Vets, grieving families strike somber tone at Iraq war protest

Reports Sarah Ferguson in the Village Voice Sept. 25:

Organizers with the dueling anti-war groups United for Peace and Justice and International ANSWER estimated the crowd size for Saturday’s march on Washington, D.C., at 300,000—making it the largest demonstration since start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Capitol police gave a loose estimate of 150,000—still a heap larger than the 4,000 or so who turned out for the Pentagon’s pro-war “Freedom Walk” on 9-11.

It was another lap around the Capitol for the antiwar crowd, but the mood was very different this time. In contrast to the strident rhetoric and near giddy denunciations of President Bush that have marked previous demonstrations (particularly those organized by ANSWER), Saturday’s protest was sobered by the presence of hundreds of military family members and alienated Iraq war vets, whose voices have given the antiwar movement a new center of gravity.

Cindy Sheehan of Bring Them Home Now was the star, of course, her name repeatedly invoked on stage. Reverend Jesse Jackson thanked her for “being a witness, in the great tradition of Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Harriet Tubman.”

“Your light challenges the darkness,” Jackson told her. “Your light is being seen and your heat is being felt around the world. Thank you, Cindy Sheehan.”

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of California praised Sheehan for “waking up America.”

And Steve Earle, who sang at the concert that followed the march, acknowledged her role as pivotal. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for, this moment,” said Earle, who traveled to Crawford, Texas, last month to help out at the Camp Casey encampment when Sheehan had to leave to tend to her sick mom. The camp was named for the 24-year-old son she lost in Iraq. “Cindy simply has the credentials that a lot of us who have opposed the war did not have, and I think what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a mainstream opposition to the war,” he said before launching into the ballad “Rich Man’s War.”

Everywhere Sheehan went, the protesters cheered her. “This is amazing—you’re part of history,” the California peace mom told the tens of thousands massed before her at the Ellipse.

“We need a people’s movement to end this war,” said Sheehan, as she urged her followers to turn up the heat on Congress. “We’re going to ask them, how many more of other people’s children are you willing to sacrifice for the lies? Shame on you for giving [Bush] the authority to invade Iraq.”

She then led the crowd in chants of “Not one more!”


Organizers were exuberant about the turnout, which they said exceeded expectations and marked a “reenergizing” of the antiwar movement.

The crowd might have been even bigger but for an electrical outage on the Amtrak line that wiped out train service all morning along the Eastern seaboard, stranding hundreds of protesters on their way here.

The march itself got off to a late start, as speakers like Ralph Nader and Ramsey Clark droned on about the litany of Bush’s impeachable offenses at the opening rally organized by ANSWER. Among the throngs was a contingent of about 50 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, many dressed in camo jackets. “We’re not against the soldiers, we’re against the war!” they chanted…

The Iraq vets were followed by about three dozen members of Gold Star Families for Peace, who marched bearing laminated photographs of their fallen loved ones. In contrast to the buoyant, celebratory feeling in the rest of the crowd, the mood here was determined and grave. “It’s hard to get into the joyousness of it all,” shrugged Steve DeFord of Oregon, watching a rather militant group of Bread and Puppet activists bang drums and stage a mock die-in with lumpy cardboard shapes that were meant to represent dead Iraqi civilians…

“Twenty thousand more people could die and it wouldn’t give my son’s life any more meaning,” said Diane Santoriello of Pittsburgh, whose son, First Lt. Neil Santoriello, was killed by when a bomb exploded under his tank while patrolling in Iraq. “I think the situation is out of control and we’re making things worse.”

Several blocks away, Robin Godrey and his group West Virginia Patriots for Peace marched with a series of large banners bearing the names and dates for all 1,906 servicemen who have died since the war began. “Our local paper runs the body count on the front page every day,” said Godfrey, a lawyer whose own son did a year’s tour with the Army in Iraq. Over the past year, Godfrey says his group has grown to 1,000 members. “We’ve got Republicans and Democrats. They just can’t label us as one thing.”

The march spilled onto the Washington Monument grounds for the “Operation Ceasefire Concert” and rally hosted by United for Peace and Justice. The scene was a bit of a flashback to the 1960s, with Joan Baez singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Wayne Kramer of the MC5 strutting with his guitar, followed by the hard-rocking soul of the Bellrays. Emcee Jello Biafra cracked jokes holding a cardboard sign: “Make Pizza Not War.”

