WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Why protest matters
By Sharon Smith | February 9, 2007
HUNDREDS OF thousands of antiwar protesters amassed on the streets of Washington, D.C., on January 27, emboldened by the optimism of an antiwar majority that has finally found its voice.
To be sure, skeptics were quick to point out that members of Congress had vacated their offices for the weekend, as if their physical presence was necessary to notice the throngs of protesters. Other cynics remind us that even the enormous February 15, 2003, antiwar demonstrations failed to halt the U.S. drive to war on Iraq, as if protest is a futile exercise.
It is politically naïve, however, to expect that a single demonstration of any size is enough to persuade the world’s lone military superpower to reverse its bloodthirsty course.
A demonstration is not a protest movement. Such a movement requires an ongoing commitment to grassroots struggle.
The large turnout on January 27 represents the potential to revive the antiwar movement, after an extended period of dormancy. For the last few years, torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the invasions of Falluja, massacres of Iraqi civilians and the rising death toll of U.S. troops seemed to demoralize rather than embolden movement activists in the heart of the imperialist beast.
In contrast, many activists returned to their communities invigorated by the experience of January 27, committed to building a struggle to end the war.
Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman discovered this combative mood while addressing a meeting of the Palisades Democratic Club in Los Angeles on January 28. Protesters confronted him with a banner reading “Liberals do not fund occupation” and heckled him while he explained that, despite his alleged opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he would not commit to de-funding it.
The hecklers appeared dissatisfied with Waxman’s recital of Democratic Party talking points, shouting angrily, “What about the U.S. Constitution?” when he announced his opposition to impeachment proceedings against Bush.
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BUT MOVEMENTS are also based on strategies, and antiwar activists must now decide the most effective strategy for coalescing renewed grassroots opposition into a sustained protest movement. This must include an honest assessment of the very strategies that contributed to the antiwar movement’s malaise for the better part of the last four years.
Author Liza Featherstone commented in The Nation on February 2 that “much of the antiwar movement now agrees that there is no contradiction, or conflict, between chanting in the streets and lobbying in the halls of Congress,” adding, “protests would be meaningless without additional pressure on politicians.”
Featherstone’s argument sounds like the conventional wisdom. Certainly, movements must seek to pressure politicians. The question is how most effectively to do so. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), which has helmed U.S. the antiwar movement since 2003, has routinely coupled antiwar protest with lobbying.
It can reasonably be argued, however, that lobbying undermines the potential power of angry protest. Lobbying involves an arduous effort to engage politicians in polite conversation. Protest, while no less arduous, is decidedly less friendly. Occupying a representative’s office is not lobbying.
In a typical memo, UFPJ instructed its 800-strong citizen-lobbyists who swarmed the Capitol during its September 26, 2005, lobby day, “Please take the time to fax (or e-mail) a thank you note to the staff person or Congressperson you met with…You have begun to build a relationship with the office of your Representative and/or Senators–keep it up!”
UFPJ’s strategy is best described as lobbying interrupted by periodic outpourings of mass protest. Eighteen months later and no closer to ending the war, a similar number of activists joined in UFPJ’s lobby day on January 29, as a follow-up to the January 27 protest, in the hopes that Democratic Party majority in Congress would yield more substantial results.
But as Aaron Glantz reported for the Inter Press Service on February 2, “Senior Congressional Democrats are brushing off questions about cutting off funding for the Iraq war, and indicate they will do little to forcefully stop President George W. Bush from sending 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Bush’s troop surge “the one last chance” that the U.S. will “succeed” in Iraq, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated his opposition would be limited to symbolic, bipartisan legislation, rather than de-funding the war.
Presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton did not grace the nation’s Capitol with her presence from January 27-29. She ridiculed de-funding the war as a “soundbite”–from Iowa, where she was busy honing her 2008 campaign machinery.
It is also worth noting that, as Democrats have softened their support for the war on Iraq, they have hardened their stance against Iran–the next likely military target for both the U.S. and Israel.
Presidential hopeful John Edwards–who has scathingly criticized Congress for inaction on the Iraq war from his perch safely outside the Beltway–traveled to Israel on January 22 to rattle his saber at Iran. With fist-thumping emphasis, Edwards declared his commitment “to ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table, let me reiterate–all options must remain on the table.”
On February 1, Clinton worked the crowd for donations at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s dinner, assuring attendees, “Israel and the United States have shared values and an unbreakable bond. Qualities that will be necessary as they stand up to terrorism and Iran.”
At best, UFPJ’s allies in Congress must be described as fair-weather friends. Rep. Jerrold Nadler spoke at UFPJ’s January 27 protest, but quickly turned on the organization, saying he was “very upset” upon learning that UFPJ plans to co-sponsor the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation’s call for a June 10-11 Washington mobilization against the “ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories”–a tepid call, given the scale of Israel’s atrocities.
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THE AGE-old saying “You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar” does not apply to Washington’s entrenched political class, whose campaign coffers depend on a steady influx of corporate dollars.
A Chicago antiwar listserve report described a 20-minute meeting on January 22 between 20 local antiwar activists and Democratic Party powerbroker Rahm Emanuel: “Emanuel refused to take any position on any effort to cut off funding for continuation of the war past the current fiscal year.” The meeting ended abruptly when Emanuel left to catch a flight.
While Democrats have kept antiwar lobbyists at arms’ length since November, they have given a warmer reception to corporate lobbyists. The Los Angeles Times observed on January 22, “Surprising as it might seem in view of the Democrats’ public rhetoric, business groups are getting their telephone calls returned. And they’re getting plenty of face time with the new House and Senate leaders.”
Back in November, when Pelosi unveiled the Democratic majority’s plans for its first 100 hours, she promised to “roll back the multibillion-dollar subsidies for Big Oil.” When the bill left the House in mid-January, however, it sliced only $5.5 billion from the $32 billion in subsidies and tax breaks oil conglomerates will receive over the next five years–a small price to pay for the profit-soaked industry.
Grassroots activists must decide whether the antiwar movement will seek polite engagement for “face time” with Washington powerbrokers or embark on an admittedly less diplomatic strategy to get in their faces.
The potential clearly exists for the latter. In a little-reported protest on January 27, 2,500 demonstrators shut down a military recruiting center in Seattle, led by the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
One observer described, “Community members emerged from houses and joined the march as it snaked through the neighborhood. As the march drew near to the recruiting center the demonstrators began chanting, “Occupation is a crime, Ehren Watada should do no time!” and “You gotta resist, don’t enlist!”
Anger, not diplomacy, points the way forward for the antiwar movement.
Originally published in Socialist Worker