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January 20, 2003

On Antiwar Protests

I think Kos's post on why he hates antiwar protests is worth reading. I wish my fellow activists, including folks in my own organization the National Lawyers Guild could all read it, since it illustrates why letting idiots like the Workers World Party and, as Kos puts it, other "yahoos" define antiwar activism is so destructive.

Kos hates the war, thinks the Bush administration are liers and warmongers, yet is embarassed to be around the antiwar left. I feel that way and many of the leaders are long-time friends, yet they allow others who are stupid or malignant have so much presence that it is hard to bring new people there.

At times, like this weekend, the overall numbers are so large that the idiocy sinks under the sheer weight of history being made. But in the inbetween times, the smaller rallies and actions needed for outreach can be sad and embarassing.

And frankly, rallies are far less effective than people give them credit for. They make a nice media splash but given the work and time involved, a really poor use of resources. Think about it-- if 100,000 people (to take a conservative estimate) were down in DC this weekend, most of them taking the whole day to get there and get home, that is something like 1.2 million volunteer hours.

Instead of one media event that most people just barely notice in an impersonal newspaper article or TV message, if all of those people had spent that time in phone banks or door-knocking, they could have literally engaged tens of millions of people individually. They could have asked these new people to come to followup meetings, asked them to host house parties with neighbors, asked them to write their legislators-- asked them to do something other than stare at a media report.

By its nature protest is insular, which feeds the sectarian language and the sense of speaking to the converted. Which is part of what I think Kos reacts to.

Outreach is hard, but reaching new people is really far more important than hanging out for a day with people who already agree with you. Rallies are occasionally fun and a morale booster at points, but they aren't real organizing. The idea that they exert real power or should be the focus of activist energy is one of the worst possible delusions possible.

Posted by Nathan at January 20, 2003 11:07 PM

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Hi Nathan,

I don't understand what appears to be this circling of bloggers 'round the anti-protests camp. I am especially distressed by people I admire like yourself and Eric Alterman, who writes he viewed only 15 minutes of the DC march and deemed himself qualified to conclude all the speakers were 'jerky'.

Do you feel the same about civil rights marches, union protests?

Whatever your feelings about A.N.S.W.E.R, who did a remarkable job organising these events, why throw this blanket of negativity upon the incredible turn-out of mainstream Americans in opposition to this pre-emptive strike?

As someone who traveled 1,100 miles to attend and met many people along the way who were genuinely moved by our efforts, I can without reservation say that you and the others dismissing them are seriously underestimating the impact of these events.

That's a real shame.

Posted by: Diane Warth at January 21, 2003 06:19 AM

Diane, at some level if I was merely dismissing the protests I would not have posted large glossy pictures of the protests (pictures often dominate words).

But this is a personal blog as well as a political journal and the reality is that since 911 I've been personally wrestling with my own alienation from the antiwar organizing going on, more acute for me than folks like Alterman or Kos, since my general network of political friends are in the core of the left political organizing. Heck, as I noted last October, I was helping manage legal observing at the NION NYC rally here in the City.

But my distress, like many others you see writing, reflects a strain of alienation and complaint of many others, some who don't write about it because they don't want to distress folks like yourself, but it's very large and real.

And I write about it because I think it is seriously undermining broader outreach and therefore makes a war and the mass death of Iraqis more likely. I know too many progressives like Kos who have been systematically alienated from the Left because of rallies run by people like the WWP, so I have zero respect for their organizing. I've been to much larger rallies than they have organized, and while it takes work to make these rallies happen, it is not rocket science. People are coming in large numbers because they oppose the war-- that is not ANSWER's doing, they are just managing the bandwagon. And so I measure their organizing not by those numbers but by the even larger numbers, including myself, who can't bear to go to their events.

