Unprecedented in size, breadth and diversity, the world-wide February 15 demonstrations proved invaluable to the campaign against renewed war on Iraq. The millions of us who rallied and marched for peace in well over 600 cities from New York to Rome to Ramallah to Melbourne, communicated in no uncertain terms that the entire world really does say no to war. The level of our effectiveness can be debated, but there is no question we significantly impacted the discussion taking place at high, narrow levels. Millions of us.
Our organizing efforts succeeded in many ways. The demonstrations captured the eyes and ears of the mainstream press, and for the most part we have received relatively positive and accurate reports, including coverage of our numbers and our message. Clearly, we have broadened the debate, and we have opened a window of opportunity. What we do with that opportunity will be decisive.
The Next Step: Regroup
The International ANSWER coalition is calling for a demonstration in Washington, DC on March 15. That is only three weeks away, and many of us are deciding whether to heed their call and work to organize people in our communities to attend that demonstration. Still reeling from last weekend’s mobilization efforts, we must weigh seriously the costs of expending more energy traveling to big cities for long, cold days, instead of doing more education and outreach work at home.
We have seen that large, impressive demonstrations are crucial to our movement and provide us with great opportunities in terms of media coverage, coalition building, and collective expression. But at this point most organizers are probably better off regrouping and recouping in our communities. Now that we have expressed ourselves massively, it is time to lay better and more solid foundations for a continued antiwar movement, making community-based connections and doing real, on the ground educating and organizing. We need to work towards deepening the commitment of those who are already opposed to war and organizing locally to inspire more people to take action.
We aren’t at all suggesting people not go to DC on March 15. What we are saying is, if you want to contribute in a fundamentally different way, at this critical moment your energy is almost certainly better spent on local outreach and education, or developing stronger organization and dedication at home. Washington isn’t going to think we’ve all evaporated if we don’t show up in the hundreds of thousands on March 15. Millions of demonstrators dispersed throughout the country, accompanied by massive worker strikes, student walkouts and thousands committed to civil disobedience and direct action would exhibit resistance power on a radically new level.
So what are the keys to attracting millions more to active opposition and amplifying the commitment of those already involved? The answers are simple, but of course they will involve substantial work.
Outreach and Education
Without a doubt, we have piqued the interests of the general population. Tireless effort has begun to pay off, and suddenly dissent is not all that unpopular. There has never been a better opportunity to change minds than this very moment. And lest we get caught up in the fervor of our own ruckus, we must remember many Americans still support the war, and many who oppose it are irresolute in their antiwar convictions.
A recent poll conducted by Knight-Ridder News Service revealed that most Americans do not even know rudimentary facts about the Iraq crisis. For instance, 86% of respondents were not aware that there were, in fact, no Iraqi-born hijackers involved in he September 11th attacks. Two thirds of Americans think Iraq has a nuclear weapons arsenal. The list goes on, and it is sufficiently disturbing.
The same poll also showed that the more people are familiar with the facts, the less likely they are to support an invasion of Iraq. Though this may be obvious to most of us, the results of the Knight-Ridder poll illustrate conclusively that there remains much ground to be covered. It does little good to make sophisticated arguments about the nuances of international law or the particulars of various alternatives to invasion and occupation, when most pro-war Americans still think Iraq stands accused of planning 9/11 or that Hussein has recently threatened Israel with biological and chemical weapons.
Lacking the ability to seize control of television stations, we need to bring information to the public through more customary methods. Rallies and marches show our strength, but sloganeering is largely unpersuasive (and understandably so). We need to be producing more alternative media and disseminating it widely. We need to hit the streets with leaflets and bring the antiwar message to every neighborhood, every workplace, every place of worship, every community center, every shopping mall, every living room. Now is the phase for teach-ins and canvasses, coffee houses and soap boxes.
Intensification and Radicalization
In a front page New York Times article published Monday, February 17, reporter Patrick Tyler states:
“In his campaign to disarm Iraq, by war if necessary, President Bush appears to be eyeball to eyeball with a tenacious new adversary: millions of people who flooded the streets of New York and dozens of other world cities to say they are against war based on the evidence at hand. Mr. Bush’s advisers are telling him to ignore them and forge ahead, as are some leading pro-war Republicans.”
We have become a threat; but can we deliver? Policy makers are debating right now whether or not they have to heed our dissent. Now we must make it clear to them that there will be political and economic consequences if they decide to ignore our protest, and be prepared to follow through. We have shown the Bush Administration that we know how to organize on a national and international scale, against its interests and for our own. Two major demonstrations within a month of each other made the point loud and clear: our movement has the numbers and the capacity to mobilize, and there is no hint of dissipation in sight. What remains to be seen, however, is whether our movement, which is made up mostly of people who were virtually uninvolved a year ago, is radical and committed enough to hold its ground and even raise the stakes in spite of Bush’s slick rhetorical maneuvers.
No doubt the White House and State Department are making decisions in a new context. As a result we should expect attempts to pacify the demands of the least radical elements of our movement—those calling for war only through the UN Security Council, or harsher inspections, or more proof, and other reformist qualifications. Our protest will likely force the White House to slow down some, build more international support, and work through the UNSC. We should consider it an important short-term victory that we see such moves, but we must realize that a change in tune or tone does not equal an actual change in the administration’s goals of massive war and destruction, leading to control of Iraq, its people and its resources. History has shown that the US is extremely effective at bribing its way through UN proceedings, that further inspections are just a delay in the march to war, and that evidence of Iraqi misdeeds is easy enough to fabricate and distort.
