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Speaking truth to power: U.S. peace movement unrelenting

The unprecedented scale of the global protests against the so-called `war on terrorism' is a sure sign that people across the world are united in their yearning for an end to poverty, discrimination and violence, writes LATA MANI.

The methods of protesters have been simple, yet cumulatively potent: lobbying, civil disobedience, peace demonstrations, rallies and prayer vigils.

THE macabre spectacle of the United States and the United Kingdom inflicting death and destruction on an Iraqi people immiserated by twelve years of gruelling sanctions, has far from "shocked and awed" the people of the world into submission. On the contrary, it has spawned a global uprising against the doctrine that "might is right". In the short run, the goal of these protests is to bring an immediate end to the invasion of Iraq. But the long-term significance of these militant, non-violent protests lies in the view of a very different world that they collectively posit, a perspective embedded in the language, means and goals of the peace movement. Although the articulation of the local, the regional and the global varies from country to country, the hegemony of the corporate-military complex of the U.S. is an issue that links people across national borders. And perhaps for the first time in history, the demands of the U.S. peace and social justice movement have a lot in common with anti-war movements elsewhere.

The reason for this is simple. Since the 1980s, the U.S. has been domestically subjected to the same policies that IMF and World Bank mandated structural adjustment programmes have imposed on many Third World countries. These include the privatisation of government; cutbacks in social spending that have gutted the idea that a social contract is integral to responsible government, and corporate welfare in the form of tax cuts, government contracts with guaranteed profit margins, and freedom from any kind of accountability. Add to this the further legalisation of domestic surveillance and political repression in the post-9/11 period, and you have a scenario where the people of the U.S. have concerns that are in many respects similar to those of fellow humans elsewhere. Regardless of what the polls might indicate, significant numbers of mainstream United Statesians are no longer resting easy in the belief that their government can be trusted to protect their interests. The general Democratic collusion with Republicans, signal exceptions notwithstanding, makes this suspicion a bipartisan one. The view of the government and that of the U.S. peace movement are in stark contrast with one another. The former advocates the unimpeded flow of corporate capital, seen as crucial to maintaining socio-economic stability and meriting all the military and political support deemed necessary. By contrast, the peace and social justice movement " a conglomeration of a wide spectrum of civic organisations, civil rights, religious and political groups and thousands of unaffiliated citizens of conscience" is challenging and inverting these priorities. Hip hop artist Michael Franti (whose peace songs are banned from MTV and commercial radio) speaks for the movement as a whole when he observes that, "the human interest, the natural interest and the spiritual interest have had to take a back seat to the corporate interest, the military interest and the materialistic interest of the world". It is in the name of the human, the natural and the spiritual that the current movement is mobilised. In this process, it is challenging the narrow and bigoted conceptions of the national, the racial and the Christian by means of which the powers that be are striving to make their "war against terrorism" acceptable to the U.S. population.

The methods adopted by the movement are testimony to its vision for society and the world. Confronted with an unequal adversary that has fire and media power at its command, the methods of protesters have been simple, yet cumulatively potent: lobbying, petitions, civil disobedience, peace demonstrations, rallies at street corners and shopping malls, walking out of schools and offices, prayer vigils and teach-ins. These actions are being undertaken in thousands of locations across the length and breadth of the U.S. The unprincipled behaviour of the Bush administration has been met with principled conduct and objections. Protests have been disciplined and non-violent. Even in the days following the outbreak of war with Iraq, when thousands took over the streets of San Francisco and 2,300 arrests were made, not a single window was broken in that city. The mood on the street was spirited but peaceful. The only tense moments were provoked by police over-reaction and aggression. As in other demonstrations, the slogans decried war and ethnic scapegoating, supported the U.N., proclaimed solidarity with the Iraqis and the Palestinians, demanded money for schools and healthcare, and called for an end to prisons at home and to a foreign policy motivated by a quest for fossil fuels and corporate profits. All of this was interlaced with drumming and spirituals from the 1960s civil rights movement, "We shall overcome", "I'm going to study war no more" etc.

An activist burns his American passport.

One strength of the peace movement is that it combines organisation with decentralisation. This has given it the flexibility that its multi-faceted platform requires. In addition to key national organisations (such as International ANSWER as also the coalition, United for Peace and Justice) which have been responsible for the coordinated protests held in Washington D.C., San Francisco and New York since October 2002, there are literally thousands of smaller groups. This has meant, for example, that although the street takeovers in San Francisco petered out six days into the war on Iraq, civil disobedience has continued on a daily basis. This has included blockades of the federal building as also of the offices of weapons manufacturers, and companies such as Bechtel and the Carlyle Group that are set to profit from the war. The idea is to combine protest with educating passers by and others of the role of such entities, and to make evident what connects each city with the bombs falling over Iraq. Such actions have taken place in many locations nationwide. If the actions of the U.S. Government represent a wilful desecration of life, these protests embody a conscious embrace of it. For instance, one morning in the week after war began, protestors formed a human chain, outside the Transamerica Building in San Francisco, which houses the Bechtel corporation. This chain encircled a group of about 200 protestors who had occupied an entire city block and were doing yoga en masse. When asked about the rationale for the action, one participant said, "Yoga is a form of meditation embodying peace, bringing your mind, body and spirit all into connection in thinking about the value of all life. We are trying to be a movement for peace and non-violence, embodying what we believe in." Those taking part were arrested when they refused to disperse, but not before their point had been made. Elsewhere, protestors have undertaken die-ins on major city streets and walked single file in silent contingents, splattered in red paint, carrying bloodied and maimed dolls to dramatise the reality of the death and suffering caused by war.

It may be tempting to wonder whether such protests are merely symbolic, to question their power to effect a change in the course that the Bush administration has adopted in Afghanistan and Iraq and threatens to extend anywhere it pleases. However, to do so, would be to take a short-term and overly local view of events. The unprecedented scale of the global protests, in which each event has drawn sustenance and inspiration from every other, along with the nature of the changes being struggled for, are a sure sign that people across the world are united in their yearning for an end to poverty, discrimination and violence. The very globalisation of U.S. dominance and the growing commonalities between struggles over conditions within and outside of the U.S. has yielded a common enemy. International solidarity is a possibility in a way never before.

No power can rule by might alone, as is already evident in the failure to achieve a quick and successful occupation of Iraq. This will not be a war with minimal U.S. casualties. Even if many do not fall to Iraqi forces, the toxic weapons and experimental drugs to which the soldiers have been subjected will undoubtedly take their toll when they return. After all, fully one in three of the men and women who served in the 1991 Gulf War have been made ill and disabled by U.S. army's medical protocols and indifference about the health effects of, for example, lining U.S. army tanks with depleted uranium. The levels of toxicity in the urine of those who fought in Afghanistan rival those of the citizens who were the target of their weapons. The point is not to equalise vastly different material realities, but to expose the myth of a war undertaken "by remote" in which those operating hi-tech controls are claimed to be safe from the effects of their actions.

The weapons of peace loving anti-imperialists may seem to be inconsequential compared to the power of the mighty few. But then, human determination, imagination and ingenuity, when put to the service of justice, have had an uncanny and unpredictable way of playing havoc with the plans of dominators. Remember Vietnam? The issues being raised by the peace movement go way beyond the war on Iraq, to the very core of how U.S. society and economy are structured and sustained. It has the potential to revitalise a participatory and pluralist democratic culture in this country. The inroads already made by the peace movement are signalled by the fact that, as of March 26, 2003, one in every 216 United Statesians was a member of the mainstream anti-war organisation, MoveOn. As of now, there is every reason to hope.

Lata Mani is a historian and cultural critic.

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