Standing Up for Dissent

Standing Up for Dissent


Every year Greensboro, North Carolina, holds a Fourth of July parade in which local organizations form the units. This year members of the Greensboro Peace Coalition decided–“after some hesitation,” admits chairman Ed Whitfield–to join the line of march. They bought an ad in the local paper, printed leaflets and developed their own variation on this year’s theme of “American Heroes”: large posters of Americans, including Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who have spoken out against the folly of war.

Though members had been participating in vigils since last October, when the bombing of Afghanistan began, many expressed qualms about marching into the thick of their hometown’s annual patriotic celebration. But fifty activists showed up on the Fourth and got the surprise of their political lives. Along the mile-and-a-half parade route through downtown Greensboro, they were greeted mostly with applause, and, at the end of their march, they were honored by parade organizers for “Best Interpretation of the Theme.”

Says Whitfield, “There is a real lesson in this. If you scratch the surface of the poll numbers about Bush and Ashcroft’s overwhelming support, you get down to a lot of people with a lot of questions. Some of them are afraid that they are alone in what they are thinking. What it takes to get them excited and to get them involved is for them to see someone standing up so that they will know they are not alone.”

The post-September 11 experiences of the Greensboro Peace Coalition, Berea College’s Patriots for Peace, the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice, and dozens of other grassroots groups serve as a reminder that while dissenters have not always spoken in a single voice, they have had in common not just their unease with the bipartisan Washington consensus but the often inspiring experience that there are many Americans who share their discomfort. Take Jennifer Ellis of Peace Action Maine, who recalls how overwhelmed Down East activists felt after September 11. “But then we started to get calls from people saying, ‘I don’t know what your organization is, but it has the word “peace” in the title. What can I do?'” Some callers were already holding vigils, and her group started sending out weekly e-mails listing them. “We linked people up with local efforts to fight discrimination against Muslims, and we told people how to write members of Congress about civil liberties issues,” she says. “Before long, all these people, in all these towns across Maine, were working together.”

As with anti-World War I activists who looked to Wisconsin Senator Bob La Follette, critics of McCarthyism who celebrated Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith’s statement of conscience or foes of the Vietnam War who were inspired by the anti-Gulf of Tonkin resolution votes of Oregon’s Wayne Morse and Alaska’s Ernest Gruening, post-September 11 dissenters found solace in the fact that at least a few members of Congress shared their qualms. Three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, cast the only vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force to respond. Lee’s vote earned her death threats and pundit predictions that she was finished politically, but she won her March Democratic primary race with 85 percent of the vote. And the “Barbara Lee Speaks for Me” movement that started in her Oakland-based district has spread; in July several thousand people packed a Santa Cruz, California, movie theater to celebrate “Barbara Lee Day.” Said Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn: “She’s become a national moral leader in awakening the movement for justice, peace and a thorough re-examination of US foreign policy.” Responded Lee: “It must not be unpatriotic to question a course of action. It must not be unpatriotic to raise doubts. I suggest to you it is just the opposite.”

Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate vote against the USA Patriot Act’s assault on civil liberties, still marvels at the standing ovations he receives when his vote is mentioned. “I thought this would be a difficult vote,” says Feingold, who recently earned the best home-state approval ratings of his career. “What I didn’t realize was that a lot of people are concerned about free speech and repression of liberties, even in a time of war. I didn’t realize until I cast my vote that there was so much concern about whether it was appropriate, whether it was allowed, to dissent after September 11. I think that for a lot of people, my vote told them it was still appropriate to dissent.”

Some members who have challenged the Bush Administration have suffered politically–notably Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who lost an August Democratic primary. But most are secure in their seats, and one is even being boomed as a potential Democratic presidential contender. Representative Dennis Kucinich’s February speech condemning the bombing of Afghan civilians and the repression of American civil liberties drew an overwhelmingly positive response that Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, says is evidence of broad uncertainty about militarism abroad and economic and constitutional costs at home.

Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin led several House members in writing a letter in December questioning White House policies that emphasize bullets and badgering as opposed to diplomacy and development; and John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has kept the heat on the Justice Department regarding civil liberties–often with the support of Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican. Still, says Kucinich, “our constituents are perhaps more prepared than Congress for the debate that should be going on.”

Bill Keys, a school board member in Madison, Wisconsin, shares that view. Keys’s October 2001 refusal to require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in city schools earned three days of broadcast rebukes from radio personality Rush Limbaugh, physical threats and a movement to recall him from office. The recall drive fizzled before winter and, this spring, Keys was elected president of the board. “The strange thing is that once I became identified as this awful radical, people started coming up to me and saying, ‘Don’t you let them shut you up,'” recalls Keys. “If the last year taught us anything, it’s this: Yes, of course, if you step out of the mainstream you will get called names and threatened. But you will also discover that a lot of Americans still recognize that dissenters are the real defenders of freedom.”

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