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Protest is Patriotic by Jo Freeman

A somewhat different version of this article first appeared in the January 26, 2003 edition of Newsday.

On Saturday, January 18, I spent four hours in the bitter cold on the Washingoon Mall, along with a hundred thousand other patriotic Americans, to tell the Bush Administration that we don't want the US to attack Iraq. Most marchers brought their own signs, on buses from all over the Eastern half of the country (there was a separate march on the West Coast and smaller ones in other cities). Unions, universities and religious groups, as well as the usual small left-wing sects, were well represented. The marchers ranged widely in age and race. Signs and speakers spoke from Christian and Muslim perspectives, though I saw only one Israeli flag.
I did it despite the fact that I hate cold and can't think of anything good about Saddam Hussein — a paranoid dictator who has persecuted his own people and butchered minorities inside Iraq's borders.
I did it because the US is the world's only superpower, and as such there is a real risk that our government could misuse its power if the American people don't stand up and just say NO.
I did it because protest is an integral part of the American political system, rooted firmly in our own Revolution and the many popular uprisings that precededAnti-war demonstrators it. It's one of the many ways of telling our government we think it is going in the wrong direction. Because it requires some personal sacrifice — much more than voting or writing letters — protest tells our leaders that we think this issue is especially important and they need to pay attention.
Anti-war sentiment is nothing new. Democracies in general and Americans in particular don't like sending their daughters and sons to fight and die in other people's countries. When our leaders want to go to war they have to work their way around this in-bred anti-war sentiment, sometimes through dishonesty and disinformation. The Bush Administration has convinced about half the American people that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 despite all evidence to the contrary. Our government wants us to believe that if we invade Iraq we will protect our own homes from future terrorism when the opposite is more likely to be true. Our government wants us to believe that if we invade Iraq we will protect our own homes from future terrorism when the opposite is more likely to be true. Both Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden turned against the US as a result of the 1991 Gulf War.
Despite our revulsion at what happened on 9/11 and our concern that it never happen again, it has taken a lot less time to mobilize hundreds of thousands to protest a possible war in Iraq than it did to stop the war in Viet Nam. The first large protests against that war didn't begin until President Johnson sent US troops to shore up the South Viet Nam government in March of 1965. About 20,000 people marched on Washington on April 17 and similar numbers attended teach-ins at various universities that Spring. It took two years before the number of protestors approached those who marched last week.
In the decades since there have been many other large marches on almost every imaginable issue.
The "No War in Iraq" protest drew upon the "Stop the War in Viet Nam" tradition, and many of the same people. Those who protested the war in Viet Nam were disproportionately young; the marchers I saw last week were more representative. Many of us who had marched every year against the Viet Nam War were there, as were our children and grandchildren, and their friends, and a lot of people who had marched on other issues, but not against war.
While the protest tradition never died it was broken by World War II and the Korean War, where opposition was linked to Naziism and Communist aggression. The Cold War culture of anti-Communism, which made all dissent suspect, was an even more serious damper on mass protest. The Civil Rights Movement's 1963 March on Washington resurrected it, but mostly for those born after World War II. My mother didn't like the War in Viet Nam but would never join an anti-war march; in World War II she was a first lieutenant in the WACs. She let me do her marching for her.Anti-war signs
Now that mass protest has regained its rightful place in the pantheon of political tactics we still have to ask: do our leaders listen?
They would have you believe that they don't. The newspapers made a point of reporting that President Bush and our Congressional leaders were out of town when we marched on Washington last week. But our leaders read the newspapers, or at least the press summaries prepared by their staff. They also read the polls, and the people who respond to pollster's questions read the newspapers, and watch TV, and sometimes personally know some of us who marched.
Protest may not get our leaders attention quickly, but it does help to shape public opinion. When our leaders want to do something drastic, like go to war, they don't hold a national referendum to find out what the people want. They tell us what to think. Those who want to disagree have to find ways of reaching the public. Protest is one of those ways — sometimes the only way. In addition to the immediate publicity a large march brings to a particular view, it opens the doors to discussion. When the marchers return home they may find opportunities to talk about why they marched to classes and civic groups and family members and talk shows and on-line chat rooms. This is how ideas spread and opinions are developed.


Experience has taught us that protest by itself won't change policy. It did take eight years to get our troops out of Viet Nam. But protest, especially mass protest, cracks the facade of consensus. It arouses and it educates. It gives opposition within the leadership, or opposition to it, a constituency to represent. Without such a constituency, without being able to say there are a lot of people out there who don't think we are doing the right thing, without outside opposition, inside opponents usually stay silent.
The strength of American democracy is that there are many ways of making our voice heard. Its durability comes from the fact that the pot is always boiling. It is when dissent is discouraged that our democracy is endangered. Our political system is built on checks and balances. Mass marches and other protests are one such check on power.

We may not prevent a war on Iraq. All signs are that the President is determined to depose Saddam Hussein, whatever the cost. In the bad old days of the Cold War, the eastern bloc provided a check on the unlimited use of American power. Now that we are the world's only superpower, it is more important than ever before that the American people speak out on foreign policy as well as domestic issues. Protesting our government's actions, or its stated intentions, when we don't like them, is the American way.


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