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Activists Against Iraq War Refuse to Call it Quits

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Published by the Contra Costa Times (California)
by Dogen Hannah

They failed to prevent the invasion of Iraq, to unseat President Bush or, so far, to extract U.S. troops from Iraq. One might expect anti-war activists to feel defeated.

They don’t.

United for Peace and Justice has called for protests nationwide March 19.

National activists say they have gained ground with tactical triumphs, that their fight to force America from Iraq is not lost. More mass protests are on the way, they say, including many on the second anniversary of the war’s March 19 onset.

“No, we haven’t stopped it (the war) yet,” said AiMara Lin national coordinator for the activist group Not In Our Name. “But to me, that’s not a good enough reason to not keep going.”

Anti-war leaders are searching for ways to revitalize their movement in the wake of Bush’s re-election, the apparently successful Iraqi election and public support for the 150,000 troops in Iraq.

Diminished support for the war in recent polls has suggested that activists have a growing and sympathetic audience. Polls have shown as well that more Americans than before favor bringing troops home immediately, although that segment falls short of a majority.

Yet it remains to be seen if a movement that two years ago was dubbed the world’s second superpower for mobilizing mass opposition to the looming U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can capitalize on the latest public opinions.

“Most movements face an enormous uphill battle,” said Stanford University sociology professor Doug McAdam, who has studied social movements.

Activists’ tactics are important, but the political environment is the critical factor in building momentum, McAdam said. The environment must hold at least the promise of converts among policy makers or of making them vulnerable to activists’ influence.

“It’s all about perceptions,” McAdam said. “They (activists) need to believe there are real possibilities for achieving their aims.”

Despite failing to reach their major goals, activists remain upbeat and highlight what they have accomplished. For instance, two years of vocal and visible opposition has given people “a little more breathing room” to question the Bush administration’s Iraq policies, said Lin of Not In Our Name.

That extra space has emboldened some politicians, activists said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., an Iraq war critic, last month became the most prominent member of Congress to call for U.S. troops’ withdrawal, albeit not all at once. The day before he spoke out, a group of 23 House Democrats called for an immediate and complete withdrawal.

“It’s small, but it’s something,” said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for the activist group United for Peace and Justice. “The fact that they know there is a constituency out there that agrees with them helps out.”

Congressional opposition to the handling of the war is likely to increase now that November elections and other milestones have passed, said professor Stephen Zunes, of the University of San Francisco’s Peace and Justice Studies program.

“It was clear that a lot of members of Congress, particularly Democrats, did not want to stick their necks out on this issue until after Congress returned to session and the Iraqi elections took place,” Zunes said.

Even before then, activists sought to pressure the Republican president and to keep their dissent heard. Thousands of people in dozens of cities protested last month’s inauguration.

“We made sure that people who were at the inauguration knew that the killing and the war in Iraq weren’t pausing … and that the anti-war movement wasn’t pausing either,” said Andrea Buffa, peace campaign coordinator for the activist group Code Pink.

Activists credit such mass protests, which have targeted Democrats as well, with galvanizing anti-war forces. Yet the failed attempt to unseat Bush by backing Democratic candidates also weakened the anti-war campaign.

“It’s very hard in an election year to not get swept up in the dynamics of an election, because so much is at stake,” Cagan said. “It does suck up a tremendous amount of time, energy and money and everything else.”

Green Party 2000 presidential nominee Ralph Nader, in Berkeley last month, urged his audience of about 250 people to help in “reactivating the anti-war movement after it took a year off, with some luminous exceptions, in 2004.”

Nader had a hard sell, judging by some people in his audience. UC Berkeley student and Green Party member Emily Busch, 21, said she was willing to demonstrate against war but not convinced it would make a difference.

“You see these protests on the news, and it doesn’t really seem to change anything,” Busch said. “I think people are focusing on their own wants and needs.”

Persuading more young people to participate in anti-war activities is difficult, in part because there is no draft, activists said. Yet getting them and other people on the edges of the anti-war movement to participate is critical, McAdam said.

“There’s no shortage of them out there, but ultimately movements don’t succeed on the basis of that hard-core (group),” McAdam said. “It depends on many more people committing to that struggle.”

This month, at their national convention, United for Peace and Justice’s nearly 1,000 member organizations will try to come up with an 18-month strategy for building anti-war forces. They will be looking for new ideas.

“There’s a lot of opposition out there, and how to focus it is a challenge but a very important task,” said Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for the coalition. “The conference is going to be a moment for people to plan and develop a strategy.”

United for Peace and Justice has called for protests nationwide March 19. In addition, the activist group International ANSWER has “big demonstrations planned everywhere” for that date, said Bill Hackwell, the group’s national media coordinator.

The group is confident that mass demonstrations remain a potent tactic for changing public opinion. “If we can break through, we have logic on our side. … We don’t think that the formula that we’ve been using hasn’t been strong,” Hackwell said.

Other activists are pursuing new methods. “Folks are definitely talking about how we can be more strategic and effective in ending the occupation,” said Buffa, of Code Pink.

Some aim to spur action by encouraging local ballot measures declaring opposition to the war and for bringing troops home. The stands would be symbolic but would prompt debate and demonstrate widespread dissent, activists said.

Some are bringing into the foreground the opposition of Iraq war veterans and of families with loved ones in the war. They also are working with faith-based groups as a way of employing new messengers and reaching new audiences.

“It’s great to keep turning out people who we know support a call to an end to the war,” said Cagan, of United for Peace and Justice. “What we need to do is tap into that sentiment that’s out there but that doesn’t always manifest itself in a public way.”

The president’s recent request for $80 billion in war funding has given activists and their congressional allies a new political front. Also, activists could pressure Democrats more, now that don’t have to back the party’s presidential nominee.

“Right now it’s not a dichotomy of: We’ve done well, or we’ve done terrible. That’s not a realistic view of it,” Lin said. Activists have made “tremendous gains. On the other hand, is it enough? Absolutely not.”

© Copyright 2005 Contra Costa Times

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