Signs of the Times

Bush's wars may be global, but as this weekend's protests showed, so is the peace movement.

| Mon Mar. 22, 2004 3:00 AM EST

On Saturday, I took my small sign -- "Lies!" -- out onto the streets of New York City for several hours. If you're not a cop in a copter looking down on a demonstration, or a journalist covering it from the sidelines, or a spectator watching it flow by, a march is invariably like a neighborhood in some city whose horizons are beyond sight. All you get to see is your own block or two as you're swept along. I was, like any marcher, "embedded" on Saturday, though of my own sweet choice, unlike our reporters in Iraq. On arrival I soon found myself next to a giant green human peapod (protesting what I wasn't sure); by a pram with a "Babies for Peace" sign over its blanket (and a baby under it) pushed by a "Mommy for Peace"; and near a woman in overalls sporting a "Farmers for Peace" sign (northern Vermont branch, she told me as we passed).

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Heading downtown, the first hand-made sign I noticed, though, was on cloth attached to the back of a backpack toted by an exceedingly young woman. It said plaintively: "Dad come home," and when I asked, she admitted that her father was indeed in Iraq. The last sign I caught before I slipped out of the march several hours later, was on a shivering dog, perched by some miracle on top of a man's backpack and wearing a little, grey "Stop Bush" sweater.

In between, I noted, among so many other, lovingly produced, hand-drawn signs: "Morning in America" (with a red "u" in the process of being slipped between the "o" and "r"); "Give Martha's cell to Cheney"; "Unmanned Drone" (with George's head looming over the White House); "Bring Em On -- Home"; "Our boys died for Halliburton"; "The point is Bush sucks!"; "Elect a madman, You get madness"; "Hey New Yorker!!! Commit to a swinger!!!" (with swing states in which to work against Bush listed below); "Regime change now, impeach Bush"; "We support our troops, we don't support their mission"; "It's not collateral damage, it's 10,168 dead civilians"; "If you're not outraged, you're not listening"; and so many more – all indicative of the fact that, in the year since the last major antiwar demonstrations, no one's creativity or verve had fallen off greatly.

My personal home-made favorite was a tiny sign, hardly bigger than your hand, attached to a tiny stick. It said on one side, "The emperor," and on the other, when twirled, "has no clothes." The woman twirling it assured me: "It's a happy sign. People always smile. It's in its third demonstration." And then she smiled winningly and walked on.

When it came to "Lies!" (one of the reported cries of Spanish demonstrators after their government tried to blame the Madrid attacks on the Basque organization ETA), I was in good company. Among the variations I happened to notice were: "Bush lied, they died"; "Who dies for Bush lies?"; "Bush lies, who dies?"; "Bush lied, Spaniards died."

Giant puppets seemed to be a dime-a-dozen in my neck of the woods, ranging from a huge, garlanded Ma Nature ("stop the internal combustion of earth," it said a bit mysteriously) to the row of enrobed, masked mothers holding charred grey (ragdoll) bodies and backed up by a line of dark-suited men, all in blood-stained white gloves.

In our vicinity, along with a set of vigorous drummers, we had a band of cheerleaders, who called themselves "the Syracuse System Shakers," and vigorously shook their pompoms for hours while performing robust numbers with lines like "Cheney is an oil hog." Passing us were the members of R.E.V.E.R.E with their mounted-rider signs labeled "The Republicans are coming." I asked one, dressed in a Salvation-Army used-clothing version of colonial garb ("And I have no idea where my friend got the hat") what their acronym stood for, and he confided that it meant "the Revolutionary Ensemble Vanquishes Evil Republican Extremists," which wasn't, he confessed, really an organization, "just a group of friends." Then he returned to banging out a rhythm on two not-so-colonial (imagine perhaps Herman Melville in the South Seas) coconut-shell halves. And not far away were the Zapatistas del Mundo Unidos and de Nueva York, as their giant banner announced, some in elaborate feather headdresses, and one holding an exceedingly modest, pleading, hand-lettered sign: "Please, no war."

