The Point of Protest

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

At Saturday’s anti-war demonstration in Washington, my 84-year-old mother slipped as she stepped off a curb and fell backward. A young man in a small knot of anarchists caught her and gently restored her to the vertical. And on we marched. Leave no grandmother behind!

We shout at the television. We complain to our spouses, our friends, our neighbors. Reading the newspaper on the subway, the latest outrage prompts an aside to a total stranger and perhaps a sympathetic comment in return.

We know from the poll numbers and the voting patterns that the U.S. public is against the Iraq War. But to stand on the Mall and see the great mass of people in all its kaleidoscopic diversity—anarchists, grandmothers, active-duty military, veterans, students, religious groups—is to feel an authentic surge (for peace). The protesters walked around the Capitol to remind Congress that we have their backs. If in their weakness they slip backward, if their newfound resolve to end the war falters, we will help them find their balance again.

FPIF’s youth and activism editor Saif Rahman received a lot of responses to his article on why to march against the war. A minority argued that demonstrations are pointless because they haven’t changed U.S. policy. The truth is, it’s never easy to change a state’s foreign policy. Ending the Vietnam War took a decade. Preventing the U.S. government from entering a full-scale war in Central America took up virtually all of the 1980s. The battle of Seattle is still ongoing. Shouting in the streets is only one tactic alongside whispering into the ears of legislators, organizing in various communities, developing a media strategy, and so on.

And, of course, we take up our pens against the swords and hope that, in the end, our instruments of choice turn out to be mightier. Editor of FPIF’s new Annotate This department Stephen Zunes exposes all the weaselings in the president’s 2007 State of the Union address, so many of them revolving around the Iraq War. FPIF’s war and peace editor Miriam Pemberton reminds us in Our State Among States, a commentary that ran on, that Washington has a long way to go toward repairing relations with the rest of the world that have been sundered by the war. FPIF contributor Zia Mian describes in the Three U.S. Armies in Iraq the true size of the U.S. occupation force, and FPIF contributor Jason Yossef Ben-Meir in Reconstructing Iraq argues for a bottom-up approach to rebuilding the war-torn country.

We write. We march. We organize. Then one day, and it can be difficult to know why, something changes. “After the final no there comes a yes,” writes the poet Wallace Stevens, “and on that yes the future world depends.”

The Poetics of Protest

Speaking of poetry and protest, check out E. Ethelbert Miller’s interview with Melissa Tuckey, a poet and activist involved in DC Poets Against the War. “In my writing I try to remember that I am complicit in this world,” Tuckey relates. “Even though I oppose the war, I am a part of it, it is not separate from me. Likewise the language of war has made me leery of abstractions like ‘freedom.’ I want precise, personal, accountable language and experience.” You can also read one of Tuckey’s poems, Full Snow Moon.

The recent Federal District Court building protest against U.S. policy toward detainees at Guantanamo had the stark, precise elements of a poem. FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan was there and writes about her experience. “On January 11, 2007 more than 100 people in orange jumpsuits trudged slowly from the Supreme Court to the Federal District Court in Washington, DC. Black hoods covered their faces. Another 400 protesters followed the ‘prisoners’ as they tried to enter the U.S. court building,” Berrigan writes. “Police turned the hooded prisoners away. But another 89 people had entered the building earlier in the day and gathered in the atrium to read the names of nearly 400 men who remain imprisoned. It was a haunting litany of loss and lamentation.”

In South Korea, meanwhile, protesters are dressing up in cow costumes and taking to the streets. They don’t want the proposed free trade agreement with the United States, which will boost imports of U.S. beef. “The issue here has been less about protecting Korean cattle ranchers than preserving public health regulations and the democratic rights of Korean citizens. Korea, like Japan, banned American beef three years ago after an outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States. In order to re-open the Korean market to U.S. beef, the Bush administration made lifting the ban a precondition to even beginning trade talks,” writes FPIF contributor Wol-san Liem in her Postcard from Seoul. “Korean opposition is widespread, even among housewives. According to Yonhap News , a recent survey found that over 70% of Korean housewives don’t want to buy American beef.”

Museum Pieces

While thousands and thousands marched on the Mall, elsewhere in Washington tourists were getting a dose of conventional wisdom at the National Portrait Gallery and the International Spy Museum.

The Spy Museum, for instance, offers an entertaining, interactive, and thoroughly biased view of espionage. Given its location and the composition of its advisory board, FPIF contributor Jim Dee writes, the International Spy Museum “not surprisingly places a heavy emphasis on the 40-year-long Cold War battle waged primarily between the Soviet Union and the United States. And, given its location, it’s also not surprising that Washington’s operatives come off best in this narrative. Missing from the story, however, are some of the less savory aspects of U.S. covert operations. These gaps also help the museum give a particular spin to its post-September 11 message of continued vigilance.”

Meanwhile across the street at the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibit “The Presidency and the Cold War” provides a triumphalist vision of American leadership at a time of crisis. The exhibit focuses attention on the Fab Four of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan and suggests that they showed resolve in staring down the enemy in the Cold War game of chicken.

“That these great leaders had clay feet, or might in some cases have been clay through and through, would not only disrupt the triumphalist view of the Cold War but worse, suggest that the solutions to our current problems do not lie in the hands of an as-yet-anointed leader,” I write in Picturing the President. “Judging from the media swoon over Obama and Hillary and Rudy and John, even our current experience of the U.S. president doesn’t shake our confidence in the institution and our belief that someone, some day, shall use the sword of leadership to vanquish our foes and slice through all of our many Gordian knots.”

We shouldn’t wait at home for Barack Godot or Hillary Godot or Chuck Godot to show up and make things right. Hitting the streets is not the only thing we should do. But it sure beats putting all of our money on the man (or woman) on the white horse.

FPIF, January 29, 2007

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