Ferguson also reports for the Voice Sept. 26 that Sheehan and 370 others were arrested at a civil disobedience in front of the White House that day.

Images and further reports from the march are online at the Global Justice Ecology Project.

A dimmer view of the affair is taken by Christopher Hitchens.

See our last post on Cindy Sheehan, the politics of the anti-war movement, and why WW4 REPORT opposed the march.


Following WW4 REPORT’s December 2005 story “THE POLITICS OF THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT, And the Intractable Dilemma of International ANSWER” (also printed in the December issue of the War Resisters League newsletter, The Nonviolent Activist), UFPJ issued the following statement:

UFPJ Rejects Future Work with ANSWER

Ending the War in Iraq, Building a Broad Movement for Peace and Justice, And Our Experience with A.N.S.W.E.R.

From the Steering Committee, United for Peace and Justice
December 12, 2005

United for Peace and Justice aims to build the broadest, most diverse movement for an immediate and complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We see this as our immediate priority in the long-term effort to build a durable peace and justice movement that connects domestic and international issues. We are committed to working in a way that makes it possible for the widest array of people to come together around common aims, including communities of color, military families, Iraq war veterans and other veterans, the labor movement, youth, religious community, the women’s and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movements, professional organizations and community groups.

As our coalition moves forward, we try to evaluate our experiences in order to strengthen our efforts and overcome our shortcomings. In recent months, a difficult and controversial aspect of our work has been our engagement with International A.N.S.W.E.R in co-sponsoring the September 24, 2005 Washington, D.C. Rally and March. Following this experience, and after thorough discussion, the national steering committee of United for Peace and Justice has decided not to coordinate work with ANSWER again on a national level. Here we want to share with all UFPJ member groups our summary of this experience and the decisions we have made as a result.

In spring 2005, based on previous experiences, UFPJ did not believe it would be productive to make coordination with ANSWER a centerpiece of our September 24 efforts. (See memo dated May 23rd – click here: We had a particular vision for this specific action:

(1) its central demands would hone in on ending the war in Iraq, thus sending a focused message to the U.S. public and providing an entryway into the antiwar movement for the expanding number of people prepared to turn out for a protest demonstration; and
(2) the connections between the Iraq war and Washington’s overall empire building, the U.S. support of the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, racism, repression and injustice at home would be articulated in accessible and creative ways, not only via rally speakers, but also at an interactive two day peace and justice festival, and throughout a 12 hour concert.

We did not believe ANSWER shared this perspective on the September 24 activities. Therefore we decided that working with them would hinder rather than help in maximizing the breadth and impact of such a demonstration at an urgent political moment.

As September 24 came closer and some circumstances changed, we changed our perspective. Regarding the weekend in general, the spotlight Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath put on racism and class inequities led us to highlight the demand for Funding Full and Just Recovery in the Gulf Coast. Regarding our relations with ANSWER, our concerns grew about the potential confusion of having two totally separate demonstrations in the same city on the same day. We seriously considered the thoughtful concerns expressed by some anti-war groups and activists that an agreement for a joint UFPJ-ANSWER action needed to be worked out. As a result, after much reflection and without unanimity among us, we reversed our earlier decision. With the help of mediation by U.S. Labor Against the War, we worked out an agreement with ANSWER for joint sponsorship of the September 24 Rally and March (but not other weekend activities). (See the text of the agreement, click here:

There were two positive results of this agreement. First, we avoided the problem of two completely separate demonstrations in Washington, DC on September 24. Second, the rancorous public dispute over the whos, hows and whys of September 24 was largely ended for the important period immediately preceding the action.

But there were many negative results as well.

First, ANSWER violated the terms of our agreement in ways that substantially and negatively impacted September 24’s message and impact:

(1) ANSWER did not honor the agreed-upon time limits for its sections of the pre-march Rally, going more than an hour over in one section. The time was to be evenly divided in 30 minutes segments alternating between the two coalitions. Besides the impact in terms of disrespect to other speakers and the attendees in Washington, DC, this meant that the C-SPAN broadcast of the rally presented a one-sided picture of the antiwar movement to the U.S. public. In the extended ANSWER section broadcast on C-SPAN, there was in fact very little focus on, or explanation of, the central demand motivating hundreds of thousands of people to attend the demonstration: U.S. Out of Iraq Now.

