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America's New Anti-War 

As the United States retaliates, Triangle activists are pushing for peace

A charter bus, one of two from Chapel Hill, is cruising into Washington, D.C. Its 40 occupants have come to join the largest national peace rally since the country declared war against terrorism. Josef Osterneck, a 35-year-old acoustic engineer from Raleigh, sits up front. But hitting the streets for peace wasn't his first instinct after hearing of the terrorist attacks.

"On September 11, I got really emotional and angry, and didn't feel like doing any organizing," says Osterneck, who protested against the Gulf War when he was an undergrad at North Carolina State University and has since worked with the so-called anti-globalization movement. But within days of the terrorist attacks, he says, so many local activists told him they wanted to make their voices heard in Washington that he reserved busses for the trip.

This bus is abuzz with chatter about the day's events: How many people will assemble? In the heated aftermath of the attacks, will the police play rough with dissenters marching in the U.S. capital? And, most important, will the protesters' message get through to the nation?

Anticipation peaks as the bus crosses the last stretch of highway and the Washington skyline comes into view. It's 11 a.m on Saturday, Sept. 29, and there, on the immediate horizon, is the newly scarred Pentagon. A charred, empty hole of crushed concrete gapes through the building that has so long represented the invincibility of U.S. military power. The Triangle peaceniks crane their necks and stare, for the first time directly, at part of the destruction wrought by the terrorists.

Suddenly, silence. For a moment, there's nothing to say.

But there is plenty to think about. Peering at the blackened Pentagon, the rage returns, says Osterneck. "I started to experience those feelings again. I got so mad at the terrorists that I had second thoughts about going up to the rally. But I've had these strong convictions against war for the last two decades, so I stuck to principle and didn't let my emotions rule out."

How to exercise those convictions, and how to spread them, say Triangle activists, is the fundamental task of the new anti-war movement. Over the past three weeks, they have begun to grapple with the daunting challenge of opposing a war that has been declared but barely commenced, a conflict that seems both inevitable and yet still open to question.

This crowd isn't naïve: Some of them doubt the public opinion polls that say 90-plus percent of Americans favor war, but none deny that they are in the minority---and that they have a great deal of persuading to do.

And then there is the sheer pace of events. "Things have been moving so fast," says Jim Warren, executive director of the nuclear watchdog group N.C. WARN and an organizer of the new Coalition to End the Cycle of Violence, which is spearheading peace rallies in the Triangle. "Ten years ago we had five months to prepare and organize to oppose the Gulf War," he notes--and even then, activists failed to forestall military actions.

This time, no one expected the luxury of such a delay--and on Oct. 7 the bombs and missiles started flying. If ever there was a time that would test the mettle, creativity and response time of peace activists, it's now.

Right now, peace is a hard sell. Most of America wants to know: Who in their right mind opposes going to war against terrorists?

It may not be evident in the national media, but in fact, all sorts of people do. Young people, old people and those in between. Students and teachers. Workers and bosses. People of color and white people. The straight-laced and the funky. Veterans and pacifists, "patriots" and "dissidents." In the Triangle, groups pushing for peace can be found meeting in classrooms, auditoriums, churches, mosques and synagogues, and congregating in the streets at marches and vigils. They write editorials, contact their legislators and call radio shows. They chant, converse, petition and tote signs.

There is some dissension in the ranks over the particulars of the new anti-war effort, and over the best strategies for action. But the movement's message, in a nutshell, is that the tragedy of Sept. 11 will only be compounded by U.S. military action in the Middle East. Not only will innocent civilians be harmed--indeed, hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing in fear already have been--but more violence abroad will likely beget more violence against the United States. The alternative they suggest is to use international laws and institutions to bring the terrorists to justice.

The local peace movement has no central authority, but if it has a nerve center, it is the town of Chapel Hill, with its rich history of community- and university-based activism. It's true that actions against the war are taking place throughout the Triangle: On Sept. 30, for example, more than 200 people rallied in front of the Durham courthouse to hear arguments for peace from local political, religious and community leaders. And the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, president of the Durham NAACP, came out so strongly against going to war that he garnered a reproach from NAACP headquarters and rebukes from local newspaper editorialists.

