You don’t need a weatherman to see that grassroots opposition to a U.S. war with Iraq is gathering fast. Today’s peace movement already draws big protest crowds even before the shooting has begun, and its ranks are more diverse than the 1960s movement, which took a few years to grow. Fueling dissent is the perception that Bush’s call for a unilateral first strike against Iraq is arbitrary.
Peace activists using technology nonexistent in the ’60s e-mail blasts, dedicated Web sites are preparing a march in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 18-20, hoping for crowds even larger than October’s demonstrations by tens of thousands in the nation’s capital, San Francisco and other cities.
Despite the post-Sept. 11 climate of patriotism, longtime activists report they see less public hostility than during the Vietnam war. One reason may be the broad composition of recent protests from grandmothers, students and “Soccer Moms for Peace,” to locked-out African American dock workers and graying baby-boomers reliving the heady calls to action of the Vietnam era.
Unlike in the ’60s, no static over counter-culture lifestyles blurs the message. The slogan “Make love, not war” has a politically prim makeover: “Make peace, not war.”
Today’s groundswell is “more political from the beginning, based on the conclusion that the war with Iraq is unjust,” says Richard Becker, national coordinator of the Answer coalition, which sponsored the October protests.
By contrast, the 1960s upsurge was fueled mainly by the fear that more Americans were dying because of the draft. “It took thousands of body bags, with the Vietnam War already going on for a while, before the movement got going,” Becker says.
Scandals in the decades following Vietnam from Watergate to U.S. support of military dictatorships and its subterfuges in Chile and Central America have diminished the U.S. public’s innocence. “With the Cold War and the red scare gone, people are less susceptible to government spins,” says Ziad, an Arab American organizer for Global Exchange in San Francisco, who asks that his full name be withheld.
Some credit low-key activism over the years, on domestic problems and U.S. policies abroad, for people’s readiness to take a stand. Among youth and students, the anti-globalization movement has helped make “close connections between the drive for war and corporate greed,” Ziad says.
Meanwhile, civil rights gains in the workplace, business, schools and public institutions have helped racially diversify the middle class the current movement’s main base. This too is different from the l960s, when peace activists lamented their movement’s largely white, youth-and-student makeup.
Instead, today’s antiwar organizers “have found natural allies in minority communities,” says Roxanne Lawson, formerly of Black Voices for Peace in Washington, D.C. Minority activists who earned their spurs in battles for affirmative action and immigrant rights see the war “as an extension of injustice at home.” The NAACP and the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee are among groups opposed to an attack on Iraq.
Organizers have pointedly timed the planned marches in January during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend as a reminder to minority communities that King strongly opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam.
More young people from immigrant families critical of the U.S. role in their parents’ homelands are emboldened to speak out because they are U.S. citizens.
While their political clout has shrunk from the l960s, labor unions which largely backed the Vietnam War are seeing growing antiwar sentiment. The building trades and industrial unions remain unmoved, sources say, but a number of local labor councils and leaders have endorsed or spoken in recent protests. Many Vietnam-era activists have found careers as union organizers and are sources of antiwar agitation. Daz Lamparas counts himself among them.
“In the locals many people are really opposed to war,” says Lamparas, a field organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in San Francisco. “But most unions are still waiting for what the AFL-CIO leadership will do.”
Opposition is strong among health care and service workers, Lamparas says. “Many of our members are immigrants. I’ve seen war, a civil war, during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It’s not a movie, I tell you. I think many of our members had similar experiences in their own countries.”
Tensions, however, could lead to the kind of splits that weakened the Vietnam-era movement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a divisive issue; the high visibility of Palestinian supporters has kept many pro-Israel liberals away.
Another potential divider is inspections. The Answer coalition doesn’t support the U.N. inspection of Iraq’s weapons program. “It’s a trap,” argues Becker. “The U.N. will end up rubber stamping Bush’s war.”
Meanwhile, “Win Without War,” a coalition of celebrities and prominent liberals, has taken out ads supporting the inspections. Some liberal critics say Answer is a front of the Marxist Workers World Party and accuse it of hijacking the movement, which Bette Hoover, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Washington, D.C., office, denies.
“When groups step up to the plate, we don’t discredit their efforts,” she says. “But we’re not naïve. If they let other voices in and don’t let their agendas dominate, it’s OK. It’s like people going to different churches. We can still work together.”
For now, at least, movement organizers which one activist describes as a “national network of networks” continue to patch together conference calls and emergency meetings to derail Bush’s rush toward Baghdad.
Ciria-Cruz (email@example.com) is a PNS editor and a longtime editor for “Filipinas Magazine”.