On Oct. 6, an antiwar movement seemed to have blossomed in New York. A sea of people -- newspaper estimates ran from 10,000 to 20,000 -- filled Central Park's East Meadow to protest a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. And yes, there were the usual suspects, like the girl from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade who donned a kaffiyeh and hurled red-faced imprecations against capitalist tyranny.
But there were many more average people, the kind who don't usually spend their sunny Sunday afternoons demonstrating against government policy -- suburban middle-class families, Muslim women from Brooklyn and Queens in headscarves and sneakers, wry upper West Side yuppies, downtown hipsters, rabbis and angry grandmothers representing their churches. They were matched by smaller demonstrations around the country, in cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Chicago. And along the meadow's perimeter, volunteers were coordinating rides to the upcoming antiwar march in Washington on Oct. 26, with many people making plans to attend. Momentum seemed to be building.
Yet Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope and Days of Rage" and former president of the '60s antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society, fears the Oct. 26 protest will be "a gigantic ruination for the antiwar movement."
That's because the politics of the group behind it, the International Action Center, are anathema to most Americans -- including the vast majority of people who oppose a U.S. war on Iraq. IAC opposes any action against Saddam, including containment. "It is the position of the International Action Center that Iraq, as part of its self-determination, has the right to a military force sufficient to defend itself," says a 1999 statement. Its Web site is a cornucopia of empty lefty hyperbole that boils down to the notion that, as Richard Becker, IAC's western region co-director writes, "No one in the world ... has a worse human rights record than the United States."
Its call for the "workers movement here in the heartland of imperialism" to rise up is not a message that will stir great numbers of Americans. Neither is the ideology of the group behind the Oct. 6 protest, Not In Our Name, which was started and is being run by founders of a New York-based radical activist group called Refuse & Resist, who are closely tied to the Maoist-inspired Revolutionary Communist Party.
Yet as extreme as these groups are, they remain the two most prominent ones organizing large-scale antiwar protests. Though they've been cagey about the fanatical aspects of their agenda -- most of IAC's Iraq organizing is done through a front group called ANSWER -- Gitlin says, "the capacity of this movement to grow depends on what it has to say," and what these two groups have to say may alienate even people horrified by Bush's war mongering.
The International Action Center and the Revolutionary Communist Party aren't just extremists in the service of a good cause -- they're cheerleaders for some of the most sinister regimes and insurgencies on the planet. Once people realize this, it could easily discredit any nascent antiwar movement, unless a more rational group moves to the forefront.
The IAC, which is particularly active on college campuses, was founded by former attorney general-turned-radical anti-imperialist Ramsey Clark, who, as Gitlin points out, is also a member of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic. It's a group that has close links to the Workers World Party (IAC's spokesman, Brian Becker, also churns out communiqués for the party's newspaper) and is a staunch defender of North Korea. An IAC dispatch from Pyongyang reads: "The army-first policy has guaranteed a strong, healthy, well-disciplined fighting force despite several years of arduous conditions for the people of socialist North Korea. It represents a sacrifice the people are proud of, and their respect for those in uniform is unmistakable, as is the élan of the fighting forces ... The land, factories, homes, hotels, parks, schools, hospitals, offices, museums, buses, subways -- everything in [North Korea] belongs to the people as a whole."
Unfortunately, some of the people behind Not In Our Name are as enthralled with tyrants and terrorists as the IAC.
Not In Our Name actually has two distinct parts -- the Not In Our Name Statement and the Not In Our Name Project. The statement is an antiwar manifesto with more than 100 celebrity signatories, including Martin Luther King III, actors Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, novelists Russell Banks and Barbara Kingsolver, playwright Tony Kushner, rabbi and activist Michael Lerner and law professor Kimberly Crenshaw, that was published as an ad in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The project is the activist arm, involved in putting together actions like the Oct. 6 rally, and is being run by Mary Lou Greenberg, a founder of Refuse & Resist and an official of the RCP.
The RCP's ideology isn't just harmless campus Marxism. It supports Peru's maniacally brutal Shining Path ("Support the People's War in Peru!" screams the RCP Web site), the communist guerrillas who specialized in urban terrorism, and venerates the bloody insurgency in Nepal and lauds the Maoist campaign to "liberate" Tibet. In an article for WorkingForChange.com, Seattle Weekly journalist Geov Parrish writes about Not in Our Name statement coordinator Clark Kissinger, whom he identifies as a "core member" of the RCP, "I still have vivid memories of Kissinger explaining calmly to me once why, when the RCP took over, it would be necessary to shoot everyone who didn't agree with them." Kissinger is also a founder of Refuse & Resist, whose members organized Not In Our Name and who act as its spokespeople.
