Don’t throw out the baby with the bong water: ‘From protest to resistance’ is a 1960’s lesson to remember

By Damon Krane
April 14, 2005
The Post (Athens, Ohio)
May 2005
The InterActivist (Athens, Ohio)


As one member of InterAct, the group primarily responsible for last week’s die-in protest against the war on Iraq, I’d like to respond to criticism expressed in the April 8 letter “Mass gatherings not enough to affect true societal change.”

I agree there is not necessarily strength in numbers, and that speaking truth to power doesn’t do any good when power doesn’t care. During the past two years I marched, dropped banners, wrote letters and newspaper columns, debated war supporters and got arrested. But above all, I failed. My movement failed. The direct consequence of that failure was the Bush administration’s freedom to murder at least tens of thousands of people who posed no threat to Americans.

At the die-in rally, Iraq Veterans Against the War member Andrew van den Bergh mocked the emptiness of the support pro-war folks have given our troops. I don’t remember getting shot at,” he joked, “and thinking: Thank God someone put a yellow ribbon on their car!” But how many of us are still laughing when we consider that the families of thousands of dead Iraqis must find an equal amount of comfort in the fact that we had the moral gumption to “speak out” while bombs were falling on their loved ones. What were all of our rallies and marches but the anti-war equivalent of a yellow ribbon on some rich guy’s SUV?

If progressives are really committed to preventing unjust wars -and not just speaking out against them -then I agree we need to take a hard look at our failed movement. But the die-in critic’s assessment is inadequate.

The 1960s are over, he says. Activists should stop re-enacting Vietnam-era protests and realize that boycotts and strikes are really where it’s at. This is how we can hit our corporate overlords where it counts – right in their pocketbooks. Unfortunately, he laments, these actions require a level of organization it seems we are unlikely to achieve.

True, the anti-war movement had numbers without strength because it lacked the organization needed to do anything beyond getting a couple hundred thousand people to show up in the same place at the same time. In a public statement issued February 27, 2003, the executive council of the AFL-CIO, which includes unions representing a combined total of 13 million American workers, declared its opposition to the oncoming war. But with just 12.5 percent of the workforce unionized, it’s easy to imagine why the AFL-CIO wouldn’t have felt strong enough to call a general strike even if it had wanted. Smaller boycotts and strikes aimed at strategically targeted products and industries might have helped, but what time was there to organize them between the release of Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy and its implementation in Iraq six months later?

Strikes and boycotts, however, were not the only alternatives to our ineffective marches. The 1960s are indeed over. But before we throw out the baby with the bong water, let’s take a closer look at the movement of our parents’ generation.

The Pentagon Papers document that in 1968, due to increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities President Johnson’s advisors warned that granting General Westmoreland’s request of 200,000 additional American troops to fight in Vietnam “risk[ed] provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Thus by creating significant domestic unrest, the anti-war movement convinced U.S. elites they could not control America and Vietnam at the same time. Westmoreland’s request was denied, and the ground war was finally de-escalated. Lacking more substantial organization, the best chance we had of preventing the war on Iraq was to follow this historical precedent.

Before the invasion had even begun, our anti-war movement was the size of its 1968 predecessor. Had a decent portion of our massive rallies instead been massive riots – or at least much more disruptive – it is quite possible that we could have prevented the war.

As for InterAct’s die-in, it never had the potential to force U.S. elites to return Iraq’s political and economic sovereignty to Iraqis. But it has given InterAct a healthy boost in recruitment, and it has sparked this conversation. Where we take things from here is up to all of us.

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1 Response to Don’t throw out the baby with the bong water: ‘From protest to resistance’ is a 1960’s lesson to remember

  1. Pingback: 10 Years Later: Anti-War Writings, Old & New | Damon Krane

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