Besides an acknowledgement of dissidents’ power, the above quote from the New York Times highlights these shortcomings. First, by stating Bush’s goal is to “disarm Iraq,” the real motives of our government are being ignored in an article flattering and sympathetic to its most vocal critics. Additionally, the author suggests that most protestors are “against the war based on the evidence at hand.” While that may not in fact be true, it certainly is the lowest common denominator. The article, completely in line with establishment thought on the topic, implies that we are being heard but our message is unclear, easily distorted and misunderstood.
It is probably true that the majority of this fledgling antiwar movement believes Iraq is among the most important issues faced by the US and the world. But if the actual threat posed by a Saddam Hussein whose military capacity is thoroughly contained, is in fact negligible, why should Iraq be a policy priority in the first place? As long as the US population is convinced that Hussein is a threat to our own security, the policy of "pre-emptive" strike will remain an option. So if the government’s job is to stir up hysteria, ours is to promote reasonable understanding of the issues and an accurate evaluation of the threat.
So while we work on building our movement, let’s pay very close attention to the arguments we are making. We need a movement that opposes all wars of aggression (instead of opportunistically differentiating between this war and Afghanistan or Kosovo/Serbia, as if those were reasonable). We must unequivocally oppose pre-emptive strikes and war for oil or power, plus demand an end to the sanctions and current air strikes against Iraq. We cannot allow the debate to be distracted by petty differentiations between an exclusive US/UK invasion and a UN-backed invasion.
Further, we need a movement that raises a stink about unilateral and politically motivated weapons inspections and states loud and clear that even some evidence of some illicit arms in Iraq is not proof of Hussein’s intention or capability to attack anyone (let alone the United States). In fact, such findings don’t compare in the slightest to the world’s biggest arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological warheads right here at home. Military containment has indeed worked for 12 years and should be applied to ALL potentially dangerous countries, regardless of their stature or venue.
In other words, we need to move the conversation to the left, and work to pull the whole antiwar movement in a more radical, yet sustainable direction. Rationality and fact are on our side.
Radicalization of those we’re reaching more regularly is the first, and perhaps most important, of the threats we pose to the establishment. Many who oppose war on Iraq state that they wish the government would focus more on the supposed war against anti-Western terrorism, instead of an approach that takes into account the inspirational roots of such threats. An important part of our antiwar organizing is to highlight the connections between the proposed invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and repression masquerading as counter-terrorism. In addition, if those new to question US foreign policy also begin taking an interest in an array of other concerns (health care, immigration, labor issues, police misconduct, and so on), we threaten not only the government’s aspirations of empire, but also its domestic agenda—indeed it’s domestic footing. Facing such prospects of losing power, corporate and government leaders will have no choice but to take pause.
From Threat to Action
Choosing tactics is a delicate matter, and since September 11 the Left has mostly treated it with kid gloves. But peaceful marches and rallies, no matter how large, won’t keep Bush at bay for long. Increased popularity, sympathy and commitment among all elements of the general antiwar movement will provide enhanced opportunities for more active resistance. Not everyone is ready or able to take great risks in standing against war, but we’re selling newcomers short at this point if we doubt the bulk of our movement will support those who can and will raise the heat.
Various forms of civil disobedience and confrontational, nonviolent action have already manifested themselves among sectors of our movement. They have been met with predictable hesitation among some, but with delight among many more. Confrontations witnessed on February 15 in New York led to overwhelming condemnation of the police, instead of protesters, among first-time demonstrators and much of the mainstream media alike. Even CNN has blasted the NYPD for its blatant misbehavior!
The array of tactical options at our disposal is too much to cover here, but it is at last within reach once again. Coming weeks provide a significant opportunity for inspiring ourselves and one another to take more direct action. We should take care to separate risky actions from larger, permitted demonstrations; to remember that there are many diverse ways that people choose to raise their level of protest; and be mindful of the hierarchies and cliques that often form around those who can take risks or tend to practice the more prevalent/spectacular forms of CD and direct action. But in any way we can, we should take action!
We on the Left are not super-human and we have limited time and resources, so we have to make difficult decisions about priorities. Right now our movement is headed into a rut of trying to mobilize for large demonstrations on a monthly basis. But after February 15, we have the opportunity to move in a different direction. Instead of working towards large mobilizations and making arguments that are watered-down to appeal to a more mainstream crowd, we should shift gears and shift focus. It’s time make stronger arguments and entrench commitments while doubling our efforts to get the basic facts to more and more Americans in our own communities.
Jessica Azulay and Brian Dominick are organizers and journalists who live in Syracuse, New York. They welcome responses at
They have created several downloadable organizing tools to compliment this article, available on Z Net in PDF format:
“Inspect This!” Is a flyposter tying sanctions against Iraq to the proposed invasion of Iraq, available in legal size (8.5” x 14”) and ledger size (11” x 17”).
“War Through the U.N? Not Even Then” is an 8.5” x 11” flyposter.
“NONE of the 9/11 Hijackers Was Iraqi… And Other Facts Most Americans Don’t Know” is a brochure dispelling basic yet common myths about the Iraq crisis.
“Why are Millions Marching Against War” is a brochure explaining the general reasons why people in the U.S. and the world oppose an invasion of Iraq.