Of course, this is not at all evident in the Not In Our Name statement, a beautifully written declaration of conscience whose sentiments would be shared by a great many liberals. "Let it not be said that people in the United States did nothing when their government declared a war without limit and instituted stark new measures of repression," it begins, calling on people to "resist the policies and overall political direction that have emerged since Sept. 11, 2001, and which pose grave dangers to the people of the world." Most of the people who signed it have nothing whatsoever to do with Maoism or the RCP.
Kissinger, meanwhile, denies that Refuse & Resist is affiliated with the RCP, and though he acknowledges he's a member of the party and a writer for its newspaper, he says he has no idea who is currently running it.
Questions about the party's role anger him -- he calls such questions a "throwback to the McCarthy period." As to Gitlin's suggestion that associations with hardcore communism might discredit the antiwar movement, Kissinger, who knew Gitlin in SDS, shoots back, "He's trying to find reasons why he's moved so far to the right. When big social events happen, some people step forward and rise to the challenge and other people run along behind criticizing."
Kissinger also says that the statement was specifically kept separate from the Not In Our Name Project so that signatories wouldn't be "endorsing any particular actions."
Tony Kushner notes that money raised for the statement is used only to buy ad space in newspapers -- none of it gets to Refuse & Resist, much less the RCP. "Do I have problems with the RCP? Obviously I do," says Kushner. "I think it's silly. I have nothing but disgust for groups like Shining Path. I think that the people I know who are members of the RCP who have been involved in this organizing effort are incredibly hardworking people who have in certain ways politics I disagree with and in other ways are working towards building a popular movement to oppose Bush's never-ending war."
But many people who signed the statement aren't even aware of the connection between Refuse & Resist and the RCP. Russell Banks, who helped draft it, says he didn't know that Refuse & Resist is affiliated with RCP, "and I don't think that most people know that."
He says he's not particularly troubled by the RCP's role, pointing out that liberals also worked with communists during the Spanish Civil War -- during a time when the latter posed a very real threat. "If you refuse to associate politically with people on specific issues because you don't agree with their whole program, you end up very lonely and harmless," he says, noting that he'd also be willing to march with Patrick Buchanan, another opponent of the war in Iraq whose politics he fiercely disagrees with.
He continues, "I'm not one of the usual suspects. This is not just a movement of old hippie leftists from the '60s. It's a very different kind of coalition. It crosses over into the younger generation, it crosses over into moderate liberal Democrats as well. I'm delighted to find myself on the same side as Ted Kennedy, and really, in some ways, as the director of the CIA."
"There's lots I don't agree with Clark Kissinger on," Banks says. "I do agree with him on this issue. He's waiting for the proletariat to rise up. I don't think that's going to happen, but on this issue we certainly can join hands."
Kushner concurs: "Withholding one's energy, one's name at a time of terrible political crisis like this and being overly fastidious about the company one keeps is also a way of being inactive." Besides, some argue that it's always the zealots who are at the forefront of a nascent movement -- they're the ones with the passion to organize. "It happened in early years of anti-Vietnam war movement," says Banks. "It took a long time before the media came to realize that opposition to the war was much more widespread than they imagined."
But Gitlin says the people behind Refuse & Resist and the IAC are more emblematic of the radicals who destroyed the antiwar movement than those who created it. "As war became less popular, so did the antiwar movement," he says. "People saw the antiwar movement as a scrod of would-be revolutionaries who wanted to tear up everything orderly and promising about America, and they hated it. They didn't hate cops. They didn't want to turn the country upside down. They wanted to end a horrible war." He quotes John Lennon's line from the Beatles' "Revolution": "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow." "Those people are trying to recruit more people to their banner," Gitlin says. "Other people who have other politics should be doing the equivalent, recruiting people to a banner that looks more like the American banner and doesn't appear to be a slap at patriotism."
After all, most of the people who filled Central Park came because they're scared of unleashing conflagrations across the globe -- not because they hate U.S. imperialism. "I think it's going to lead to World War III," said Leslie Baxter, a Manhattan mother of two, at the time. "I don't believe everyday Americans want this war to occur."
Another attendee, Eric Lazarus, a 41-year-old computer scientist, said he was motivated by "respect for international law. We live reasonably peacefully within the nation because we treat law seriously. The obvious next step is that we need to treat international law extremely seriously." Not quite a cry for worker revolution.
Which is, of course, what many speakers were calling for. "Strike! You must strike! Stop the machinery of war by refusing to work!" shrieked a self-described Wobbly. That's not to say there weren't plenty of sane voices. Martin Sheen read part of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, while Tim Robbins cautioned his fellow activists, "This is not the chickens coming home to roost ... al-Qaida's actions have hurt this burgeoning peace movement more than any other." But there was enough lefty tired hyperbole -- activists insisting that the fate of the nation is inextricable from that of jailed Indian activist Leonard Peltier, or decrying the "global grab for a lockdown world of global capitalism" -- to exasperate all but the most diehard in attendance.