100,000 even 200,000 people at a rally is ultimately small change in a country of 300 million people. Europe has routinely had larger rallies against this war from smaller populations. Given the mass numbers of people against war in this country, the failure to get larger numbers is a real failure of the organizers.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at January 21, 2003 06:34 AM

Hi Nathan,
As a DC resident who has often bitched about the near-continuous stream of protestors into and out of our fair city, but who went to and enjoyed Saturday's protest, I have to point out that this protest, unlike the recent IMF protests, for example, featured a stunningly large number of "normal" people. In fact, I only saw one speedo-clad wacky guy during the entire 4-5 hours I was there, but I saw many many yuppies, families, church groups, and people of color. I was also pleased to note that most of the speeches stuck close to the anti-war message, rather than turning the protest into a catchall for the "left's" pet issues, or a platform for the WWP. It was also good to see labor's involvement in the protest. I think it is important to note the almost total lack of counterprotestors, and the support shown to the marchers by bystanders.
True, the value of mass protests like this is largely symbolic. But just seeing so many people from all different sectors of society willing to come out in subfreezing temperatures because of their strong opposition to this war was so heartening that I can't agree with the argument that it was wasted energy.

Posted by: Katie at January 21, 2003 08:56 AM

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for your reply. I think it was in the comment section of Kos's anti-demo post the point was made that MLK was associated with communism as well. Whatever negative feelings one might have about A.N.S.W.E.R. these denouncements of the org. taking precedence over the very real and positive impact of the march itself seem odd at best.

While the 500,000 number promoted by A.N.S.W.E.R is probably pushing it and I'm by no means an expert on the matter, the crowd at its peak must have rivaled the 400,000 claimed by Great Britain in their most successful to date. And I doubt the organisers of European rallies are without their socialist influences.

Katie is so right that one of the most impressive outcomes of this march in D.C. was the sheer number of America's mainstream attending. If this isn't something politicos would do well to sit-up and take notice of I don't know what is. The comaraderie between people of color and faith was so inspiring as well.

As for speakers my bus arrived late so I only caught the last 10 or 12 but found their message very much on task, as Katie did the ones she heard. The crowd's response was fantastic.

Posted by: Diane Warth at January 21, 2003 09:32 AM

Don't let my general pissiness about the Workers World folks push my meaning too far. I've gone to many protests, even been arrested at some, was down in DC for the anti-IMF actions two years ago (which I thought went well) and do think the reports of a wide range of types of folks at the protests is encouraging.

But one reason I have problems with them is that too many activists think they are enough, and that's misleading. Because sectarian groups like WWP are mostly good ONLY at organizing such rallies, because they don't have the message or the flexibility to do other kinds of outreach, they promote the idea that they are THE ONLY REAL resistance. They denigrate small house parties, letter writing campaigns, and other "bourgois" activism, because those kinds of work require dealing with regular people consistently, something the sectarians are not very good at.

So marching is fine and even useful. Just not as important as certain kinds of left iconography makes it out to be.

One point on Martin Luther King and accusations of associations with Communists. It was absolutely true and those people he associated with who were Communists were some of the bravest and real fighters for civil rights possible. But their behavior (and this is to their credit and to that of the Communist Party USA) was not sectarian in the sense I talk about it. They went out of their way to bring regular people into the movement, were respectful of those who might differ with them on many points, and thus helped build a strong movement.

The "New Left" sectarians, partly growing out of the anti-Vietnam War movement, developed a very different style (and denounced the Communist Party ironically as sellouts for their respectful treatment of non-leftists). The WWP is a particularly virulent strain of that tradition, although one of the more skilled organizing groups, but their style and politics is systematically alientating to large groups of people and has contributed to the weakening of the Left in between crises such as now.

I consider myself a "leftist", even Marxist in some vague ways and have been members of softer left groups like Democratic Socialists of America and the Committees of Correspondence, so my opinion is not "anti-left" or "anti-Party" per se, but anti a particular kind of sectarianism.

