The global mobilization for peace, a decade later

The February 15, 2003 rally in New York City against the impending invasion of Iraq. (Flickr/Elvert Barnes)

Ten years ago today the world witnessed the single largest mobilization for peace in history. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, an unprecedented number of people — estimates range from eight to 30 million — rallied worldwide on Feb. 15, 2003 to demand the U.S. give peace a chance. On every continent people surged into the streets — from Kiev to Mexico City, from Helsinki to Cape Town, from Melbourne to Tel Aviv. A demonstration was even held in Antarctica, where a group of scientists rallied for peace at icy McMurdo Station. In the wake of this unparalleled global action, The New York Times dubbed the peace movement “the second superpower.”

As we look back over the decade since then, we see the wreckage that many of us dolefully foretold. There is little comfort in the fact that the case we were making then turned out to be so poignantly accurate — that many would die, that visions of democracy and security would turn out to be disastrously empty and cynically self-serving, and that a U.S. invasion would likely lead to a long and ruinous occupation. (This 2003 debate on the war illustrates how accurate some members of the peace movement were about the probable outcomes.) Even though the U.S. officially left Iraq at the end of 2011, it will likely be years and probably decades before what began in 2003 gives way to even the semblance of peace.

Peace movements — from the Vietnam War era through the U.S. wars in Central America, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the current anti-drones movement — have a growing track record for fairly reliable forecasting of the costs and consequences of war in broad terms. War is sold by simulating clarity and certitude, but ironically unpredictability lies at its core — the kind of unpredictability in which “Mission Accomplished” can give way to a decade of escalatory violence and heart-wrenching instability. Peace movements base their opposition to war, in part, precisely on this unpredictability: the as-yet unknown consequences and blowback of war-fighting and its volatile impacts in the psyche of combatants and civilians, in the mutating power of resistance, and in the short-and-long term impacts — economic, political and cultural. What is predictable is that things will proceed unpredictably. Peace movements cannot predict the precise, individual consequences. But based on history (and the tendencies of retaliatory violence, ratcheted up by advanced weapons systems) they can reasonably foretell that war will mean massive suffering, will not solve the problem it is purportedly designed to resolve and will not go as planned.

It was these and other foreboding thoughts that drove many of us into the streets in 2003. But these ideas were not new. Some of us experienced déjà vu that winter. We had thought these things before, including during the days and weeks before the United States launched the Persian Gulf War, its first war on Iraq, a dozen years before in 1991. I was living in San Francisco at the time and for several months had been involved in organizing with the antiwar movement (including leading nonviolence trainings for Greenpeace) in light of the looming invasion. Before the war started, hundreds of us were arrested at the federal building engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. We would get released and head to the next planning session. After one of our nightly meetings, as it became clear from media reports that President George H.W. Bush was going to launch the war the next day, a friend of mine said, “Everything is going to change tomorrow.” Her words struck me as profoundly true. The Pentagon had been doing everything in its power since the Vietnam War to restore its ability to go to war untrammeled, and now it felt it could do this. We were about to enter a new world.

Though 1991’s Operation Desert Storm lasted only 42 days, it rapidly morphed into a new cold war of withering sanctions, which then turned scalding again in 2003 when the George W. Bush administration grafted its Iraq war onto its global anti-terrorism strategy, even though it would later concede that its justifications for going to war (a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and the presence of weapons of mass destruction) did not exist.

Now we were again in the streets. On Feb. 15, 2003, three million marched in Rome. Madrid saw a rally that brought out one and a half million people. London’s protest was considered the largest in U.K. history. (Peace News has just published a new book documenting that event and its impact.) Throngs poured out into streets and public squares across the planet.

I found myself in New York, where crowd estimates ranged from a low of 300,000 to as many as a million. I was there for reasons unrelated to the war. My mother, Beverly, had recently been diagnosed with a rare form of aggressive cancer. In the midst of her treatment, she somehow got to thinking about the fact that she’d never been to New York and for some reason decided that, before she died, she had to get there. She called each of her children — we have a large family — and many of us dropped what we were doing and hung out with her for a week in Manhattan, even as blizzard conditions prevailed for much of the time.

When she had first told us the dates, I realized that the New York march would be taking place that week. “You wouldn’t want to join in, would you?” I asked gingerly. “Of course I would!” she said — and join in she did.

On Saturday morning we came out of the subway at 42nd St. and Lexington and floated down the street in a seemingly endless throng of humanity. We started walking east toward First Ave. and the United Nations where the massive rally was scheduled. Police barricades, though, prevented us from moving down 42nd St. The human sea became a chaotic whirlpool. People didn’t quite know what to do. “Well,” Beverly said to us, “let’s just walk north and see where we can cut over.” I was doubtful, but she dragged us along. She studied each street we passed, but they were heavily fortified by the NYPD. Finally, when we reached 81st St., she said, “Hey, there are only three cops down there — let’s try this one.” Before I could raise a counter-argument, she was leading several thousand protesters down toward First Ave. The police officers, seeing this determined river of humanity flooding toward them, did the sensible thing and stepped aside. Eventually we got over to First Ave., turned south, and headed for the rally. (Maybe it’s a coincidence, but several weeks after taking charge of one of the legs of the February 15 march in New York — and joining 2,400 people two nights later at the “Poems Not Fit for the White House” antiwar poetry reading at Lincoln Center that we found out about at the last minute — doctors were mystified that Beverly’s cancer was nowhere to be found. This past November she celebrated her 82nd birthday, and still swears by the curative power of a New York winter and nonviolent action.)

The U.S. war in Iraq, of course, started a month later, setting in motion the chain of violence and chaos the peace movement predicted. For the movement, it was a tremendous challenge, shifting from preventing a war to stopping one.

In his model of successful social movements, the late Bill Moyer stresses that Stage 4 (Take-Off) is often immediately followed by Stage 5 (Perceptions of Failure). Why? Because, despite the tremendous outpouring of action and energy, movements at this stage usually have not translated this momentum into organized people power and the profound shift of public consciousness that change often will require. When success does not immediately follow, widespread feelings of failure and ineffectiveness often set in.

The Feb. 15, 2003 mobilization is a textbook example of Stage 4. But with the start of the war, it immediately lost significant momentum. Some even saw it as the end of the movement. But for others, it was the beginning of the real work: the arduous task of methodically alerting, educating, winning and mobilizing the populace and thus generating people power for change. This, in fact, is what happened over the next decade — with mobilizations in Washington, large civil disobedience actions at the White House and Congress, determined organizing and innumerable actions and campaigns across the United States, and building infrastructure — for example, the nearly 1,500 groups that comprised United for Peace and Justice.

The United States would likely still be at full throttle in Iraq today if a people power movement hadn’t organized in successive waves over the past 10 years. While I believe that we could have changed the policy sooner with deeper and broader organizing — and perhaps more creative and enduring tactics: what if even one-tenth of us had anticipated Occupy by nearly a decade and had stayed put? — I also hold that we have much to gain from acknowledging the role that this grassroots people-power movement played in changing the policy at all.

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