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Happy Anniversary

As the two-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches, the antiwar movement strategizes for a post-election comeback. Does it have a prayer?

By David Perez

Leave it to Santa Cruz to produce Cpl. Jonathan Murphy, a Marine Corps sniper, who calls the invasion of Iraq "the worst move the U.S. could have made." Murphy, who recently returned to Santa Cruz from Iraq after a seven-month tour, currently divvies his time between being a UCSC student and working the door at the Red Room. A busy man, he agreed to meet on condition that we conduct the interview between work-shift breaks--a sly tactic that stranded this reporter at the bar, downing a whiskey sour and a black and tan, before Murphy even showed up.

Sliding into a seat at the bar, the former Marine addressed what the antiwar movement's demand to "bring the troops home now!" would mean for Iraq. "If the U.S. leaves, there'll be chaos; if the U.S. stays, there'll be chaos," said Murphy, who believes leaving would result in Iranian-style theocracy, while staying could result in a legitimate democracy--provided Iraq develops the means to give the wealth of oil revenue back to its people.

While Murphy feels the U.S. may have opportunities to foster mechanisms for Iraq's self-determination, he adds that current efforts have been tainted by the Bush administration's evident self-interest.

"They're Republicans. What do you expect?" Murphy observed, peeling off to check the IDs of people trying to enter the bar, before returning to address one final question, namely whether he has any desire to continue military service. Murphy summed up his position in three short words: "Fuck no, man!"

Ironically, Murphy's attitude--like that of thousands of soldiers, who are returning, disillusioned and enlightened from the so-called Iraqi theater--could be good news for the U.S. antiwar movement, which is planning to take to the streets this weekend to mark the two-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For while permits will be granted, intersections blockaded and buses fueled, organizers aren't sure how many protesters will show up. What they do know is that ever since U.S. and allied forces invaded Baghdad in the spring of 2003, numbers at protests have shrunk dramatically from prewar highs. Organizers blame the slump on the movement's failure to stop the invasion--and on last year's U.S. presidential election, which saw many antiwar activists redirect their energy into trying to defeat Bush Jr. But with George back in the White House and his war-machine gunned like a fleet of farting Harley-Davidsons, can the antiwar movement hope to stop U.S. military adventurism with signs reading "STOP ... or else!"?

The Day the Earth Stood Up

The antiwar movement wasn't always so frail. Two years ago, and 10 days after Bush gave perhaps his most cryptic rationale for furthering the war on terror in his State of the Union address, the world unveiled the biggest antiwar protest the planet has ever seen.

No one knows exactly how many came out for the Feb. 15, 2003, actions. Suffice it to say that 600 cities participated worldwide in defiance of the looming war. Here in the United States, protesters numbered 100,000 in Los Angeles, 200,000 in San Francisco and 750,000 in New York. One and a half million demonstrated in Barcelona and Madrid, respectively. London and Rome each fell just shy of 2 million. Monumental as this show of force was, it didn't stop the invasion, not that protesters didn't stop trying right up until the 11th hour. When Bush gave Saddam his 48-hour ultimatum, anyone capable of looking two chess moves ahead realized that war was eminent. A few emergency protests on March 15, 2003, showed decent support--50,000 in Los Angeles and 100,000 in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The United States invaded Iraq four days later, and the movement largely went into retreat.

One year later, with the war in full-tilt, protesters took to the streets again, this time under the "bring the troops home now" banner, a tactic learned from Vietnam demonstrations. But cities that had turnouts in the millions in 2003 now had turnouts in the tens of thousands, while others held no protests at all.

What's the Message?

This absence of protest during wartime has activists like Samina Faheem Sundas, executive director of the Fremont-based American-Muslim Voice, wondering what message the antiwar movement is trying to send.

"Are we saying we don't care anymore?" asks Sundas, whose group is one of 1,400 organizations under the umbrella of United for Peace and Justice, which spearheads the antiwar campaign in the United States with the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) coalition.

Sundas' question is all the more disturbing given that evidence now abounds that the invasion has not made the world any safer. Indeed, despite concerted efforts to sanitize the war--the embedded reporters, the U.S. government propaganda and the almost total lack of military funeral coverage--reports of kidnappings, beheadings and suicide bombings have become commonplace. Countless thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, along with 1,516 (and counting) U.S. soldiers. And then there's the underreported reality that depleted uranium from detonated U.S. tank shells is seeping into Iraqi soil and polluting it with agents found to cause cancer, primarily in children.

Equally disturbing is the reality that the reasons for invading Iraq have been revealed for the lies they always were. Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, like the evidence that they ever existed, are nowhere to be found. Saddam's torture chambers have been located, but only to be eclipsed in the public imagination by X-rated photos from U.S.-organized torture dens at Abu Ghraib. As former CIA Bureau Chief Bob Baer put it, "We went into Iraq to stop things like this from happening, and indeed, here they are happening under our tutelage."

Despite $200 billion having been allocated to wage Bush's "war on terror," Osama bin Laden is still at large, no connection between Saddam and 9/11 has been established, the U.S.-based anthrax mailings have yet to be solved--and many U.S. soldiers still don't have the life-saving armor they need to fight the guerrilla-style war into which Iraq so rapidly devolved.

So, why aren't the streets of America overflowing with doubly outraged antiwar protesters?

Deflation Distraction

Perhaps, the best explanation is that antiwar activists' hopes were placed too squarely on prevention. Richard Becker, founding member and spokesperson for ANSWER, recalls how support for the movement grew steadily after the 9/11 attacks.

