art: David Hollenbach

art: David Hollenbach

When one woman showed up outside George Bush’s ranch demanding nothing more than dialogue and received massive national media attention for weeks on end, the antiwar movement stopped momentarily to rethink itself. “Is this the new face of protest?” wrote The Nation.

Groups like United for Peace & Justice spend thousands of dollars and countless human energy hours organizing mass protests such as the unprecedented Feb 15, 2003, protests. While those gathered more than 10 million people worldwide to condemn the then-pending war on Iraq, it obviously didn’t stop it.

So in advance of the Sept. 24 mass protests in Washington, D.C., it’s worth reflecting on the usefulness of such demonstrations.

Undeniably, mass protests against the war still serve as vivid proof that millions of American citizens do not support imperialism. While politicians sing their siren song bidding us all to acquiesce, and the media amplify those voices, for at least the brief hours of a protest, the lullaby is interrupted.

For everyone not present at the demonstration, however, the media play a significant role in determining how effectively protests communicate to the public. The media often minimizes the number of participants, as FAIR, a media watch group, has repeatedly shown. But even if the events are accurately reported, the reasons for them are often ignored.

Even so, the visible frustration of hundreds of thousands of citizens angry at U.S. policy is a powerful force, and if nothing else, signals to the rest of the world that not everyone in this country supports its policies. Without the anti-war protests in February and March 2003 the world might have thought all Americans were oil-hungry cowboys, and had New York passively accepted the Republicans last summer, it would have seemed as if we’d finally toppled over the cliff into fearful complacency and bourgeois apathy.

Nonetheless, protests should not be viewed in isolation; they are only one expression of a larger movement. As Bill Dobbs, a spokesperson for UFPJ, said, “A single event is not going to cause a change, but an event that is part of continued organizing can make a difference.”

Indeed, it is the other branches of the antiwar movement that have made truly tangible dents in the war machine. Counter-recruitment efforts, for example, have become one of the most important methods of resistance, starving the military of its most valuable resource. By deterring people from enlisting, counter-recruitment not only saves lives, but also may make the Bush administration think twice about starting more wars of aggression.

Its important to note, however, that even during the Vietnam War, it was not so much the massive demonstrations and torrents of disgusted letters to members of Congress that ended the war. Rather, it was the Vietnamese people’s relentless resistance that eventually forced the United States out of Vietnam.

Mass protests are the cannon blasts of the antiwar movement, loud and powerful, but not particularly precise. They scream the outrage of a people, but that scream is more emotive than articulate. We don’t protest to end wars. We protest for the same reason we scream obscenities when we slam our fingers in a car door: pain makes us cry out. We protest for the same reason poor kids in the Bronx invented hip-hop: When the system’s trying to keep you down, sometimes throwing a party is the only way to get up. Protests don’t solve problems, but as part of a larger strategy of resistance, they help keep us sane while we rage against the war machine.