What Are We Marchin' For?

Anti-war protesters offer everything -- but an alternative.


On Saturday, September 29, America's new peaceniks spent hours winding through the tense streets of Washington, D.C., before settling in a telling location—directly across the street from the International Monetary Fund. It wasn't supposed to be that way. In the days following September 11, anti-globalization forces supposedly shifted focus away from a massive mobilization against the IMF and World Bank annual meetings. That made sense. The meetings had been canceled in the wake of the horrifying terrorist attacks. Moreover, organizers realized that they needed to deliver a new message to a world community inflamed with thoughts of war and retribution. But that message was nowhere to be seen, thanks to an embarrassing lack of direction that plagues the fledgling anti-war movement.

The activists' problem developed early on. On September 20, the Washington Peace Center scheduled a "teach-in" for peace at D.C.'s Meridian Hill Baptist Church. Approximately 250 activists crowded the church's steamy, pink-walled basement, eager to display their anti-everything credentials. They were against war. They enthusiastically hissed whenever a speaker stooped to mention President George W. Bush. Their dreadlocked, multiply pierced heads shook from side to side as they considered such a racist and empire-crazed America. Unfortunately, not one of the five speakers had any suggestions as to what Bush should do.

Rev. Graylan Hagler delivered the most entertaining speech. With a flurry of fire and brimstone, he railed against the U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations conference on racism, and charged that Zionism is in fact racism. These were the "root causes" of the violence—American arrogance, corporate imperialism, greed, and racism. No wonder they attacked us!

There was an awkward silence when I asked what the protesters were actually for. Sam Husseini, communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, eventually offered a "multinational" solution, noting that a U.N. directive details how nations should respond to terrorism. When I asked if that directive ever mentions the use of force—or if he supported those sections that might—the moderator told me I could ask only one question. Michele Bollinger, a self-described socialist who teaches public school, chimed in with the notion that anti-war protesters don't have to be for anything. "I don't think the anti-war movement needs to provide solutions to all the world's problems," Bollinger said to rousing applause. "All I think the anti-war movement needs to do is fight against an unjust war."

As the protesters filtered out to find a spot to watch that night's presidential address to the nation, a perplexed twentysomething asked why I was so dead set on violence. I asked him what he proposed instead. He said we should force the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial. I asked him what America should do if they refused. "I don't think they are in a position to do that," he said. "They'll do whatever we say because they are afraid of us." I asked why they were afraid. He did not have an answer.

I expected more from the anti-war movement the following Thursday. Hundreds of left-wing protesters poured into All Souls Church on 16th Street to listen to their academic hero, Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States. After a round of speeches, a few brave souls in the crowd asked the same question I did a week before: If we're against war, what are we for?

Again, no answer. Zinn advocated a course of action—or inaction—that doctors take when treating a disease they cannot diagnose: "First, do no harm." He analogized further, saying that when police are searching for a criminal they can't find, they do not simply bomb everyone hoping to hit the suspect. In short, he doesn't know how to bring the terrorists to justice. He just knows how not to do it.

Husseini (he was on this panel, too) argued that the peace movement doesn't really need to offer an alternative because the barbaric Bush administration doesn't want peace anyway. I asked what the plan would be if Bush was amenable to it. Husseini said it didn't matter because he wasn't. I tried to rephrase the question and ask it one more time, but the same moderator who cut me off the week before did it again.

The next day, approximately 10,000 protesters hit the capital's streets for a set of marches all in the name of peace. Or at least they were supposed to be about peace. One, organized by the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, started at 9 a.m. on Capitol Hill and snaked its way toward the White House. Another, sponsored by the less militant but equally vocal International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition (ANSWER), formed near the White House and marched toward Capitol Hill. The two groups merged for awhile at Freedom Plaza on 13th Street. On Sunday they joined forces at Meridian Hill Park in Adams Morgan and marched into Dupont Circle.

Despite all the marching, singing, screaming, and drumming, a coherent message never emerged. On Saturday, a group of about 50 black-clad anarchists seemed chagrined that the riots they envisioned for the IMF/World Bank protests never came to pass. They sat on a grassy hill next to Freedom Plaza, temporarily lowering their handkerchief masks to smoke pot while the chanting continued on the street. Fewer than 20 people were arrested all day, despite an enormous police presence. Many protesters had traffic pylons duct-taped to their forearms to ward off baton blows that never came, gas masks to protect them from tear-gas that was never used, and goggles to shield them from pepper spray—which police did deploy in one brief flare?up.

Numerous signs declared "End Wage Disparity Now," as if Osama bin Laden and associates killed 6,000 people because they want a higher minimum wage. One intrepid soul

was handing out "Free Mumia" fliers. Perhaps the Taliban is against imprisoning people for political reasons? Many others blamed the new administration by carrying signs that said "Fuck Bush," which does little to explain the many terror attacks the world suffered prior to January.

Indeed, the weekend seminars sponsored by a coalition of anti-globalization networks show just how hard it has been for the movement to focus on alternatives to war instead of alternatives to the International Monetary Fund. This was the lineup of teach-in topics for Friday: World Bank Bonds Boycott; the New Face of Structural Adjustment and "Private Sector Development"; Jubilee and Reparations; and Legislative, which dealt with congressional funding for the IMF/World Bank. Not much changed on Saturday: HIV/AIDS and Intellectual Property Rights; Labor and Sweatshops; Corporate Globalization and Indigenous Rights; Privatization; Land and Environment; and Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Not a single seminar focused on finding a proper response to the attacks of September 11.

All weekend, college kids and aging hippies did their best to emulate their 1960s anti-war counterparts, dusting off chants such as "One, two, three, four, we don't want your racist war." In a nod to the peace-loving communes that have sustained the left for generations, there was even a free vegetarian kitchen in Freedom Plaza. Despite the largely successful mobilization of bodies, however, everyone apparently forgot to dream up an answer to the only question that matters for now: Someone attacked Manhattan and the Pentagon. What should we do?

It's not that protesting a war is wrong. People who oppose war in every instance have a right—even a moral obligation—to argue the point; so do folks who think fighting in Afghanistan will only make matters worse. Yet this is a different kind of war, even for the protesters. In the '60s you could say things like "make love, not war." Just bring the boys home and it would be over—the Ho Chi Minh Trail couldn't reach New York.

But Osama bin Laden can. He proved it. People are afraid he will do it again. Saying you are against the war is not enough. People will not listen unless you have a different way to keep terrorists from burning American cities. Given that rescue workers will undoubtedly be pulling corpses from the rubble for a long, long time, protesters should think of an alternative to war before they march again.