The March of the Dead: “Pushing the Envelope” Through Nonviolent Direct Action

Thirty-four people were arrested on the grounds of the Capitol building on Wednesday, March 19, the fifth anniversary of the illegal invasion of Iraq. The protesters were participants in a silent death march mourning those Iraqis, Afghanis, and US soldiers who have been killed during the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Dressed in all-black with white plaster masks and placards with the names of the victims, the marchers proceeded solemnly from Arlington National Cemetery starting at 9:30 AM. The procession silently haunted the city throughout the day, pausing at the Vietnam War Memorial, the State Department, and other sites around the city to read aloud the names of the dead before culminating in a final march of 200-300 individuals across the Capitol grounds late in the afternoon. At around 5:30 PM the group surrounded the intersection of First Street and Independence Avenue, while 34 people froze in a silent "endless war memorial" in the middle of the intersection. Capitol police immediately surrounded the protesters and began the mass arrest after approximately ten minutes of non-compliance with the order to disperse [1].

Participants and spectators say the March sent a powerful message about the effects of war. Lucas Guilkey, who came to DC as part of a large contingent from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, carried the name of 12-year-old Muhammad Taba Abbas, killed in Iraq on March 30, 2003. Guilkey comments that "the unity of the blank masks, the names of the dead, and the silence of the march represented the silent suffering that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have endured—more so than any speech or chants could have." According to Ann Shirazi, an activist from New York City who attended the action, the March created a powerful spectacle of "people standing and bearing witness to the murderous policies" of the US government. Guilkey adds that "the real criminals remain un-prosecuted, and for this reason the dead remain egregiously disrespected."

The March of the Dead was planned and organized by the New York-based group the Activist Response Team (A.R.T.), whose members specialize in designing "creative direct actions" that drive home the effects of war and violence. Laurie Arbeiter, an organizer with A.R.T., says the March was an effort "to imagine what would happen if the dead returned to Washington to seek justice." The "endless war memorial" at the end, she explains, reflects a concept that A.R.T. has developed and practiced many times in recent years. "War memorials are usually created after the war is over," says Arbeiter, but the current occupations and the so-called War on Terror "will go on and on unless people take a stand." Arbeiter believes the March was a success, but that it gave only a hint of "the potential that we have" given the level of discontent in this country.

The March of the Dead took place in the midst of at least half a dozen other direct actions in the nation’s capital on the same day. These included an early-morning blockade of the IRS by the War Resisters League in which 31 were arrested; a series of actions targeting the American Petroleum Institute and various war profiteers for supporting the occupation and opposing clean energy alternatives; a large veterans’ march outside the National Archives sponsored by Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War; and numerous street blockades set up throughout the city. Hundreds of activists risked arrest by participating in nonviolent direct actions; however, city police in most cases refused to arrest protesters in order to avoid the spectacle historically caused by mass arrests, such as the 1967 march in DC in which around 600 were arrested. Nevertheless, at least 66 peaceful demonstrators were arrested on March 19 in the capital, with about 140 arrested elsewhere around the country. Actions and events, including a poetry festival and several marches and vigils, continued in DC over the weekend.

The organizers and participants of the March 19 actions sought to go beyond more traditional, passive modes of protest like the standard marches, phone calls, and letter-writing. After five years of pursuing such tactics with limited tangible success [2], there is a strong sense among many peace organizers that citizen protests must more actively seek to obstruct the machinery of war and militarism by directly confronting the "pillars of war"—including, among other targets, corporate war profiteers, politicians who fund the occupation, and a war-based federal budget that allocates around half of taxpayer money for war while severely neglecting human needs at home and abroad. Many activists say that "direct action"—meaning nonviolent civil disobedience targeting the pillars of war—may be the most appropriate strategy for the peace movement at this stage. Jenny Heinz, an activist from New York City, notes the public’s fatigue after five years of war in Iraq and says that many people now question the effectiveness of large demonstrations. The peace movement must encourage people fed up with war "to really push the envelope…That means inconveniencing ourselves, risking arrest, and really targeting those who are responsible." Laurie Arbeiter adds that direct action means "not just getting arrested for the sake of getting arrested," but being "physically present and taking the risks necessary to restore law, justice, and peace by our presence."

