Peace activists transition to a time of war

Protesters from New York to San Francisco blocked traffic and debated US policy.

They couldn't stop the war, but US peace protesters are stopping traffic - reminding Americans and the world that despite what polls say, antiwar sentiments remain strong on President Bush's home turf.

Demonstrations from New York to San Francisco over the weekend drew hundreds of thousands of participants and punctuated a week of high-profile antiwar activities that included closing down major thoroughfares and lighting candles for peace.

Activists have been quick to dismiss charges that such protests are unpatriotic when troops are at risk. But at the same time, they've been waging a nuanced internal debate, struggling with how to transition from peace to wartime.

From determining the effectiveness of civil disobedience to identifying a position on a post-invasion regime, those opposed to the war are trying to define what their role in public discussion should be now that bombs are falling. Some organizers maintain that their mission remains the same: to effect long-term change.

"It's not just about stopping this war, it's about stopping the war system," says Brian Corr, who co-chairs the national board of Peace Action. The challenge now, he adds, is to transform new activists "from people who are working against the war in Iraq to people who are stopping the chain of war."

In the short run, the goal is to end the war as quickly as possible, with some activists planning to lobby Congress to cut off the funding so the troops can come home. In the meantime, organizers are providing information about where to send donations to relief organizations that help Iraqis and offering ways to send e-mail messages of support to military personnel in the Gulf.

"I am very much antiwar, I'm not anti-US troops," says Kendra Hoyt, who attended a rally in Boston on Friday and echoes the sentiment of many protesters.

The rally Ms. Hoyt attended featured speakers from different faiths, including Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, who drew on the Bible to offer encouragement to activists as they proceed: "Our most ancient Book of Psalms enjoins us to 'Seek peace and pursue it,'" she told a few hundred peaceful protesters. "Not only must we seek peace, we must pursue it when it is running away from us. We must not lose hope in the possibility of peace, as its light seems to dim in the world."

Why stop traffic?

One of the peace movement's biggest advantages is its ability to mobilize Americans quickly - thanks in large part to the Internet. Despite winning praise from some observers for its effective organizing in the last week, however, the movement is being held to high standards by critics who charge that activists should be doing more than shutting down streets in major cities like Chicago.

"I don't think any useful purpose is served by blocking Lake Shore Drive," says Bill Galston, who directs the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. "The issues [at hand] are of the utmost gravity for the future of the country, and shrill voices and guerrilla tactics are inappropriate for those issues."

Professor Galston, who opposes the war, recalls how quickly antiwar sentiment during the Vietnam War turned into anti-Americanism, and is concerned that current movement, with some of its more strident factions, could run the same risk.

He'd like to see a clearer message from activists, and offers these suggestions: that the movement insist on a serious commitment to decency and democracy in Iraq and that it critique the changed basis of post-9/11 US foreign policy, which appears to suggest that any country who may give weapons to terrorists is a threat to the US - and could be invaded.

Diverse opinions

But the range of opinions in the current movement is so wide that it's nearly impossible to have a single message other than "No War," note activists and those who study social movements.

And not all agree that it's the responsibility of the movement to provide the heady solutions. Rather, they say, their role is to make it known that opposition exists.

Moving forward, social observers see ways the peace movement could use its momentum to raise issues - such as healthcare, education, and the economy - that are related to the war but affect more than foreign policy.

"I think we're going to see the peace movement carry on whether it's a short war or not," says Cecelia Lynch, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine. Unlike Galston, Professor Lynch sees a place for civil disobedience. She says it served, at least last week, as an outlet for the anger and despair the activists were feeling over the start of the war.

"They saw this week as a moment of crisis that needed a dramatic response," she says. "The metaphor here is that this administration is embarking on a new assault that is dangerous for the world, and by shutting down roadways we are objecting to this change in business as usual."

War's onset, through one protester's eyes

When war breaks out, a peace activist can be as busy as a battalion commander - discussing the situation with friends, participating in protests, and reflecting on what it means that US tanks are rolling into someone else's backyard.

"This is really not a war, it's an invasion," says Vicky Steinitz, a grass-roots organizer and professor at the University of Massachusetts. "I mean, the very idea that anybody could be concerned that we might lose this war is just absurd."

Here's a chronicle of Ms. Steinitz activities, and her thoughts, as the first days of the US-led war in Iraq evolved:

Thursday. The morning after the first US attack on Iraq, Ms. Steinitz contemplates the president's speech and wonders if the initial attack on the bunker reportedly housing Iraqi leaders might keep casualties down. "I had this thought of, on the one hand, the idea of assassinations being illegal, against international laws, but on the other hand feeling that maybe this would ward off the massive 'shock and awe' ... choreographed extravaganza that had been planned."

For Steinitz, fighting for peace began right after Sept. 11 when she helped a local group - United for Justice with Peace - get off the ground. Though not a pacifist, she believes in nonviolent solutions to problems. And in the first two days of the war, she returns often to her concern about how many Iraqi civilians might die as a result of the war - deaths that she calls "morally unconscionable."

In the afternoon, she attends a rally in Boston's Government Center, one of many such "day after" demonstrations around the country. The crowd chants "peace now," as the petite Steinitz considers whether the Iraqi president was killed in the first US attack the night before. She guesses no, because the US "usually misses," she says, recalling the times the government announced that it almost had Osama Bin Laden.

That evening she is heartened to see the extent of the continuing protests on television."I think the numbers of people around the world willing to put themselves on the line clearly shows that anger and outrage about this is not something temporary, and it's not going to go away."

Friday. She joins a noon rally held by an interfaith group, where she holds hands in a circle formed by the crowd of several hundred and sings along with a song offered by a rabbi. She is unaware that across the world in Baghdad, the "shock and awe" air war is about to commence.

When she finally sees the television coverage the air assault on Baghdad a few hours later, she has only one word to describe it: "Horrible."

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