After residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota for several months, I made a cameo appearance in Milwaukee, followed by a week in New Orleans, before visiting the Bay Area. I attended anti-war demonstrations in all of these cities, and made several observations on the way of the dying republic and emerging empire.
It wasn’t until winter set, and it sunk in that the president was serious, that the movement expanded beyond the sectarian groups and core activist culture. Before this, the message of the protesters marching in circles was pacifism; that war is always bad and shouldn’t happen. While of course pacifists should get out and speak their mind, I was concerned whether the message was getting to most Americans that this particular war was ludicrously short of any standard of justification.
The movement that arose in winter was all about “ordinary people” standing up and being counted. Minneapolis participated in the worldwide protest days with crowds of ten thousand. Lawn signs against the war appeared throughout residential neighborhoods, proclaiming “Say NO to War in Iraq. Call your congresspeople.” The creators of the signs felt that even in this rather progressive city, the media had made the upcoming war seem so normal, popular and reasonable that ordinary people had to really struggle to bring the anti-war position out of the margins.
As wartime grew closer, counter-demonstrations grew in size and significance, and “Liberate Iraq” lawn signs appeared in identical style.
Inspired by rumors from San Francisco, some people sought to organize a disruptive day after action, but the plan was reduced by least common denominator consensus to ordinary civil disobedience.
People in Milwaukee tell me they don’t go to protests there because they are small and disempowering (yes, I realize that’s backwards). But the turnout at the recruiting center just off campus wasn’t so bad. The kids put it on; no serious organizations were involved, except a Unitarian minister who was a police liaison. Although the group steered clear of literal disruption or law breaking, they were feisty enough that the police wanted to declare an unlawful assembly anyway. No one took the threat seriously.
If all of Milwaukee’s odd cultural elements cooperated they might have quite a resistance. Maybe next century.
Meeting the War God in Andrew Jackson’s Square
An anti-war march in the French Quarter (yes, they seriously proposed re-naming it the Freedom Quarter) was rather reminiscent of a Mardi Gras parade in Berkeley. As we dipped briefly into the Central Business District and up Decatur Street, big jock looking tourists were screaming and cursing at us. I wondered about the masses of people in opinion polls. Were they all ogres like these, or were there rational humans involved? How did they justify this war through the thin Hitlerian “big lie?” I wanted to talk to a pro-war person and learn.
As the protest wound down in Jackson Square, and I drank a lot of coffee and sat far enough away to not hear the dull speakers, my prayer was answered. A man in his fifties walked up to me and started debating me. At first it was just like the Tom Tomorrow cartoon. He’d bring up 9-11 or nuclear weapons, and I’d explain the truth of the matter, and he’d immediately change the subject. His wife listened to the discussion from a fearful distance.
He gradually slipped in concepts like the origin of human evil, and the intelligence behind the universe. I realized that he didn’t share my curiosity about the other team; he thought that the protesters needed their souls saved just like the drunkards and fornicators of Mardi Gras. What else but the great tempter himself would inspire people to gather publicly against our rightful civil authorities? I kept looking at my watch so he’d realize I had somewhere to go (anywhere).
The e-mail from the Slingshot zone requested perspectives on America outside the Bay Area anti-war bubble. Seeing the glorious, historic downtown San Francisco action the day after the war started, I contemplated what makes the rest of the country different. Part of it is certainly the strong anti-war public opinion in the inner Bay Area. But what really struck me was how everyone hit the streets, artists, punx, and workers. Everyone just felt that it was time to act. In other cities, the perception of “protest culture,” was that walking around with a sign was something that only the “activists” did. I didn’t see people from the rest of my life at demonstrations. People everywhere say orderly protests aren’t enough. But whereas in San Francisco that means do more, everywhere else it seems to mean do nothing. Ironically, part of the reason I strayed from Oakland was my feeling that the activist ghetto vortex was too out of touch with other people.
Boy Scouts in Battle
On the road, by train, bus and plane, people didn’t talk about the war. Unlike 9-11, there was no perception of national consensus that would make such politics polite conversation. But I still get the sense that no one, regardless of their beliefs, believes the corporate media anymore. I found the Eastern Washington local paper on the train; the front story was about U.S. troops risking their lives to save a little old Iraqi lady caught in the crossfire.