Overview of Last Three National Anti-War Protests
This year, five poignant and increasingly radical national protests have taken place, dating back to January 27, 2007 when nearly half a million people occupied Washington, DC. Despite the increasing number of protesters willing to be arrested, not to mention the diverse composition of the anti-war movement—including students, workers, many from the liberal elite, and soldiers— the mainstream media continues to nourish apathy and pessimism about the strength of the anti-war movement. While acknowledging the lack of support for the war, it constantly dismisses collective actions with little to no coverage, preferring to focus on every negative angle it can conjure up. The vitality of the anti-war movement and the increasing daringness and dedication of its members, however, has never been greater.
Most recently, on October 27, 2007, about 100,000 or more people took to the streets in more than a dozen cities including Boston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Jonesborough and Chattanooga (Tennessee), Salt Lake City, Denver, Rochester, and elsewhere.
As part of the October 27 event, 2,000 to 3,000 activists from Florida and nearby southern states rallied at Lake Eola Park in Orlando. Activists browsed progressive literature tables and listened to speakers including activist and Z Magazine co-founder Michael Albert, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Mike Gravel, and Florida CodePink organizer Lydia Vickers, among others. After listening to the speakers, the group took to the streets of downtown Orlando armed with signs such as “Give Me Back My Constitution,” “Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Blood,” and “Torture Is War Crime.”
After the march, organizer Matt De Vlieger wrote in his blog: “Well, we didn’t quite end the war on October 27, but we certainly strengthened our movement in the region and proved that the Southeast has what it takes to put on a massive revolutionary one that was extremely peaceful and empowering.”
The event coincided with the Florida Democratic Convention, also being held in Orlando. According to the Associated Press, the convention was attended by 3,000 people. In a show of solidarity, several convention-goers participated in the demonstration. Some, like Palm Bay resident Michele Paccione, took their uncompromising anti-war agenda back to the convention, urging fellow Democrats to become more involved in the anti-war movement. De Vlieger went on to point out the significance of an anti-war march drawing as many people as the well- funded Florida Democratic party. “Does that tell you something?” he asked.
On September 29, 2007 thousands of anti-war protesters participated in the Troops Out Now Coalition’s anti-war march on Washington. The protest took specific aim at Congress, demanding that it cut off funding to the war and bring it to an end. The march was the culmination of a week-long encampment in front of Congress where protesters set up booths, erected a large billboard demanding that Congress stop funding the war, listened to musicians and speakers, and attended vigils and workshops.
During the march a segment of activists broke from the main group to take over a street around the corner from the Capitol. Participating in peaceful civil disobedience, hundreds of mostly student activists blocked an intersection. A handful of inconvenienced travelers cheered the protestors. In an attempt to ignore the disobedience, DC police blocked off area streets, making the action appear to be part of the larger march.
One of the only national stories on the event came from the Washington Post. The Post’s headline read, “War Protest Draws Small Crowd: Participants Cite Public Apathy in Low Turnout for Rally at the Capitol.” The paper reported that “hundreds” turned out for the event, a gross underestimation. The focus of the piece was on the inability of the anti-war movement to generate support: “Several rally goers acknowledged that the size of the rally illustrated how difficult it is to get people in the United States to become activists, even though a majority of the public opposes the war, according to polls.”
At least100,000 anti-war protesters in DC, again; unreported, again – photo by Jeff Nall
On September 15, 2007 between 50,000 and 100,000 people participated in an anti-war march sponsored by the ANSWER coalition. A large turnout by veterans and veteran families, as well as mass civil disobedience, signaled a turning point for the anti-war movement.
Early in the afternoon participants streamed into Lafayette Park. Ken Hudson from Miami, Florida was among those who gathered at the park to hear the slate of speakers. Hudson, his son Jeffrey, and friend Christina all wore T-shirts mourning the loss of Iraq war veteran Christopher Hudson. “We’re here to protest the war,” said Hudson. “My little brother got killed over there three years ago. We just think it’s senseless…. I was never political, ever. And then this happened to Chris…. We got really involved.”
Among the speakers who most successfully stirred the crowd was Rev. Lennox Yearwood. Yearwood told the rally-goers that war and racism are obsolete and said, “The revolution may not be televised, but it will be uploaded.”
Yearwood also referred to an unprovoked arrest by Capitol police that sent him to the hospital just days earlier on September 10 during the General Patreaus hearings. Video of the incident shows Yearwood being removed from the line without explanation. When he objected and attempted to keep his place, officers pulled Yearwood to the ground. In his speech at the protest Yearwood, a former officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, said that it was ironic that he was lying in the halls of Congress while another officer was lying to Congress.
Video showed the police demanding that Yearwood, held down under the weight of several officers, stop resisting arrest. “Here I am just laying there and they’re like, ‘stop resisting,’ I’m like, ‘I’m not resisting. What are you talking about?’”
Activist Cindy Sheehan, in an interview after her speech, said the protest signified the American people’s refusal to buy pro-war government propaganda. “I think it’s so important and I think it shows there are so many people here in this country who aren’t buying the lies anymore, if they ever did buy the lies.”
