Assessing the Anti-War Movement

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As part of KPCC's coverage of the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, Special Correspondent Kitty Felde assesses the state of the antiwar movement in Southern California. Protest organizers say focusing on participation in the anti-war rallies may not be the best way to gauge the movement.

[Protesters chanting]

Kitty Felde: It was the perfect day for an anti-war protest. The weather was mild and the police were cool, with LAPD officers on bikes and horseback patrolling the edges of the crowd. There were performance artists, Clowns for Peace, even a dog or two. But the number of protestors that actually showed up Saturday was relatively small. Organizer Jim Lafferty, director of the National Lawyers Guild, wasn't bothered. He says he didn't expect a large crowd in this, an election year.

Jim Lafferty: During the Vietnam War, you could draw a chart, and whenever it was a presidential election, or even a congressional election year, to some extent, but a presidential election year, the size of thecrowd went down because more people place their hopes on the candidates that they were backing, and spending their energy getting elected, that they would end the war.

Felde: But Lafferty insists it would be a mistake to judge the strength of the anti-war movement based on the number of people who showed up Saturday.

Lafferty: We've already, in both the lead up to this war and since the war in Iraq has been going on now for five years, we've already had demonstrations that equal in size all but perhaps one of the anti-war demonstrations during Vietnam, and that was April 24th from 1971.

[Peter, Paul, & Mary singing "Blowin' In The Wind" from April 1971 rally/peace march on the Washington Mall]

Felde: At that 1971 rally on the Washington Mall, the park police estimate half a million people showed up. The last time that many people showed up at an L.A. protest was two years ago at a march for immigration reform. Police estimate the crowd at Saturday's anti-war protest in Hollywood at 2,000, but it seemed smaller than that. A lot has changed since 1971...

[Rap song by Will B plays: "Dear Mr. Bush, we don't want to go to war. We've been down this road, we've done seen this before."]

Felde: ... and not just the music.

Peter Dreier: Well, compared to the 1960s or '70s, there's a lot more ways for people to participate in American politics.

Felde: Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College.

Dreier: People have lots of ways of expressing their opinions besides showing up in demonstrations now, and so the numbers of people showing up in the streets is not a good reflection of public opinion, or public sentiment.

Felde: Dreier says instead of handing out leaflets, today's anti-war activist can, with a single e-mail, instantly urge thousands of people to contact Congress. And that activist can find like-minded folks by Googling "anti-war Los Angeles." Former state lawmaker Tom Hayden, who helped organizer the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention, suspects there's another reason for the relatively low-key public protests against this war.

Tom Hayden: If all young people were being drafted for Iraq, there would be riots in the streets and cities and campuses would be shut down. In fact, I view the military policy in Iraq as designed to keep dissent at a minimum.

Felde: But organizer Jim Lafferty insists the anti-war movement has already won the hearts and minds of the American people.

Lafferty: People have to remember that in Vietnam, five years into the war in Vietnam, we did not have a clear majority of the people opposing the war. It took about 20,000 U.S. body bags, sadly, coming home, before Gallup showed the majority of Americans had turned against the war and the protests really began to be as large as they then became.

Felde: Last month, A USA Today/Gallup Poll said almost 60% of those Americans surveyed think the war in Iraq was a mistake. Occidental's Peter Dreier adds, if you measure success by the anti-war movement's ability to shape the opinions of policymakers, well just look at the campaign for president.

Dreier: All the major democratic candidates were against the war; the real issue was not whether to get out, but how soon to get out.

Felde: And if it's protest passion you miss, Tom Hayden points to one presidential candidate.

Hayden: The biggest grassroots movement that I've seen in 30 or 40 years is before your eyes: it's the Obama for President movement.

Felde: Of course, that's just on the Democratic side. John McCain has made victory in Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign for the Republican nomination. And despite the anti-war sentiment measured by other surveys, the latest Zogby poll says McCain, the one candidate who supports the war, is favored over both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Peter, Paul & Mary from April 1971 peace march/rally on the Washington Mall, with crowd singing along: All we are saying is give peace a chance... Sing it for the veterans that were on the mall! All we are saying is give peace a chance... Sing it for Mr. Nixon! All we are saying is give peace a chance... For all the war dead! All we are saying is give peace a chance... For the Indo-Chinese War again! All we are saying is give peace a chance..."

Rally leader: What do you want?
Crowd: Peace!
Rally leader: When do you want it?
Crowd: Now!
Rally leader: What do you want?
Crowd: Peace!
Rally leader: When do you want it?
Crowd: Now!