Antiwar activists reaching past usual suspects

In preparation for Saturday's antiwar rally in Washington, Barbara Beaman went out on Wednesday and bought yarn.

The kindergarten teacher plans to knit on the bus that will take her from Boston to the nation's capital to march with the tens of thousands of protesters who are expected to show up to oppose using military action against Iraq.

Her desire to "stand up and be counted," as she puts it, came late in life. She's been a teacher since she graduated from college in 1959, but an antiwar activist for only about a year. "I've never been a highly political person," she says, "But this feels different. This whole Middle East business has implications for the rest of the world forever."

As the antiwar movement tries to gain momentum, it is gradually bringing with it more mainstream Americans, people who have never attended a rally or carried a sign. Joining them are seasoned protesters - lifelong activists or people who railed against the Vietnam War but haven't shaken their fist again until now.

Their convergence on Washington this weekend will offer more information to peace organizations and politicians about how strong the antiwar sentiment really is and who is embracing it.

To have an effect on the White House, activists will have to win over more people like Ms. Beaman and her conservative counterparts, observers say. Some suggest the movement may be spreading enough to have an impact on policy - more so than it could have just a few weeks ago.

"The Bush White House is acutely attuned to political anticipations. The demonstrations are one index of political trouble ahead for Bush, they're not the only index. But insofar as they become aware that demonstrators are coming out of their political base, I would think they'd have to pay attention," says Todd Gitlin, a cultural commentator and author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage."

In trying to reach middle America with their message, some peace groups are using less strident language and a populist medium - the television - to make their point. A TV ad that debuted in 13 cities Thursday from urges people to "Let the inspections work."

Patriotic language is key

Nudging Americans to be more involved in political issues takes some finesse, particularly when opposing the government is involved. Too much talk of imperialism and not enough appeals to patriotism could hurt the movement, say social observers.

Typically, public opinion about war is formed by more than just what comes from a bullhorn, however. With the Vietnam War, for example, opposition from mainstream America grew as more troops went overseas and more images of what was happening to them once they got there were available on TV.

"The real issue here is how a variety of stimuli, including perhaps a well-organized protest, will affect the beliefs and the sentiments in the vast middle ground of American society," says William Galston, a public affairs professor at the University of Maryland.

He uses the approach the civil rights movement took as an example of successfully persuading a broad range of Americans. Between the early 1950s and the early '60s, that group was disciplined about the language and tactics it used.

"They addressed the country not as enemies of the country, but as patriotic citizens demanding that the country live up to its own ideals," says Galston, a war critic.

International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), the organizer of this weekend's rally, uses fairly strong language about the government, but says the variety of people attracted to its rallies - including union members and Muslims - suggest its message is resonating widely. Its last rally, in October, drew 200,000 people to Washington.

"We've had the largest antiwar demonstrations since the Vietnam war," says Tony Murphy, an organizer with ANSWER, a group formed shortly after Sept. 11.

Rookie protesters

Grass-roots efforts by ANSWER are pulling in some of the newcomers. One woman, Mary Jenkins of Falls Church, Va., picked up an ANSWER petition in order to help collect signatures after an event at her retirement home. In her youth she was opposed to the Vietnam war, but never protested in a meaningful way.

But the issues of spending money on war instead of social issues and of bombing "innocent people in Iraq" has her working on a way to get to Washington this weekend. "Here I am at the age of 90, I'm so outraged about [this war]. I would go. If I could get down there I would," she says.

She and other protesters, both veteran and new, say they are surprised by how many people they encounter feel so strongly about the war. Ms. Beaman, who became an activist partly because she has friends who are protesters, says her involvement has caught others off guard. As a result, they've started thinking about the issue more themselves.

Social observers like Mr. Gitlin, who organized protests during the Vietnam war, say that anecdotal evidence suggests there is an undercurrent of concern about the war that isn't necessarily being demonstrated. A Monitor/TIPP poll conducted last week found that 27 percent of Americans say it is not important for the US to take military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power. That's up from 20 percent from December and 24 percent from September. Still, in the new poll, 40 percent said it was "very important" and 30 percent "somewhat important" for the US to oust Hussein.

As for Beaman, her views on protesting are clear. "The more you get involved in it the more you can't not do something if you feel this is wrong."

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