That sign and the button I noted a young woman wearing -- "still against the war" -- seemed to catch something of the moment. In the media, the marches, organized worldwide from Sydney to Tokyo to Rome to San Francisco, not to speak of so many points between, were compared to the massive demos of February 15, 2003, the last prewar moment, and often found lacking. They were "small," or at least "smaller," and "tame," or at least "tamer," which indeed was generally true. But the comparison is perhaps not such an appropriate or enlightening one.

The crisis moment before the war began brought huge hunks of the world piling into the streets, hoping against hope somehow to stop a war that the Bush administration -- we know now oh-so-clearly (though many of us knew it then) -- had no intention of letting anything on earth stop. The world was to be an audience for our global dominators; the people of the planet, or their "ineffectual" representatives at the United Nations, were to watch and ratify, but certainly not to vote against. When it looked as if the vote at the UN might actually go against the administration, despite the bribing, bugging, and imperial arm-twisting, as if there might be governments not capable of being stampeded like our Congress by fear, then the resolution was simply withdrawn and the die cast anyway.

Now, the antiwar movement is back. As the recent impressive Spanish vote indicated, it never fully demobilized (and in the U.S. in the intervening year took much of its energies elsewhere -– into the Dean or Kucinich campaigns, into organizations like MoveOn.org, or onto the internet, and so on. Just over a year "later" -- though with so many "one year later" pieces flowing by, I keep wondering a year later than what? Maybe, given our world of intimidation, threat, and violence, it's a year "sooner"-- it's impressive that some sizeable portion of the world turned out again in smaller but still surprising numbers. At least 30,000-plus thousand in New York (if you believe our mayor), upwards of 100,000 or more if you believe the organizers; 500,000-1,000,000-plus in Rome; 25,000-100,000 in England; and so on.

All this despite the fact that today we're at a murky, quagmire moment, not one of absolute, immediate crisis as we were then. The war has happened; Iraq is a mess and the Middle East possibly almost as bad, but casualties remain limited, if horrible, and for most of us (though not the demonstrating military families) still far away; policy options are unclear; neither presidential candidate is for withdrawal; protestors are sure to disagree about what's to be done; a presidential campaign (much influenced by the last round of antiwar demos) is just gearing up; and terrorism is clearly on the increase and the world, a distinctly less safe place to be, but the United States has not been attacked at home since September 11, 2001. These demonstrations, at least here in New York, were also less widely and well publicized than those of a year ago, and the moment clearly less mobilizing, and yet …

Think of Saturday's demos as a calling card at the door of the Bush administration and its "coalition" of un-democracy, led by leaders all of whom voted against their own people's wishes on the matter. (Democracy, it seems, is basically something you only hand over to oppressed peoples elsewhere, and then only if they're willing to follow your wishes.) In any case, the general feeling in my two blocks of protesting New York fit this moment of return. Spirits were good; the mood creative; the noise level modest. It had the feeling of a beginning, not a desperate end; of something holding and waiting to build, not exploding and in danger of collapse.

These were, I believe, demonstrations largely for us -- and we are, by the way, a distinctly variegated lot. They were, first and foremost, a reminder and an encouragement that we're still here, still a force, still ready. There is, I have to say, something about that moment when you find yourself surrounded by a mass of people in something like your own spirit that does make you feel better -- especially in a crowd like the New York one where you never sense that you're being called upon to lose yourself in the process.

There were ominous aspects to the New York demonstration, though, like the early shadows that fell on the marchers in the city's skyscraper canyons as the still wintry sun sank quickly from its noon perch and the chill spread, even on the first sunny day of spring. For one thing, the whole march, in a sense, was "embedded," as, in our increasingly security mad world, is everything. Along much of the way to the rally, at least, we were partially penned in and surrounded by prodigious numbers of policemen and women, all looking remarkably alert, observing, photographing, and corralling a protest of the most striking peacefulness. As the Patriot Act hangs over the nation, so a sense of oppression, of a world always prepared not only for the worst but to do the worst, hung over the moment, which was also surely a police pre-performance run-through for the Republican National Convention's arrival in the city at the end of August.

