Many pundits predicted that the peace movement would dry up once war began, and indeed polls show that American support for the war rose to as high as 71 percent after its launch. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), which has led religious opposition to the war, predicts “our movement is going to get smaller before it gets bigger,” and he’s probably right. Yet now that the bombs are falling on Baghdad, antiwar protest in the United States has grown more passionate. Countless small-scale demonstrations are being held every day, while regional protests on March 22–in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and elsewhere–drew hundreds of thousands, and a new MoveOn antiwar petition has attracted more than half a million signatures.
In addition, thousands have been arrested in civil disobedience actions, some on military property–including fifty-five arrested at the gates of the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts–and more than 1,600 on the streets and bridges of San Francisco alone, a development that has already sparked debate.
Todd Gitlin, writing in Newsday, argued that any such tactics could “turn a majority of the population against the antiwar movement,” though movement activists tend to make more subtle distinctions. Edgar, for example, warns that “violent confrontation with authority figures doesn’t help the message” but applauds nonviolent civil disobedience. So does Tom Andrews, director of the moderate Win Without War coalition. After being represented as a critic of civil disobedience in a recent New York Times article, Andrews issued a statement that such action was “in the finest democratic tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Some national groups, including United for Peace and Justice, issued a call for emergency action, including nonviolent civil disobedience, upon the war’s launch. Many participants argue that direct action shows that activists–like soldiers–are willing to take formidable risks. Perhaps more important, says Peter Lumsdaine, who for six days after the war began camped out with some thirty people at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara, California, “It’s the only way to actually get in the way of the war.”
At this critical juncture for the peace movement, debates extend far beyond the question of tactics. The most contentious of these may be how best to counter the jingoistic rhetoric of the war boosters–who urge that it’s time for peace activists to shut up and “support the troops.” On one end of the debate, AFL-CIO head John Sweeney said labor is now “unequivocal in our support of our country and America’s men and women on the front lines,” while Win Without War has endorsed Operation Dear Abby, asking peace activists to “send messages of support to men and women deployed in the Gulf.”
But many activists urge making a sharper distinction between support for the soldiers themselves and support for their immoral mission. Thus the suddenly ubiquitous slogan “Support the troops by bringing them home.” Others hope to turn the tables by questioning the government’s commitment to the troops. Given the stalled economy and brutal spending cuts, says Erica Smiley, a steering committee member of the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, the Bush Administration, which recently backed billions in cuts to veterans’ benefits, has little to offer soldiers when they come home. “Many of them won’t be able to go back to school or find a job,” she says. “They’ll be coming back to a huge mess.”
The US invasion raises profound questions for a movement that has successfully unified around a simple demand: No War on Iraq. Now activists must think beyond Iraq and decide how to reframe their agenda. Bill Fletcher, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, which organized the massive February 15 protests, says, “We have to start talking about the broader implications, particularly of the concept of ‘regime change’ and the issue of empire. We have to ask, What is this plan for the reorganization of the world?” Edgar, whose NCC represents some 50 million congregants, agrees. “We need to start adding an ‘s’ to the word war,” he says, and stand in opposition to the very idea of pre-emptive attack. If the movement doesn’t turn to these questions, Fletcher adds, it will be ill-equipped to challenge future US aggression, whether against Iran, North Korea or other countries.
Yet several peace groups, including Win Without War and MoveOn, the cyber wing of the movement, are focusing on the reconstruction of Iraq–a choice that may foreshadow disputes between those who want to challenge US superpower and those who want it to act more responsibly. “It is delicate,” says Fletcher. “We have to be careful not to break up this broad front.”
US Labor Against the War founder Bob Muehlenkamp, who continues to build labor opposition, argues that the antiwar movement must expand its analysis in other ways to reach American working people. “There is a very deep understanding,” he says, “that you can’t pay for this war, have a huge tax cut and meet the needs of ordinary Americans.” He urges peace forces to issue a challenge to what he calls “the permanent war economy.”
Other activists are trying to push the Democratic Party to oppose this and future pre-emptive wars–though they have very different ideas about how to do so. While MoveOn is planning to endorse–and raise money for–antiwar candidates, many local peace groups want to embarrass Democratic hawks: Recently, 300 protesters loudly disrupted a John Edwards fundraiser in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Organizers agree that the peace movement has much to be proud of: While it hasn’t stopped the war, it has mobilized an unprecedented level of opposition, here at home and around the world. That’s a strong foundation for grappling with the difficult debates ahead. If these are handled well, the antiwar movement could emerge a more savvy and powerful force. “We have the upper hand, morally,” says Fletcher. “We are starting with the good will of millions.”