February 21, 2003


By Sandy Close

SAN FRANCISCO--Critics on the East Coast, on both sides of the political spectrum, dismiss the current anti-war protests as a naïve political spasm in danger of being hijacked by hard-line sectarians (once called "outside agitators"). But something about the style of recent demonstrations here in San Francisco suggests the emergence of a new kind of civic participation -- one that is not definable as "left" or "right," but grounded in a distrust of political leaders and traditional "isms."

Whereas 40 years ago, protestors marched beneath banners like "Students for a Democratic Society," "Revolutionary Communist Party" or "Vietnam Veterans Against the War," what's most striking about today's demonstrators is the singularity of their messages of protest.

Here are some samples from the February 16 march up Market Street, the city's main thoroughfare: "Regime Change Begins At Home"; "Duct Tape Bush"; "911 Was An Inside Job"; Start Drafting SUV Drivers Now"; "War Is Mass Terrorism"; U.S. Out of Everywhere"; "Go Solar, Not Ballistic"; "Weapons of Mass Destruction -- CNN, NBC, NYT, CBS..."; "Bush Gives Vegetation A Bad Name"; "Vive La France." Whether scrawled on small homemade cardboard signs or artfully designed, the messages conveyed the same theme: "Not in MY Name."

The old slogans, chants and anthems that fired up protestors in the Vietnam era gave way last Sunday to a collective roar that periodically would gust through the crowd until it ran out of breath. It was a roar that aggregated all the individual voices without exception or hierarchy.

It was more exuberant than angry. But it carried a threat. It was as if the protestors had not yet solidified behind one common script, but were testing out what it sounded like when everyone shouted together.

To an observer, also noticeable was the leisured pace of the marchers themselves. And the mood was more playful -- full of street theater -- rather than militant. Indeed, where a platform had been set up for the grand rally, and the usual sort of political activists were shouting into the microphone, most demonstrators tended to disperse, disappearing down the escalators to the subway trains or wending their way back to parked cars and buses. This was not a march that throbbed to the voice of celebrity activist or clerical leader, let alone any elected official. It took its energy charge from the grassroots at a time when confidence in leadership of all kinds -- from church to boardroom -- has eroded in America.

What accounts for the change?

In part there was the sheer diversity of the protestors -- a cultural mixing that encompassed virtually every class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, political party and even language. Gone was the once ubiquitous trust-no-one-over-30 tone; instead, the most common expressions of solidarity referred to motherhood and veganism.

In California, where distrust of political machines gave rise to the ballot initiative, the individualist current runs way too strung for this surge of activism to be hijacked. "Not in MY Name" -- as the sign makes clear -- lacks a collective pronoun. And it comes at a time when voter participation has fallen to all time lows, in California as elsewhere.

This air of individualism may be a temporary blip that will disappear if the anti-war goal is not realized. But what we are seeing on the street may also describe a new mode for civic affairs in America that accommodates a culture as diverse, fragmented and individuated as the new California.

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