On Saturday, October 13, a cry to stop the bombing in Afghanistan was heard all over the world. More than 20,000 demonstrators in London, 15,000 in Berlin, 10,000 in San Francisco and thousands more in Sweden, Nepal, South Korea, Nigeria and elsewhere called for peace. A rally in New York City’s Washington Square was comparatively small, attracting some 700 people.
That rally, organized by War Is Not the Answer, one of several emerging New York City peace coalitions, attracted New Yorkers of varying races and nationalities, but the 1960s generation was heavily represented. Protester Curtis Mack of Crown Heights avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, even though his seven brothers fought. He said, “We need a peaceful solution to this mess. Why can’t we all just get along?” Smiling sheepishly at his reference to Rodney King’s famously naïve plea, he explained, “I don’t have all the answers, but this is what I feel in my heart.”
Still, performers and speakers were hardly limited to the usual left suspects. The Rev. Al Sharpton eloquently drove home the point that war is “not patriotism,” a refrain now echoed by peace activists nationwide. Punk-rock icon Patti Smith–who cut a sexy, stringy-haired spectacle, wearing a blue wool cap, a white T-shirt and non-ironic crucifix–gruffly urged the assembled to “wrestle the world from fools!” Smith saved the gathering from turning into a 1960s flashback (other performers had perpetrated folk songs, including the dead-tired “I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”).
Speakers were just as passionate as Curtis Mack, but unfortunately, equally short on answers. All did their best to avoid the thorny question of how to fight terrorism without bombs. Physicist Michio Kaku gave a witty speech about the ineffectuality and wastefulness of Star Wars; he said little about Afghanistan. Others engaged in more elaborate avoidance strategies, evoking well-worn left paradigms that seemed at best peripheral, if not completely irrelevant. Some talked about corporations that would profit from war, attempting to conjure the Gulf War with the slogan “No War for Oil”-which has been making a comeback nationwide. Though oil is crucial to the US relationship to the Middle East, and military contractors do benefit from war, it strains credibility to suggest that the Bush Administration’s assault on the Taliban, a response to a brutal massacre on US soil, is driven by corporate greed. Many speakers blamed the ideologically biased media for public support of the war; rally emcee and Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman repeatedly invoked the concept of “manufactured consent.” (Apropos of that, she ended the rally with an appeal to support her crusade against Pacifica, while some of her acolytes handed out fliers referring to the “Pacifica Board Hijackers.”) Of course much of the mainstream media coverage amounts to a twenty-four-hour war infomercial. But when people are afraid of terrorist attacks, consent to an aggressive solution hardly needs to be “manufactured.”
Some of Washington Square’s assembled seemed frustrated with the event’s muddled message. “It’s so irresponsible,” a woman sighed in exasperation as Al Sharpton concluded his rousing antiwar polemic. “He doesn’t say what we should do.” The left is accustomed to refusal. But there may be aspects of Bush’s “war on terrorism” that peace activists should support, if they are to persuasively oppose its murderous violence. The current bombing campaign is killing innocent people, creating a relief crisis in a destitute country and further destabilizing an already-perilous region. It is dangerously limitless in its scope and military insiders are expressing serious concerns about whether it will even accomplish its goals. Yet given that terrorism is an immediate and continuing threat, protesters must be able to discuss alternative approaches to national security. “We’d like to see a united international effort to bring [the terrorists] to justice,” rally organizer Reecha Upadhyay said, admitting that the movement was finding it difficult to figure out how this would work. “We know what we shouldn’t do.”
But there’s no reason to give up on the possibility of informed, credible resistance to the bombing of innocents. Another international wave of demonstrations is planned for November 11, including one in Washington Square Park that’s likely to be much bigger than last Saturday’s. On US campuses, from CUNY’s Hunter College to Kansas State, antiwar protests, fasts and walkouts occur daily. Nearly as important are activists’ attempts to develop reasonable analyses of the situation; many groups are focusing heavily on teach-ins and internal discussion. Says Upadhyay, whose coalition held a free-form public debate in Union Square after Saturday’s rally, “Coming together and talking about it is a first step.”