As you probably know, there was a major antiwar rally in Washington yesterday, with the number of participants ranging between 150,000 (the police estimate) and 300,000 (rally organizers’ estimate). In any event, it was the largest anti-Iraq protest yet in the U.S., and inevitably, it is being compared to the monster antiwar rallies against the Vietnam War some 35-40 years ago.Indeed, the Washington Post’s coverage of the protest was laden with nostalgia, including constant references to the greyhaired boomers who were liberally sprinkled in the assemblage. The Post’s Style section spread on the event featured a large photo of Antiwar Horse Joan Baez performing at the post-rally concert on the Mall. You half-expected Country Joe McDonald to materialize and belt out: “One, Two, Three, What are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn/Next stop is ol’ Baghdad.”The event was decisively peaceful, and organizers did a good job of ensuring that no one went away without hearing arguments that the mess in Iraq is related to the mess on the Gulf Coast. Still, a lot of participants probably shared Matt Yglesias’ worry that the antiwar message was blurred and perhaps even countered by the different, and, er ah, rather eccentric preoccupations of some of their peers:
[T]he organizers of any future events of this sort should try to implement some message discipline. If you organize a gathering to protest the war in Iraq, political beliefs expressed on the stage should be about the war in Iraq and not, say, the evils of the fast food industry or the tyranny of copyright law.
Matt makes a good point, but as a minor veteran of the Vietnam protest generation, I can tell him it could have been a lot worse. I’ll never forget attending an antiwar rally in Atlanta, as a member of the High School Mobilization Committee To End the War in Vietnam, aimed at an appearance by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Several hundred of us earnest peaceniks struck out from downtown Atlanta in a march towards a hotel where Spiggy was speaking at a Republican fundraiser. Unfortunately, the local Mobe effort was controlled by the Young Socialist Alliance, the collegiate wing of the Trotskyist Socalist Workers Party. Its commissars placed Viet Cong flags at both ends of the procession, and controlled the bullhorns, from which bellowed such consensus antiwar slogans as “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/The NLF is gonna win“, and “Two, four, six, eight/We don’t want your fascist state.” A few naive “message discipline” advocates in the assemblage tried to counter with lame offerings like John Lennon’s “All we are saying/Is give peace a chance,” but no one could hear what they were saying over the cacophony from Leon’s cadres. I’m pretty sure no one yesterday was chanting “O, O, O-B-L/Jew Crusaders Go To Hell,” and if they were, nobody would have let them get close to a bullhorn. So maybe the current antiwar movement, whatever its tolerance for cranks, is closer to American public opinion than its much-hyped predecessor. Having said that, it’s also clear that the “out now” faction dominating the Washington protest remains marginal, at least for now. In terms of reflecting any sort of national movement, it was a mere shadow of the gigantic rally held in London just prior to the invasion of Iraq. And that, folks, is probably the important thing to remember about “protest” politics generally in a democratic society: other than as an expression of free speech rights, they only matter if they eventually coincide with the views of those people who spent yesterday watching college football and worrying more about the March of Hurricane Rita than the March on Washington.