Just for the record.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at January 21, 2003 10:40 AM

Nathan - While I agree with your assessment that the WWP's role in all of this is distressing and deserves exposure, I can't agree that the protests were wasted time for the people who braved the cold. As a fellow NLG member, we both know how energizing events like these can be. So, respectfully, the obvious thing that is missing from your assessment is the empowerment the protests gave to so many mainstream folks who attended or observed the rallies. Those volunteer hours that you so rightly hope for are more likely to occur off of the energy that the protests engenedered. And now is the time for other organizers to harnass the energy of all of these people as they return to their respective cities.

Also, let's give people more credit for being able to filter out those ideas they diagree with at rallies. I think the vast majority understand that any viable anti-war movement will operate under a big tent.

And big labor showing its anti-war colors. Now there is something to cheer!

Posted by: Eric Bruce at January 21, 2003 11:04 AM

I disagree with Kos and with you, Nathan. Massive rallies do have an effect on people. Pictures that show thousands gathered have a profound effect, much more of one than the words uttered during the ceremonies.

Yes, many are going to criticize participants as extremists. That has always been the case, especially when opponents fear a movement may grow as a result of such demonstrations.

Conservatives are always going to smear liberal efforts with propaganda tactics such as guilt by association. For us to criticize demonstrations or distance ourselves from them to deflect such criticism only strengthens their stand and validates their tactics -- at the expense of the welfare of our society.

Posted by: Amigo at January 21, 2003 01:02 PM

Hi Nathan,

One of your points is very appropriate -- getting people to make a contribution every day or every week is very important. I posted something to this effect on dKos's open thread this morning. But, with Amigo and others on this thread, I really do believe that the numbers of ordinary Americans out there this past weekend was very important in the bigger scheme of things.

What I really want: I'd like to see the energy I see in the blogsphere translate into real, effective change. It isn't enough to bitch about Bush, it is important to find ways to stop him if we can. I think your site is great at providing some ideas that can translate into real, effective change.

Posted by: Mary at January 21, 2003 04:01 PM

don't know about dc--but in the 'heartland'--or atleast in tucson, arizona anwser/wwp was a very small presence and over 2500 almost normal people heard from congressmen raul griljava---a very progressive democrat--it was energizing and received extensive--positive coverage in the local press

Posted by: carlos at January 21, 2003 05:37 PM

Hi Nathan,

I appreciate your very thoughtful responses here. I just have a couple of comments.

More than a few of the people on my bus alone were representing groups whose members couldn't attend the D.C. rally, so the home-front efforts you speak about are happening.

Also I respect your experience in the organisation of protests but still wonder if you've ever personally had a problem with A.N.S.W.E.R or the WWP. The reason I ask is it seemed to me that A.N.S.W.E.R was very receptive to new endorsers signing on.

This article; http://www.blackcommentator.com/21_commentary_2.html

makes some very relevant observations, I think.

I certainly don't categorise you as a dilettante or brat by any stretch of the imagination. I'm linking you so you know why I think some likely are, though.

Finally I think charges of sectarianism should be defined with specific events so we can all learn from the examples. If the org. is guilty of this, that is something people should know about.

Posted by: Diane Warth at January 21, 2003 06:17 PM

First-- most people who read this blog are lefties or progressives (aside from a few conservative types who pop up), so my post is aimed at a debate within the left, to help improve how we respond and organize.

Frankly, if lefties like Corn and Gitlin et al were not criticizing the role of the WWP, the rightwing would be breathlessly "exposing" the nefarious role of "commies" in the movement. As it is, its hard to accuse people showing up at the rallies of being puppets when they are fully informed and debating the issue. In that sense, I think this debate helps insulate antiwar activists from being accused of being "dupes" or other trash.

Honest debate does not weaken the movement. It is fact strengthens it by making dissenters feel comfortable participating even when they disagree with certain parts of what's going on.

As for me personally, I've spent seventeen years doing progressive organizing of various kinds and have long experience working with the WWP occasionally and watching them mess up coalitions.

