March 19th, 2008 and Beyond: YDS and the Future of the Anti-War Movement

For about thirty students, 5 Years Too Many began in Washington D.C.'s Franklin Park slightly before 10 AM. A block away from United for Peace and Justice's (UFPJ) festivities center at McPherson Square, we quietly sat cross-legged on the grass in a circle to coordinate the day's events. In the huddle, I saw many familiar faces. There were two of my Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) reading group partners, a fellow Bowdoin YDS alumnus, a new Rutgers Against the War friend who came to a William Paterson YDS education rally, a YDSer who hosted my talk at Central Michigan University (and who provided these great pictures), and other new comrades in the struggle against this unjust war.

This “spokescouncil” – a democratic planning meeting – was led by UFPJ staffer Samantha Miller. One wouldn't have known Samantha was running on next to no sleep by her calm and friendly instructions, and her ease in connecting the day’s different events. Most excitement revolved around Funk the War, a roving anti-war street dance and block party. As the meeting closed, many feverously scribbled a legal service phone number on their arms in case of the worst. But as we were dispersing, Samantha announced that the police would be only arresting those committing felonies. This message inspired many to be bolder in the day’s coming actions.

Afterwards, I met with YDSers Ben Kreider, from my Bowdoin days, and Jordan Silver, of New York City, and we proudly carried our home-made banner stating in bright red beside the DSA logo that “Youth Demand a Future Without War.” We took our bold statement in for a short walk outside of the McPherson Square, and we began marching around the city with a mainly white youth Black Block and a more ethnically diverse group of urban students. In this ad-hoc coalition, the one who really stuck out was a wonderful dog who coincidentally marched by us on many occasions. I kidded Ben that the dog had originally been pro-war, but had since changed his position. We jokingly agreed, however, that the geese we saw were a consistent anti-war animal species.

A half past noon, we gathered at 14th and I street for Funk the War. Mobile loud speakers were quickly set up and what seemed like an endless stream of students, mainly in their ready-for-direct action attire, converged at this spot. The dropping of beats (not bombs, as the day’s slogan went) led to dancing and eventually a police circle. When the police saw fit to allow traffic to resume, they began pushing students and youth along. Heated moments – including Ben being pushed harshly – flared up and died quickly. I saw a DC SDSer (whom I remembered well from their convention in Detroit) in a scuffle with a few officers. As he returned to Franklin Square to catch his breathe, I asked him if he was fine and he replied with smile that he was cool.

We marched along, repeating the same actions. We’d reach a point, receive cheers from bystanders, and the police would wait for a few minutes until they would push us along. I would see the occasional bad apple on both sides instigating (sometimes the student) and using excessive force (universally the police), but I would be dishonest if I didn’t report the vast majority on both sides were well-behaved. It made me wonder if many in the police department, like cheering workers and business people we passed, secretly wished this war would end and saw little problem in the anti-war actions.

The high point for me was when we demonstrated outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Center. Between hundreds of students and the center stood a few recruiters with their misplaced “Support the Troops” signs and American flags waving. Did they think the flags would be kryptonite for us “un-American” protesters? My veteran grandfather once said that you shouldn’t bring out the flag once a year for veteran’s day: bring it out all year round or not at all. I say don’t hide behind the flag while you cut veteran benefits and keep them in an unwinable war. For me, it’s patriotic to stand up against the war; against a government neglecting our domestic needs and unwilling to live up to it’s promises of a free and independent Iraq. Demanding a withdrawal is really supporting the troops.

The earlier deceivingly sunny and warm weather eventually gave way to the predicted downpour. The rain did damper spirits a tad, but many continued to march on. As it approached 3 in the afternoon, Funk the War had stopped at a major intersection. Desks were brought out and many linked arms and sat in a square awaiting arrest. Scores of protesters guarded those sitting in lines holding up banners and signs. With my fleece and jeans drenched in water, I thought about leaving early when I was told by a friend that we were going to be needed to stop the arrests. I stayed to watch the students waiting for their impeding arrest, while many others anxiously pondered what the officers would do next. To my surprise, I saw scores of police leave. I soon realized that they had rerouted traffic and were willing to allow protesters to stay – in the pouring rain no less. Without Jordan and Ben, with my body exhausted and knowing DSA wasn’t paying for any bail, I knew it was time for me to leave.

Over the past week, I’ve had a chance to seriously reflect on the events. I was originally very wary of direct action I felt had no concrete objectives even if it had a clear audience or target. I always felt movements win with direct action long-term when they have specific short-term targets (ie desegregating Woolworth’s counters as part of a larger Civil Rights agenda). I think this direct action was crucial in that it got good press coverage at a time when the media has drastically reduced war coverage because of the presidential elections. This protest did show that folks are willing to both risk arrest and get arrested to voice their opposition of the war. In addition, many happily cheered on anti-war protesters while increasingly few were public about their support of the war.

I can’t help but still believe that direct action should be considered primarily a tactic for bringing attention to an issue. Direct action is not the sole means to an end. I am happy to see more direct action in the anti-war movement, but it must be coordinated with efforts to get those funding the war to change their votes. Let’s be frank: the George Bush’s and John McCain’s of the world don’t care about our protest. So for us to be effective, we have to be part of someone’s base. If major anti-war movement actors, especially those in among the youth, think direct action will be the magic bullet to show misguided Democrats the light, those activists must get ready to wait awhile. Pro-war Democrats are not going to change until they see that it may cost them an election. As a movement, we should be concerned with also getting the right people in office and making sure they know who got them there.

After November, I am all for sitting in the offices every Democrat who broke his or her promise on the war. I am also for full force support of anti-war candidates in primaries and general elections against pro-war officials. A potential shift against the Republicans offers us new promises and challenges. I see the actions on March 19th as the beginning of an anti-war movement which is combining forces who once only thought of direct action and protest with those who primarily focus on lobbying. Such an alliance will not happen overnight, but so is the nature of social movements. As we learned at “2013 Isn’t Soon Enough: The Anti-War Movement Post-Bush” it takes a great deal to end a war and we have to be patient in building social movements that get results. It is completely possible to end this war and build the structures to do so, however, and we must never forget that.

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