Sheehan said she plans to look at the bigger picture when she runs for election against Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in the next election. “I think the unfettered crony capitalism we have is a major part of the problem, if not the problem. So that’s what my candidacy is going to challenge.”
Rev. Graylan Hagler, president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice, echoed Sheehan’s concern for United States policy beyond the current Iraq war. “It’s up to us to bring an end to this war; to bring an end to the kind of adventurism that continues this war; to bring an end to the kind of colonialism and neocolonialism that is really the foundation of adventures like this; and to really begin to try to rebalance the country in an equation of justice.”
Other speakers included Ralph Nader, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Adam Kokesh of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, and Gloria La Riva from the National Committee To Free the Cuban Five.
Before the last speech had ended, people began pouring onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Numerous choruses erupted, chanting: “This is what democracy looks like,” “Impeach Bush,” “Support the troops, bring them home,” “1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your fucking war.”
At the end of the permitted march route several thousand protesters took over the grounds surrounding the Capitol building. Activists of all ages climbed over the fencing that usually funnels traffic down the Capitol’s cement sidewalk. At least 5,000 people swarmed both the cement walkway and the grassy surrounding area to participate in a die-in to represent lives lost in Iraq.
Realizing where the stream of people had led, some protesters left, but many remained, despite uncertainty about whether police would be making arrests. Protester Brendan O’Connor said he hadn’t planned on participating in the die-in, “It just sort of happened. We just kind of fell in with it. We’re here to show a presence, to add more people.”
Thousands participate in a die-in at the Capitol – photo by Jeff Nall
Adorning a camouflage jacket and sunglasses, New Yorker Zach Hasychak reclined on his elbows, facing the Capitol. “Something needs to be done and nobody else is doing it,” he said. “I’m definitely willing to get arrested.” Protesters chanted: “Our house, our house, our house, our house.”
In one of the more iconic examples of civil disobedience, a man stepped onto a barricade and shouted, “What do we want?” to which those behind him replied, “Peace.” Thrusting a sign that read “Support the troops, bring them home,” he called out: “When do we want it?” “Now,” they shouted. Wearing a pink crown and looking something like a 21st century Christ, the man jumped into a group of swarming officers. It took four of them to wrestle him to the ground. Still he held his sign and called out, “What do we want?” Even when they ripped the sign from his grip and put a knee in his back, his voice persisted: “When do we want it?” “Peace…now,” replied his fellow protesters.
A subset of marchers scolded the police, chanting: “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” He was one of 190 or so nonviolent anti-war activists who were arrested.
Despite its failure to report on the size of the march, the New York Times nevertheless wrote that the demonstration “evoked the angry spirit of the Vietnam era protests of more than three decades ago” (“Antiwar Protest Ends with Dozens of Arrests,” September 16, 2007). The AP noted that the number of people committing civil disobedience outweighed previous Iraq war protests.
While many gauge the success of Washington demonstrations by their size, Chris Banks, an ANSWER organizer, said, “I think the size of demonstrations is one way to measure its impact, but it’s not the only way and it’s not even the most accurate way. This demonstration, like the demonstration on March 17 at the Pentagon, was a very important step in the anti-war movement because these two demonstrations had enormous participation from veterans, veteran families, and active-duty soldiers. On March 17 they were about a third of the entire demonstration and in this demonstration they led the march the whole day. It speaks to a growing resistance within the military. The military resisters are one of the most important anti-war forces.”
Banks felt that the arrest of Iraq war veterans and the treatment of citizens at the protest are telling of the way in which the Administration views soldiers and democracy. “For everybody here who had the experience of seeing how the troops are speaking out as veterans and soldiers are then arrested and treated like criminals…. It’s a good experience here for everybody to see that.”
Two days before the Washington demonstration, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” did a segment titled, “War Opposition Fails to Gel for Antiwar Movement.” The story questioned the effectiveness of the movement to end the war. Of course, NPR failed to broadcast live or in-depth coverage of the September 15 march. The only coverage it offered was in a separate story which featured just two short quotes from activists and demeaned the size and magnitude of the event by reporting just “several thousand” demonstrators had participated.
Increasing numbers of peace activists willing to be arrested – photo by Jeff Nall
While the mainstream media took every opportunity to inundate its audience with the pro-war voice of General Petraeus during the much anticipated hearings on Capitol Hill, when it came to a mass anti-war march on the Capitol, it was business as usual. USA Today, for instance, went so far as to run an Associated Press story that “several thousand” were in attendance, but decided to omit a line later in the piece that relayed “tens of thousands of people” appeared to be in attendance (“Scores arrested at Iraq war protest,” September 16, 2007).
Despite the mainstream media’s lack of coverage of the event, activists have utilized YouTube, photo sharing sites, myspace, and more to widely publicize the events. Protesters have realized that national marches are acts of defiant revolt. As protesters chanted on September 29, “If they won’t give us peace, we’ll take it….” Americans are giving up polite chants for militant demands.
Jeff Nall is a writer and activist. He is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative studies at Florida Atlantic University. Two of his essays appear in Howling Dog Press’s activist anthology, Cost of Freedom.