It's worth noting that in the wake of 911, a giant meeting of 700 people from a range of groups met in New York City to plan antiwar work. Various sectarian groups wrecked the coalition through nasty undemocratic maneuvering. One reason the WWP/ANSWER was the main coalition to organize in NYC at least is that the main alternative was early on destroyed by various other sectarian groups.

The WWP itself was not the prime mover in that destruction, since they actually didn't really support it at all in favor of doing their own organizing. Note, the WWP asks lots of people to support their coalitions but they rarely support other peoples work-- it's all one-way collaboration with them.

And they don't build institutions that do the day-to-day outreach work. And while rallies can be good for energizing people to do that kind of work, it is more effective when those doing rally organizing have a real plan for moving people into that work. But this is where the core politics of the WWP-- its really nasty identification with dictators and anti-democratic forces -- makes them useless for building real democratic politics at the grassroots. We can do the next stage organizing despite the WWP at the core of organizing, but it would be better if the core workers believed in that next step broader organizing.

THe history of the WWP is opportunistically jumping at the head of a crisis, building big rallies, then leaving nothing of significance over the longer term when the immediate crisis passes. Their history is littered with various "coalitions"-- each built for a specific crisis-- that essentially left nothing to build on afterwards.

All this while the Right has been systematically building broadbased, permanently mobilized networks for the last thirty years.

If the Left continually chooses short-term expediency by accepting leadership by opportunists like the WWP, they will continue to lose over the longer term. Remember, the WWP was in the leadership of one wing of the first anti-Gulf War mobilization. Yet nothing was really built in American politics to challenge Iraq policy more broadly, which is why a whole new coalition had to be built from scratch.

I am much more in favor of the United for Peace coalition, which is building a rally for February 15th in NYC. Its far more broad-based and committed to real progressive and democratic politics, so in the longer-term, it is more likely to build a real movement.

And I still can't get away from the WWP politics-- I don't care if they are effective organizers. So were the Nazis. The WWP to this day believes that the North Korea dictatorship is the model of how society should be run. They think killing students in the streets of Beijing during Tianemen was a good thing. ANd they deny that women were raped and Bosnias killed in mass numbers at Srebrenica, making them little different from Holocaust deniers.

If the Left cannot build a movement based on an integrity in its politics and our associations, we will lose in the long term.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at January 21, 2003 06:45 PM

Thanks Nathan,

Just so you know the reason I posted these questions/comments here wasn't to give you a bad time but due to your pro-labor background and invaluable experience yours was the brain I most wanted to pick. I've also never sensed anything but honesty in your posts.

Never considered the alienation might manifest by not signing on to other causes. A.N.S.W.E.R is supporting United for Peace and Justice in NYC on Feb. 15. as well as organising some workshops of their own throughout the week.

The need for continued outreach and the inability to establish roots in a poisoned base are extremely valid points. Yet the right has managed to root itself in demagoguery and continued support for criminals like Kissinger and Sharon while liberals can't seem to agree on whether these are valid positions to hold and what weight to give them. Is it really that A.N.S.W.E.R is so sectarian or that liberals can't manage to form a viable consensus on controversial issues and A.N.S.W.E.R isn't encumbered by the schisms?

You've given me much to think about. I would still attend a march sponsored by A.N.S.W.E.R if the cause was one I support but thanks to your last post I now realise why these acute situations demand attention to long-term goals.

Posted by: Diane Warth at January 21, 2003 09:23 PM

Having spent three years going door-to-door, I highly recommend the peaceful rallies and gatherings route instead.

(Unless, of course, this is a convenient moment for me to show up on your doorstep insisting that right now! is your personal moment to do something about nuclear war, etc.)

Agreed that some new leadership for demonstrations is in order. My concern really isn't total numbers, it's keeping things mellow. So far, WWP has done well at managing crowds. The fact that so many of the WWP speakers are uninspiring and out of touch may actually be an asset-- we're avoiding the political polarization that results when large groups of people suddenly start swinging towards a single ideological line. The dictator Hussein gets a few "good Americans" to point at, (which certainly beats the jihadi line!) and meanwhile the good-cop bad-cop routine with Iraq continues.

