Protesting Militarism Under the Obama Administration

On Saturday, March 21, 2009 the U.S. anti-war movement held its second national mobilization against U.S. militarism since Obama’s inauguration. Marking the 6th Anniversary of the Iraq war, about 10,000 people participated in a march on the Pentagon organized by the ANSWER Coalition. While there were radical groups in attendance that viewed Obama as being little different from Bush, Obama supporters comprised a sizeable contingent of protesters.

Kate Walsh, of Students Against War in Des Moines, Iowa said, "I’m opposed to the Iraq war and I don’t believe that we should move troops to Afghanistan. I want Obama to know that my generation isn’t with him if he’s going to continue the wars there." She wasn’t old enough to vote for Obama, but she did volunteer to help get him elected. "I think I would have voted for him because I’d rather use my vote for a candidate who has a chance rather than voting for a third party," said Walsh.

Holding a sign reading "I am shocked and awed," veteran Harry Parks of North Carolina echoed Walsh’s position. "I’m here to remind the Obama administration that we still want the war to end." Parks who served in the Army for 28 years, including 30 months flying helicopters in Vietnam. "This is the most tragic blunder in American history—this past administration and its foray into the Middle East. I’m a retired military veteran and I believe that defending the country is essential, but what we’ve been doing is not defending the country."

Parks said he voted for Obama and believes that he is best suited to rectify the foreign policy debacle Bush left behind. "I just don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we absolutely must get out of the Middle East and let those people determine what kind of government they want, not the kind of government we’re trying to give them."

Micael Bogar of Washington, DC may have been dressed as a clown, but her impetus for attending the march was as solemn as it gets. Bogar said that her younger brother, Jason Bogar, a U.S. soldier, died in Afghanistan on July 13, 2008. "These are his dog tags," she said lifting them from her neck. Bogar said that losing her brother transformed her life and led her to realize "that fighting against war doesn’t work…. What does work for me is loving and understanding the way of the world and reality. And letting everyone else catch up." Clowning, she said, is an important part of that creative process. "And peace is a very courageous act and it takes creativity to get there, to find peace in your life. So I’m demonstrating what my peace looks like."

Protesters’ criticisms encompassed general U.S. military foreign policy. Activists condemned the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its financial and political backing of Israel’s assault on Gaza and continued occupation of Palestinian territory. A prevalent mantra was that U.S. military spending came at the expense of desperately needed funding for jobs, education, and basic human needs.

In addition to professionally crafted signs made by organizing groups, protesters brandished hand-crafted signs and banners reading: "Obama it’s your war now," "America is losing its soul in Gaza," "U.S. out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan NOW," "College not combat," "Hey, Obama take a stand, U.S. out of Afghanistan," and "OK Democrats, now stop the war."

After rallying across the street from the Lincoln Memorial, protesters marched across the Memorial Bridge on their way to the Pentagon. Along the route protesters bellowed chants such as "Hey, Obama, yes we can. Troops out of Afghanistan" and "Barack, Barack, Barack, Afghanistan’s the same as Iraq." Protesters also called for broad ethnic unity, chanting "Blacks, Latinos, Arab, Asian, and whites, no racist war no more, no more, defend our civil rights." Other chants addressed the economic situation: "Bail out the workers, not the war makers."

At one point, the march came to a halt as activists spontaneously formed a large dance circle and moved to what may have been the most popular chant of the demonstration: "Get up! Get down! There’s an anti-war movement in this town."

This pause in the march was used by a small group of activists who questioned organizers’ commitment to opposing racism. Flanked by a group of anarchists, they created a blockade, bottling up the protest. The group soon drew the ire of participants. Further along one protester from the anarchist contingent threw a hammer into an apartment window.

Crescenzo Scipione, 17, of Rochester, New York, said that the blockade of the route wasn’t constructive. "I hate it because it perpetuates, mainly among liberals and socialists, this kind of baiting of anarchists. We need to stop doing shit like that."

March organizers dramatized the tragic consequences of U.S. military intervention around the world by creating about 100 cardboard coffins draped with flags representing the home land of those killed. Coffins representing fallen U.S. soldiers were also on hand. Protesters carried the coffins through the Pentagon’s north parking lot into downtown Crystal City where they delivered them to defense contractors.

In an attempt to prevent activists from placing the makeshift coffins on the doorstep of General Dynamics-KBR dozens of police officers created a wall around the facility. A contingent of activists took direct action, however, charging toward the entrance from an unguarded side of the building. A brigade of officers responded by cutting off their path. Activists settled on leaving the coffins at officers’ feet. On the street, supportive marchers looked on.

This Washington protest was about one-tenth the size of ANSWER’s September 15, 2007 march. Asked how she felt about the considerably smaller turnout of protesters compared to the marches in 2007, Rachelle van Wyck of St. Petersburg, Florida said that the numbers were less important than getting the message out. "It’s that people are still committed."


Jeff Nall is a writer, peace activist, speaker and author of Perpetual Revolt: Essays on Peace & Justice and The Shared Values of Secular, Spiritual, and Religious Progressives (Howling Dog Press). Photos are by Nall.