January 18, 2003

500,000 Demand an End to the War

By the time all of you read this, the March on Washington against war in Iraq in late January will have started to recede into distant memory. Right now, we can still hope for peace, but perhaps the United States will have started to bomb Iraq (hey, maybe even North Korea!) by the time this issue of Slingshot hits the stands. Journalism lags behind history, and some might say that the January march will be irrelevant if there’s a war. The reality, though, is just the opposite. Whatever course of action the Bush administration takes, the January 18, 2003, March on Washington will remain a crucial day for the antiwar movement and for radical politics in the United States. For many who were there, it will be remembered as the day that American politics underwent a quantum shift.

The January march — held on one of the most frigid days of a bitter East Coast winter, as though to test people’s reserve —showed once and for all that ordinary American people are not unified around war and empire. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it was simply its size, especially given the news blackout that our media often gives to protests and to demonstrations. The rally filled up about two-thirds of the Washington Mall (the space between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, where Martin Luther King, JR’s, “I Have a Dream” speech was given). At about 1:00, people started marching the two-mile route to the Washington Navy Yard, a neighborhood where a lot of military people live. Three hours later, they were still marching strong, literally packed shoulder-to-shoulder across the wide Washington streets. Organizers estimated that 500,000 people were there; of course “official” estimates were lower. When we reached the top of Capitol Hill, I looked down and it was an amazing sight — the whole massive road full of people marching and carrying signs, and they just kept on coming with no sign that they would ever stop.

People came to Washington from all over the country: New York, Texas, North Carolina, Maine, Vermont, Chicago, Kansas, Washington, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa were just some of the signs that I saw. There were about 25 buses from New York City’s Local 1199/SEIU, the health and hospital workers’ union. People of all ages were at the march, from tons of high school students to the Grey Panthers from Detroit. While liberals have been shrieking about how the marches have been organized by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (A.N.S.W.E.R.), a group affiliated with the Workers’ World Party, it didn’t really seem to make any difference in terms of who came to the march or what it felt like — a sign that some of the people who wish there was a different anti-war movement should just get out there and do some organizing instead of carping and making it harder for the people who are doing the work.

Even more astounding than the size of the crowd was how radical it was. The march was a cross-section of the American population, but it had a sharp class politics. There were lots of signs about the economics and class politics of war: “How Did Our Oil Get Under Their Sand?” “Bush, Iraq is Not Your Ranch.” “I Won’t Kill for Big Oil.” “Draft Jenna and Barbara.” “New Yorkers Against War” (with a big picture of the Twin Towers). “Remember the Maine…was a Lie.” The veterans’ organizations were fired up and noisy. Even the religious groups, of whom there were plenty, carried hard-edged signs: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” Some people carried “Peace is Patriotic” signs, even some reading “Middle Class Homeowners for Peace” and “Soccer Moms for Peace.” Given the hysteria about A.N.S.W.E.R., such signs were quietly polemical. But they were also in the minority.

The anti-globalization movement and the revitalization of the labor movement helped bring a radical economics politics to the anti-war demonstration. But it also suggested that people aren’t going to experience this new era of war as protecting in their interests. Many people today know perfectly well that a war in Iraq — or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or anywhere else — isn’t really about them. It isn’t going to make ordinary people in this country any safer or happier. It isn’t going to help them organize unions or get health insurance or find a job or make a living wage. It isn’t even going to protect them against terrorism. It’s just going to ask them to give their lives. The boom is over, the fantasies of the 1990s have gone up in smoke, and most people don’t see how bombing a country on the other side of the globe — let alone sending their kids to kill and die there, or going themselves — is going to make them one iota better off.

For most of American history, our country has had a very strong isolationist, even pacifist, political streak (though it’s also had a strong militarist and expansionist one). As a democracy — however partial — the United States has never been able to throw its people into war without protest. There was a brief window during which this was different: the Golden Age of the post-war boom, when the Korean and then Vietnam Wars were entered without much noise. Today, however, after twenty years of laissez-faire cruelty, it is pretty clear to everyone that the interests of the American empire and of ordinary working class Americans have nothing to do with each other any more. War, throughout history, has been a catalyst to broad, even revolutionary, social changes. The Civil War freed the American slaves. The First World War toppled the Tsar. The movement against the Vietnam War brought Richard Nixon down and helped spark the feminist and gay rights movements. Today, our quick wars seem easier to fight, and each one that we fight makes the next one seem easier. But in the end, there are always consequences. No one, not even the American elite, is immune to history. The March on Washington showed just how fragmented the supposed “consensus” of our country really is, and it suggested, for the first time in recent history, that if there is a war, more in American society may change than any of our leaders anticipate.

Coming back to New York City from the march, the city’s politics seemed fundamentally different. The whole city seems to be becoming politicized. A new demonstration is announced every day. Unions are taking resolutions against war. Calls for volunteers to help build the march on February 15th are going up on dozens of e-mail lists. There are antiwar stickers on phone booths and subway platforms. Restaurants offer “Antiwar Specials” (they seemed to be Mexican foods). Strangers with peace buttons are on the train and in the streets. One weekend, tens of thousands of “Win Without War” leaflets appeared all over the city, tucked into newspaper boxes and pasted to lampposts. People are calling up to peace groups, asking for posters and signing their names to petitions. Connections seem clearer, too: Every homeless person, every person begging for food, every child failing in school, every New Yorker without insurance — the money that could house and feed and heal them is going instead to war.

In the days after September 11th, there were vigils and demonstrations in Union Square downtown, dozens of chains of people holding hands and singing and crying for peace. I’ve thought about them these past few weeks, since the March on Washington. In some ways, living in a city that has been bombed helps us to see how fragile and precious the city is, how easily it is destroyed in an instant. If the March on Washington is any indication, there may be more and more Americans who are committed to making sure that it does not happen in our name ever again. And if enough people take this idea seriously enough, the whole course of our history seems more open than it has for some time.