NEW YORK -- A rejuvenated "peace movement," barely visible amid the yellow ribbons and flag-waving support for U.S. military mobilization in the Persian Gulf, has been organizing candlelight parades, silent vigils, teach-ins and rallies nationwide in recent weeks calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Frustrated at scant attention given most of these local actions, more than 130 peace activists representing 85 organizations met here recently in Riverside Church, a bastion of antiwar activity during the Vietnam era, and quietly founded the first national campaign to oppose U.S. involvement in the Middle East conflict.
"All of us in the anti-Vietnam war movement and the civil rights movement did not just shrivel up and die," said Anne Braden, a movement veteran and co-chair of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice headquartered in Birmingham. "Now there's a nucleus of organization . . . and some public opinion that questions whether the world ought to be a colony of the United States."
Their stance runs counter to public-opinion polls, which show strong support for President Bush's actions during the crisis. However, the activists say, in the hinterlands and particularly in black and Hispanic communities that they say have sent a disproportionate number of youths to the gulf, support is soft and would diminish if war starts. They believe war is inevitable, they said.
"While their brothers are going to be dying over there from the heat, their smaller brothers and sisters are going to be dying here of the cold," said Ann Wilson, a Milwaukee-based organizer for Jobs with Peace. "This is for the oil companies, Exxon and all them. The oil company executives should go out there and send their children to fight the war."
Although the ad hoc peace coalition does include some of the people who hoisted picket signs during the last major commitment of U.S. troops overseas, this crisis has brought together a hodgepodge of grass-roots groups collaborating for the first time.
These include environmentalists anticipating that a battle over oil resources could strengthen their push for alternative energy sources; Palestinian and Jewish activists pressing for a regional solution that would end Israeli occupation of the territories; veterans determined to prevent further wars, and advocates for housing, health and minority rights.
The latter have expressed concern that, with the massive outlays for Operation Desert Shield, as Gwen Patton, an organizer for Southern Rainbow Education Project in Montgomery, Ala., put it, "the peace dividend has all of a sudden been snatched."
The peace advocates have found common ground in their demands for a diplomatic solution to the conflict but are divided about issues such as whether to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
"Speaking personally, I believe very strongly that big nations should not invade little nations," said Leslie Cagan, who helped to officiate the Riverside Church meeting and is a member of the planning committee for the organization it spawned -- the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. "Then others argue that it is not the appropriate role of the North American peace movement to condemn the Iraqi invasion.
"No one is saying there aren't real conflicts," Cagan said. "Some argue it should be resolved through the U.N., while others have little faith in the U.N. Some argue it should be left to the nations and people of the Arab world."
Many activists note with irony that, for years, they had condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for unleashing chemical weapons on his nation's Kurdish minority, petitioning legislators and picketing when it seemed that U.S. politicians were willing to ignore such human rights violations as long as Saddam continued his war against Iran.
Given the precedent, many activists say they were not surprised when some former and current standardbearers of the left, such as George S. McGovern and Jesse L. Jackson, initially applauded Bush's decision to send U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.
"Among the left, you have people who I guess were looking for a chance to feel good about their country again and initially went along with it," said Ramsey Clark, attorney general in the Johnson administration and an outspoken opponent of U.S. military actions in Grenada, Libya and Panama.
"Where's the Opposition?" asked the headline on the front-page editorial in The Nation Sept. 10. It noted, "Even the left has been oddly quiescent. It may be that progressives have been mesmerized by Saddam Hussein's aggression and overimpressed by the cloak of international support Bush has woven about his actions."
However, by the time The Nation published its editorial, local groups from Seattle to the District of Columbia already were organizing efforts to, as a popular slogan says, "Bring the Troops Home." Groups in Seattle, with a politically active Palestinian population, had formed a coalition by Aug. 9, one week after the Iraqi invasion.
"I've been very surprised," said Saba Mahmood, coordinator of the Seattle chapter of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. "Usually, you have a tough time getting people to volunteer, to coordinate literature tables and pickets, but people are stepping forward. And these are not the regular converts. These are people I've never seen before."
Other cities followed. In San Francisco, at the gates of the Army's Presidio military base, veterans built a miniature memorial like that commemorating Iwo Jima, but with the soldiers erecting an oil well instead of an American flag. Their slogan: Is the American way of life worth 18 males to the gallon?
In Milwaukee, activists are circulating petitions in housing projects and shopping centers asking that a U.N. force replace U.S. troops. In Washington, weekly demonstrations on the sidewalk in front of the White House have drawn as many as 100 people. In New York City, 1,000 people jammed the Cooper Union meeting hall for an antiwar rally, while 1,000 listened outside. On Oct. 20, demonstrations are planned in more than a dozen U.S. cities and several overseas.
Nevertheless, some of those at the Riverside Church meeting here spoke about the difficulty of organizing an antiwar movement when no war is underway.
"It's hard to maintain momentum right now, because it's kind of a waiting game," said Phillis Englebert, co-coordinator of the Washington Peace Center. "It may take body bags coming home for people's minds to change."