On that day, the disconnection between the politics of the organizers and the attendees didn't seem to matter much. Except when there was a celebrity on, only a few hundred people stood before the speakers -- everyone else milled about on the grass, had picnics, talked to each other, catching only fragments of the incendiary speeches. Still, Gitlin says the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist rhetoric emanating from the stage has already alienated some liberals who were ready to join a new antiwar movement. He's gotten letters from several people who went to the protest, "heard a bit of it and thought No, not only is this not my crowd, this is not my tone. And they fled."
Which is unfortunate, because if the antiwar movement is serious about trying to stop Bush's military juggernaut, it's going to need the silent masses of people who want a secure peace, not a revolution. After all, most Americans remain ambivalent about Bush's plans. A CBS/New York Times poll taken in early October shows that while 67 percent of Americans support a war to depose Saddam, the number drops to 54 percent if there are to be "substantial U.S. military casualties," and to 49 percent if the war would last "months or even years." This suggests that there's a large potential constituency in America for a movement opposing the war on the grounds that it would be costly, bloody and dangerous -- as opposed to simply immoral. Such a constituency hasn't made itself heard yet, though. Four days after the protest -- and after five people staged a sit-in in Hillary Clinton's office while dozens chanted outside -- both of New York's senators supported a resolution granting George Bush broad authority to wage war in Iraq. Clinton's explanation -- that she was voting to give Bush power to wage unilateral war in the hope that "bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely, and therefore, war less likely " -- made her vote look like a nakedly political calculation.
Clearly organizers still have much to do to convince politicians that opposition to war with Iraq is more than a fringe phenomenon.
"I don't know that anything is really going to stop [the war]," says Jeremy Pikser, a Hollywood screenwriter ("Bullworth") who helped draft the Not In Our Name statement. "It would take masses of people really turning out. Instead of 40 people [protesting] outside Hillary Clinton's office, if there had been 15,000 she might have changed her vote."
Many groups continue to pop up, opposing a strike on Iraq -- and without the taint of the extreme fringe. Several prominent groups have taken out full-page ads in major newspapers to voice their fears about Bush's policies. While the Not In Our Name statement has received a lot of attention, more surprising, and perhaps more convincing, was the Sept. 26 ad taken out by 33 international relations scholars, leaders in their fields, who argued that "War With Iraq Is Not In America's National Interest." On Monday, the group Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities took out an ad whose signers included Dee Hock, the founder of Visa International, and Frank A. Butler, the retired president of Eastman (Kodak) Gelantine Corp. Its wording was harsh: "They're Selling War. We're Not Buying."
But these aren't groups the average concerned citizen can join. And finding one that offers an alternative to the hard left will be complicated. "It's much easier to promote a bumper sticker than complexity," Gitlin acknowledges. Besides, he says, "the liberals are disorganized and lack confidence. They're opposed to the war but genuinely frightened of weapons of mass destruction. I think we should go through the Security Council. I'm not inclined to go to a rally that seems to oversimplify."
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Tikkun magazine, signed the Not In Our Name statement, but agrees that a serious movement can't be built on its organizers' ideology. "Any antiwar movement that's going to be successful is going to have to acknowledge the evil in Saddam Hussein and the legitimate fears people have about his misuse of weapons of war," he says. "Otherwise you're going to have just the lunatic fringe, people who hate America so much that they are unable to communicate with rest of the American population. That antiwar movement would be a sideshow."
As a step toward articulating that vision, Gitlin suggests a return to an original tool of the '60s activists -- the teach-in. "In recent years people have come to call a teach-in what is essentially a rally," he says. "The original teach-ins were predicated on a divergence of opinions. It wasn't just a matter of soapbox orating. The State Department was challenged to send people to debates, and they did. Defenders of the war were invited in. They weren't marginal left-wing operations." Instead of just regurgitating lefty boilerplate, he says, campus groups should be engaged in a serious discussion that includes people who may fear war -- but also fear the threat of Saddam. "Let the 'no blood for oil' people make their cases and let the realists make their case," he says.
The Central Park rally drew this kind of diverse crowd, which included Dennis Lockwood, a 57-year-old systems designer from Connecticut who works in "conservative corporate America." Lockwood's argument isn't radical -- he believes that Bush's plan to attack Iraq is an "irrational" response to Sept. 11 and that America should be "setting an example of rational action." Similarly, most of the thousands and thousands of people likely to flock to D.C. at the end of the month aren't going because they endorse the agenda of the International Action Center. They're going because they believe Bush is making the world a more dangerous place than it has to be.
Yet that simple point may be considerably overwhelmed at the Oct. 26 rally, just as it was in Central Park. That is, unless ordinary people can make themselves heard above the din of revolutionaries blind to all evil that doesn't emanate from here.
Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.