Protesters leaving Arlington Cemetery, crossing Memorial Bridge—photo from IsisImagery.com
Thirty-four people were arrested on the grounds of the Capitol building on March 19 during a silent march mourning those Iraqis, Afghanis, and U.S. soldiers who have been killed during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Dressed in black with white plaster masks and placards with the names of the victims, the marchers proceeded 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 across the Capitol grounds late in the afternoon. At around 5:30 PM 34 people froze in a silent "endless war memorial" in the middle of the intersection of First Street and Independence Avenue. Capitol police immediately surrounded the protesters and began mass arrests after ten minutes of non-compliance with the order to disperse.
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 commented 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, the march created a powerful spectacle of "people standing and bearing witness to the murderous policies" of the 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 Activist Response Team (ART), whose members specialize in designing "creative direct actions" that drive home the effects of war and violence. Laurie Arbeiter, an organizer with ART, 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 ART 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 dis-content in this country.
The march took place in the midst of at least half a dozen other direct actions in the nation’s capital on the fifth anniversary of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq. These included:
- an early-morning blockade of the IRS by the War Resisters League
where 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
At least 66 peaceful demonstrators were arrested in the capital, with about 140 arrested elsewhere around the country.
The organizers and participants of the March 19 actions sought to go beyond more traditional modes of protest. There is a strong sense among many peace organizers that citizen protests must more directly confront the "pillars of war"—including 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—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 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."
Direct actions tend to require a greater degree of personal sacrifice. Since March 19 was a business day, 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. Heinz took a week of unpaid vacation in order to attend the events. Justifying her decision, she says, "I can’t not do it— that’s the bottom line."
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 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. Like other media outlets, the Post focused most of its March 20 Iraq reportage on the words and actions of President Bush and 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 effect, deliberate or not, is to discourage citizens from taking independent action by perpetuating the notion that only high-level politicians have the power or moral authority to change policy.
Other acts of popular protest throughout the previous week and a half were also diligently suppressed or ignored in U.S. 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 U.S. troops remained in Iraq. This event deviated from the standard narrative that portrays antiwar activists as "anti-troops" and hostile toward veterans. This narrative is obviously absurd and has little or no historical basis, but it continues to pervade much media and commentary.
In line with past precedent, the large number of U.S. veterans who have helped spearhead the peace movement seldom appear in press accounts—a fact that has angered and frustrated many of those 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." 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 experi- ences with war, were given scant attention.
If Not Now, When?
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." Direct actions like the March of the Dead (which, of course, is not really "new," but out-of-fashion in recent decades) have sought to disrupt business-as-usual while exposing the real-life consequences of war. By bringing the effects of war and militarism out into the open, these actions are targeted disruptions of everyday routine and educational tools in themselves.
In a very promising development, the peace movement has expanded to include large numbers of students, unionized workers, feminists, religious leaders, and, perhaps most significantly, hundreds of courageous veterans. That many of these people made sacrifices to protest is "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. These actions hold great promise and the need for them is urgent. ART’s Laurie Arbeiter says that 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?"
Kevin Young is a graduate student in Latin American history at Stony Brook University.