Antiwar movement swells, still searching for its voice

Polls show shrinking support for unilateral US invasion, as antiwar cries echo beyond the coasts.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bush will try to convince Americans that it's time for a war with Iraq. It's unclear exactly how many people he needs to win over, but he faces a narrowing gap of those who favor an attack.

Americans are split on the idea of going to war, with a slight majority still favoring military action. But polls show support for invasion at its lowest point since last summer. The public's wavering is also showing up in anecdotes from the antiwar movement, which is experiencing gradual growth in its size and breadth, even as activists struggle to find a unified message.

In the last week and a half, more than 100,000 people have joined online activist group MoveOn.org, which supports continued inspections and is airing television ads to that effect. The group's membership now hovers around 750,000, almost double what it was in August.

And on Sunday, a rally in Pittsburgh, sponsored by local peace groups, drew an estimated 5,000 people, proving that antiwar sentiment reaches beyond liberal activists on the coasts.

"Pittsburgh represents average America. It's not a city that's been known for protests. It's not been a hotbed of political activism," says Tim Vining, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center, a 30-year-old peace and justice group and an event sponsor. "We're demonstrating ... that this war has hit a nerve with average Americans who are not usually quick to take to the streets to make their views known."

In towns across the US, protests are becoming more frequent, drawing 800 people where only a few dozen rallied against the Gulf War a decade ago. The rural Midwest is full of small protests, and activists are starting to track them, saying it's not only important for politicians to know how widespread the sentiment is, but also to spread the word that there is opposition.

"These marches are useful because the average person thought that the war was pretty much accepted," says John Kromko, a former Arizona state legislator and Vietnam protester who started a website, peacedemo.org, to count protests in places like Algoma, Wis., and Tulsa, Okla.

Stories from activists and those who travel the country speaking about foreign affairs, like Vassar history professor Robert Brigham, suggest an undercurrent of concern, even if it's difficult to quantify.

"I think a majority of Americans oppose the current administration [attacking] Iraq," says Professor Brigham, a Vietnam scholar. "Every place I go, it seems to be the thing on people's minds. There doesn't seem to have been enough discussion with the American people about the necessity for this."

Early this month, a Christian Science Monitor/ TIPP poll found a discernible drop in the number of people who strongly support ousting Saddam Hussein, although most still support such a move. Overall, Gallup polls show that about one-fifth to one-third of Americans typically say they're opposed to war under any circumstances. As of Jan. 23, 46 city councils had passed resolutions against a war, according to Cities for Peace.

Historically, middle America has gotten involved in antiwar efforts only gradually - and not until there was a growing death toll, as with the Vietnam War. Still, more people are protesting this possible war than were protesting the Vietnam conflict at a comparable point.

FIGURING out how many people are attending rallies is a tricky business. In Washington, the National Park Service no longer estimates crowds, since a controversy a few years ago when it was accused of low-balling the number of people at the Million Man March.

This year, the Jan. 18 antiwar rally drew 30,000 or 500,000 - depending on whether you use estimates from the Capitol Police or protest organizers. A rally the same day in San Francisco was initially reported by police to be 40,000 to 50,000 strong, though they later upped that estimate to 100,000 to 125,000 protesters.

If discerning the size of the antiwar movement is tricky, so is figuring out its message. To some it's about not trading US lives for oil; to others, it's about not killing innocent Iraqis or attacking a country that didn't attack the US first. Perhaps the most eloquent response came from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio in a recent appearance on ABC's "Nightline." He suggests there is a growing US peace movement, one that considers whether American society should be evolving beyond using war to settle differences. "It's not just antiwar. It's about America's role in the world," he said. "People who love this country very much are raising questions about why war should be an instrument of policy."

That's the position that Kromko supports: solving the problem diplomatically. In recent days, he's seen more buzz on the Internet among activists worried about the movement's disjointed message. But Kromko is unfazed.

"[It] shows the broad spectrum of disagreement with the war," he says. "That's a real strength."

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