Antiwar Angelenos mark the fifth year of war by throwing a party
By Ron Garmon LA Weekly, March 19, 2008
A year and a half on, the self-immolation of Malachi Ritscher is due a reconsideration as terminal performance art. During morning rush-hour on November 3, 2006, the 50-ish Chicago musician lugged a video camera, a sign reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and a quantity of gasoline (then averaging about $2.25/gal. in the Windy City) to the “Blaze of the Millennium” sculpture on the Kennedy Expressway. There, in full view of gridlocked hundreds, he set himself on fire.
Police didn’t identify the ashes for days and the news didn’t cover the act as protest at all. Almost a week later, Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper editorially dismissed what the musician did as “sad” and “futile” as if the deed was merely one more occasion to measure thumbs with Roger Ebert. In the interim, Ritscher’s statement had become an underground sensation, with the auto-flambéed peacenik’s self-penned obituary and other leavings pored over by friends, acquaintances, and the generally stunned. That it took so long for big media guns like Roeper to open up allowed many to ponder the horrible significance of this “normal” suicide. Reports of “alcoholism” and “depression” helped depoliticize the act to the point where Ritscher is now scarcely remembered at all, save as one more doomed hippie.
His was but an extreme manifestation of the apocalyptic helplessness now on display most everywhere. All recent economic news comes painted in uniform shades of horrible, with venerable investment banks collapsing, national debt spiraling and suburbanites torching their foreclosed houses for insurance. This familiar bankerly process of sweating the middle classes of equity takes place against a backdrop of inflation, stagnation, and threats of permanent recession. The choices this election year now narrow to whomever Democrats finally decide to pit against John McCain, who insists a century-long U.S. military occupation in Iraq would be “fine” with him.
The war is an issue Democrats have decisively fudged. Barack Obama continues to radiate a genial Reaganesque mushiness on particulars, while Hillary Clinton runs TV ads suggesting she’d sit by the telephone at all hours, toothily eager to bomb the mortal shit out of anyone, anywhere. CBS/NYT poll numbers show nearly two-thirds of the American people disapprove of the way the Iraq war is being conducted, with almost 60 percent declaring it a mistake in the first place.
Mainstream liberals remain sunk in gloom. Chalmers Johnson concludes in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic that Dubya’s blunders are simply the latest in a long series of imperial disasters that must eventually consume all traditional liberty and destroy popular government in America, leaving us to face “a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent.” Feminist social critic Naomi Wolf, in The End of America, draws the same dreadful inferences from press restrictions, secret jails, extraordinary renditions, cop surveillance, large-scale domestic spying, and constant trashing of dissent, terming it a “fascist shift.” Whatever her gifts as prophet, such a prognosis would depress even Pee-wee Herman.
Mad Malachi Ritscher expressed similar thoughts in his online suicide note that ended with the homily, “The future is what you decide today.” That this sentiment can be put to more creative expression was shown to by marchers at the All Out! protest rally/street party staged in Hollywood last Saturday, March 15, by local antiwar coalition ANSWER-LA. Despite the lateness of the hour and very formidable excuses for citizen despair, antiwar activism is on the rise all across the political spectrum, with the radicalized trying new techniques, new alliances, and speaking out in startling creative ways about the looming national crisis. The accent is now on raucous dissent rather than moral outrage; a cheerful, two-fingered salute to the status quo. How the traditionally starchy antiwar left will absorb this new energy is but one question posed by the youngsters out in full puckish force. As the current cycle of antiwar protest heats up, it is well to remember the fate of the last wave.
The State of the Movement
Most of us remember the deafening passion of the antiwar movement at the outset of Team Dubya’s Iraq adventure a half-decade ago. The sheer unlikelihood of the administration’s claims of Iraqi WMD coupled with open-manufactured hysteria quickly made it the biggest antiwar movement in history, with the protest action on February 15, 2003, bringing tens of millions into the streets all over the planet. The New York Times intoned “[T]here may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
Steve Mikulan wrote some impressive dispatches on the early demonstrations for the L.A. Weekly. “Well, at that point it was growing by leaps and bounds,” Steve remembered of 2003. “I spoke to Tom Hayden and he pointed out at that time that the antiwar movement was then far ahead of what it was in Vietnam. It took four or five years to accomplish what they did in a matter of months. I think there was a lot of expectation that this thing would keep building and get bigger. That didn’t happen, of course. I think part of the reason is that the mainstream media got a dose of what it perceived as patriotic duty and stopped covering these rallies, even though they were still attracting hundreds of thousands of people. The networks pulled all the antiwar commentators from talk shows and then stopped talking about the movement. You can only sustain energy at that level for so long and, in L.A., the ironically-named ANSWER-LA had no answers. Outrage will only carry enthusiasm so far.”
