Politics & Policy

Inside The Antiwar Demo

Stop the war. Impeach Bush. Destroy Israel. Remember Katrina. And don't forget Florida and Ohio...

Ramsey Clark, the attorney general of the United States from 1967 to 1969, was talking about the old days. Standing backstage at the antiwar rally held in Washington Saturday, Clark said images of National Guard troops trying to impose order in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina reminded him of the problems the Justice Department faced handling rioters in Detroit, and Watts, and other cities in the ’60s. “There were looters,” Clark said of those riots. “People wanted to shoot looters. At that time, we said, ‘You shoot looters, and you’ll be indicted.’ You cannot shoot a kid for stealing a basket of apples or a loaf of bread–or even if it’s a big guy stealing a television.”

Clark’s words were nearly drowned out by speeches coming from the stage a few yards away; even behind the 30-foot-tall stacks of speakers, the noise sometimes made it difficult to hold a conversation.

“THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!”

“THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!”

But Clark kept on. “In New Orleans, here are our soldiers going in, and you would think it was Fallujah…”

“THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!”

“They’re coming up with hobnail boots, and they’re kicking in the door and the first thing they do is get in there and point the gun around…”

“THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!”

“The worst part is the American public sees that on television and they think, what in the hell are those soldiers doing…”

“THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!”

“They’ve been trained and conditioned this way, they think our people are the enemy. Even our president talks about the criminal element in New Orleans.”

And so on. Clark’s comments had nothing to do with the war in Iraq, but that wasn’t particularly unusual at Saturday’s rally, held on the Ellipse by the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice and the neo-Communist organization International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). For a demonstration that was ostensibly about the war, there was a lot of talk about other things. Especially Katrina.

“National security begins in New Orleans,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said from the stage.

“We stand here in solidarity with our brothers and sisters from our own Gulf,” said another speaker.

“Katrina has shown the racist face of genocide,” said yet another.

And Katrina wasn’t even the only weather phenomenon used to criticize George W. Bush. When Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney spoke to the crowd, she began by declaring that “a cruel wind blows across America.” By that, she meant not a hurricane, but a wind that began “in Texas and Montana”–an apparent reference to George W. Bush’s home state of Texas and Dick Cheney’s home state of…well, his home state is Wyoming, but McKinney was fairly close. The cruel wind, McKinney explained, blew across the American heartland all the way to Washington, D.C. And then, “This cruel wind blew disenfranchisement into Florida and Ohio” and “the American people were forced to endure fraud in the elections of 2000 and 2004.” The crowd loved it.

The anger over Katrina and the cruel wind of Bush/Cheney was so great that, coupled with some of the day’s other enthusiasms, it sometimes seemed that Iraq lay well down the list of the protesters’ concerns. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a subject of intense interest; it would be hard to say with certainty, but in large parts of the crowd, it appeared that kaffiyehs–including one draped around the neck of star speaker George Galloway, the British MP–outnumbered American flags.

And on some of the streets, too. Before the rally began, one group of college students marched from a subway station to the Ellipse chanting a call-and-response:

“FROM PALESTINE TO NEW ORLEANS…”

“From Palestine to New Orleans…”

“NO MORE MONEY FOR THE WAR MACHINE!”

“No more money for the war machine!”

A few minutes earlier, the group’s leader had tried to get his supporters to perform a slightly more complicated routine. “After me, you’re supposed to answer, ‘Only through U.S. aid,’” he told them. “Only through U.S. aid.” And then he began to shout:

“HOW ARE ISRAELI SOLDIERS PAID?”

There was a moment of silence before the protesters got it.

“Only through U.S. aid!”

“BODIES IN THE STREETS DECAYED?”

“Only through U.S. aid!”

That was more like it. Someone in the group carried a sign advertising a website, nowarforisrael.com. The site’s homepage carried the headline, “Meet just a few of your Jewish Supremacist Warmongers,” above photos of William Kristol, Richard Perle, Ari Fleischer, Ariel Sharon, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and Douglas Feith. It offered to explain how the Iraqi war was “conceived in Israel.”

There were other causes, too. International ANSWER has always been fond of Fidel Castro and champions a group called Free the Cuban Five. There was also support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Even Haiti got into the act; one former Aristide minister took to the podium to complain about American treatment of his boss and tell the crowd, with great pleasure, that “In Vietnam, the U.S. lost the war in the U.S., and today the U.S., with George W. Bush, is going to lose the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan in Washington!”

More mainstream critics of the war would undoubtedly argue that the single-cause protesters were relatively small groups within a much bigger protest. Still, there were enough other causes that one could reasonably ask whether the antiwar message was at least being diluted by all the talk about New Orleans and Palestine and Israel and Ohio and Cuba and Venezuela and so on.

“I don’t think those messages really get through,” Jesse Jackson said as he talked to a few reporters after his speech. “I think people know this demonstration is about the war in Iraq, and I think that theme overrides any other messages that may be off-message. You get what I’m saying? I think at every peace demonstration you have many voices, but I think the central message is about the war in Iraq.”

Perhaps on the whole, Jackson was right; of course much of the rally was devoted to Iraq. But it would probably be more accurate to say that, while Iraq was first among many causes at the demonstration, the one cause that truly united everyone in the crowd was opposition to George W. Bush and virtually everything he has ever done in his life. If that is the ultimate goal of a demonstration, then, from an organizer’s standpoint, it is nearly impossible to go off-message, provided that whatever one is discussing ultimately results in pointing a finger at Bush.

Indeed, if anything, the weekend showed that the antiwar movement remains constitutionally unable to focus its protests sharply–and exclusively–on the war, and not personally on the president or on all the sideshow causes. There seems little question that the aggressive anti-Bushism, along with the side causes–which were often not on the side at all, but center-stage–diminish the credibility of the antiwar movement and alienate moderate Americans who might have serious misgivings about the war but would never align themselves with the likes of International ANSWER. Yet the protests continue.

As the demonstration wound down, the issue prompted a vigorous debate on dailykos.com, the largest and most influential website on the Left. One contributor, a supporter of Israel unhappy with all the pro-Palestinian agitprop, posted a comment entitled, “I’m On the Verge of Saying Screw the Anti-War Rally.” “We Democrats have an opening right now,” he wrote. “Let’s not squander it. Let’s focus on the one issue that unites us and unites a clear majority of the American people. Skip the subsidiary bulls**t.” The post prompted more than 500 comments, many of them along these lines: “Amen!! All I saw was a bunch of self-indulgent splinter-fringe wackos clinging to a bigger stage than their causes deserved. The Cuban 5??? Come on! Peace and Justice…period. The Repugs have been winning because, despicable as their message is, they have message discipline….So recognize, my Brothers and Sisters, and stick to the f***ing script.”

In the end, however, it is not clear whether the movement is capable of changing. ANSWER is so entrenched in its leadership position–nobody is better at securing permits and setting up sound systems and getting its hard-core followers out on the streets–that it seems unlikely to cede that position to more moderate forces. And that means that political leaders–other than Cynthia McKinney and a few allies–will stay away from its events. And that means the antiwar movement will continue to be, like so much of Saturday’s event, a sideshow.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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