"A spontaneous psychological change occurred in reaction to what the U.S. government was doing" says Becker, a claim supported by the fact that less than three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, crowds in the tens of thousands marched in both San Francisco and D.C. By Oct. 26, 2002, the size of the antiwar crowd in San Francisco was seven times that of the post-9/11 protest, while D.C.'s grew by a factor of 10. The movement continued to gain steam until the now legendary February 2003 protests. With prevention seemingly possible, people marched across the world, shouting, "We don't want this war," only to see Bush dismiss them as a "focus group."

Fast-forward to the U.S. presidential election. Disaffected Americans contributed millions upon millions of antiwar dollars and volunteer hours to the Kerry campaign, only to realize, as their bumper-sticker adhesive solidified, that their candidate was only a little less pro-war than Bush.

"Elections absorb mass amounts of activists' energy," says Becker. "That's the role the electoral system plays in the antiwar movement. There's this sense that if we could only pick the right guy that everything will be fine, but if you really listened to Kerry's position on the war, he was playing to the people in the middle. He was critical of the war but not against it. The problem is not that the government is on the right track and just using flawed judgment. The division is much deeper than that. It's a systemic problem."

Becker's claims ring true when you consider that antiwar presidential candidates Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich could only muster 18 percent and 1 percent, respectively, of the vote in the Democratic primaries.

"Americans support war. It's as simple as that," says Democratic campaign adviser Bob Mulholland. "You can be against the president's foreign policy, his domestic agenda, even against the man himself but you don't win elections in this country by being antiwar."

Future Humanitarian

Faced with that reality, some antiwar activists refrained from getting involved in the election at all. Take Liat Weingart, codirector of the San Francisco­based Jewish Voice for Peace, which is part of the United for Peace and Justice coalition.

"Our message was unchanged by the election, because both candidates were so horrible on the issue of Israel-Palestine," says Weingart, who hopes for a post-election antiwar bounce-back. "Five hundred new groups joined United for Peace and Justice after the election, increasing their total to around 2,000 organizations," he says.

Max Diorio of the Bay Area chapter of Not in Our Name (NION), admits that his group didn't even take a position on the election.

"We realized it wouldn't change the fact that there was a war on. Besides, those who temporarily mobilized for the election are still here and they're still antiwar," he says.

Meanwhile, ANSWER's Becker says his coalition's long-term goal is to create a movement "big enough so that politicians will want to jump on the bandwagon, even though they'll try to take credit for it later." He notes that while the current incarnation of the antiwar movement may not be seeing huge demonstrator turnout, it's equally important that on-the-street activists let antiwar stay-at-homers know they are not alone--and that the movement learn from its earlier mistakes.

"Our target audience wasn't the Bush administration as much as it was each other," says Becker of wedges that occurred within the prewar protests. And now of course there's a new antiwar support base--those impacted by the tragic face of war.

As NION's Diorio explains, "Mothers [of soldiers who have died in Iraq] are calling us up asking us to photograph their coffins. Soldiers are going AWOL and refusing their missions. These things are also part of the antiwar movement."

But while the sight of endless rows of flag-draped coffins may turn once-pro-war military parents against the war, it can also have the opposite effect. Consider the case of local resident Chuck Perez, whose grandson, U.S. Army Spc. Morgen Jacobs, was killed in Iraq on Oct. 7, 2004.

"We have to do something about terrorism," says Perez. "Before the war I had been a Democrat my whole life, but in the last election I voted for Bush."

Alternative Actions

Those at the center of the antiwar movement say their plans go beyond merely creating a street-clogging juggernaut. Bay Area United Against War is campaigning to end military recruitment in high schools. Jewish Voice for Peace is planning a global day of action, April 13, against the CAT tractor company and its partnership with the U.S. military to make bulldozers to level Palestinian homes. In the Bay Area, Not in Our Name has united with sympathetic religious groups to fly 50-foot banners emblazoned with antiwar slogans over Highways 101, 580 and 80.

"If you fix the sign to the overpass, the police can tear it down," says NION's Diorio, who recommends mounting signs on posts and then holding them up to prevent such speedy removals.

Perhaps the most innovative efforts are those of Sundas, who will hold the second in a series of "Miracle Meetings" on April 16 to discuss social organizing within diverse communities.

"We cannot simply meet each other at lectures and teach-ins. I don't want us to just have dialogue. I want us to talk as friends do, " says Sundas, who hosted over 150 people of varying ethnic, national and religious backgrounds at the last meeting.

"To all who are antiwar, let's show up in huge numbers to the demonstrations on March 19 and say, 'This is not in our name.' That's the job of humanitarians. The administration fighting this war has billions of dollars. All we have is each other."

Sundas' words echo those of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, "We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

Whatever wedges got driven into the post-9/11 antiwar movement, including ongoing disagreements over how best to deal with Israel-Palestine, those at the helm of current efforts to remobilize the movement claim to have driven MLK's principles to the core of their beliefs.

"ANSWER has always advocated unified demonstrations representative of the world's many struggles against injustice" says Becker, "People want that. People at the base of the movement want that."

Only time will tell whether people show up this weekend--and whether they'll be carrying bells or bullhorns.


SEIU Local 415 is offering buses to the March 19 protests in San Francisco. Seats cost $10. Meet at 8am at the Santa Cruz County Building, 701 Ocean St., SC. Email Jeffrey Smedberg at prez@seiu415.org for more information. To give or get rides from Santa Cruz, email rides2SF@yahoo.com. Alternatively, check out the following websites: www.internationalanswer.org; www.unitedforpeace.org; www.bauaw.org; www.amuslimvoice.org; www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org; www.notinourname.net.

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From the March 16-23, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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