bay Area, activists’ energy is already spread thin. Haber emphasized that, instead of creating new projects, UFPJ supports and promotes of the activities of its member groups such as Code Pink (“women for peace”), Tikkun (“a Jewish magazine, an interfaith movement”), and Jewish Voice for Peace. If there are too many options, “the energy gets diffused,” he said.

Many activists at the demonstration felt, like Cataldo, that activists are burned out on marching. Some said ANSWER has isolated many citizens who are against the war in Iraq but do not agree wholeheartedly with the group’s broad goal of ending ” U.S. occupation everywhere.” This is one of the reasons that UFPJ, one of the main anti-war organizing groups in the United States, no longer organizes with ANSWER. In fact, in December of last year, UFPJ officially declared that they would no longer organize with the group on a national level.

The protest was timed just 10 days before the midterm elections. ANSWER’s Banks said that the pre-election timing was an explicit part of the demonstration’s strategy. He told Campus Progress on the Thursday before the rally that he hoped it would “give people who are opposed to colonization and imperialism in Iraq a chance to vote with their feet.” In other words, a chance to cast one’s anti-war ballot in the streets–a ballot that Hrizy said cannot be cast in a voting booth on November 8. “You can’t vote for Iraq or against Iraq–Democrats are saying they are anti-war, but they voted for the war too.”

Regardless of the diluted message and low turnout, many remained hopeful. “We say that there is this reservoir of resistance and anger and frustration–we are trying to harness that in a lot of different ways,” Rozen said.