Of course, direct actions tend to require a greater degree of personal sacrifice than a standard march or vigil. And since March 19 was a business day, many of those present made significant sacrifices to be there. Hundreds of high school and college students from Connecticut, New York, Oregon, California, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas, and elsewhere missed classes or gave up their spring breaks to travel to DC. Jenny Heinz took a full week of unpaid vacation time off from her job in order to attend the events in DC. Despite the economic and personal sacrifices Heinz has made—which have also included getting arrested on a number of occasions—she feels too strongly about her government’s crimes to stay at home. Justifying her decision to make the trip to DC, she says, "I can’t not do it—that’s the bottom line." The dedication of people like Heinz shows that increased sacrifice is a double-edged sword: while direct actions require more from their participants, they also help build stronger collective and international solidarity, sending a strong message to observers about the resolve of the protesters.


Not surprisingly, most of the mainstream press ignored or downplayed these events and their message. The March of the Dead was virtually absent from March 20 reports in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe, and articles in all of these papers neglected to mention the 34 arrests there. The total number of arrests in DC for the day was given as between 30 and 33 in the Times and Post, which in reality reflected only those arrests at the first action of the day at the IRS [3]. Like other media outlets, the Post focused most of its March 20 Iraq reportage on the words and actions of President Bush or the three leading presidential candidates. Instead of reporting on the massive opposition to the occupation within both Iraq and the United States, the Post and others framed the fifth anniversary of the invasion as a moment of honest debate among elites over the appropriate course of action in Iraq. The usual effect, deliberate or not, is to discourage ordinary citizens from taking independent action by perpetuating the notion that only high-level politicians have the power or moral authority to change policy.

The tone of most media coverage also followed longstanding implicit rules for portraying antiwar activists. Most reports were condescending and trivialized both the issues at stake and the motivations of the protesters themselves, reinforcing the standard image of young activists as wanton adolescents anxious to defy authority simply for defiance’s sake. The hometown Washington Post and reporters from CNN gave some limited attention to the protests but made little attempt to analyze or understand the motives behind the events [4]. In addition, many reports implied that most protesters themselves were pessimistic and unenthusiastic. Typical reports emphasized the allegedly "subdued" nature of the protests and the fact that the total turn-out was much lower than earlier peace protests such as the record-breaking February 15, 2003, global demonstrations that drew millions of people [5]. Often going unmentioned was the fact that the March 19 organizers did not even seek to draw tens of thousands of people, scheduling their events on a workday and choosing instead to cause disruption with smaller acts of creative nonviolent resistance.

Other acts of popular protest throughout the previous week and a half were also diligently suppressed or ignored in US media coverage. These events included "Stop-Loss Congress" on March 10-12, in which several dozen people including a number of veterans were arrested while delivering symbolic stop-loss notices to members of Congress prohibiting them from going on recess while US troops remain in Iraq. This event in itself deviates from the standard narrative which portrays antiwar activists as "anti-troops" and as hostile toward veterans. This narrative is obviously absurd and has little or no historical basis, but it continues to pervade much media and commentary [6]. In line with past precedent, the large number of US veterans who have helped spearhead the peace movement seldom appear in press accounts—a fact that has not failed to cause anger and frustration among many of those very same veterans. As Iraq veteran Corporal Matt Howard bitterly comments, "When the troops speak out against this horrific war, their voices are silenced by blatant omissions from the mainstream media." [7]. Accordingly, the historic "Winter Soldier" hearings that took place from March 13-16, 2008, in which over 50 Iraq and Afghanistan vets testified about their personal experiences with war, were given scant attention [8].


