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.”