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Rebuilding Iraq

Protesters see encouraging signs

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff, 3/23/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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As the first full day of war unfolded Thursday, Boston's antiwar activists realized they had reached a new stage of success: Their protest at City Hall had devolved into chaos.

Not all of the 5,000-or-so protesters could hear the speakers who decried the war from the bed of a pickup truck. Some students held a nearby rally of their own, and lay on the ground in a "die-in." Another group, dancing and beating on drums, ignored the speeches altogether. And while organizers had planned a march from Government Center to Copley Square, the masses started walking before the leaders had a chance to say "go."

It was hard to control a rally that drew hundreds more than expected, said Jennifer Horan, spokeswoman for United for Justice With Peace, one of two groups that ran the event. "We were hit by a tidal wave of protest," she said. "We would have practically had to have been US Steel to completely coordinate it."

Activists insist it was a heartening sign, and proof of unprecedented cooperation among groups that haven't always worked together. The two local organizations behind the protest -- United for Justice with Peace and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, or "ANSWER" -- had, before Thursday, staged events separately. Now, they joined with a trio of city councilors who opposed the war and a range of student groups, on a day that saw antiwar rallies across the country.

But it's unclear whether Thursday's freewheeling protest was a sign of newfound collectivity, or a onetime outpouring that will give way to a movement that has, thus far, been more diffuse. While both ANSWER and United for Justice for Peace say they support one another's activities, they have already scheduled separate upcoming rallies for separate weekends. And at a meeting Friday night in Jamaica Plain, local ANSWER leaders said they hope to coordinate more, but conceded it hasn't been easy, since different groups disagree about who to include under the antiwar umbrella.

It's an ongoing paradox of the current antiwar movement. On one hand, opposition to the war in Iraq has coalesced much more quickly than other American protest drives. Protests against the Vietnam War developed gradually and didn't attract significant numbers until the war had been going on for years, said Michael Foley, a history professor at City University of New York and author of a book about draft resistance in Boston. And Horan, who helped to organize Boston protests against the first Gulf War, said this year's rallies have required less legwork to attract more people.

Still, the current movement has at times been rife with internecine fights, competing philosophies, concerns about radical causes driving the agenda, even different favored chants. And on Thursday, while protesters nationwide acted collectively in one sense -- following long-held plans to abandon "business as usual" the day war began -- different events reflected different attitudes.

In San Francisco and Washington, D.C., protesters were arrested on Thursday for trying to shut down traffic. In Boston, however, student protesters worked in lockstep with police as they marched to City Hall; at one point, leaders ordered their peers to move aside so a fire truck could pass through the crowd. And while Harvard and MIT students sat on the Massachusetts Avenue bridge for an hour or so, they told police it was only because they were running ahead of schedule.

The emotional response to the war's start made it hard to dictate a national course of action, said Tony Murphy, spokesman for ANSWER's New York office. "There has been a lot more local activity, because the war started and everybody wanted to do their own thing," he said.

ANSWER was one of the earliest groups to join the current wave of antiwar activism. The group formed a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, before the Bush administration even publicy raised the idea of war against Iraq. "Our position was that the Bush administration was going to use this tragedy to start a campaign of racism at home and war abroad," Murphy said.

But nearly from the outset, ANSWER has been the focus of scrutiny. Some have criticized prominent member Ramsay Clark, a former US attorney general who has defended Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Others have taken issue with the group's close alignment with the communist Workers' World Party and a range of groups that oppose Zionism and support Palestinian activism. And many have criticized the group for losing focus because it encompasses so many different agendas.

"You go to these marches and every cause under the sun gets time on the speaking platform," Foley said.

Many rank-and-file protesters are only loosely aware, if at all, of the group's component parts: At any given rally, only "a few thousand actually hear, and very few care at all who organized it and what their larger agenda is," he said.

But at times, tension between ANSWER and other groups has led to separate rallies and angry website exchanges, as some have accused the group of trying to take credit for too much antiwar activity, or blocking critical speakers from taking the stage at ANSWER-controlled rallies.

ANSWER leaders defend their methods and their wide umbrella. "I think it's one of the strengths that ANSWER has not been a single-issue organization," said Peter Cook, a Boston member. "We have a broad consitutency and each one is affected by the war."

And Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a Washington, D.C.-based ANSWER organizer, said she doesn't want to separate the antiwar movement from particular causes. "I think it's disingenuous for anyone to try and talk about the Middle East and occupation and recolonization and conquest and not talk about what's happening in Palestine," she said.

Other groups have tried to focus on more narrow goals, or appeal more to the mainstream. Win Without War, with its cadre of celebrity supporters and its web arm, draws support from a coalition of religious and advocacy groups. United for Justice With Peace has attracted many traditional antiwar groups that don't choose to align with all of ANSWER's causes.

"We really try to focus a lot on giving people a comfort zone," said Horan, of Boston's United for Justice with Peace. "We try to be a little more focused on the ground up."

In the months leading up to the war, groups encouraged members to take part in one another's rallies and "days of action." Now, some say they hope to work more in tandem. Boston City Councilman Chuck Turner, who has worked with both the local ANSWER and United for Justice with Peace, said the local groups have been meeting every few weeks to try to coordinate further.

Time will tell if common plans take hold, and how those groups will coordinate with Boston's sprawling student population. Rob Laurent, a student organizer at Suffolk University, said many college-based antiwar groups have aligned with United for Justice for Peace, or have focused on their own campus list-servs and e-mail campaigns for antiwar activities.

But some antiwar organizers say they don't mind if the movement draws from different approaches. And some say a lack of organization might be a good sign.

"One definition of a movement is that there's more going on than any one group or coalition can coordinate," said Eric Weltman, organizing director of the activist group Citizens for Participation in Political Action. "It's not a bad thing that there are spontaneous marches, vigils, and forums."

Globe correspondent Cyndi Roy contributed to this story.

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