The continuation of the Iraq occupation is due in no small measure to the US media’s compliance with the prerogatives of US government and big business. Most people on the Left realize the importance of countering the corporate media through educational campaigns, activist networking, and alternative media. But the peace movement must also be open to revising its tactics. Many individual activists and groups are already doing so. Fed up with government bureaucracy and corporate-beholden politicians, a growing number of activists are finding new and creative ways to get their message across and to disrupt the "pillars of war." Direct actions like the March of the Dead exemplify this bold new approach (which, of course, is not really "new" but rather out-of-fashion in recent decades). Like the March, other actions in recent years have sought to disrupt business-as-usual while exposing the real-life consequences of war: dead soldiers and civilians, orphaned children, widowed spouses, starvation, disease, and increased poverty and suffering for the people of all involved nations. By bringing the effects of war and militarism out into the open, these actions are both targeted disruptions of everyday routine and educational tools in themselves. A new emphasis on direct action need not replace the more traditional tactics—marches, lobbying, etc.—but does help put some muscle behind those latter tactics in the same way that boycotts, sit-ins, war-tax withholding, and draft resistance have done in the past.

In a very promising development, the peace movement has expanded in recent years to include large numbers of students, unionized workers, feminists, religious leaders, and, perhaps most significantly, hundreds of courageous veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. That many of these people made sacrifices to attend the March 19 protests is itself "a sign of hope and renewal" for the peace movement, says Ann Shirazi. The success of this coalition will require many more creative direct actions like the March of the Dead that call attention to the horrible consequences of war while obstructing the corporations and politicians who support the war from carrying out their daily operations. These actions hold great promise if they can gain enough participants, and the need for them is urgent. As A.R.T.’s Laurie Arbeiter says, what happened on March 19 "has to be done over and over," and "will only happen by virtue of a collective effort." To repeat a question that Shirazi, Jenny Heinz, and other activists have all asked, "If not now, when?"


[2] I do not wish to imply that such tactics have been wholly unsuccessful. On the contrary, a number of Congressional politicians have been pressured sufficiently to make them take a more vocal stance against the war and many US residents have been politicized and educated as a result of these less-confrontational tactics. Consciousness-raising and building a culture of peace and social justice are crucial yet often neglected functions of most social movements, though many of the effects are intangible and difficult to measure.

[3] Jesse McKinley, "On Invasion’s Anniversary, Protests and Pessimism," New York Times, 20 Mar. 2008; Michael E. Ruane, "Cries Against War Sparse But Fierce," Washington Post, 20 Mar. 2008.

[4] For one report that implies, in its opening sentence, the use of violent methods by protesters, see "Protesters March on Iraq Anniversary," CNN (online transcript), 19 Mar. 2008, available from www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/03/19/anti.war.protests/index.html. For one particularly condescending commentary, see Marc Fisher, "Potomac Confidential" (transcript), Post (online), 20 Mar. 2008, available at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2008/03/19/DI2008031902456.html; For a slightly more even-handed report which at least made an effort to report accurate arrest figures (a clear exception to the rule), see Andy Sullivan, "At Least 200 Arrested in U.S. Antiwar Protests," Post, 20 Mar. 2008.

[5] McKinley, "On Invasion’s Anniversary, Protests and Pessimism." See also Dana Milbank, "An Antiwar Blockade Amid the Apathy Armada," Post, 20 Mar. 2008. Milbank claimed that the DC actions "barely mustered 100 [participants]." A more realistic headcount would have been between 1,000 and 3,000 by my own estimate—not an insignificant total considering that the 19th was a working day, that other protests took place around the country, and that the focus of the organizational efforts was not on mobilizing massive numbers but on coordinating targeted disruptions at locations around DC.

[6] For an indispensable debunking of the myth that Vietnam-era activists were hostile to returning vets, as well as a broader critique of how media and commentary have sought to separate veterans from the antiwar movement-at-large, see Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke’s book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Second Edition (New York: NYU Press, 2000). See also H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

[7] See Howard’s letter to the Boston Globe expressing anger at the Globe’s coverage of the October 27, 2007 antiwar protests. "A Combat Veteran’s Antiwar Effort," 4 Nov. 2007.

[8] The New York Times totally neglected the hearings, while the Post made only occasional mentions of them. For audio and video recordings of the hearings, plus numerous other written testimonies from US veterans, see the website of Iraq Veterans Against the War: www.ivaw.org/.

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