Peace Begins in the Neighborhood
Seattle, Washington – “Forty-nine, fifty,” said Daniel Schwenk, while working his way along a row of protesters waving “No Iraq War” signs to Lake Forest Park’s evening rush hour.
“I wasn’t counting,” he quipped. “I was guessing ages.”
He could have been serious.
Schwenk, a 50-year-old biotech worker from Bothell, reflects the effort to broaden the demographic and geographic reach of the region’s growing anti-war movement.
Where opposition to the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago grew out of youthful rebellion, the local effort to prevent the United States going to war with Iraq has a more Main Street feel.
And where most protests in recent years focused on massing big numbers of people in downtown Seattle, the recent wave of vigils and demonstrations are penetrating suburban communities like Burien, Bothell, Lake Forest Park and Bellevue, where more than 1,000 candle-wielding marchers showed up for a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day peace rally.
During the World Trade Organization protests three years ago, demonstrators chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” Now one anti-war activist jokes about chanting, “This is what suburbia looks like.”
Unlike the Vietnam protests, which took years to materialize, protests against a war in Iraq are up and running before the first bomb has dropped. Participants go to great lengths to avoid being seen as countercultural or anti-American — witness the ubiquitous red, white and blue signs.
Much of the local organization comes from Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War (SNOW), a coalition of traditional activist groups, churches and scores of new neighborhood organizations. A single e-mail effort aimed at raising $10,000 for “War Kills the Innocent” ads on Metro buses wound up raising nearly $30,000, said Howard Gale, a member of SNOW’s coordinating committee.
Meanwhile, the coalition encourages would-be activists to design small vigils tailored to their own temperaments. “It’s your neighbors, and it creates a sense of community,” said Fred Miller, a SNOW organizer.
Such decentralized activities “probably happened during the 1969-70 period, but not since, not on this scale,” said Todd Gitlin, former president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who now teaches a class on social movements at the Columbia University. It’s a measure of organizational strength, Gitlin said, but also the depth of anti-war feeling.
“You can’t generate this degree of tenacity without a broad base of feeling along those lines,” he said. “The support for the war has not been deep, and the opposition, to a unilateral war anyway, has been steady and widespread.”
It’s difficult to gauge how widespread that opposition is. After Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council last week, providing evidence Iraq was secretly building weapons, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found more Americans supporting a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Fifty-seven percent of those who heard or read about Powell’s speech favored an invasion, while 15 percent opposed one and 26 percent were unsure.
An ABC/Washington Post poll taken at the same time found respondents roughly split over going to war without U.N. support.
Jack Spencer, national security analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the reach of the protest movement is largely a sign of professional organization and networking, often with computers and the Internet.
“Unlike the peace movement of the ’60s and early ’70s, where it was a new phenomenon to have these really large social movements, what we’ve had since then are the same people who learned the trade back then professionalize the demonstrations,” he said. “That’s what you have now: professional peace activists who have developed new means and new tactics to get their message across.”
Spencer is doubtful that they represent a big slice of the American public. “The fact of the matter is, most of these people will jump on any bandwagon that will take them to a protest, whether it’s the World Bank or the IMF (International Monetary Fund.) There’s nothing like a good war to bring them together.”
The notion of organizing by neighborhoods came about largely by happenstance. Miller, a board member of the Peace and Justice Alliance and a political organizer since the ’70s, attended a cider-making party/anti-war vigil at the Ballard home of a neighbor and noticed the conversation had a block-party quality.
So when SNOW held its Dec. 8 Call to Action at Garfield High School, Miller and other organizers had attendees break off into more than 30 neighborhood groups and plan their own events.
Different neighborhoods took different tacks. The Snoqualmie Valley and Carnation group could look at nonviolent parenting. Wallingford could have the Wallingford Peace Singers.
That was in keeping with SNOW’s desire to let people express their opposition to the war, said Miller, “without having to buy into a lot of counterculture rhetoric and theory, and also not have to buy into the counterculture. If you go downtown and there are a lot of people wearing masks, that will turn off a lot of people that live north of 65th.” Diane Schachter, a Woodinville resident and therapist, was rattled when she put out “No Iraq War” signs and a meeting announcement at stop signs in her neighborhood, only to see them gone three hours later.
But through the SNOW database, she hooked up with eight local people for a meeting at her house, and was comforted by finding kindred spirits.
As the talk of war mounted, Caroline Tellez, 43, of Bothell wanted badly to send a message, “to let our president know in any way I could that there are many people that do not agree with his ideology in regard to going to war.” Fueling her conviction was the suicide two years ago of a half-brother, a veteran of the Vietnam War who “didn’t get over it.”
But she was nervous about being in the public eye. She is an independent voter and worried that anti-war activity might have a partisan flavor.
These days, standing vigil at a busy corner in Lake Forest Park, Tellez feels at ease.
With Tellez one Saturday was Tom Kresbach, a 53-year-old computer programmer from Brier. He protested briefly against the Vietnam War but later went there as a lab technician for the 9th Medical Lab.
“We were a bunch of hippies,” he said. “Now, it’s middle-aged baby boomers with three kids, people holding down one, two, three jobs coming out to demonstrate.”
Earlier, at an organizational meeting in Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Commons, Tellez, Kresbach and about 30 others met near the sign-up tables for the North King County Little League.
With the exception of one young man with dyed hair and a military jacket, the crowd was in its 40s and 50s. One older man wheeled an oxygen tank. Kresbach warned demonstrators to keep their children well back from the road.
But sometimes there is a partisan, even radical flair.
That same meeting had visitors come by selling T-shirts with a Merriam-Webster definition of “bush,” the adjective and in their opinion the President: “falling below acceptable standards: UNPROFESSIONAL .
At a rally at Shoreline Community College, a Revolution Books table included “I’d Rather Be Smashing Imperialism” bumper stickers. At the close of the rally, when the 90 or so attendees assembled for a group photo, shouts of “Stop the police state!” and “The pigs are here!” rose. They were followed by someone else shouting, “Shut up!”
It was a microcosm of the national peace movement, whose multiple groups can create a festival of agendas.
United for Peace and Justice, which includes about 35 Washington groups, opposes an Iraq war but also plans to attack “new repressive measures at home.” There are local peace groups that identify themselves as Republicans, as business people, as families of armed services personnel.
Veterans for Common Sense insists on a Congressional Declaration of War before an Iraq conflict, but Sgt. Joe Bons, a member and Gulf War veteran from Graham, Pierce County, said the group is not explicitly part of the peace movement. He signed its statement on Iraq out of concern for the chemical and biological agents that troops might be exposed to.
“I’m sure there are those of us out there that say, ‘Screw this, let’s not do this again,’ ” he said, “but it primarily has to do with force protection.”
SNOW has a simple strategy — let people express disapproval through nonviolent means — which may explain much of its appeal. Eventually, the group would like to try to change U.S. foreign and economic policies, but has yet to discuss long-term strategies.
Meanwhile, it concentrates on making its opposition visible, whether through lawn signs or people on overpasses
Are these efforts having an effect? Even if the U.S. doesn’t go to war, it’s unlikely the White House would let on if protesters played a role. For instance, President Richard Nixon didn’t acknowledge the anti-war movement influenced the Vietnam War, said Gitlin, the former SDS leader.
“After the fact, there’s some evidence that there were certain war plans that were tamped down or overridden because of fierce anti-war opposition,” Gitlin said. “But in real time, you can’t tell. You can only guess.”