Column: Party like it’s 1971

By Eric Naing

Those anti-war protesters are at it again. You know the type – scruffy college students clutching copies of “The Communist Manifesto” and way-past-their-prime hippies wearing worn-out “Dennis Kucinich for president” T-shirts. All of them bunched together, holding poster board signs emblazoned with slightly humorous and sloppily written slogans while passing out poorly Xeroxed leaflets telling you to listen to Air America Radio.

Of course, those types were not the only ones at Saturday’s massive protest in Washington D.C. Also in attendance were families, singing grandmothers, young women and children, dogs dressed as the president, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, sharply-dressed Congressmen and women, grizzled war veterans, even a couple republicans and myself (who would probably fit best somewhere in between poseur college student and costumed canine).

Though I easily got into the spirit of the day, amid all the anti-Bush chanting and young girls dressed as tortured Iraqi prisoners, I had to ask myself whether this protest was a good thing. Would non-activists look at these demonstrators and openly say they could stand with them? Was this march helping or hurting the anti-war movement?

One of the biggest problems I had with this march was the mixed message sent out by some activists. It was obvious that the focus was to protest the Iraq War, but other groups used this massive gathering of people to curry support for their own agendas. I experienced this while listening to some speakers. An abridged version went something like:

Speaker 1: We must fight Bush and his war machine!

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    Me: Hell Yeah!

    Speaker 2: We must stop the war on Cuba and free Fidel!

    Me: Um … okay, I suppose so. Wait, what about Castro?

    Speaker 3: We must fight the racist state of Israel!

    Me: I’m going to stand way over there now.

    While there are truly legitimate concerns with U.S./Cuba relations and the state of Israel, this protest may not have been the best place to voice them. Just because one opposes this war does not mean they also support these other causes. Mixing these messages draws focus away from the anti-Iraq War message and could even delegitimize it.

    The anti-war movement has a checkered past, especially in relation to the Vietnam War. One conservative journalist noted: “The liberals were pretty much right on Vietnam. And what did that get them? They destroyed their reputation on national security for three decades.”

    For the goals of the anti-war movement to be achieved, it is important for progressive leaders to be seen as legitimate and elected into office. Events such as Saturday’s protest walk the fine line between a healthy example of participatory democracy and a gaudy parade of liberal stereotypes. As unfair as it seems, the progressive movement is at the whim of public perception and cannot risk alienating the so-called mainstream. “Impeach Bush” signs and anti-Israel rhetoric are not what will make an impact. What the anti-war movement needs most is a focused message.

    Still, I believe the events Saturday were ultimately good for the progressive movement and for the country. According to a CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll, a majority of Americans believe the United States most likely will not win the Iraq War and an even larger majority favors some form of military withdrawal from the country. Judging from that poll and from my view on the ground, I can see that it is not just the “radical left” that makes up anti-war movement but also much of “mainstream” America.

    Despite all the similarities, Iraq is not Vietnam. It took nearly seven years, from 1964 to 1971, for the anti-Vietnam War movement to truly gain traction and change public opinion. Today’s anti-war movement is achieving that at a much quicker pace. Despite attempts to undermine them, these “peaceniks” are gaining the support of the American public.

    People can try to marginalize this protest as much as they want. But the fact remains that, for the first time since the initial invasion, most Americans stand with the anti-war movement.