[Marxism] Antiwar movement revival?
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 7 06:58:25 MDT 2009
For Antiwar Protesters, the Cause Isn't Lost
But Will D.C. Rally Spark Groundswell?
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The protesters convened for a final planning meeting, already
triumphant, convinced that nine months of preparation was about to pay
off. Antiwar organizers who had come to Washington from 27 states
exchanged hugs inside a Columbia Heights convention hall and modeled
their protest costumes: orange jumpsuits, "death masks," shackles and
T-shirts depicting bloody Afghan children. Then Pete Perry, the event
organizer, stood up to deliver a welcome speech.
"This is a great moment for our movement," he said. "We are continuing
an incredible tradition."
"Like Gandhi," said the next speaker.
"Like Martin Luther King," said another.
A Sunday meeting and a Monday protest -- that was the agenda planned in
advance of Wednesday's eighth anniversary of the start of the Afghan
war. There had been other protests in Washington over the course of the
conflict, dozens of them, but this time organizers believed they could
revive the beleaguered antiwar movement, once such a force in U.S.
policy. The next 48 hours would put their optimism on trial.
With public opinion polls showing a majority of Americans opposing the
war, organizers wanted at least 1,000 people to march through downtown,
risk arrest by creating a ruckus at the White House and draw President
Obama across the manicured North Lawn to meet with them.
"The goal of this action is to hand-deliver a letter to Obama," Perry
reminded the group. "We want a meeting to demand an end to this
It would also set the stage for 42 rallies and protests scheduled to
take place Wednesday around the country. After decades of decline in the
antiwar movement -- from throngs of half a million to fringe rallies to
almost nothing at all -- the job of organizers in Washington was to
generate momentum for a historic week.
Their work started Sunday afternoon, when about 50 organizers met to
discuss final plans for a rally with a scope to match their ambition.
They included veterans and pacifists, hippies and anarchists, feminists
and Catholic workers. In total, there were more than a dozen "affinity
groups," and each had choreographed its own demonstration for Monday's
event. Some protesters would be shackled inside a cage, in solidarity
with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Some would reenact the deaths of U.S.
soldiers near the White House fence. Some would read the names of
civilians killed in Afghanistan. Some would carry cardboard coffins.
"We have to be organized, or nobody will hear anything," Perry said.
As the meeting progressed, there were signs of discord. Some groups
wanted to chant while they marched to the White House; others argued
that a solemn, single-file procession would convey a "better sense of
suffering," one protester said. Some wanted to take bathroom breaks
during the protest; others argued that participants could wait until
they were in jail, after their arrests. Some planned to misidentify
themselves to police; others said they would simply refuse to answer
"Lying is dumb," one protester shouted.
"Just because my resistance is different than yours doesn't mean I'm
dumb," another yelled back, standing now, clenching his fist. "We are
all traveling down our own paths to peace."
* * *
Every faction agreed on at least one goal for Monday's rally, knowing
all too well that the survival of the movement depended on it: This was
the time to attract new protesters, with the war in Afghanistan
continuing to dominate the news and Obama debating his next move. After
Sunday's meeting, Perry, the organizer, held a training session for
first-time demonstrators in the sanctuary of a church. He arrived
prepared for a crowd, with a co-teacher and a thick stack of handouts.
Instead, four people came. Three were experienced activists. Only one
was a newcomer. Joan Wages, a mother of two, had driven five hours from
Floyd, Va., to attend her first rally. She had voted for Obama but
become disillusioned. Now she hoped to set an example for her children
by "making my actions consistent with my beliefs," she said.
"I've done a few really little protest things, but that's it," Wages
told the instructors. "I really don't know what to expect."
The instructors gave a brief lesson on the history of nonviolent
resistance and then read motivational quotes from Buddhist monks. At the
end of the class, they asked Wages to hold a make-believe vigil at the
White House while the instructors mimicked angry right-wing activists
and tried to bait her. Wages closed her eyes, set her hands in prayer
and started singing.
"We should run you over with a big war tank!" the instructors yelled.
"We should shoot you with our guns!" they shouted.
Wages continued to sing, undaunted, until the instructors broke from
character to applaud.
"You're ready," Perry said.
"Just remember that nonviolence is a way of life," said Susan Crane, the
"And that police officers are our brothers and sisters, too," Perry said.
Wages thanked them and left the training seminar, but she struggled to
fall asleep later that night. The session had been helpful in a
"philosophical kind of way," she said later, but she still had
logistical concerns about Monday's protest. Like: "Who will pick me up
from jail?" And: "After we all pretend to die in front of the White
House, can I get up and move or does everyone have to stay totally still?"