You might say that there was an urge, in the Psy-Ops lingo of the moment, to "dominate the environment." I couldn't help but be reminded of all those Pentagon-embedded reporters who struggled in their partially penned-in state to pen reasonable accounts of the Iraq war from our side, while a few brave reporters like Robert Fisk of the British Independent struggled to do the same in an unembedded and so distinctly more vulnerable state.

I recently attended a conference on war coverage at the Journalism School of the University of California, Berkeley where a few of the "embeds" struggled to describe how limited was the view from within those military "pens." A jolly, blunt Lt. Colonel Richard Long of the Marines, a professional embedder, spoke quite proudly on one panel of that military urge to, in his words, "dominate the media environment." From him I also learned something new. He spoke, as we all do, of "the media," of course; but while the rest of us talk about "journalists" and "reporters," he referred to each journalist as a "media" (as in "I took four medias to that unit"). It seemed to catch a truth of the moment from the other side -- not just from the point of view of the Pentagon, but from that of the few large corporations which now own so much of our media space and which are generally so eager to co-produce war spectacles, right down to the logos and the prating on-screen pundits who so often turn out to be retired generals from our last wars.

I listened, for instance, to the foreign editor and a panel of journalists from the Los Angeles Times describe what gearing up for war meant for them and became aware that such news organizations actually had to mobilize for the coming invasion of Iraq in a fashion not so dissimilar from, and in distinct coordination with the Pentagon. To the largest, best-funded mega-outfits, whether the Pentagon or AOL Time Warner, what can most "reporters" be but little units, little "medias," squirming as they are fit into their places in the bigger picture.

Once you have giant organizations, whether media or military, whose aims are to "dominate the environment," you're bound to end up with a bunch of little "medias" and then you have to ask: Who exactly are we, when we read or watch? I suppose we're just the "eyeballs."

Counting heads/delivering calling cards

As for U.S. press coverage of Saturday's demonstrations, I had to laugh this morning. My hometown paper, the New York Times, never one to skip a local tradition, buried its coverage of the 30,000-100,000 people who turned out (ho-hum, the article indicated, another mayor-versus-organizers dispute… yawn) on page 27. Actually, it was page three of the "Metro" section to be exact, under a classically Metro-ish headline, "From Midtown to Madrid, Tens of Thousands Peacefully Protest War in Iraq." I'm assuming the "Madrid" to which the Times' "media" Alan Feuer was referring must be a Spanish neighborhood somewhere in the borough of Queens; otherwise, the headline would surely have read, "hundreds of thousands" or maybe "millions" and the story might have crept up a bit closer to national or international coverage or even (gasp!) the front page. If only the march had taken place in New York City, maybe the Times would have given it the coverage it deserved.

Here's just a little sampler of headlines and first paragraphs to choose from, beginning with the starting paragraphs of that Times piece:

"Marking the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, crowds of sign-waving, slogan-chanting demonstrators marched through Midtown Manhattan and scores of cities from Alaska to Australia this weekend in a largely peaceful global rebuke to the war.

"Coming 13 months after millions took to the streets in the weeks before the war last year, Saturday's demonstrations were markedly tamer and smaller as they sought to send a message that the troops fighting in Iraq should be recalled."

Newsday, out on Long Island, where they obviously don't know nuthin', ran an AP piece by Verena Dobnik with the ignorant headline: 100,000 at NYC rally as protests gather nationwide. I mean, what did Ms. Dobnik take before she accepted the estimates of the demonstrators? Of course, maybe she counted. Certainly, when I did my own multiplication tables from within my two blocks of march, my math (always faulty, even when my checkbook's at stake) came out to 100,000 or so as well -- but whaddo I know?. Her first two paragraphs went:

"Anti-war protesters turned out nationwide Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, with tens of thousands marching through Manhattan to call for the removal of American troops from the Middle East country.

