Small Talk at 125th and Lenox

Steven Wishnia Apr 6, 2005

March 19’s “Troops Out Now” demonstration against the Iraq war was far smaller than the throngs of up to 500,000 that turned out for protests in February 2003 and March 2004. Though the crowd – significantly more multiracial than the average antiwar march – stretched for a dozen blocks as it trekked past the brownstones and gospel tabernacles of Harlem and the bodegas and taquerias of East Harlem, by the time it reached the rally site in Central Park, there were only a few thousand people.

That was understandable, as four other protests were competing for the legs of antiwar New Yorkers that day: a trip to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, organized by United for Peace and Justice, and three civil-disobedience actions sponsored by the War Resisters League at military-recruitment centers in Times Square, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. UFPJ refused to endorse the “Troops Out Now” march, citing the difficulty of working with ANSWER, one of its main organizers, and disagreement with ANSWER’s call for “support for the Iraqi resistance.” Many on the left accuse UFPJ of being too white and middle-class and not militant enough; ANSWER events are more multiracial, but the group also has close ties with the Workers World Party, a Stalinist sect that has defended Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic as anti-imperialist.

“I have to do something”

Most of the rank-and-file marchers on the street weren’t involved in movement office politics: They just wanted to protest the war. “We’ve killed 100,000 Iraqis to serve an imperial agenda that’s undermined everything that helps people in this country,” said Channing Joseph, 24, a recent transplant from New Orleans, as the march paused at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. “I have to do something. You can’t just sit around and let this stuff happen,” added Jasmine Halloran, a 25-year-old Philadelphian wearing a sweatshirt from the punk band Anti-Flag.

“I’m against any use of violence,” explained Mark Fangmeier, 23, who came on a bus from St. Paul, Minn. “If I sit there in silence, I’m a perpetrator of that violence.” He carried a sign with pictures of maimed Iraqi children that read “If You Support Bush, You Support This.”

If there’s any generalization to be made about why people are against the war, it’s that whites were more likely to express pacifist sentiments, while blacks and Latinos almost always brought up the war’s effects on inner-city survival. “We’re here mostly against Bush,” said Mike Sanchez, 23, of Jersey City. “We have two kids, and he’s taking away from education to give tax breaks to the rich.” Meanwhile, Carol Brown, a middle-aged woman from the Boston suburbs, fretted that her friends have spent their lives trying to protect their sons from black-on-black violence – ”and now George Bush is sending them off to be killed.”

March 19’s relatively small demonstrations came at a time when many activists are questioning the effectiveness of conventional protest tactics: The Bush chutzpahcrats are not going to suddenly sprout a conscience because a bunch of people pointed at them and chanted, “Shame! Shame!” Voting for a candidate who criticized the war but refused to oppose it obviously didn’t work. Large demonstrations can feel like pointless walking in circles. Civil disobedience, touted as a Gandhian spiritual sacrifice to bear witness against evil, often amounts to offering yourself up for arrest for a purely symbolic purpose. And running around breaking bank windows, hyped by some anarchists as the way to be really militant instead of parading obediently like middle-class wussies, usually comes off as politicized juvenile delinquency, as it expresses personal defiance of authority more than it sabotages the war machine.

Looking for answers

So what would work? Demonstrators’ responses ranged from “Start a revolution” (Lisa Changadreja, 16, of Atlanta) to “practice peace in our own lives” (Amy LaSalle, 50, of Arizona). Many feel that most of the American people are against the war, or would be if they knew the facts – “I’ve been out on causes for years, and I’ve never gotten a response like this,” said Chuck Zlatkin of Chelsea Neighbors United to End the War – but no one has a definitive strategy to build a movement big, powerful, and savvy enough to end the war.

The antiwar movement needs to become more grassroots, contended Mel, a bespectacled 58-year-old from New Jersey. “Look at who’s in the rally and who’s not,” he observed. “We have to get working-class people and poor people, because they’re the ones most egregiously affected.” A few blocks down the road, Brenda Pizarro lived out his point, calling out, “Bring my cousin home,” from the stoop of a Lexington Avenue housing project. “I want to join. I didn’t know about it,” she said of the march. “So many people are dying for nothing.”

Some argue for media reform, or as Marina Diaz, a Guatemalan-born kindergarten teacher, put it, people need to be taught to become “critical thinkers.” That might help in a country where the Bush administration has successfully insinuated that it invaded Iraq to eliminate “terrorism” – while the search for Osama bin Laden is about as big a priority as O.J. Simpson’s hunt for “the real killers.”

Others are more cynical. Vietnam-era activist Marcia Bernstein, 70, of Brooklyn, said history has shown that Americans will only rise up “when enough American soldiers are killed.” “More people will be mobilized, unfortunately, if there is a draft,” opined Channing Joseph. “Something drastic has to be done. More than marching in the streets. More than voting. We need to build a movement to match the right wing.”

“It’s not going to be easy. Look how long it took to end the war in Vietnam,” said Scot Roberto, a 45-year-old veteran of the Gulf War. “It’s remarkable the way people are organized now compared with the mid-’60s.”

On the other hand, by the time the United States finally pulled its ground troops out of Vietnam in 1973 – after nearly a decade of peaceful and violent street protests, antiwar sentiments among all sectors of society, widespread draft resistance, and GIs throwing grenades at their commanding officers – the piles of corpses comprised 58,000 Americans and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese.