By Kay Neth
In March 2001, six months after 9/11, as U.S. soldiers fought al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the mountains of Afghanistan, as the Bush administration planned for war in Iraq, as the government continued to detain more than 1,000 people in connection with a Department of Justice investigation marked by its broad scope and secrecy-a group of activists in New York started talking about how "to alter the course of history." They made a proposal to other activists and organizations in a letter: "How about this for a beginning: A day when an amazing breadth of people come together in a few key cities, including NYC.
"We are aware of many plans for protest and resistance," the letter added, "and we welcome and support them allWe would like to see a lot more unity overall, and we hope that this whole project"-to be called Not in Our Name-"will help build it"
Despite divergent politics and beliefs, the letter explained, the project's network of supporters would be united by a commitment to a three-part program: opposition to endless war, detentions and police-state restrictions-principles concrete enough to matter and broad enough to unite.
Significantly, NION appeared at a time when there were few outlets for people's opposition to Bush administration policies. "This was the spark," says New York-based NION volunteer Molly Klopot. She attended NION's earliest meetings in New York, convinced that the project's basic principles and its structure as a network, not an organization, made it "the answer."
"This was needed to start the fire of resistance," she says.
NION isn't the only force in that resistance, but it reflects the way similar efforts can function in a time of disparate social identities, an influential mass media-and war, be it waged against nations or human rights.
Outside of activist circles, despite a number of protests across the country and the globe (including a Sept. 28 rally of 400,000 in London), the U.S. public was largely unaware that a fire of resistance had begun-until Oct. 6, when people held banners and signs in cities all over the country, and world, that said, "Not in Our Name." NION was the primary organizer of numerous protests that attracted widespread attention and mainstream news coverage, which often eludes activists. In New York, somewhere between 10,00025,000 people participated in NION's Central Park rally (the numbers vary depending on whom you ask, as has traditionally been the case with protests). About 8,000 marched in San Francisco, 5,000 in Portland, 1,000 in Sante Fe. An estimated 3,000 protested in Los Angeles. Smaller NION marches were held in other U.S. cities as well as in Cambodia, Japan, England, Germany, Austria and even Antarctica (only 70 turned out, but hey, it's a cold and barely populated continent).
That weekend, according to an Independent Media Center estimate, 1.5 million people protested against the war in NION protests and events sponsored by anti-war organizations, evidencing a global movement had come into existence.
An estimated 10,000 marched in Seattle's NION protest. (The number even surprised the event's organizers.) That day, NION gave Seattle its biggest rally and march since the World Trade Organization protests. It gave activists a slogan ("Not in Our Name," marchers shouted), and it gave them a symbol: the globe, an emblem of unity. Finally, it offered its Pledge of Resistance, which thousands took at the Seattle rally, decrying everything that had been on the political radar for more than a year: "blood for oil," the deaths of children and civilians abroad, stolen freedoms, the use of U.S. taxes to create suffering all over the world.
"The first time you read the first line" begins NION volunteer Margo Polley, "right then and there it catches people, and people say, 'Yes.'" She recites the first words of the pledge from memory: As people living in the United States, we believe it is our responsibility to resist the injustices done by our government in our name.
Despite the protests, on Oct. 11, the U.S. Senate voted (77 to 23) to join the House of Representatives in the Bush Administration plan to launch a war against Iraq. Detentions continued. The government's expanded powers of surveillance, signed into law with the USA PATRIOT act in October 2001, remained in effect.
But the NION protests were important for the antiwar movement and the effort to defend civil liberties and immigrant rights. "Since Oct. 6, we have had more people come up to us that were previously too nervous to question what was happening because they thought that they were alone in their thoughts," says NION volunteer Jessica Anderson. "I think once they realized there were hundreds of thousands of people who were talking about it, [they felt] safer about coming out."
"Now [NION volunteers are] looking for direction in this movement, knowing that there are people who are out there wanting to resist and to make a better world," she says. "It's our duty to provide an outlet for that."
If you are just discovering the Not in Our Name project, one of the first things you are told again and again is that it is a project, and not an organization, and that this fact is significant. For one thing, it means when you're working with NION, you're not endorsing any political stance beyond the following imperatives:
· No war without limits (or with Iraq);
· No police-state restrictions;
· And no roundups and detentions of immigrants.
