The Anti-War Dilemma: How To Protest A President You Trust

by on May 12, 2009 · 7 comments

in Civil Rights, Organizing, Peace Movement, War and Peace

by Dawn Teo / The Huffington Post / May 11, 2009

TEMPE, ARIZONA – During the Bush era, peace protests were presupposed. If the President of the United States showed up anywhere, so did the protesters. Now that Barack Obama has taken over the helm, though, peace activists are debating and rehashing protest strategies and often not protesting at all.

“Does this mean we just give Obama a free pass, no matter what he does?”

Two nights ago, this was the overarching question when a local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America debated whether they should endorse an anti-war protest when President Obama delivers the commencement address at Arizona State University (ASU) this Wednesday. After all, one of the planks of the organization is peace, but they are also a partisan organization (hence the word ‘Democrat’ in the name) that supports Obama.

In recent years, peace protests have focused on military action in Iraq. Opposition to war in Afghanistan was not as widespread because the Taliban in Afghanistan were linked directly to 9/11. Yet most peace activists object to what they see as an escalation of war in Afghanistan by the Obama administration. Some believe a Republican president would have pulled out of Iraq within a similar time frame as Obama.

So, why the lack of enthusiasm for protesting Obama’s warfare policies?

For most, it seems to boil down to trust. For the first time in decades (for many, the first time in their lives), a considerable number of peace activists trust the President of the United States.

“We need to give him a chance,” one activist beseeches, “I really believe that he is doing the best he can. He has only been in office 100 days.”

Most Obama supporters also believe that Obama has kept his promises in regards to military action. He has made strides toward an independent Iraq, and he is working to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Some want “protests” at presidential events to be transformed into “rallies” where activists thank the president rather than picketing. They suggest peace activists bring signs that convey a positive message, such as, “Thank you for your efforts toward peace,” rather than the more contentious signs that have been routinely brandished by protesters on the nightly news.

Dan O’Neal, the Arizona Coordinator of the Progressive Democrats of America, was a strong proponent of a protest at the ASU commencement but conceded the action did not have to be called a protest. He pointed out that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with labor leaders and progressives after his election, he told them that he agreed with them and then said, “Now make me do it.”

O’Neal says, “We want the progressive in Obama to come bouncing out,” but says that the newly inaugurated president will be pulled from both sides — the right and left. “We want Obama to be successful, and the only way he can be successful is if we keep pulling him back to the left. We’re doing this to make him a better president.”

Although Obama is seen as a centrist within the Democratic party, those on the left undoubtedly want to continually pull him toward the left — just as those on the right want to pull him further toward the right.

Liz Hourican of Code Pink says, “This is a new question. All peace organizations are going to have to rethink our strategies.” She acknowledges that having a president who is friendlier to their cause changes the nature of presidential protests, and believes that all peace organizations are going to have to ask themselves, “What is the one message that we would like to share?”

Obama’s presidency has not only complicated the anti-war message, but has also made it more difficult to turn out the large numbers that the movement enjoyed during the latter Bush years. Over the weekend, Code Pink held their annual 24-hour Mother’s Day Vigil for Peace in Lafayette Park across from the White House. It was the first time since 2006 that they asked people from outside the Washington area to attend. Just over a hundred people showed up to the event according to organizers, a stark contrast to the thousands that Code Pink enjoyed in 2006.

Liz Hourican still plans to be a part what she calls “peace actions” at the ASU commencement Wednesday. She is careful not to use the word “protest” and encourages fellow activists to make actions during the Obama’s visit more positive. She told her fellow activists, “I am going to get there early, get my spot, and make sure that I talk to everyone I can. I’m going to get signatures, email addresses, and really expand my network.”

Code Pink worked with a coalition of local peace groups to come to a consensus on messaging. Then volunteers spent Saturday afternoon making signs to carry at ASU with two basic, nonconfrontational messages, “War is taxing” and “Peace is priceless.”

Hourican says it is more important to build support toward a critical mass than to make protests an outlet for anger and emotions, “Is it more important to be mad or to appeal to people who are not in our group? The bigger picture is way beyond us.”

For some, reticence on Obama’s Afghanistan policy is more strategic than earnest. Many progressives feel that other priorities — like the economy — must take precedence. They worry that protesting Obama at this juncture could divide (and conquer) those who support a more liberal agenda overall. The economic crisis and an ambitious domestic agenda is often the overriding reason for activists to compromise on Afghanistan.

“It’s not about disagreeing with Obama. It’s about the way we disagree. How we, as progressives, are perceived by the rest of the Democratic Party,” said one local activist who was concerned that if local chapters of Progressive Democrats of America protested against Obama, their message might be lost. “Even worse,” she said, “the group could be seen as the fringe wing of the party.”

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Geniezuc May 12, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Thanks for addressing this issue, and doing a fine job of it. I hope more dialogue goes on, and ideas, and solutions emerge.


