Report on the Jan. 18 Antiwar March in D.C.

“The March Was Greatly Slowed by Its Own Size”

by Fred Feldman

This article is adapted from a report sent by the author to the Australian publication Green Left Weekly. It has been edited for Labor Standard.

I think the protests against the impending war on Iraq have highlighted the importance of inclusion and nonexclusion of all forces that genuinely seek to protest this unjust war. In that spirit, I think the movement has to unite against every trace of red-baiting, the most prominent example I know of being the red-baiting of the ANSWER coalition in the United States that some liberal critics of the war have indulged in.

But I think the most important things I learned were conclusions I reached from participating in the January 18 march in Washington, D.C.

The demonstration in D.C. was a tremendous experience. There is no doubt that the movement continues to gain momentum as the war approaches. The walk of a few blocks from the bus drop-off area to the gathering site was itself a continual mass march. The size was so large that organized contingents of labor, Blacks, and other groups tended to break down, although many individuals and small groups and individuals from these sectors could be seen scattered throughout the vast crowd.

A tremendous number of handmade signs—some quite beautiful—highlighted the consciousness and care that countless individuals brought to their participation in the march. College and high school youth were the largest single presence. They were everywhere and in truly massive numbers.

The February 15 action, the next big set of national marches [centered on New York City and San Francisco], got a big jump start here. I and many others distributed thousands of leaflets, all of which were received with considerable interest in answering the question “What next?”

ANSWER has already endorsed February 15, so this will be the first national action in the current movement that starts out with just about everybody on board.

The dominant posters were “no war on Iraq,” defending the people of Iraq, calling for inspections of the U.S., and denouncing Bush as a war criminal.

One handmade sign carried a slogan that, for me, characterized the learning process that many erstwhile “patriotic Americans” have gone through in the last year and a half. Under the heading of “Who is the Number One War Criminal?” there were photos of Bush and Bin Laden. The picture of Bin Laden was crossed out. The main enemy had proven to be at home once again.

Many other protesters carried official signs that said “Jobs, Not War.”

A recent issue of the Militant, a journal which once helped organize demonstrations of a broadly similar, and sometimes equally “conservative,” character against the Vietnam war, denounces this slogan as a “nationalist trap,” twisting it into a chauvinist slogan that supposedly calls for jobs for American workers only and opposes solidarity with workers internationally. This none too objective interpretation presents “jobs, not war” as though it were aimed against workers in other countries, immigrants, undocumented workers, and so forth.

The slogan, of course, says no such thing and has no such implications. It simply is one expression—a tad too vague to be a personal favorite of mine—of the call to use the wealth, now being used in an effort to smash and subjugate the people of Iraq and lay waste their country, to meet human needs.

Anyone who seeks to convey the impression that these demonstrations are implicitly nationalist, and therefore have a pro-imperialist thrust despite their official character, is simply stating that which is not the case.

There were slogans I didn’t like. There were patriotic slogans such as “Dissent is patriotic.” (Well, some is and some isn’t, and it all has a right to be heard, which I suspect is the point most of the sign-carriers are trying to make.) One sign I saw read “Support our troops! Oppose U.S. foreign policy.” In my opinion, in the absence of anything resembling a sizable GI antiwar movement today, “support the troops” talk tends to dovetail with the government’s calls for “supporting our troops” and “giving them everything they need” against the troops of Iraq. I am opposed to any slogan that seems to suggest this.

My least favorite: a beautifully hand-lettered large placard that read: “Only the UN should police the world.” Why the hell should anybody police the world? Oh well, he was there, so he was in the fight.

But the overwhelming majority of placards—more than overwhelming, actually—were directed against the U.S. government, the U.S. military, and the U.S. crimes against Iraq, and defended the Iraqi people. That was the sentiment that defined this demonstration.

One of the most striking experiences I have had in the protests, since the calling of the April 20 demonstration in February, is the way people who enter the fight against the war under various patriotic or seemingly half-hearted slogans have stubbornly stayed with the fight even as their initial partial demands were met (Let Congress vote! No unilateralism! Let the Security Council be heard! Let the inspectors in! Disarm Iraq but…). They have stayed with the fight and hardened their opposition and adopted more unconditional slogans even as their partial demands were met as part of Washington’s war preparations. The whole movement is directed against the U.S. imperialist war, and is in that sense anti-imperialist, not just those who put forward the more unconditional slogans that I advocate and march under.

This doesn’t mean there is no need to debate our slogans and oppose those we think are wrong. That is absolutely necessary. For example, I think the slogan “US Troops Out of the Mideast Now!” should be added by the movement in this country as a central demand to concretize the correct and universally popular antiwar slogan: “No War in Iraq.”

But as a consequence of my experience in this fight, I am also unwilling to denounce anyone who enters into the movement putting forward limited or inadequate or even downright bad slogans as “prowar.” Their stance on the war has to be derived from their deeds more than from their words, which often do not adequately express their deeds.

My initial estimate was at least 200,000, and I am pretty conservative about crowd sizes. I was never at a point where I could see the whole thing. One sign is that I ran into hardly anyone I knew, and I know a lot of people who I know were there. Buses were still arriving as we were desperately struggling to leave. The entire bus placement was disrupted by an enormous unexpected inflow of buses. The march was greatly slowed by its own size.

Everyone I knew who had been at October 26 (I was at another protest) told me this was substantially bigger. The estimates of 300,000 seemed very credible to me. I react with organic skepticism to the 500,000 figure.

I want to end this on a somewhat narrow note by quoting a passage from an old document that I think expresses a thought we can all use in building the broadest support for the upcoming Feb. 15 national marches in NY and SF. It was called “A Reply to Criticism of our Antiwar Policy,” by Lew Jones, written in 1967 for the Socialist Workers Party discussion bulletin. It reflected the views at the time of virtually the entire leadership of the party.

Of course there are historical differences. The antiwar movement during Vietnam was taking place during a full-scale imperialist war. But I don’t think today’s movement should be criticized for having started before the war got fully under way. Opponents of this war were under no obligation to wait for the massive bombing and invasion before protesting. The movement will face a real test when a real full-scale war starts—and there’s going to be one sometime, somewhere, even if the very uphill battle to head off the invasion of Iraq today is successful. But today the young fighters and many others are passing today’s test.

Lew Jones wrote (all emphasis in the original):

“The antiwar movement, by which we mean the whole coalition which has been built up around the single issue of struggle and action against the war, is deeply profoundly anti-imperialist in character. It is not true that the withdrawal wing is the anti-imperialist wing within the larger movement—the whole movement is anti-imperialist. The test of anti-imperialism in a period of war is action against the imperialist war in Vietnam; this is the concrete test of anti-imperialism in this period.”