Sunday, October 28, 2007

Marching in the Rain

One year ago, Democratic victories in congressional races delivered a strong rebuke to President Bush, boosted the confidence of the anti-war movement, and raised hopes of change in Iraq. But yesterday, as a rain-soaked march wound through the streets of lower Manhattan, it was hard to find the sense of rising energy that animated people last year. As much as the organizers of the demonstration might point to the weather as the explanation for the small turnout, I am more inclined to blame a mood of despair wrought by Bush's intransigence and the the movement's inability to do anything about it. There were, however, some heartening signs.

The anti-war movement stubbornly persists; our march in Manhattan was one with counterparts all around the nation. The range of old and young demonstrators that I saw in New York testified to an activist culture that will always be there to oppose the Bush policies. I was impressed by the energy of students from Hamilton College and moved by the presence of the venerable Jewish fraternal organization, the Workmen's Circle. When Peter Yarrow sang "Down By the Riverside" at the start of the march, I happily joined in.

Relations between police and demonstrators were better than they have been in the past. Although I was troubled by the surveillance tower and rooftop observers at Foley Square because they might deter timid souls from marching, there were few of the interlocking metal "French barriers" along the march route that have sometimes made demonstrations in New York City feel like a caged experience.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly watched the march from the corner of Houston Street and Broadway beneath an umbrella held by an aide. I asked him his opinion of the demonstrators' behavior, and he said, "They're adhering to their permit, and as far as the police department is concerned it's going well." With the exception of one young man who delighted in cursing at the rooftop observers, all the interactions between police and demonstrators that I witnessed were polite or even friendly.

But for all the seriousness among the marchers--about both Iraq and the prospect of war against Iran--I did not see the signs of a growing movement. Most of the marchers looked like exactly the sort of people that I have been marching with at peace demonstrations since the Vietnam War.

A marshal that I spoke with estimated the crowd at 35-40,000 and called it a good crowd for a rainy day. Maybe, but we started off at 1:10 pm from the northern end of Union Square and the entire march was over by 2:25 pm at Foley Square. To me, that didn't feel like a big march. (It is difficult to get alternate estimates because coverage of the demonstration was scant to nonexistent in the New York Times, Daily News and New York Post.)

I contrast that with the feeling around the campaign of Congressman Patrick Murphy (Democrat-Pennsylvania), where I was a volunteer last fall. We attracted not only the usual crowd of Democratic activists, but also former Republicans and veterans. Together, we defeated an incumbent Republican and elected a Democrat who has been strong critic of Bush policies on Iraq. I'm sorry to say it, but yesterday's march lacked the same mix and energy.

Aside from a few people in Obama or Kucinich t-shirts, a few Ron Paul supporters, and one man trashing Hillary Clinton, demonstrators showed little overt engagement with the presidential race. Nevertheless, the election will do more than anything to determine how soon we leave Iraq. Opponents of the war ignore electoral politics at their own peril. As Todd Gitlin has observed, the Democrats and the movement need each other. Unfortunately, right now, both seem to be floundering together.

Towards the end of the day, I met up with my cousin Barbara O'Connor, an activist with Military Families Speak Out in North Jersey. Her son, my cousin Tim, did an extended tour in Iraq. Barbara has long been a regular at anti-war vigils at the National Guard armory in Teaneck, NJ.

As we walked together toward the dwindling crowd in Foley Square around 3:30 pm, she observed that the police officers in their bright blue jackets were more visible than the demonstrators. I asked her what she made of the turnout and she offered some thoughts that are the product of her activism.

People are afraid to come out against the war because they think it is disloyal to the troops.

Hostility to anti-war demonstrators sometimes comes out of a time warp. One of the epithets thrown that has been thrown at her group is "communist."

Loading down opposition to the Iraq War with side issues dilutes the base of the anti-war movement. Opponents of Iraq should concentrate on what they have in common and leave other causes for another day. Also counterproductive, she believes, are the theatrics of "Code Pink." They're alienating, she says, and you've got to get people to like the movement.

As for those who think that anti-war demonstrations are disloyal to the troops, she believes that the best way to keep faith with the troops is to bring them home. I agree.

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