But Chapel Hill is one of those rare places in the country where people regularly encounter the anti-war message; this was true even before the events of Sept. 11. Since the attacks, activists in and around Chapel Hill have sprung into action and marshaled the state's most immediate and high-profile pleas for peace.

Each afternoon, during rush hour drive time, several locals stand in front of the post office on Franklin Street with signs calling for peace. An anti-war rally on Sept. 23 drew an estimated 500 citizens, with speeches, networking and a march through the university and town. And the campus is crawling with some of the most committed and experienced peace activists in the South.

A teach-in in the Student Union at UNC- Chapel Hill on Sept. 17, just six days after the attacks, was the most telling indication of just how much dissent is brewing here against the Bush administration's plans for war. An estimated 800 students, faculty and community members packed an auditorium to hear a panel of academics and authors make a militant case for peace.

The forum, entitled "Understanding the Attack on America: An Alternative View," was put together by UNC-Chapel Hill's Progressive Faculty Network (PFN), which was started by a handful of professors in 1999 to oppose tuition increases and the corporatization of the university. Since then, the network has spoken out on other important causes, but the present conflict has swelled their ranks; this is as active as the group has ever been. What's more, they're working hand in hand with student groups, meeting and strategizing together and dividing their labors.

Catherine Lutz, an anthropology professor active in the PFN, explains why some faculty members were compelled to move fast to get their views out. "There are enough of us who are just old enough and just young enough to have experience with many military interventions, to have learned from mistakes of the past," she says. "That if you don't act quickly, events can overtake you. [U.S. interventions in] Grenada and Panama, for example, were lightning speed, over in a few days."

Student groups at UNC feel the same urgency, and they too have previous experiences to draw on. Many have cut their activist teeth in the global justice movement, which is driven by a panoply of causes including environmentalism, anti-racism and economic and political equality. Along the way, they've learned how to organize and agitate, and many have become well versed in the foreign policy issues that are being hotly debated in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In effect, the student groups constituted a ready-made infrastructure for instant activism.

The search for answers and sensible courses of action after Sept. 11 also drew some new recruits into anti-war activism. "I think that many students who may have been relatively complacent before Sept. 11 now feel compelled to become proactive in the issues surrounding them," says Kristin Rawls, head of the campus chapter of International Justice Mission, a Christian group that is arguing against going to war. "History has shown that well-organized students can be a very influential political force; we have a lot to offer this movement."

Not only are the students some of the most committed anti-war activists, they also are equipped with some of the best organizing tools, namely, the Internet. Online listservs are this movement's town square--it's where activists voice their opinions, hash out strategy and announce events. Lutz says the Internet has spring-boarded the peace movement, because with it, "people could talk together in large numbers, right away, both locally as well as nationally."

Many messages are emerging from the many voices in the new peace movement, but after all the meetings, the forums, the back-and-forth between the activists, several themes are emerging. A flyer distributed by the Coalition to End the Cycle of Violence sums up four main points:

1) WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER: Don't kill more innocent people

Bomb and missile strikes, the activists say, are bound to inflict "collateral damage" and kill noncombatants--exacerbating, not resolving, the violence of Sept. 11.

"What will additional suffering--by military strikes against an impoverished country--provide, except more loss of lives and increased hate against the U.S?" asks Rania Masri, an outspoken anti-war activist from Raleigh.

2) ISLAM IS NOT THE ENEMY: Stop hate crimes against Arab-Americans and Muslims

Local activists have organized around this issue since the first days after the terror attacks, when the reports of a backlash against people who look Arab or Muslim started circulating. They have publicized the rise in ethnic profiling, donned brown ribbons in a show of solidarity, and visited Arab-American businesses and places of worship to demonstrate their support.

"When there is an attack on a Muslim neighbor in our community, that is an attack on the United States," says Elin Slavick, a UNC art professor active in the campaign for tolerance.