What you see above is the gist of what people involved with Not in Our Name generally want. And that gist is simultaneously specific and general enough to bring together thousands for a protest. It's relevant to a range of ideologies.
"I definitely felt that this project has hit the nail on the head, that they got it right, and that [they did] what's needed for us to bridge our differences," says NION volunteer Jennifer Kissinger.
"Activists up to now have been divided over different issues that don't reflect on issues that we could unite on" Kissinger adds. "There are a lot of people for a long time who have been frustrated."
As a result, NION's goals, and the fact that it's organized without being an organization, can bring together the Left, which has traditionally made up the bulk of peace movements. If you are at all involved with the Left, you know that it's a broad thing encompassing anarchists, Democrats, Marxists, Green Partiers, progressives, the New Left, the vaguely discontented, unionists, people who hate being associated with the Left even though they are leftist and so forth. Like any political group, there is in-fighting about tactics and ideology. But many Leftists are opposed to the Bush administration's plans for a global military presence, its wars and its erosion of civil liberties-allowing NION to harness the power of a united Left.
NION's principals can also potentially unite a segment of the public whom the Left generally has little hope of speaking to: people outside the Left. You can vote Republican, oppose the income tax and still support the NION project.
Volunteers seek out other activist groups to work with the project, creating a web of activism. Organizations endorse NION because of the absence of a single ideology, as well as the relevance to their organization of even just one of the project's primary goals.
NION's 50-plus local endorsers include: the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington (which advocates immigrant rights in the wake post-9/11 government policies); American Muslims of Puget Sound; Palestinian Solidarity Committee; State Representative Velma Veloria; Newground Investment Services (whose motto is "Investment Results with Positive Social Impact"); Seattle Freedom Socialist Party; Mourning Commute (a group of local anarchists); Seattle Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador; Seattle Cuba Friendship Committee; Vietnam Veterans Against the War; and Young Koreans United for Seattle.
Obviously, these groups won't be in agreement on every issue (progressive investment bankers, for instance, are unlikely to embrace anarchism)-but they can unite against endless war, police state restrictions or attacks on immigrant rights.
"We've worked with artists, anarchists and church-going Republicans," says NION volunteer Jessica Anderson. "It's really just about reaching out to peopleno matter what shoes they wear." Converse, Birkenstocks and wingtips unite.
So, NION, like the rest of the world, becomes a patchwork of ideologies. But unlike the rest of the world, differences are tucked away in pursuit of ideals and a movement with a broad support base.
With such ideological diversity comes challenges. "I definitely think as we get more and more people involved, it slows down the process," observes Kissinger, who has been involved with local NION activists since they first began working together in Seattle. As a smaller group, decisions and discussions moved more swiftly. Now, there are more perspectives to discuss. "It does strengthen us because it means we've talked about those issues," Kissinger says.
One issue, says Kissinger, has been the discussion of tactics that has divided activists in the past: the question of nonviolence (e.g., peaceful protests and civil disobedience) versus violent dissent (e.g., property damage and class warfare). "We won't even take a nonviolent stance," says Steve, a NION volunteer who has worked with the local group since its Oct. 6 march. "If we did, that would exclude a good number of people."
But in practice, the group has employed nonviolent tactics, which may prove to be a smart and pragmatic move. "The only way to positive publicity is through looking mainstream and being nice," observes Ted Morgan, a political science professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. An activist whose political conscience was shaped by his experience as a college student during the 1960s, Morgan has studied media propaganda and social movements and is working on a book about how past and present media misrepresentations of 60s activists and movements are shaping our perceptions of that era today-"redefining," as Morgan says, "the meaning of the 60s."
News media in that era, he maintains, soaked up images of colorfully militant protesters, which lead to more theatrics among activists (as a result of imitation or "more radical than thou" competition). That conduct not only created antagonism within the movement, it alienated it from much of the public.
One factor in the government's decision to pull out of Vietnam may have been the mood of national volatility that militant protesters created. "But the real issue is to change the system, not end the war," Morgan says. "The real issue is why we are at war and how do we change that." Vietnam protesters couldn't create systematic and truly radical change without a mass movement: a movement that included groups, such as the working class, who increasingly found the media-generated image of antiwar activism repugnant-even as they withdrew support for the war.
