Stop the What?

Recent anti-war protests were less coherent than a year ago — but still valuable.

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On Saturday, the one-year anniversary of the start of war in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people around the world marched to protest U.S. policies in Iraq. This time last year — or a little before — the same kinds of marches were driven by a sense of mission, a sense that people could make a difference and stop the war before it got started. Understandably, the gatherings this year were much smaller and, by all accounts, more subdued. It’s easy to deride the marches as irrelevant — as postwar anti-war rallies; but if a principle was at stake before the war, marchers argue, it’s still at stake after the war.

Roughly 250 anti-war protests were scheduled throughout the U.S., and many more around the world. Estimates vary–depending on whether you ask the police or the organizers–but let’s say there were about 3,000 protesters in Los Angeles, 30,000-100,000 in New York, 250,000-2 million in Rome, 25,000-100,000 in London, around 150,000 in Barcelona, and some 120,000 in Japan. Good figures, but stayed on message, condemning U.S. policy in Iraq and demanding a leading role there for the U.N. and for Iraqis themselves. Inevitably, though, the message this time around wasn’t quite as clear as last year’s “No War!” Instead, a kind of free-for-all incoherence reigned. Counterpunch had a man on the scene in San Francisco:

“Other banners at the front of the demonstration linked the occupation of Iraq to the occupation of Palestine and opposition to all forms of colonialism: “Bring the Troops Home Now! End Occupation from Iraq to Palestine”, “End Colonial Occupation Iraq, Palestine, Haiti and Everywhere!” and “Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan, Korea, Philippines, Colombia, Cuba… U.S. OUT! Free Palestine!”

There is also concern that the anti-war movement simplifies the political situation. Andrew Anthony writes in the Guardian:

“There were serious political, moral and pragmatic arguments against waging war on Iraq, just as there are good reasons for now wanting the UN to oversee its reconstruction. But they have seldom been voiced by the anti-war movement. One of the best arguments against starting the war was that the withdrawal of troops that the Stop the War coalition is still calling for would today lead to a catastrophic civil war.

But such awkward realities have seldom been the concern of the anti-war movement. Instead it has busied itself with myth production – a war for oil, a war against Muslims, and now a war that is responsible for the bombs that everyone seems to think are inevitably going to explode in this country.

As Richard Clarke, Bush’s former chief counter- terrorism adviser has just confirmed, post-September 11, the US administration tried in the face of all available evidence to conflate al-Qaida and Iraq. Now, post March 11, the anti-war movement is guilty of attempting to do exactly the same.”

Anthony is also concerned that, just as Spain’s election of an “anti-war” president was viewed as “appeasing” terrorism, so will the anti-war protests:

“I would guess that what kept many people away from the march was an unwillingness to be seen to give any succor, however unintended, to the terrorists who blew up 200 innocent Spaniards. Unfortunately, few of the leading figures against the war, not least in Spain itself, have taken the same care to avoid actions or words that might encourage the bombers.

“It’s time to accept that the battle against the war in Iraq has been lost. Instead, attention should now be turned to winning the battle for the peace. And in that struggle we must be clear that the people who blow up commuter trains are very definitely on the wrong side.”

But Tom Englehardt argues that the war protests did serve a valuable purpose — that of uniting and putting heart into those who abhor Bush’s foreign policy.

“Think of Saturday’s demos as a calling card at the door of the Bush administration and its “coalition” of un-democracy, led by leaders all of whom voted against their own people’s wishes on the matter. (Democracy, it seems, is basically something you only hand over to oppressed peoples elsewhere, and then only if they’re willing to follow your wishes.) In any case, the general feeling in my two blocks of protesting New York fit this moment of return. Spirits were good; the mood creative; the noise level modest. It had the feeling of a beginning, not a desperate end; of something holding and waiting to build, not exploding and in danger of collapse.

These were, I believe, demonstrations largely for us — and we are, by the way, a distinctly variegated lot. They were, first and foremost, a reminder and an encouragement that we’re still here, still a force, still ready. There is, I have to say, something about that moment when you find yourself surrounded by a mass of people in something like your own spirit that does make you feel better — especially in a crowd like the New York one where you never sense that you’re being called upon to lose yourself in the process.”

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