San Francisco: Resistance is futile — or is it?

by on March 20, 2008 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Organizing, Peace Movement

San Francisco was the epicenter of the failed movement to prevent the Iraq War — but the movement that emerged here may still change the country

BY Steven T. Jones /SF Bay Guardian
Wednesday March 19, 2008

It was a time without precedent in American history. The commander-in-chief voiced his intention to take the country to war – a voluntary, preemptive war with no clear catalyst, no faraway invasion or Pearl Harbor or sinking of the Maine – and millions of people shouted their opposition. With plenty of time to avert war, the protesters warned the invasion would be a costly disaster.

They were right. And it didn’t matter.

The war in Iraq was a test of our democratic ideals. It was a test that this country failed, a failure that has been felt by the people of the United States, Iraq, and elsewhere for the last five years. For many, the refusal of the US government to heed the demands of its citizens left them disillusioned and disempowered.

But others say it sparked a political change that woke up an apathetic citizenry, pulled the Democratic Party back to the left, and may have averted war with Iran.

It’s certainly arguable that the presidential campaign of Barack Obama owes its energy and success in part to the antiwar movement – and if Obama wins, he will be the first president in a long time who took office thanks to the support of a strong grassroots progressive movement.

Nowhere was the clash of people power and government will more acute than on the streets of San Francisco, where a series of massive marches, some drawing nearly 100,000 people, filled the streets prior to the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. The onset of war led protesters to effectively shut down the city, resulting in about 2,300 arrests and millions of dollars in costs to the city.

President George W. Bush dismissed the protests, of course, but he wasn’t the only one. Political leaders such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then-Mayor Willie Brown and soon-to-be Mayor Gavin Newsom (who didn’t attend any of the marches, unlike progressives on the Board of Supervisors) condemned the peace movement for hurting an innocent city. But with the “battle for San Francisco” making international news, the protesters were more concerned with the global audience.

A month earlier, on the weekend of Feb. 15 and 16, there were coordinated protests against the impending war in about 800 cities around the world, drawing around 10 million people. The peace march in Rome included about 3 million people, earning a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest anti-war rally in history. People have never made such a loud and clear statement against an incipient war.

Beyond the numbers, the antiwar movement was also right. On every major issue and prediction, the messages from the street proved correct while those from the White House were wrong. The US wasn’t welcomed as liberators. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq after the invasion isn’t a stable democracy or shining beacon to anyone but the new generation of jihadis Bush created.

We can blame a hard-headed president, ineffectual opposition party, failure of the national media, or the national climate of fear following Sept. 11. But rather than refighting that lost battle, now is the time to gain perspective on the events of five years ago and determine what it means for democracy and the post-Bush national agenda.


There were two main umbrella groups organizing protests before the war: Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) and International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). ANSWER has remained active and DASW has recently been reconstituted for the fifth anniversary of the war, using direct action in San Francisco as well as other urban centers and outposts like Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, which has reportedly been processing Iraqi oil.

“With the fifth anniversary coming up, we’re going back to direct action on the streets,” said Henry Norr of DASW. “But I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to be like it was five years ago.”

The maddening march to an ill-advised war created a political dynamic in which a broad cross-section of Americans was willing to hit the streets.

“We had a wonderfully diverse group of people, from soccer moms to anarchists,” said Mary Bull, who cofounded DASW, a collective of various affinity groups and concerned individuals formed in October of 2002 as Bush started beating the drums of war.

It was a group fiercely determined to prevent the war – and really believed that was possible. In fact, Bull recalls how she and other members of the group burst out crying at one meeting when a key activist said the war was going to happen.

Richard Becker, who cofounded ANSWER and serves as its West Coast coordinator, said that in the summer of 2002, “we came to the conclusion that [the war] was going to happen.” The group called its first big protest for Sept. 15, 2002, and another one two weeks later. But the movement really exploded on Oct. 26 when almost 100,000 people took to Market Street, much of it a spontaneous popular uprising.

“We were overwhelmed,” Becker said. “We were in a perpetual state of mobilization to keep up with what was going on. But then it didn’t stop the war.”

Did he think they could?

“I think a lot of people thought maybe it was possible to stop it. And we thought maybe it was possible to stop it,” Becker said.

The high point, according to Becker and Norr, was Feb. 17, 2003, when the New York Times ran a front page analysis piece entitled “A new power in the streets” that claimed “the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” But then Colin Powell went to the United Nations to argue for the invasion, and the Democrats in Congress did nothing, and it became clear war was coming.

Norr stayed out there protesting, being arrested several times and even shot in the leg by Oakland police with a rubber bullet during a protest at the Oakland docks. And he thinks some good came from the experience. [For the rest of this article, go here.]

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