Gatherings and demonstrations are important for preserving freedom of expression and freedom from fear. Too many people repress their political opinions, and don't dare speak their mind around friends, family, or co-workers. Giving people an opportunity to finally express what they really think, openly and in public, can serve as a valuable reality check on all sides. If it feels like herding cats because a diverse crowd won't all line up in lockstep behind your specific organization's anti-war agenda, it's probably a healthy sign.

Posted by: Sassafrass at January 21, 2003 09:58 PM

Nathan, et al:

I've been reading all the comments on this thread, and have been following the debate regarding ANSWER/IAC/WWP from the beginning. I'd just like to add my 2 cents.

"The WWP to this day believes that the North Korea dictatorship is the model of how society should be run. They think killing students in the streets of Beijing during Tianemen was a good thing. AND they deny that women were raped and Bosnians killed in mass numbers at Srebrenica, making them little different from Holocaust deniers.

If the Left cannot build a movement based on an integrity in its politics and our associations, we will lose in the long term."

Folks, I'm a soldier. I just got done serving a tour in Korea, even got to spend some quality time up by the DMZ. North Korea isn't that bad--it's worse. And this is the WWP's model for a working society?

Nathan's point is brilliant. I've been a liberal for as long as I can remember. I believe, in my soul, that the liberal answer isn't just right on the policy merits...it's right on the moral merits, as well.

How can we claim the high ground, especially on the subject of war & crimes against humanity, if the very people who helped setup, organise, and otherwise lead these protests have such evil associations, and indeed champion that evil?

That's right: evil. Scoff if you want, but I know evil when I see it, and Nathan is referring to pure, unadulterated evil.

I'm getting ready to go to war, since my new unit's reporting to the Gulf. I'm not eager for war; it's never the best solution. Sometimes it's the worst; after all, William T. Sherman said, "War is hell".

But sometimes it's the least worst solution. This is one of those times--in my book, anyway.

If you feel you have to oppose this war, by all means, do so. It's your freedom, and I'm glad to be your blanket of protection for that freedom, so that you can sleep safe at night.

But, please, I ask you: don't defile your freedom--or my protection--by associating with a group that would take your freedom, and not just ignore evil, but, indeed, celebrate it and justify it.

Thank you.

Posted by: Rafael at January 22, 2003 07:01 AM

This is mostly directed to Rafeal, and I'll be as polite as I can. While I'm sure most of us appreciate your service and are cheered when we hear of liberals in the military, frankly, I don't think your service in Korea (were we clearly aren't needed or wanted - as you know) and going to war in Iraq provides us a blanket of protection, as you put it. (In fact, based on the blowback theory, we might be worse off). I don't feel threatend by Iraq at all, though that could change based on real evidence of a threat. Barring that, this war is exactly what even Robert Novak has finally admitted (based on information he received form a high admininstration official) - an exercise in American military might and nothing more. See mediawhoresonline for the full scoop.

At any rate, we can agree to work to build a peace alliance without Stalinists like the WWP.

Best of luck in Iraq - I hope you won't have to actually fight. But if you do, please don't think we will be sleeping peacefully.

Posted by: Eric Bruce at January 22, 2003 11:21 AM

I think large scale demonstrations can
help broaden a movement and bring new people
into it under the right conditions.

They can help motivate and strengthen the
local activism that occurs between national
mobilizations, as well as get national attention.

The 1963 March on Washington is probably the
classic example of an effective national march.

However, marchies and rallies are not the end-all
and be-all that some groups insist. The local
organizing is more important over the long term,
and national mobilizations should be planned with
that in mind.

As for the WWP, they are disgusting, and the sooner they are surpassed by a mainstream
antiwar coalition the better.

