WASHINGTON DC — I stood at 16th and H Street on Saturday, watching the more than 50,000 protestors flood past Lafayette Park in brilliant sunshine. The mood of the crowd — in words and signs and even posture — was defiant and grim. Behind me, keeping the marchers out of Lafayette Park, were metal barricades and a menacing cordon of US Park Police cops — most of them decked out in full black body armor.
For a moment, I flashed back to the bitter cold of the Washington peace march of January 15. Despite the bitter cold, that march was purposeful — even buoyant. The marchers pressed against each other for warmth. The police presence was more relaxed. There was a spirit of hopeful surprise at the strength of the numbers who’d turned up that day to brave the chill. (See "The Long (Cold) March," News and Features, January 24.)
Saturday’s march projected a much different vibe. There was more sarcasm and fatalism — even desperation — in the signs people carried. Many spelled out their messages with letters fashioned from duct tape. There were numerous pro-French signs, such as MERCI, FRANCE 1776, 2001 and I SUPPORT THE FRENCH RESISTANCE: FRENCH FRIES, FRENCH TOAST, FRENCH KISSING. At one point, a boisterous group of young marchers had the entire intersection chanting "I love French fries!"
The anar-kids were back and misbehaving, too. I watched a group of 10 or so romp across the southeast corner of the Ellipse in their black hooded sweatshirts and stomp down a section of fence, before blending into the bustling march. Local news outlets reported that another group of 50 or so marchers broke off and attacked the World Bank — smashing a window before police nabbed a few of them. It was the tiniest splinter of the large crowd, but it compounded the dark mood all the same.
The increased police presence — with many officers tricked out in riot gear, batons at the ready — further heightened the unease of the march. The officers on the police cordon at Lafayette Park were treated to everything from friendly waves to outright abuse. Most of the comments implored the cops to "lighten up."
One of the US Park Police officers in charge occasionally sidled up to the barricade to banter with protestors. He cited the civil disobedience performed at the park by women in the Code Pink march on March 8 as one of the reasons for the heavy police presence. "Everything looks peaceful," he observed, "and then someone comes along and performs civil disobedience." One justice-minded protestor with a flair for the dramatic seized on the visual contrast between peaceful marchers and the cops’ storm-trooper attire. He set up shop next to me and handed out printouts, intoning: "This is what a police state looks like."
Something about this guy captured the prevailing mix of anger and resignation among the crowds. But really, now, This is what (fill in the blank) looks like is one of those exhausted protest mantras that should be put out to pasture, right along with "No Blood for Oil." Faced with the prospect of an almost certain US-led attack, the antiwar movement seemed tired and bereft of ideas on Saturday.
Almost 100,000 people ventured into bitter cold to march in January because there was hope. Hope in the United Nations. Hope in the power of protest. Two months ago, I saw dozens of buses, bearing activists of all ages from all over the Atlantic seaboard and New England. There was a sense that a strong demonstration could sway world opinion and stiffen the spines of Bush’s congressional opponents.
Half that number came out to march on Saturday — and the crowd was much less broad in its politics. The radical-socialist organizers of the protest — International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) — were quick to point out that the "emergency" nature of the protest dampened turnout, and that's true. The organizers deserve credit for getting the demonstration together nonetheless; International ANSWER was more organized than ever on Saturday. On the grounds of the Washington Monument before the march, an air of festive activist consumerism held sway. International ANSWER sold T-shirts and passed out tons of printed signs and flyers. Strings of bumper-sticker and button vendors and book stalls did a brisk business. Protesters also had to run a gauntlet of gray trash barrels, standing alongside International ANSWER workers stumping for donations.