Not everyone just gave up and went home. One of the antiwar movement’s most durable organizations is Code Pink, the prankish feminists whose giddy stunt-politics include “kiss-ins” staged near military bases (“Make love, not war”) and draping a 30-foot satin “pink slip” out of a window of the Century Plaza Hotel while the president was inside at a reelection 814 fundraiser.
When I spoke to co-founder Jodie Evans, Code Pink was in the middle of planning various pre-rally actions, including an activist “training camp” in the wilds of Malibu and a series of demonstrations at the offices of selected local congresspersons. “I mean,” she laughed, “they shouldn’t go on vacation. We’re gonna take in visuals that show the amount each district has lost in not bringing the troops home. The other message that we’re carrying is that their votes are very critical on the Pfizer bill, which allows immunity for the phone companies to spy for Bush. So there’s actually a few members of the Judiciary committee ready to join Rep. Wexler to demand impeachment proceedings.”
That the outgoing president may well be beyond Constitutional reach at this point scarcely matters. “You have to care as much about the war ending as soldiers care about putting their lives on the line fighting for it,” Evans put it grimly. “We spent the last year pressuring Congress to quit funding the war and obviously that’s not gonna happen. The people who are making money off the war seem to have more power with these members of Congress than the voting public. We’re modeling what it looks like not to pay for war by not paying seven percent of our taxes. You can see that on our Web site.”
We spoke of trying to imagine a time when the war might conceivably end, but that seemed phantasmal, if satisfying to contemplate. “Unfortunately,” she sighed, “we’re all stuck like deer in headlights inside a war. The lack of imagination on everyone’s part is devastating. After we got back from Iraq five years ago, we went to see Hillary and she told us the reason she wanted to invade Iraq is to protect the people of New York.” Here she paused, then continued with care. “I said, ‘Are these the only two choices your mind can concoct?'”
Poets and Paperback Writers
Antiwar movements being much too important to leave to the politicos, I spoke to a wide assortment of committed Angelenos and found, as usual, the writers among the most militant voices. Lewis MacAdams is poet, activist, historian of Beat, and noted defender of the L.A. River. His “To the 43rd President of the United States” is a hard jewel of invective destined for anthologies, concluding with the lines: We must search our souls/To understand how/We could have/Lived all these years/And done all this work/And still allowed this to happen. “I wrote it just before the invasion, and read it a few times,” MacAdams remembered. “People were extremely enthusiastic. I read it at the Museum of Natural History, and a couple dressed very ostentatiously walked out and that was about it.”
“I think the airplanes have to land in their bases and the troop ships dock and the soldiers, sailors and contract killers have got to get on them and leave,” he drawled, “We in America are going to be suffering, whether it’s this month or the month after next. But it seems very likely there’s gonna be a civil war in Iraq after we leave and it’ll be part of America’s sordid karma. We’ll get ours.”
Lest anyone complain the literary tend to cluster at one end of the national political dial, I called my old friend – and sometimes writing partner – Brad Linaweaver. A science-fiction writer and Nebula award finalist best known for spinning bizarre alternate histories, Linaweaver is also a conservative-libertarian pundit Ronald Reagan was given to quoting on matters of doctrinal orthodoxy. Recent political writings and support for Ron Paul win him no friends in rightist circles these days.
“The Republican Party should not pretend to spread democracy to the benighted regions of the world,” said Brad, who was in rare form, bellowing down the phone line. “That is not in the Republican party’s job description. He’s in the wrong comic book. Bill Buckley thought his Iraq policy “un-conservative,” a fact noted by Fox News in his obituary, which I thought unusually fair and balanced of them.
“The left is completely failing to fight the war machine,” the novelist continued. “They won in ’06 and have failed ever since. They don’t understand even now how the corporate power-elite runs both parties. George W. Bush is such a happy man these days. Why? He’s done his job, serving his masters well, giving us a foothold in Iraq forever. We will never leave. McCain is being unduly optimistic when he said we’d be there a hundred years. We’ll be in Iraq as long as the American Empire exists. Bush went there for one reason – to stay there.” Echoing Jodie Evans, my old friend and antagonist charged the administration with the fantasist’s worst sin – lack of imagination. “They’d rather kill people than develop alternative energy,” he snorted.
‘Kush, Not Bush!’
Well, the idea that the fix is irretrievably in makes some cynical and gives others a reason to get up in the morning. If no one but the fractious, faction-ridden SoCal left had shown up for the ANSWER-LA rally in Hollywood last Saturday, the event would’ve been considerably less raucous than it was. Instead, the party had already started in the Red Line train when I got on at Pershing Square. Normal Saturday mid-morning service was glutted with knots of excited, jabbering young people. Most were dressed in ironical variations on military uniforms, stylishly-frayed tunics, and other fucked-up mufti. Some were carrying homemade signs, one reading “Drop Acid, Not Bombs.”