Many media shortcomings that characterized the 60s remain a barrier that current movements must deal with: There are the tendencies to undercount protesters at marches and to focus on flamboyant behaviors. And here's a biggie: "The mass media do not provide a forum for the arguments against war," Morgan says. Except for the occasional letter to the editor, mainstream media audiences rarely hear arguments that fall outside the current administration's perspective or that of the Democratic Party.
Recognizing the influence of media on the mainstream (and, perhaps, the difficulty of getting its message into the press), NION became one of the first anti-war groups to advertise. In September 2002, it began a series of full-page newspaper ads featuring the NION Statement of Conscience, along with a few easily recognizable names of people who've signed it: actors Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon and Marisa Tomei; director Robert Altman; writer Kurt Vonnegut; poet Adrienne Rich; musicians Steve Earle and Brian Eno; historian Howard Zinn; and many others.
Independent media, the regional press and local papers allow for more coverage and, along with the Internet, partially explain why the antiwar movement has achieved such visibility. Nonetheless, "I think the movement has to appreciate that it's almost impossible to get its full message to the wider public," Morgan notes. And should the U.S. government attack Iraq, that task would only become more difficult. "If and when the war begins, the media coverage will change, and it will be harder to find sympathetic coverage," he warns.
NION has held press conferences and issued media releases about its rallies. In announcing a Jan. 10 press conference to area news outlets, volunteers didn't mention the date of a rally scheduled later that week. "We don't want the press to pick and choose," explains Kissinger, who compiles the group's media database.
Perhaps nothing communicates to the press and the public so powerfully as mass of diverse protesters, an image NION achieved Oct. 6. "I think that phenomenon of seeing that there are a lot of people from all walks of life that don't want this war is very important for the movement," says Morgan. The public saw that again on Jan. 20, when as many as 10,000 war protesters marched on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an effort NION volunteers and a multitude of other activists joined. The event was featured on the front pages of the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
NION doesn't want to be just a bunch of middle-class white progressives. Building a true mass movement requires building a movement that reflects racial, ethnic and class diversity-which has sometimes proven difficult for the progressive, middle-class white people who often find themselves at the helm of protests and organizations.
Many activists in the past have too often assumed that "you have a comfortable life except for the war," notes Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington (HFZ), which has cosponsored events with NION in addition to endorsing the project. "I think it's oftentimes an issue of resources and money. The immigrant communities don't always have the luxury of taking time off from work to go to a rally." And consider government cuts in social services or disproportionate incarceration rates for African-American men. The United States, in a sense, is waging war on certain segments of its own population, she says. "We need to start talking about the wars that are going on in our countryIf people who were passionate about peace also were passionate about the need to not declare war on our own communities at home, I think that would go a long way."
Given that they have become targets in the government's "war on terrorism," immigrants may also be concerned about being seen at rallies. "There's a tremendous amount of fear," Jayapal observes. NION volunteer Jessica Anderson says that the group has learned to work with certain communities away from the public eye. "We try to show support with that community, to show up at their court hearings, to be there when they need to have a presence at court appearancesand not just ask them to support us," she says.
By addressing issues immediately relevant to minorities and the poor, movements can draw their support-which NION has done in its protest of detentions and roundups. One of its most ethnically and racially diverse turn-outs occurred in Seattle at a Jan. 13 rally to highlight the Department of Justice's special registration program, which requires internationals from South Asian, Arab and Muslim countries to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
At the rally, located in the International District in Hing Hay Park, about 150200 people carried signs, held candles or simply stood in solidarity beneath a cold rain. King County Councilman Larry Gossett spoke passionately about the need to build a "multi-race and multi-class movement." Although he later slipped and referred to the "Not in Our Neighborhood" pledge, Gossett's message surely resonated with NION volunteers. The more community connections the project has, the more sustainable it becomes, which is important for the project: Volunteers have long-term plans-they have to, because so does the administration they're working to change.
"I think in the long run," says Anderson, "the biggest challenges with this project is emphasizing that while the war in Iraq is the immediate concern, it is not the only concern." Which is why the project's supporters are counting on NION lasting a long time.
"I believe [NION] is effective because it offers an alternative to what we are hearing in the media. It offers the possibility of a positive future. We don't just talk about what is wrong in the world," she adds. "We also say that another world is possible, and we pledge to make it real."