New -- and Old -- Antiwar Protesters Hope to Turn Momentum Into a Movement
Peace by Pieces
New -- and Old -- Antiwar Protesters Hope to Turn Momentum Into a Movement
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2005; C01
One after another their trails led them here -- from California, New York,
Baltimore -- disparate members of the same movement, drawn by some strong
instinct that told them: Now is the time. This is the place.
Folded into a couch at one end of the restaurant is Tom Hayden,
silver-goateed eminence of antiwars past, while huddled with colleagues at
a long table is Leslie Cagan, doyenne of the peace movement's present.
Looking wan and wrung out in yet another corner stands Tia Steele, whose
stepson was shot in the throat and killed in Fallujah.
It's not just the usual peacenik suspects. Washington Wizard Etan Thomas
bounds up on the restaurant's stage to perform his updated Gil
Scott-Heron-style poetry -- They knock down doors to start wars / With
hands stained by the blood of foreign sands -- for a packed house that
includes David Meggyesy, the former Cardinal who quit the National Football
League in protest of the Vietnam War.
Vietnam? The unquiet ghost, the untamed analogy, is loose in the air.
There's that old nervy feeling that Something Is Happening. Here. Now. But
you could be mistaken.
Every movement needs a crossroads, a watering hole, an asylum. Busboys and
Poets -- part restaurant, bookstore, theater -- opened a couple weeks ago,
at 14th and V streets NW, just in time for the peace movement's headiest
days in forever.
Plump couches, radical books, free WiFi, $5 microbrews, killer sound
system, a menu that runs from catfish and collard greens to peanut butter,
banana and honey sandwiches: a cool, comfortable, slightly bourgy haven for
a hot, bothered, slightly bourgy peace movement.
Critics cannot easily dismiss this incarnation of antiwar enthusiasm as a
fringe passion of anarchists, communists and freaks (though an author still
tried to make that case last month at a Heritage Foundation forum). Recent
polls say a majority of Americans -- as many as 59 percent -- think the war
in Iraq is a "mistake" and the troops should be brought home. (Brought home
when? That's another question.)
The news is almost too much to handle. Demonstrators walk around saying, We
are the majority, trying it on like unfamiliar clothes.
It has been half a lifetime since the peaceniks felt so . . . mainstream.
The last time a majority became disenchanted with a conflict as shots were
still being fired -- including the Gulf War, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan --
was August 1968, when Gallup first detected that most Americans considered
the Vietnam War a "mistake."
Cindy Sheehan, the movement's own Mother Courage, commands the kind of
obsessive cable coverage usually lavished on titillating crimes. Her
caravan from Crawford, Tex., rolled into Washington yesterday and 17
television cameras documented her first step onto the soil of the nation's
capital in her quest to ask President Bush in person: "What is the 'noble
cause' for which you sent our country to war?"
Seeking to capitalize on the momentum, Cagan's United for Peace and Justice
and the ANSWER Coalition have organized a rally and encirclement of the
White House on Saturday morning that they hope will draw 100,000. That will
be followed by Operation Ceasefire, an 11-hour concert featuring Joan Baez,
Steve Earle, Thievery Corporation and the Coup. United for Peace and
Justice is planning more antiwar activities for Sunday and Monday. The
overall message: Bring the troops home now .
Until then, it has been long days of testifying on the Hill, haranguing in
Lafayette Square, fundraising, phone-banking, pounding out e-mails at 2:37
a.m. -- Re: FW: FW: FLYERING!
Then nights at Busboys and Poets, where members of the new not-so-silent
majority are ushered to the restaurant's theater for "Fear Up," a play
about the new American style of interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, or a
screening of "Operation: Dreamland," a grunt's-eye documentary about the
occupation of Fallujah.
"I think the depression and malaise that followed not being able to stop
the war and not being able to do anything after the election has shifted,"
Steele says, "and people who felt deflated and defeated are now coming
together in recognition that we can do something and we are doing something."
"I've opened many restaurants," says Andy Shallal, an Iraqi American who
owns Busboys and Poets. "This is the most bull's-eye I've ever shot. This
one people came in and got it right away. I think it's about timing."
The Roots of Protest
They converge, then disperse to "organize."
Whether Something really is Happening is difficult to measure. The polls
offer clues, but also caveats.
Americans were much quicker to decide that Iraq was a mistake than Vietnam,
says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. It took three years
in the case of Vietnam, just 15 months for Iraq.
However, Newport says, the peace movement's claims to rising momentum are
more tenuous. Since a majority first called Iraq a mistake more than a year
ago, the number has fluctuated rather than increased steadily. Polls in the
last week have suggested an uptick.
Hurricane Katrina and now Rita may be sucking publicity from peace. On the
other hand, the movement has struck a chord with some people by using
Katrina to further question Bush's competence and priorities.
If this weekend's demonstrations do draw 100,000, they will rival a prewar
peace march in Washington that police suggested involved more than 100,000
and was considered the largest antiwar rally since Vietnam. Organizers
claimed 500,000 attended that march.
So if you want to learn about the movement, you need to track the
characters back up the solitary trails of tears that brought them here. The
journeys involve the main questions facing the peace movement:
If the troops come home now, won't there be even more chaos and deaths of
innocents in Iraq?
How can you support the troops and not the war?
If we don't fight the Enemy in Iraq, will we someday fight him here?
Isn't it a good thing that Saddam Hussein is toppled and facing trial?
