“Thousands rally against war,” the headline in yesterday’s Ann Arbor News informed the few of us who missed it. On Saturday, 2,000 protestors filled the Diag and the streets to demonstrate against a pre-emptive strike on Iraq; the critical mass disturbed traffic and won relatively significant media attention.
Between last month’s “Stop the War” conference and this weekend’s action, the events revolving around the “anti-war” movement have been fairly frequent and, in terms of the personalities they have drawn, surprisingly credible. So maybe it’s now the case that there’s finally enough action happening on this campus and in this city to appease that group of people who constantly call on the community to live up to its own image. Maybe we’re on a road to deserving something to the tune of that old Students for a Democratic Society, Vietnam-era etc. etc. etc. reputation – a reputation that is, understandably, both an inspiration and a burden to the new generation of self-proclaimed activists.
During the first few months of the fall semester, I had wondered, along with not a few others, why we hadn’t yet felt any real rumblings of what I had thought would be an inevitable and instant movement in reaction to Bush’s unveiling of tentative plans for war.
I spoke with Prof. Michael Nagler, who founded the Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and was disappointed (for Michigan, not for Berkeley) to hear that, already by early October, Berkeley’s movement was full fledged and driving forward. Maybe the University was too locked in narcissistic contemplation of its own legacy – and too busy fighting the easy and empty fights – to do anything with the scariest issue on the national table.
Back in October, as cynical as I felt that I’d become, there was still a part of me that wanted to see University activist glory days replay themselves when I could have a chance to watch.
As the old caveat goes, be careful what you wish for.
The essence of yesterday’s article in the Ann Arbor News was a glaring comparison between what took place on Saturday and the hackneyed, rose-colored cultural memory of 1960s activism. A great majority of the 2,000 people who attended that rally and the day’s other events were people genuinely concerned about our nation’s and our president’s foreign policy. But sadly, judging from the media attention, first-hand accounts and what I have learned from my own experimentation with tie-dye activism, it was a minority of those couple thousand who expressed their concern in a respectful and intellectual way – recognizing both the importance of exercising a right to assembly and of approaching that assembly with the due accord that the potential loss of so many human lives deserves.
Too many of the quotations from that article show the activist growing into a caricature. When a participant from Saline was asked what possible alternative he could see to war, his best answer happened to rhyme: “might doesn’t make right.” A woman from the organization Zeitouna declared, “I’m a Palestinian American and I’m here to call for an end to Israeli occupation and an end to bombing.” Where is respect for the issue at the heart of the day, the safety and dignity of the Iraqi people – the one common thread through the platforms of 2,000 different individuals – in a statement like that?
I’m not sure where the line should be – I’m not sure how much fun we’re supposed to be having speaking out against death and destruction, I’m not sure where our own agendas can fit in. It’s possible that the “Radical Cheerleaders” have it right, that the dancing and the drumming and the clever chants are the best way to rally a community and send a message to our decisionmakers. But somewhere, on the gut level that I, at least, need to listen to more often, it seems that the message is strangled in the festivity.
There are plenty of lessons to take from the teach-ins, organization, and voices of Michigan’s activist forebears. But it’s important that we don’t romanticize their legacy and only try to replicate in ourselves the things we know about from documentaries and books. There’s a constant opportunity to improve the tactics and build a more credible voice; to hold a demonstration and not a party.
A group of very thoughtful people has helped to turn room 307 of the Michigan League into a room for quiet reflection. There are a lot of scary things happening right now that deserve our attention and our emotion, but maybe the best way to channel that best begins with something quiet.
Hanink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.