The song remains the same

Did last weekend’s march on Washington mark a new surge in street activism or the waning of an old-school protest style?
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 31, 2007

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DEMONSTRATED BRILLIANCE: A scene from the January 27 march on Washington, protesting George Bush’s efforts to send more troops to Iraq.

At one point early on in last weekend’s anti-war rally in Washington, DC, a speaker instructed the crowd, which was facing en masse toward the Capitol Building, to turn around and look in the other direction — toward the White House, the State Department, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon — and then to turn back around. The purpose of the exercise was to remind the energized multitude that Saturday’s message was directed not at the occupants of those other buildings, but at a very specific audience: the newly elected Democratic Congress.

For the first time since before the war began on March 19, 2003, many who stood on the Mall holding signs and chanting slogans felt confident that they would be heard, not by the president, but by Congress. “For me, it all boiled over when the president announced that we were going to have a troop surge, after the election clearly showed that was not what America wants,” said Carol Castleberry, a 54-year-old who came from Tampa to join the demonstration.

A recent Newsweek poll supports Castleberry’s view. It shows that 64 percent of Americans believe that Congress isn’t doing enough to challenge the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Not to mention the fact that the president’s own approval ratings are at an all-time low (not just for him, but for presidential-approval ratings overall) of 30 percent. What’s more, one in five Republicans said they wished Bush’s presidency was over. One of those is Tampa native Todd Peterson, also 54, who held a sign that read: ANOTHER REPUBLICAN AGAINST THE WAR. Peterson, who voted for Bush in 2004, was “all for going in,” at the beginning of the Iraq War. But now, he doesn’t “think we’re doing anything positive on the diplomatic front. You can’t have a lasting peace without that.”

Saturday’s event was the first major public demonstration since the November 2006 election, and many of those in attendance hoped it would mark a turning point in the history of the war in Iraq. “I think the things we did against Vietnam made a difference, and I think we can do it again, if we get more people,” said 68-year-old Karen Fitzpatrick, who attended the famous November 1969 March on Washington, which drew 600,000 protestors. “I think this is the beginning of a new momentum.”

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But what, if anything, has really changed? The movement can still be perceived as distracted and unfocused, betraying the penchant for sectarianism and identity politics that first surfaced at such gatherings in the 1970s. Take, for example, the map sent out by protest organizers United for Peace and Justice (UPJ) before the rally, which designated areas for various “contingents,” including “Lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender,” “End Israeli Occupation of Palestine,” “Women say pull out,” and “Stop global warming/no more oil wars.” There was even an area specifically set aside for “Peace groups,” which, although it was intended for philosophical pacifists, seemed rather redundant.

Vietnam was very much in the air and on people’s minds — and not just because “Hanoi Jane” Fonda spoke. Aside from mainstream media outlets constantly comparing Saturday’s crowd to the size of 1969’s anti-war masses (DC officials declined to give a formal crowd estimate, but most approximations were no more than 150,000, far less than the half-million cited by organizers), there was the group of excited youths who stormed the Capitol Building around 1:30 pm, as the rest of the rally participants were getting ready to begin their snaking march. “Stop the war, yes we can — SDS is back again!” they shouted, referring to the resurrection of Students for a Democratic Society, a radical student group that organized against the Vietnam War during the 1960s. The return of SDS, which also invites comparison with the Vietnam War era, is in large measure positive, in that it helps refute the “apathetic-generation” accusation. But does the movement run the risk of failing to forge its own identity, one responsive to this particular war and political moment?

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