Topside at Hollywood & Vine, the famous intersection was already piled with noisy revelry well in advance of the noon start time. Rows of prop coffins lay neatly, flag-draped to represent the returning dead kept carefully from view by the Bush administration. Clowns jostled with masked anarchists, costume performers and Fire Department officers ostentatiously photographing protesters. The venerable chant One-two-three-four/We don’t want your racist war! welled from the crowd, a sentiment grown fusty from decades of racist wars eventually replaced by performances by the likes of Mojo and the Vibration Army. The marchers were overwhelmingly young, with most of the Movement graybeards sprinkled among them looking as if they’d burst from unaccustomed joy.
All was love and camaraderie, even for the media, even from the LAPD. Soon, the procession lurched forward and I entered the police cordon, walking backwards ahead of the mob and scribbling notes. The festive spirit even infected the counter-protesters; a half-dozen males in late middle-age, all with Christian slogans emblazoned on tees stretched tight over starchy bellies. “Hey!” one yelled at me through a bullhorn, “Don’t you write for the Communist World News?” I smiled and waved. It was just like old times. Another crooned, “This is treason! You are the new Al Qaeda!” Again, fierce hip-hop clattered out of the PA, drowning them out. News cameras honed in on a grizzled dingbat with a homemade John McCain sign, his jaws working rapidly as chanting and whoops smothered most sound. Indeed, ANSWER’s usual portmanteau of assorted left-wing causes was swept away as well. The kids didn’t seem animated by dialectical materialism, livestock rights, or the unhappy fate of Leonard Peltier. This was clearly not business-as-usual.
Cops cleared a path and the march swung left down Schrader. By this time, many of the sidewalk gawkers had begun to join the parade, stepping out into a self-staged, self-conscious show, a delightful suspension of the rules. There was much amplified jeering as the party bore left on Sunset and the CNN building rose into view, its iconic logo long a symbol of corporate propaganda to antiwar leftists and libertarians. Angry fists went up at this citadel of The Man and hundreds of bawled “Fuck CNN!” Office staff gathered at the windows, dim shadows peering down at a vast Technicolor ruckus their organization looked to be studiously ignoring. I gave a friendly wave, wishing they could be there. Signs reading “Whores, Not War!” “Kush, Not Bush!” and the plaintive “James Buchanan, Come Home! All is Forgiven” flapped in the sudden high winds alongside placarded pleas for Obama, Ron Paul and others, the plausible alongside the ludicrous.
The day belonged to the participants, since most of the promised star-power didn’t materialize. Organizers read a doleful list of no-shows from the speaker’s stand on Cahuenga. Marty Sheen, Jackson Browne, Ed Asner, and others all defaulted, and the redoubtable Gore Vidal was addressing the ANSWER rally in San Diego. Mike Farrell’s brief, tearful address that impressed many who weren’t born until after the actor’s run as B.J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H half a lifetime ago. Ron Kovic, the iconic Vietnam veteran now marking his 40th anniversary in a wheelchair, commanded attention for a few buoyant words – “I promise you,” he cried, “our time is coming! We will fill this street with people!” Eventually, the speakers shut down, and some guy with a megaphone started rapping for Obama. The LAPD, out in overly numerate force, were content to hang back and let this street carnival order itself, pausing to puzzle over performance artist Jade Thacker urging passers by to cut off pieces of the U.S. flag she wore as a dress. A performance troupe called Corpus Delecti performed a zombie butoh dance, writhing on the asphalt like undead worms. Bystanders drifted away slowly, but the atmosphere lingered on and I saw kids whooping and lugging signs later that night as far away as downtown.
Channel 7 estimated the turnout at 1,500 participants, police put it at 2,000, and ANSWER-LA claimed 10,000. The latter figure was exaggerated, but closer to the truth as the unexpectedly large number of first-timers plainly startled and elated organizers. Despite histrionic warnings from counter-protesters, I saw no violence and police reported no arrests.
Peace, it seems, is back. Five years of even a media-sanitized and conscription-free war were still quite enough to build a wave of revulsion in the young, who have as yet no place in a society that has long since numbed itself to the horror. Protest, long ridiculed in mainstream culture as being hopelessly ’60s and passe, is now retro and hip. This was inevitable, as there are only so many ways one can market greed and apathy, even to consumers offered little else.
As this impulse organizes itself, more traditional elements of the left begin to flex dormant muscles. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union voted a “No Work, No Peace” holiday, stopping all work on the West Coast for eight hours this May 1 to urge “an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East.” Given the public’s surly mood, the idea of a mass-walkout of workers and the timeclock-bound could well gain traction as the hours tick off ’til May Day. After a half-decade of uneasy acquiesce to this latest, luckless imperial adventure, popular consent for war is being withdrawn and the peace movement has nowhere to go but up. The American people must, as usual, engineer their own rescue.
[Go here, for the original article in LA Weekly.]