Here in the States, as in Britain, the anti-war movement faced the imperialist powers head on, delivering the message that while the government might have said yes, the people said no. Ultimately, the nays lost, but on the way they won a few battles; battles that will be very important in the coming months. What the anti-war movement must do now is to re-evaluate these last six months and decide how to move forward, to prevent what comes next.
To understand the state-side anti-war movement – and both the positive and negative effects that it has had on the American political scene – you have to look back to 1998 and the anti-World Trade Organisation protest that successfully shut down the meetings in Seattle. At that mobilization the US saw a resurgence in power among the left, as thousands gathered in a direct action event that caught Seattle and the WTO completely off guard. As a result of the Seattle protest, however, two new themes emerged on the American protest circuit. One that has ultimately proven to blur the focus of the movement, and another that has re-energized the left at a time when political activity was at a low ebb.
The downside, where the movement has become blurred, is found in the new organising strategies that emerged in Seattle, where any group with a progressive theme was urged to use the protest as a way to plug their own agenda. Such protests have a tendency to turn from focused events into drum circles with tie-dye vendors and vegan food stands. In the current anti-war movement, while hundreds of thousands of marches have gathered in the streets of most of the major American cities, many of those out protesting seem to have alternative agendas that tend to cause distractions instead of adding what they could to the main theme of the protest.
The upside however, is that for the first time since Vietnam people have begun to reclaim the streets of America, speaking out against a government that they say does not represent them. Also, while some elements of the movement have caused distractions, new coalitions have begun to form that will be important for the future. Most importantly, American labour has stepped up in a big way, not only providing numbers at protests, but also linking the American working class to the sometimes very middle-class peace movement.
The labour movement has surged recently, in contrast to the position of the 1980s when union density was at an all-time low. Most recently, the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO, the US version of the British TUC) passed a sweeping anti-war resolution, helping several local unions to step up and speak out against the war. For example, in New York the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) brought out an unprecedented number of members (over 10,000) to support an anti-war march. Individual unions within the AFL-CIO have also taken it upon themselves to pass their own anti-war resolutions.
Another positive development that has become an important part of the anti-war movement is the use of direct action. In San Francisco for example, the day the war broke out thousands of protesters poured into the street to ‘stop business as usual.’ Over 2,000 were arrested in just one day as San Francisco turned into an urban mess.
The states’ reaction to the anti-war movement has varied. In San Francisco, protesters reported fair treatment by the police, but all over the country there have also been instances of severe police repression. On April 10, the New York Times reported an instance where the NYPD had been recording information on arrested protesters concerning their prior political activity, and then logging it in a database. Derided by civil libertarians as an infringement of constitutional rights, the police eventually stopped, and apparently destroyed all previously collected records. In other cities protestors have been brutalised by police overreacting to protests that numbered as small as 500-1000 people. In displays of force, riot police in full riot gear have been given the orders to ‘shoot to kill if necessary.’
The one most important product of the current anti-war movement however, is the renewal of a far-reaching global perspective among the American population. Beyond local connections and coalitions, the anti-war movement has broadened itself, reaching across the world to other countries; crossing the international borders that up until now were mostly controlled by the state. Connections have been made between the struggle in Iraq and the struggle in Palestine against Israel. Americans have reached beyond their own borders to show the world that even though their government is the biggest and most brutal imperial power around, they are not going to have it fighting in their name.
However, now that the Geroge Bush administration apparently sits poised to invade Syria and then possibly Iran and North Korea, the task facing the anti-war movement is even larger. The US was very successful in its invasion of Iraq, which only gives it more impetuous to move on. To stop this, the American anti-war movement has to keep on doing what it has done, but it also has to discard what has been ineffective. The movement as it stands will not stop the United States, but it may develop the potential to do so in the future. We’ll see.