For Antiwar Protesters, the Cause Isn't Lost
But Will D.C. Rally Spark Groundswell?
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The protesters convened for a final planning meeting, already triumphant, convinced that nine months of preparation was about to pay off. Antiwar organizers who had come to Washington from 27 states exchanged hugs inside a Columbia Heights convention hall and modeled their protest costumes: orange jumpsuits, "death masks," shackles and T-shirts depicting bloody Afghan children. Then Pete Perry, the event organizer, stood up to deliver a welcome speech.
"This is a great moment for our movement," he said. "We are continuing an incredible tradition."
"Like Gandhi," said the next speaker.
"Like Martin Luther King," said another.
A Sunday meeting and a Monday protest -- that was the agenda planned in advance of Wednesday's eighth anniversary of the start of the Afghan war. There had been other protests in Washington over the course of the conflict, dozens of them, but this time organizers believed they could revive the beleaguered antiwar movement, once such a force in U.S. policy. The next 48 hours would put their optimism on trial.
With public opinion polls showing a majority of Americans opposing the war, organizers wanted at least 1,000 people to march through downtown, risk arrest by creating a ruckus at the White House and draw President Obama across the manicured North Lawn to meet with them.
"The goal of this action is to hand-deliver a letter to Obama," Perry reminded the group. "We want a meeting to demand an end to this senseless violence."
It would also set the stage for 42 rallies and protests scheduled to take place Wednesday around the country. After decades of decline in the antiwar movement -- from throngs of half a million to fringe rallies to almost nothing at all -- the job of organizers in Washington was to generate momentum for a historic week.
Their work started Sunday afternoon, when about 50 organizers met to discuss final plans for a rally with a scope to match their ambition. They included veterans and pacifists, hippies and anarchists, feminists and Catholic workers. In total, there were more than a dozen "affinity groups," and each had choreographed its own demonstration for Monday's event. Some protesters would be shackled inside a cage, in solidarity with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Some would reenact the deaths of U.S. soldiers near the White House fence. Some would read the names of civilians killed in Afghanistan. Some would carry cardboard coffins.
"We have to be organized, or nobody will hear anything," Perry said.
As the meeting progressed, there were signs of discord. Some groups wanted to chant while they marched to the White House; others argued that a solemn, single-file procession would convey a "better sense of suffering," one protester said. Some wanted to take bathroom breaks during the protest; others argued that participants could wait until they were in jail, after their arrests. Some planned to misidentify themselves to police; others said they would simply refuse to answer questions.
"Lying is dumb," one protester shouted.