WWP has the advantage that they are small,
organized on authoritarian lines, which
gives them the ability to quick jumping in
front of an issue. They do jump from one
thing to the other in the way Nathan describes.
Plus they have accumulate a large collection of fellow travellers.

Posted by: Andy English at January 22, 2003 03:25 PM

Whatever else, the WWP/IAC (and also the RCP, as well as the antiwar paleo-libertarians grouped around Justin Raimondo) can be credited with getting to the real roots of the issues concerning Iraq. While much of the early 1990s antiwar movement was playing by the right's rules, making the dabate one between the right and the far right (sanctions or war), the WWP and Ramsey Clark insisted that not only the war but also the sanctions should be opposed - and they were right on that point. The same goes for the RCP's position on the question of "supporting the troops". The WWP, RCP, and the paleo-libertarians can also be credited with keeping the antiwar dissent alive during the Clinton years, while other liberals and progressives were backing Clinton and Gore, neither of whom are particularly antiwar nor economic progressives.

I don't know, I'd like to see a strong, national left that takes uncompromising positions while still remaining palatable to the mainstream, and does not express obnoxious positions such as support for North Korea or Shining Path, but it always seems like such national left coalitions wind up being co-opted by the Democratic Party, diluting any militancy they once had, and turning away from antiwar, labor, class, and civil liberties issues. This makes the WWP and RCP attractive alternatives. The lack of an active mainstream antiwar movement during the 1990s is also a reason why the WWP is in so strong a position now. They stayed active and started turning up the heat, at a time when much of the left was taking an extended hibernation, at least on antiwar issues.

One could also make the argument that some elements of the Democratic Party have alienated working class Americans far more than a small fringe group like the Workers World Party, which most people have never heard of. Unfortunately a lot of the alienated joined the Republicans.

Posted by: Robert at January 24, 2003 06:09 PM

Andy English is right when he ways that WWP has "accumulated a large collection of fellow travellers." What we really need right now is a purge of communists.

He is also right that the real reason WWP is an effective entity is because they are small. Now, consider this, however: What is smaller than Nathan Newman? If diminutive size is inversely related to organizing power, then what we really need is for Nathan to call a national demo. Let's see what real mainstream voices unencumbered by ideologies like socialism or communism, or even social justice, can do.

Nathan, we are waiting...

Posted by: Disbeliever In Nathan's Size at January 30, 2003 10:05 PM

I whole heartedly agree. Nathan can't dance.

Posted by: I Agree at January 30, 2003 10:31 PM

I whole heartedly agree. Nathan can't dance.

Posted by: I Agree at January 30, 2003 10:31 PM

I love the ad hominens by anonymous posters who don't give their names. And don't pay attention since I've said repeatedly that I have no problems with socialists leading mass movements-- my heros are folks like Eugene Debs and militant left unionists -- and I consider myself a socialist. What I have a problem with are left sectarians like the WWP that can organize a big rally and can't do anything else-- movements need multi-pronged strategies with a real vision. The WWP has largely one strategy and their long-term vision is terrible.

And lots of other groups can mount large demos-- I've been to many larger DC rallies than the ones put on by WWP.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at February 1, 2003 08:14 AM

Rush Limbaugh insulted all anti-war activists recently and takebackthemedia.com is calling for a boycott of his advertisers. They have a handy list of contacts you can use.

I can't stand Limbaugh and have written to half of the companies on the list already.

Posted by: S. Barlow at February 3, 2003 02:33 PM

I agree with the author

Posted by: ip address at May 4, 2003 03:53 AM

hmm mm good.

Posted by: davel at December 15, 2003 09:52 AM

don't know about dc--but in the 'heartland'--or atleast in tucson, arizona anwser/wwp was a very small presence and over 2500 almost normal people heard from congressmen raul griljava---a very progressive democrat--it was energizing and received extensive--positive coverage in the local press

Posted by: jeff at December 21, 2003 11:23 PM

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