"'It is time to bring our children home, and declare this war was unnecessary,' said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, addressing the crowd at the New York rally. It was one of 250 anti-war protests scheduled around the country by United for Peace and Justice."

Under the headline Thousands Worldwide Demand Troops Pull Out of Iraq, Reuters cited not "thousands," but the million figure for Rome alone:

"Thousands of antiwar protesters poured into streets around the globe on Saturday's anniversary of the Iraq war to demand the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops.

"From Sydney to Tokyo, Madrid, London, New York and San Francisco, protesters condemned U.S. policy in Iraq and said they did not believe Iraqis are better off or the world safer because of the war. Journalists estimated that at least a million people streamed through Rome, in probably the biggest single protest."

While the San Francisco Chronicle -- oh, those West Coast liberals -- ran its piece under the catch-all head, Protesters jam S.F. streets, Marchers in the city and around the world oppose U.S.-led war, Demonstrations mostly peaceful. Its first paragraphs combined those "thousands" with "millions," emphasizing the "s":

"Thousands of anti-war demonstrators marched across San Francisco on the first day of spring Saturday, joining millions around the world in the peace movement's biggest showing since the Iraq war began a year ago.

"The San Francisco protest was upbeat and defiant, as many marchers who filled the streets from Dolores Park to the Civic Center said they felt reinvigorated by seeing so many kindred spirits opposed to the war. The crowd clogged thoroughfares and blocked traffic at dozens of intersections as many protesters banged drums, shouted slogans and danced in the streets."

For those wanting a bit more on all this, check out, at the Nation magazine website, Peter Rothberg's always informative blog Act Now! (One year later -- not feeling safer) from which you can get to the magazine's quickie demo rundowns on London and Spain as well as an account by the magazine's editor Katrina van den Heuvel of a demo in, of all places, Moscow.

Thought of another way, the Saturday demonstrations were really the second calling card of the global antiwar movement proffered in the last week. The first was delivered in Spain where, in the wake of a terrorist atrocity, millions poured into the streets and then turned a government that had betrayed them on its head at the polls. Democracy in action, you might say -- if you weren't America's neocons or the Bush administration. Now, the second calling card has been delivered. The global antiwar movement is back in the streets in varying numbers, but very much alive. It's a reminder that we can't be forgotten. In fact, in some places, as in Rome and Tokyo, the demonstrations may seem more immediately threatening to governments and so to the Bush administration's ever more fragile "coalition" in Iraq.

Just a small sign of this fragility under the pressure of popular demands is to be found in a comment by Rocco Buttiglione of the Christian Democrat Party. It represents a small post-Spain but pre-Rome-demonstration warning to the Berlusconi government which has been about as gung ho as it's possible to be in support of the Bush administration in a country where polls indicate that two-thirds of the populace opposes its Iraq policy. As James Cusick of the Glasgow Sunday Herald reports (Bush and Blair: Blood Brothers):

"In office for barely hours [Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero] distanced himself from Washington and threatened to pull Spanish forces from Iraq by July unless the United Nations were in control by then.

"If that was the first indication that the coalition would mark this first anniversary of war by fragmenting, more was to follow. Last Thursday in Rome, the Italian European affairs minister, Rocco Buttiglione, told the Il Messaggero newspaper: ‘The war may have been a mistake. What is certain is that it wasn't the best thing to do.'

"Italy currently has 3000 troops in Iraq. And, like Aznar, the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi is one of the strongest European proponents of the US-led war. Buttiglione is one of Berlusconi's coalition partners in the Italian government and now clearly feels that his silence on what the war in Iraq achieved is no longer politically advantageous to his Christian Democrat Party. He added: ‘Terrorism cannot be defeated only by the force of arms and if we give the impression that weapons play the dominant role, we will only stir up feelings among the Arabs against us.' Arab democracy will not, according to Buttiglione, ‘be born through the force of arms or because we have defeated Saddam.'"

Stay tuned. CNN is global, but so are we and there's more to come.

Additional dispatches by Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch, a web-log of The Nation Institute.

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