(2) ANSWER delayed the start of the March for an hour past the agreed upon time. We learned that morning that while our agreement with ANSWER was to begin the march at 12:30, the permit ANSWER had negotiated with the police had the march starting at 1:30. This led to confusion, which in turn prevented the agreed-upon lead contingent carrying the agreed-upon lead banner (“End the War in Iraq, Bring the Troops Home Now, Justice for Hurricane Victims”) from actually leading the March. This diluted the March’s message – especially in terms of media images of the March’s front rank. It also jeopardized relationships between UFPJ and the representatives of several organizations whom we asked be part of the lead contingent of the March. An antiwar movement still not as strong as we need to be when compared to the tasks before us, in which developing relationships of mutual trust and accountability is of vital importance, can ill afford such short-sighted and narrow-minded practice.

(3) ANSWER did not turn out many volunteers to provide for fundraising, security and media operations for the March and Rally. UFPJ was also short of volunteers, but the much smaller numbers from ANSWER meant that many of the practical burdens of attending to the needs of the crowd fell on UFPJ, while ANSWER concentrated its attention on extending the time their speakers were on the stage.

In our view, it was because we had insisted (against ANSWER’s objections) that the terms of our agreement be made public; and through the costly expenditure of time and energy to deal with one issue after another in the weeks just before September 24, that additional problems were avoided. However, the interactions required to accomplish this were tremendously difficult and stressful, taking a major human toll on the UFPJ representatives participating in meetings with ANSWER. UFPJ has made our share of mistakes and no doubt some of us may have made intemperate and inappropriate remarks in the heat of political difficulty. We also see that while our agreement with ANSWER did not require us to do so, the fact that we did not inform them about the plans to include speakers during the late afternoon/evening concert might have contributed to the tension. But the souring of the political atmosphere is largely due to ANSWER, which, in our experience, consistently substitutes labels (“racist”, “anti-unity”) and mischaracterization of others’ views for substantive political debate or problem solving – both in written polemics and direct face-to-face interactions.

Beyond all this, the priority given to negotiating and then trying to carry out an agreement with ANSWER hurt rather than helped galvanize the participation of many other groups and individuals in the September 24 activities. In part this is simply a question of where time and resources were directed. But it also stems from the bridges ANSWER has burned over the years with other broader forces in the progressive movement. Many longtime antiwar and social movement activists – and many groups only recently embracing mass action against the war – have had the same kind of negative experiences with ANSWER that we did in the run-up to, and on September 24. Some people, and some UFPJ member groups, believe this stems from ANSWER’s political and strategic perspectives. Others attribute the problems to what is often called style of work, or to issues about democracy, decision making and control. Whatever the case on this level, co-sponsorship with ANSWER on September 24 was welcomed by some in the antiwar movement but limited or prevented completely the participation of others.

This is not surprising: “unity in the movement” doesn’t happen in the abstract. Especially when up-close coordination is involved, unity takes place between specifics groups and individuals, and choices to work in close cooperation with certain groups with certain approaches simultaneously means choosing not to work in the same fashion with other groups. Of course we all dream of a situation where everyone gets together as one cooperative movement family. But we still must deal with politics as they are, not as we wish them to be. Sometimes it is necessary for groups with extremely bitter relations to cooperate for a common aim. But there are many circumstances when effective movement building and the long-range process of developing unity is better served by different groups pursuing different courses, until conditions change or the groups themselves evolve and transform.

In terms of UFPJ’s relationship with ANSWER, our national steering committee has concluded that the latter path is best for the foreseeable future. We did not have consensus. But by a more than two thirds supermajority we voted on December 4 not to coordinate work with ANSWER again on a national level. We simultaneously recognized that other settings and situations may be different. We make no recommendations or mandates on this issue to UFPJ member groups in local or constituency-based areas, who will continue to decide whether and/or how much to coordinate efforts with ANSWER based on their own experiences, conditions and judgments.

The tasks in front of the anti-Iraq war movement and all of us who are struggling for peace and justice are immense. Yet this is a moment of great opportunity, as popular anger at Bush’s wars against people abroad and at home grows, and as an expanding number of organizations – many with massive constituencies among poor, working and oppressed peoples – are willing to consider taking up aggressive protest mobilizations. United for Peace and Justice will redouble our efforts to push forward the antiwar movement and to bring the broadest and most diverse array of people and groups into the struggle for peace and justice.