* * *
The protesters met Monday morning in McPherson Square, a slab of grass
in downtown Washington named after a war hero. They had hoped to fill
the park, but instead 176 protesters gathered in one corner. The crowd
was all familiar faces from the antiwar movement, except for a homeless
man sleeping on a bench, a bicyclist eating a scone and a Street Sense
newspaper salesman who saw a business opportunity in the gathering.
Eve Tetaz, 78, stood near a small sound stage and zipped up her orange
jumpsuit. She had a trial pending from another protest, but she still
planned to risk arrest Monday -- something she had done so often that
preparing for jail was part of her routine. Phone numbers of fellow
protesters were inked on her forearm so she could call from jail. A
neighbor in Adams Morgan had agreed to watch her two cats. Her glaucoma
medicine was packed underneath her jumpsuit. She wore a heavy sweatshirt
that itched in the heat but would make for a fantastic pillow in a cell.
"Jail is a little uncomfortable," Tetaz said, "but so is the dentist."
On the stage in front of her, a rotation of speakers tried to excite the
crowd. Two women strummed guitars and sang a folk song. Then a man
recited a poem. Then a woman spoke about the persecution of blacks in
Southeast Washington. Then another poet, and another singer, and a woman
banging a tambourine, and a keynote speaker, and another folk song, this
time performed in Hebrew.
"We should be going soon," Tetaz said.
Finally, an organizer stepped to the microphone and told the protesters
to form a single-file line for the march to the White House. They were
instructed to walk slowly, heads down, in absolute silence.
"A solemn march," the speaker said.
As the group departed, a few protesters smiled and chatted with nearby
"Please everybody, a solemn march," the speaker reiterated, louder this
time. "Solemn. Solemn."
* * *
The protesters arrived at the White House and quickly realized they were
entering into a ruckus, not just creating one. A construction crew was
at work on Pennsylvania Avenue, removing excess water with two loud
industrial vacuums. Smaller protest groups -- one demanding to see
Obama's birth certificate, another enraged about health care -- shouted
chants of their own. A maintenance worker used a chain saw to trim a
tree on the White House grounds. Inside the building, press secretary
Robert Gibbs was telling reporters that leaving Afghanistan was "not
something that had ever been entertained."
The antiwar group launched into its demonstration, undeterred. One
protester pretended to waterboard a war prisoner, screaming, "Tell me
your secrets or else" as he poured distilled bottled water onto a
friend's face. A woman wore shackles and a black bag over her head, the
toenails on her bare feet painted a deep autumn red. Cindy Sheehan, a
tireless protester, read from her International People's Declaration of
Peace, and then, sensing an inattentive crowd, said, "I am going to skip
a couple paragraphs and just go to the end."
The marchers marched, the singers sang, the chanters chanted. Tourists
turned their cameras away from the White House to take pictures of the
But there was a problem.
"Why aren't the police doing anything?" one demonstrator asked,
referring to the 15 uniformed officers who stood casually in the distance.
The protesters wanted to engage them, so 15 activists wearing orange
jumpsuits chained themselves to the White House fence. "Off the fence!"
a police officer yelled, but the chains were locked. Five officers rode
over on horseback.
Five more put on black gloves and came with wire cutters. Now the Secret
Service was clearing the sidewalk, and the Park Police was issuing a
warning for the protesters to disperse, then a second, then a third.
"We will have to arrest anyone who does not clear this area
immediately," an officer announced over a megaphone.
Sixty-two protesters stood their ground, and the police walked over
slowly with plastic handcuffs. Sheehan was arrested at 1:11 p.m., and
she smiled as police frisked her. Tetaz, the 78-year-old, was arrested
at 1:14, ready for another trip to jail. Wages, the newcomer, pretended
to be a dying soldier and remained motionless as she waited for arrest,
only to be forcibly removed instead.
Police loaded the protesters onto a Metro bus and drove them away from
Those who had avoided arrest tallied the rally's impact: 62 arrests, 23
others forcibly removed.
"A success," Perry said.
As the protesters walked away from the White House, they made plans to
leave for other rallies across the country Wednesday. One was headed to
an action in New York, another to Austin and another to San Francisco.
Two planned to attend an event in Chicago, where the organizer, John
Beacham, expected a big crowd and possibly more arrests. "We think this
could be a turning-point kind of moment," he said.
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