3) BRING THE ATTACKERS TO JUSTICE: Use international law

Many in the nascent peace movement are urging that the terrorist attacks be treated as a crime against humanity and not as the spark for more bloodshed, and they believe that diplomacy and laws can bring the most justice.

Bill Towe, of Cary, is a national co-chair of Peace Action, and one of the country's leading arms-control advocates. In a letter published in the Sept. 23 News & Observer, he wrote: "We can help build a multi-national coalition against terrorism, using international institutions like the United Nations and the World Court. Such a coalition can help capture and prosecute the accused criminals rather than killing other innocent civilians."

4) WORK FOR GLOBAL PEACE AND JUSTICE: End U.S. policy that breeds terror

"If U.S. citizens don't start paying attention to the history of these policies and the violent problems they spawn and then try to change them, it is not just we who will be living in a world of war and terror, but even our grandchildren," says Don Nonini, an assistant professor of anthropology at UNC who is active in the PFN. "To prevent further acts of terror, wherever they occur in the world, also requires confronting some unpalatable facts of the history of U.S. foreign policy and military intervention."

Here the peace movement is making its most controversial argument: that there will be no genuine peace and security for the United States until it acts less belligerently and more justly abroad. Some of those in favor of military action, and some of those riding the fence, say that pinning blame on U.S. foreign policy puts the peace movement in the "blame America first" crowd--and even some activists see this element of the message as the one most open to challenge.

On the whole, the peace movement's principles seem clear enough, but America's new war is still a nebulous entity, so undefined that it can be difficult to discuss critically. Dave Lippman, a freelance radio producer and longtime activist, helped lead an Oct. 1 workshop at UNC-Chapel Hill called "How to Organize Actions Against War."

"One of the things, besides not knowing who the war is against, is that we may not know whether the war is on or off," Lippman says. "We've been told that we won't even be informed of the victory, much less the failures." As President Bush famously put it: "Sometimes people will be able to see what we do on the television screens; other times the American people won't be able to see what we're doing."

The ambiguity and uncertainty of the conflict may provide the opening for dialogue that the peace movement needs, Lippman argues. "We have a very unusual opportunity here that is a little different from a lot of wars that we've campaigned against in the past, in that people are asking questions that they haven't asked in the past. They're asking why are 'they' doing this to us. ... People are asking questions that we have a responsibility to step up to and deal with."

There is some debate within the peace movement over how to deal with those questions, how best to reach out to the public in hyper-patriotic, post-attack America. Matt Smith, a longtime labor organizer and a graduate philospohy student at UNC is in the pro-peace camp, but is critical of some of the movement's efforts thus far.

"The peace movement is going through the long and hard process of working out its message and coming up with some coherent set of goals," he says. "This is very important work and it needs to happen," but so far, "there is nothing even approaching a well-defined message or set of goals that is distinctly about peace.

"The underlying problem is that the peace movement--insofar as it is a movement--is talking to itself and not to everyone else," Smith says. The movement, he warns, is alienating its audience, and should "drop much of the rhetoric about U.S. imperialism, etc., even though it represents the truth.

"We must show the American public that we share their outrage at the Sept. 11 attacks," he adds. "We have not done a good job convincing the American public that we believe that a grave injustice has occurred and that it warrants immediate response."

Rawls makes a similar point, recommending that the movement shift the tone, if not the substance, of its pronouncements. "I am not suggesting that we water down our message, but we do have to speak it calmly if we are ever going to have any hope of reaching the mainstream," she says. "I am simply encouraging people to avoid using divisive terminology that only we progressives understand. Instead of talking about the 'military industrial complex,' for instance, we need to be able to explain to people what that is. Mainstream people are not as open to hearing about what is wrong with their government as we are."

At the same time, Lutz says, a hard, honest look at U.S. foreign policy will be essential to any effective resolution of America's international crisis. "The slogan is: Explanation is not excuse, explanation is understanding, and understanding is key to solving the problem."