OB Joe May 12, 2009 at 8:21 pm

Part of the problem that the progressive community has about Afghanistan is its ambivalence or even acquiescence with the US military assault on the Taliban – which everyone agrees harbored Al Queda.

After Bin Laden was not captured in Afghanistan, the progressive community continued its ambivalence regarding our military forces in that country.

We were – and rightly so – focused on the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. “We” didn’t have a position on Bin Laden necessarily.

Our focus on Iraq helped elect the new president. Now that president has stepped into our ambivalence.

Conditions have changed, although for those innocents being killed by drones – made in San Diego – conditions haven’t changed.

Military force never solved anything, and the progressive community must desire a political settlement or resolution in Afghanistan. We need to begin talking with those shooting at our soldiers.


r hoobler May 12, 2009 at 9:44 pm

don’t you morans here the clock ticking? dick cheney is right. i say we nuke em all over there before they come after us again.


lane tobias May 13, 2009 at 8:31 am

well hoobler, i believe the general consensus amongst intelligent people is that once we nuke them, SOMEONE will probably nuke us back.

that is, primarily, the way things work. “they” took down the towers, so “we” had to go get “them”. Now “we” are embroiled in an attempted occupation of a country that has never lost a “war” on their home soil.

As a high school senior I watched in person as the towers fell and thousands died. My personal connection to the war in Afghanistan is that of someone who was profoundly impacted and saddened by the events; I even remember VERY briefly feeling like I should join up, find Bin Laden, and rectify the situation.

Luckily that feeling only lasted a few hours.

the purpose behind opening up a dialogue with our enemies is to eventually save lives – both American soldiers’ lives and the lives of those we are at odds with.

I sure don’t want to die by way of a nuclear bomb, and I think that could be the outcome if we were to continue this relentless, and unwinnable, onslaught in Afghanistan.



Frank Gormlie May 13, 2009 at 9:17 am

Lane – don’t take R Hoobler too serious; I believe he’s clowning around using the old police chief’s personal nomenclature …


Old Hermit Dave May 14, 2009 at 6:39 pm

I second OB Joe but have to add that the Bush crime family was never rely challenged by any movement. They simply ignored it with the help of managed news media. Also both Bush crusades were illegal invasions and had nothing to do with 9/11/01. Sad to say, but Obama is playing right along with the massive lies of the Bush crime family.


Monty September 2, 2009 at 9:44 pm

I searched the OB Rag blog to find a good place to post my ‘open letter to Obama’ regarding our illegal war in Afghanistan. This may be an older article, but it really seems like the right place. So, here it is:

September 2, 2009

Dear President Obama,

When I first heard your post election talk about sending more troops and treasure to Afghanistan, I thought to myself, “Obama is afraid that elements in the military will rebel if he pulls us out of Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. Obama is a coward. Obama lied to get elected, and really does not care about a foreign policy based on human rights and diplomacy; does not care about stopping the endless flushing of our wealth down the worldwide military toilet; does not care about having funds for education, health care, housing, anything.”

That’s what I thought to myself. I’d be very happy to see you buck the war profiteers and all their campaign money. But I’m not holding my breath. If you wonder why your approval ratings are dropping, don’t just blame the right wing morons who think Hawaii is not a state. Blame your own turning away from the bold change statesmanship that we so badly need (and that we elected you to give us).

The United States cannot afford to keep borrowing money to fight this unnecessary war.

I understand that General Stanley McChrystal has conducted a review of the situation in Afghanistan and is urging an escalation on all fronts.

If you take his advice then you are a bigger fool than he is. Escalation will put the United States deeper into a war-quagmire that will be difficult to escape. The direct relationship between Russia’s war in Afghanistan and the collapse of the USSR economy SHOULD be a LOUD lesson for us. The time is now for the reversal of policy that will bring U.S. troops home now, before it is too late.

A majority of Americans oppose the war. This is coming from all segments of the American population. Even commentators who generally support military action, like George Will, are saying it is time to get out. As he points out “The war already is nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars.” These years of war demonstrate the failure of military action as a strategy in Afghanistan.

Americans oppose the Afghanistan war for many reasons. But, at the root of the opposition, is the question: “What are we fighting for?” Frankly, this war makes no sense. Al Qaeda is no longer even in Afghanistan. And Bush never should have treated the 9/11 attacks as an act of war, but instead should have responded to them as criminal acts, and used international law and police methods to capture and prosecute the criminals. Our invasion of Afghanistan was itself illegal. You are a law professor, and you know damned well that it was.

When the United States kills civilians it creates more enemies and undermines U.S. security. Every day the U.S. stays in Afghanistan is counterproductive to national security.

I am not going to ask you to “please re-think the Afghan war policy and bring U.S. troops home now.” Unlike many others who are participating in this letter writing effort, I DEMAND that you stop the illegal war against the people of Afghanistan, NOW!

Yes, I am angry that it was not one of the first things you did,

Monty Kroopkin


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