What’s Next for the Anti-War Movement? — After the March 19th Protests

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After two years in Iraq, support for the war is crumbling at home. With the U.S. unable to offer any real solutions to the crisis, widespread opposition opens up the potential for the anti-war movement to reemerge as a massive force in the next period.

But the smaller turnout at the March 19 anti-war protests across the country reflect that the anti-war movement is still searching for a way forward in the aftermath of Bush’s election victory. How can the anti-war movement galvanize the growing anger at the war into a powerful mass movement?

Growing Anti-War Feelings
According to the latest Gallup poll, 53% of Americans think the war was not worth it, and according to the latest Washington Post poll, 70% think current casualties levels are unacceptable. These poll numbers have steadily grown over the past two years. A February Harris Poll showed 59% wanted to bring the troops home in the next year as opposed to 39% who agreed the US should wait to bring the troops home until there is a stable Iraqi government. Most other polls show around 42% support bringing the troops home as soon as possible.

The March 19 demonstrations also showed that opposition to the war is broadening into working-class communities. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the leading national anti-war organization, reported more than twice as many local protests this year as in 2004. Demonstrations spread to as many as 765 communities in all 50 states, with most of the growth occurring in smaller, working-class cities and towns.

One of the largest demonstrations on March 19 was a gathering of over 4,000 military family members and Iraq vets at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC. The turnout was more than double the size of the same demonstration last year. The growth of anti-war activism among military families and soldiers is another important indication that anti-war sentiment is reaching deeper into the American working class.

The Role of Anti-War Leadership
Despite this growing anti-war sentiment, the March 19 protests were smaller than last year. What explains this? First, key sections of the anti-war movement leadership have drawn all the wrong conclusions from Bush’s reelection, retreating from building a mass movement and focusing on lobbying Democrats in Congress.

Bush did not win the election because of growing support for the war or his pro-corporate polices, but because the Democrats failed to offer working people a real alternative. Throughout the election period, anti-war sentiment grew, opening important opportunities to build an independent anti-war movement. Unfortunately, the priority for most of the anti-war leadership in 2004 was lining up support for the pro-war candidate John Kerry.

This “Anybody But Bush” strategy played a vital role in setting back the protest movement throughout 2004. The decision to continue looking to the Democrats after the election meant that the largest anti-war organization, UFPJ, and others like Moveon.org, failed to seriously mobilize for the March 19 protests. In New York City, UFPJ refused to build for or even endorse the main demonstration, which was a central factor behind the fall in turnout from 100,000 a year ago to a mere 5 to 10,000 this year.

Nowhere else did the turnout fall as sharply as in NYC, but most demonstrations around the country were smaller than those in 2004. Undoubtedly, this has temporarily reinforced the pessimistic mood among large sections of the anti-war movement arising from Bush’s reelection.

The Elections in Iraq
There is no doubt that the January election in Iraq also provided a certain cushion of support for the occupation, raising the idea that the occupation is spreading democracy. But the war was never about democracy – just as it was never about WMDs.

In reality, the U.S. has no real solutions to the crisis in Iraq. The new government is highly unstable, formed after months of bickering between Kurdish and Shi’a elites. And for ordinary Iraqis, angered by the brutal realities of foreign occupation, the elections have not solved the most basic problems of everyday life, such as mass poverty, nor have they paved the way for any solutions.

This will become clearer here at home in the months ahead. New waves of struggles erupting in Iraq will weaken illusions in the so-called Iraqi democracy, paving the way for the anti-war movement to reemerge on a higher level.

Bush demonstrated a talent for provoking opposition in his first four years, and his next four will be no different. Public opinion already weighs heavily against Bush and the war (see article on page 4). Growing opposition will throw new layers into the struggle, reenergize others, and lay the basis for a powerful movement.

Building the Movement Now
Right now, there are significant opportunities to build the movement among those who are most directly feeling the impact of the war – young people facing military recruitment, military families, and soldiers.

This is particularly true in high schools, where an increasing number of students are questioning what this war means for their future. In recent months, there has been a growing number of counter-recruitment campaigns organized in schools around the country.

It’s also crucial to build on the successes in organizing among military families and soldiers returning from Iraq. Having military families and soldiers speak out in unequivocal opposition gives the anti-war movement a powerful voice and will play an important role in building the movement.

Stopping the war will require building a very powerful mass movement independent of the two pro-war parties, with deep roots in the working class and organizations in every school, community, and workplace.

To root our movement among working-class communities and communities of color, it’s important that our anti-war message is linked to the economic and social issues directly affecting working people at home. Opposition to military recruiters should be linked to fighting the racist poverty draft and demanding funding for our schools and good jobs.

Over the next few months, there are opportunities to widen the base of the anti-war movement by mobilizing the widespread opposition to Bush’s privatization of Social Security. The war abroad is intimately bound up with big business’ attacks on workers here, and Bush’s privatization of Social Security provides activists with an excellent opportunity to make this point. Local protests could get the ball rolling and pave the way for a national march on Washington, DC to defend Social Security and demand money for jobs and education, not war.

Protest Fatigue
Many activists, disappointed that the massive protests over the last few years failed to stop the war on Iraq or Bush’s reelection, are now asking the question “What will another protest accomplish?”

It’s true that after the next protest the war will continue. But nevertheless, mass protests are an essential tactic for growing the anti-war movement at this stage. For one thing, protests are a concrete activity around which we can build up anti-war organizations. Protests can also be inspiring to freshly politicized layers, radicalize them, and raise their confidence to continue organizing against the war.

Protests should not be seen as an end in themselves, as some in the movement tend to pose them, but as a tool to bring new layers into the movement and to win broader support among workers and young people.

A growing protest movement can set the stage for more militant tactics, such as strikes, which can pull the plug on the war machine. Ultimately, it will take a huge movement of workers, youth, and rank-and-file soldiers combined with massive resistance by ordinary Iraqis to force U.S. imperialism to sacrifice its interests in Iraq and withdraw.

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