But as organized as the organizers were on Saturday, the peace movement itself seemed in a state of uneasy dismay. The Bush administration is almost entirely isolated in its plans to invade Iraq, offering up an unconvincing carousel of rationales for doing so — disarmament, regime change, democratization. Yet opposition to the war has failed to coalesce around a single message or even to cut the thin connective tissue the White House has woven to link the war on Iraq to September 11. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats — and the party’s potential presidential contenders — remain split on Bush’s drive to war. And Saturday’s rally proved once again that when International ANSWER is given the megaphone of C-SPAN, the antiwar message fragments into dozens of self-important speeches trumpeting bankrupt identity politics.
The air of foreboding on Saturday was palpable. The sense of a last hurrah before war was equally strong. Will the broad peace movement go silent when the bombs start dropping? What images of US antiwar protest will appear on the nation’s newscasts and in its newspapers — crowds of peaceful marchers, acts of civil disobedience, or empty streets?
THE MEDIA'S COVERAGE of Saturday’s march holds some interesting clues as to how the antiwar movement might be portrayed once US bombing in Iraq, dubbed "Shock and Awe" by the military, gets under way. On the plus side, the antiwar movement has already gained more media traction than it did during Gulf War I. The sheer size of the antiwar marches has forced the media to pay attention, and the broad and peaceful nature of the demonstrations largely have inoculated the protests from charges of being unpatriotic. Call it a triumph of the antiwar movement’s new doctrine of pre-emption — getting out in front of war before it happens.
On the debit side, however, there are already signs that the peace movement’s visibility will be circumscribed by the media's portrayal of it. That puts the movement at risk of failing to live up to heightened expectations. For example, every account of Saturday’s march played some version of the "numbers game" — comparing the lighter turnout in Washington last weekend to previous marches. The trouble with the numbers game is that anything other than increased momentum (i.e., bigger numbers) can be easily read as a diminution of the movement. Sunday’s Washington Post account tutted that "... the crowd did not match that at the coalition’s march in January, held in the teeth of bitter cold, a turnout that D.C. police estimated at 100,000 but organizers said was much larger." The march featured on the cover of the national edition of Sunday’s New York Times was not the Washington protest, but a funeral cortege of 500,000 to mourn assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic.
The false specter of "balance" also raised its ugly head again in accounts of Saturday’s march. As seen before, local broadcast media gave almost as much time to a band of less than 100 "counter-protestors" as it did to the 50,000 peace marchers. Four paragraphs of the Washington Post’s account focused on the lopsided clash between the two protests — and local TV news also played up the encounters. Given that a war-frenzied US media is already foregrounding reports from its embedded journalists covering the military, the problem of "bogus balance" in antiwar-movement coverage is a crucial one.
Even more damaging, however, is the decided lack of seriousness the media attributes to the antiwar protests. The first (and most obvious) instance of such trivialization is what one could dub the "Janeane Garofalo/Ron Silver Syndrome" — the media's reliance on the cult of celebrity to synopsize America’s anti- and prowar sentiment, turning the debate into a run-of-the-mill pundit shoutfest. The media further trivializes opposition to this war by portraying it as soft, mushy, and amorphous, a blob of pacifist sentiment. Although the antiwar movement is not being cast as "unpatriotic" as Gulf War II approaches, it is portrayed as idealistic and simplistic — featuring protesters waving homemade signs, flying kites, playing hacky-sack. (For instance, the largest image accompanying the Washington Post’s story about Saturday's march was a photo of two protesters caught in a tender embrace.)
The untold story about the peace movement is, of course, more complicated. In a striking March 16 indictment of his own newspaper’s coverage of the antiwar movement, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler pointed to the newspaper’s failure to "connect the blips" of news about what he termed "public dissent or uncertainty." Citing numerous instances of the Post’s downplaying protests, as well as congressional speeches and public reports about the costs of the war, he found the paper’s coverage lacking.
Connecting the blips is not only the media’s responsibility, however. The antiwar movement itself has not developed a coherent media strategy beyond marching in good numbers and grandstanding on the C-SPAN soapbox. It needs to do so very quickly. In all likelihood, it will not do so in time. But to build a stronger movement capable of resisting future pre-emptive US-military adventures, it must do so now.
Richard Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org