Make Noise Not War

A Peace Movement Grows in New York and Beyond

Since September 11, Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez have not been able to bear much TV. Their son Greg worked in the World Trade Center for Cantor Fitzgerald. He was killed at age 31. Still, the Rodriguezes have seen enough to know, as Orlando puts it, that "our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, and we want no part of that."

Speaking in a subdued tone from Greg's boyhood home in Westchester, the father says, "We saw early on that Greg was being used as a pawn to drum up support for killing people—including people who have nothing to do with this," so he and his wife wrote a letter to elected officials and The New York Times. In it, they deplored the "prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son's death. Not in our son's name."

The Times declined to print the letter, and the Rodriguezes have yet to hear from George W. Bush or other politicians. But their missive has rocketed across the Internet, gaining them support from across the nation—an instance of the way a new peace movement is blossoming beneath the gaze of the major media and despite Trent Lott's boast (with Tom Daschle in tow) that there is "no opposition party."

Saturday, September 29, Union Square: demonstrators call for peace.
photo: J.K. Condyles
Saturday, September 29, Union Square: demonstrators call for peace.

Even before the U.S. has dropped a bomb, there have been hundreds of actions across the country involving tens of thousands of people. The September 20 Peaceful Justice student day of action, begun by a group at Wesleyan University and nurtured by the Net, sparked vigils, rallies, and teach-ins at 165 campuses, from the University of South Florida to the University of Puget Sound. More than 5000 people heard Judy Keane, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center attack, speak out against war in a vigil near her home in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Some 3000 have rallied in Portland, 2000 in Berkeley, hundreds more in Boston, Ann Arbor, Madison, and elsewhere. Last Monday, Nebraskans for Peace rallied in Lincoln, the state capital, and Albuquerque saw the first arrests of peace protesters, when four were hauled off after blocking traffic. Meanwhile, 20,000 antiwar demonstrators massed in Naples, while thousands have gathered in Belfast and Budapest, São Paulo, Montreal, and Athens. In Singapore, thousands sang "Amazing Grace," and in Bangkok, 2000 Buddhist monks prayed.

The peace movement here is emerging in a hostile environment for dissent, under threats of violent reprisals. In Philadelphia, for example, the American Friends Service Committee received repeated bomb threats following its announcement of a "No More Victims" peace campaign. Mainstream pundits have suggested that peace proponents are traitors and a "decadent" fringe, perhaps relying on widely publicized surveys of Americans, like last week's Times/CBS poll, that found 92 percent for military action.

But "those polls ask the wrong question," says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. When an alternative has been presented—the extradition and trial of terrorists—only 54 percent favor war. Judy Keane hangs two American flags in front of her home, but also remembers the "horrors of Vietnam—my husband carried orders there." She says she would like to see whoever is responsible "spend every waking moment of his life in prison," but the prospect that one of her five draft-age children could "shed blood because of what happened to my husband is absolutely ludicrous to me."

Empathy and a call for nonviolent justice undergird initial antiwar organizing, especially in New York, where, as longtime activist Leslie Cagan puts it, "We were ground zero. Do we really want to visit this horror on other people?" Adds writer and activist L.A. Kauffman, "It's essential for us, both because of our own feelings and for our peace message, to foreground our grief and mourning for the victims."

Given that recognition, brows were furrowed when the International Action Center morphed an anti-capitalist rally into last Saturday's antiwar march on Washington. Ten years ago, a splintered anti-Gulf War movement held two mutually hostile D.C. demonstrations on successive weekends, dividing on the question of whether to condemn the Iraqi regime (the IAC demurred). Two weeks ago Kauffman sent a blistering e-mail message out to fellow activists, warning, "You won't catch me supporting a 'peace march' organized by a bunch of authoritarian opportunists."

But this time even the Workers World Party-associated IAC is calling for "mild manners and bold content," as co-director Brian Becker puts it. Indeed, in an atmosphere marked by warmongering thunder and activist consensus on the need, as Becker says, "to break a big section of the public away from Bush's war policy," thornier questions involve the ability of activists to put forward "bold content."

It would seem that it has never been more crucial for Americans to examine an imperial course that has put the country on the isolated side of Kyoto, chemical weapons, and missile defense, and a foreign policy that has nurtured exploitation throughout the global south—not to mention Bin Laden's minions themselves. But in the current climate, notes Vijay Prashad, director of international studies at Trinity College, "It's all about America." Putting forth international mechanisms and perspectives, he says—to say nothing of the "decades-long war against the secular left and for theocratic fascists in the Middle East"—has provoked accusations of treason. Peace activists are trying to find ways to gently raise the issue of U.S.-sponsored terror—economic and military—while hoping that activists turned on by direct action tactics turn out as activism takes a necessarily more subdued form. Among other things, activists must now negotiate an alarmingly less tolerant official stance toward protest.

Curiously, the sense of emergency—the war footing of the peace movement—presents opportunities. Where recent activism in America has been bedeviled by race divides (with the largely white anti-globalization movements struggling to work with communities of color), now many anti-racist groups, responding to both war drums and the alarming epidemic of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant attacks across America, are organizing alongside predominantly white antiwar and anti-globalization folks. "We can work together to reclaim the meaning of security," says Joo-Hyun Kang of the Audre Lorde Project, "to fight against cycles of violence perpetuated by U.S. policy abroad and here."

Common ground is prompting unlikely alliances. Perhaps the very first antiwar protest in New York occurred when members of Asociación Tepeyac began chanting for peace during a vigil—hundreds of Mexican workers were lost in the World Trade Center attack. Community organizers are suddenly debating the World Court, arguing, among other things, about whether the U.S.'s traditional dominance of the UN—not to mention its longstanding opposition to an international criminal court—make that multinational route insufficient. Meanwhile, anti-globalists are mobilizing against the racist backlash here at home. Among these groups, at least, the radical critique that links anti-militarism, anti-globalization, and anti-racism is being made. It's one small irony—and one small measure of hope—that the connectedness of those movements may be laid bare by U.S. war. And it's in that spirit—and not only because of the direness of the situation—says Max Mishler, a Wesleyan sophomore who helped spark the national campus demos, that "peace has become the most radical demand that can be made."


March and rally, Sunday, 3 p.m., at Union Square, 212-228-0450.


Related articles:
"Peace=Patriotism: A User's Guide to Anti-War Activism" by Coco McPherson
"The Empire Strikes Back: Novelists and Essayists Tell the 'Voice' Where They Stand" by Rachel Neumann
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