The internal critiques are mild in comparison to the onslaught local peace activists have been hit with from critics who have questioned their patriotism. The first anti-war teach-in at UNC caught flak from angry people across the nation, after two UNC students wrote a critical account of the forum for frontpagemagazine.com, the online publication of arch-conservative agitator David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Titled "America's Enemies Rally at UNC-Chapel Hill," the article accused the faculty speakers of "spewing hatred for America," and ended by listing Chancellor James Moeser's contact information.

Hundreds of angry messages flew into the chancellor's office, and then State Rep. Russell Capps, a Wake County Republican, denounced the university for hosting the event in remarks on the House floor. PFN members who had spoken out began receiving hate e-mail and threatening phone calls.

Members were encouraged by what happened next. Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, countered Capps by urging respect for freedom of expression, even in the heated aftermath of the terrorist strike. And Moeser fielded the criticism with a vigorous defense of the faculty's right to free speech. "The content of these public events has been balanced and offered a diversity of viewpoints about the current issues facing our nation and world," he wrote regarding the forums at UNC. "A university must be a place where faculty, students and staff discuss and debate issues of the day, and I will defend vigorously the rights of members of our community to free expression and assembly."

The controversy certainly hasn't stemmed the activities of the PFN, which has already staged two additional teach-ins and is planning others. Slavick says she sees it as her duty as a citizen, artist and educator, to actively oppose America's new war. "I don't have a choice," she says. "My conscience insists that I continue to speak out and act for a more peaceful and possible future."

Now that U.S. military strikes have begun, the activists say, they will have to move faster and smarter than ever to navigate the twists and turns of a combat situation. Lutz, who has just completed a book on civil and military life in Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, cites a lesson from the Gulf War: Don't get trapped by "support our troops" sentiment into supporting the policy the military is implementing.

"Once our troops get involved, there's going to be a real attempt to separate civilians from soldiers, saying that if you are criticizing our foreign policy, you are harming our sons, brothers and fathers." It was Richard Nixon, she notes, who first used this rhetoric effectively against groups protesting the war in Vietnam. Then, she says, "the peace movement allowed that to happen in the Gulf War, to spend half their time trying to prove that though they opposed war, they supported our troops.

"We need to be prepared to say that this is about American foreign policy, that we're not going to talk about soldiers, we're going to talk about policy."

Talking about policy will be especially difficult in a time of war. "What I'm very concerned about is the edge of fear, the edge of anxiety and rage that I hear so many people talking about," Nonini says. "So I think we need to take that energy and learn how to turn it around."

Right now, the anti-war effort will focus on keeping dialogue and debate alive in the face of war-tinged patriotic fervor. Such debate, they hope, will eventually reverse the country's plunge into war. The activists say it's been done before. "Public opinion translates to pressure on decision makers," says Jim Warren. "It's what finally helped get us out of Vietnam, it's what helped us prevent more killing in Central America, it's what won the civil rights movement."

Josef Osterneck, who arranged for the busses to carry locals to Washington, says that the real battle for public opinion will be won one-on-one, in conversations with friends, neighbors and strangers. "You just keep on expressing yourself, keep trying to talk to people the best way you know how," he says. "Look them in the eye and tell them what you think, and listen to what they think."

On Monday afternoon, a group of about 20 activist leaders convened an emergency planning session on the UNC campus to figure out how to express themselves in the aftermath of the first salvos in the war against terrorism. To begin with, they'll be handing out flyers on campus and staging more teach-ins, starting immediately. They are gearing up for several rallies and other events on Oct. 27, when national anti-war groups are planning an all-out push to make the case for peace.

"We have to make a presence for this voice right now, because it's being smashed in the media," says one activist.

When President Bush announced that military strikes against Afghanistan were underway, he promised "sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations." Peace activists, too, are digging in for the long haul.

"We're fighting an uphill battle," says Stanley Richards, of Chapel Hill, after the emergency meeting. "But give us a month or two, a year or two, we'll build our numbers. It's going to take a while." EndBlock

  • As the government launches combat operations, Triangle activists are pushing for peace.

More by Jon Elliston

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