If we "cut and run" and do not "stay the course," will the fallen have died
Empty Boots on the Ground
On a recent Saturday, Tia Steele is contemplating a field of black boots in
Baltimore. The pairs are arranged in neat ranks like a negative image of
the white crosses in Arlington Cemetery. One pair for each of 1,895 dead
soldiers and Marines by this point in the war.
It's the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit arranged by the American Friends Service
Committee at Johns Hopkins University. The exhibit has toured 65 cities
since January 2004, when there were only 504 pairs of boots, and has been
seen by more than 500,000 people, organizers say. About 6,000 people
attended in Baltimore.
The boots are symbolic, purchased from surplus, not worn by the honored
dead, but on a table is a special display of boots donated by families.
Next to a pair worn by Pvt. Robert Frantz are two photographs. One shows
him and his smiling recruiter, the other shows his tombstone.
Thick-soled and toe-scuffed are the boots of Spec. Casey Sheehan,
posthumously famous son of Mother Cindy. The leather is stamped "Made in
And there are the boots of Lance Cpl. David Branning, Tia Steele's stepson.
A woman approaches shyly. In her hand is an official paper: "Report of
Casualty." It's what Yvonne Green has now instead of her daughter. It says
Spec. Toccara Green, 23, of Rosedale, Md., was killed in action in the "War
on Terrorism/Operation Iraqi Freedom." The death is so recent that boots
for her are being added only today.
Steele embraces Green. Two mothers with wet eyes.
This is the feeling side of the peace movement. Steele, 56, a Baltimore
research psychologist, believes minds are changed not by information as
much as by experience. It's what happened to her.
She was stunned when David signed up for the Marines, but she didn't try to
talk him out of it. He was a thoughtful young man, figuring out his own
path. He took "War and Peace" to the battlefield.
He was killed kicking down a door in Fallujah. He was 21.
To her, none of the administration's evolving justifications for the war
withstood scrutiny -- 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, global war on
terrorism, building democracy. But she did not openly dissent until she got
her own Report of Casualty. She quit her job to coordinate "Eyes Wide Open"
and now hopes to find work in the movement.
"David can't have died in vain," she says. "I have an obligation to his
honor and to the David that I loved to do something about this craziness. .
. . This war is a lie. To keep perpetuating it is to cause more damage."
The View From Here
A huge collage covers one wall of Busboys and Poets, a scrapbook of a
century's worth of struggle for peace and justice. Portraits of Martin
Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Joseph McCarthy. Demonstrators being beaten.
The naked napalmed Vietnamese girl running down the road.
Painted across the top are the simple words of Langston Hughes:
Let America be America again
Let it be the dream it used to be
This is the fundamental yearning of protesters who consider themselves
Shallal, 50, painted the mural himself. His family came to Washington in
the mid-1960s, when his father was ambassador of the Arab League. After
Saddam Hussein seized power, they could not return.
Shallal became a researcher in medical immunology at the National
Institutes of Health, then switched to the restaurant business -- he also
owns Mimi's American Bistro and the Luna Grill near Dupont Circle -- and
became active in peace issues. He camped in Crawford, Tex., with Cindy Sheehan.
He expects a lot of the land where now he is a citizen.
"I don't want it to be another country with better plumbing," he says.
Before the invasion, members of his family, some of whom still live in
Iraq, were divided on the prospect of war. Some thought removal of Hussein
was worth the price of invasion. Others questioned the legitimacy.
Shallal thinks toppling the dictator could have been achieved peacefully
with more time. The violence, he says, undermines U.S. claims to be doing
anything good for Iraq. Life in Baghdad for his cousins is more primitive
and dangerous than under Hussein, he says.
The presence of American troops is breeding more terrorists, making America
less safe, he says, so bring the troops home now.
"The U.S. is only creating more conditions for civil war," he says. "The
Iraqis need to figure this out for themselves."
From War to Peace
Tia Steele's path leads to Charlie Anderson, who came home in one piece,
physically. He has donated his own boots to the exhibit.
"These boots were worn during the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of
Crawford, Texas," he says.
Navy Petty Officer Anderson, 28, was a hospital corpsman assigned to a
Marine tank battalion. He says five men he felt close to were killed. He
stands in the field of boots with his head bowed and wipes his eyes. He
flinches at the bang of nearby construction equipment.
He had a job stocking shelves in Ohio when he enlisted a decade ago hoping
for a better future. He kept reenlisting: He felt he didn't have a choice
with a wife and daughter and no immediate prospects outside the service.
When the war came, he supported it without much thought. He couldn't
believe his country would launch it without good reason and hard evidence.
Turning against the war was a slow process.
"To admit that everything we gave up in order to do this was for nothing,
that's a hard sell," he says.
Seeing the country for himself, he became dubious of the supposed terror
threat to the U.S. homeland, "as if Hassan with a bookstore on Haifa Street
is going to wreak havoc on Sylvania, Ohio." The alternative justification
of planting democracy seemed futile to him. "Then I was pinned down to
weapons of mass destruction," he says.
He joined Iraq Veterans Against the War before his discharge in March. The
group claims about 300 members and is growing quickly after public exposure
this summer alongside Cindy Sheehan. In comparison, Vietnam Veterans
Against the War took about two years to form and another couple years to
gain traction, Anderson says.
Anderson has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he is
a student in Virginia Beach and an activist.
He sees yellow ribbon magnets on cars, he hears talk about how you have to
"support the troops." He wants to ask the ribbon people if they ever wrote
a soldier to tell him? He wants to ask, How much support was there to send
the troops with proper armor? As some come home battered, how much support
is there for the budget of the Veterans Administration?
Anderson says American troops are "phenomenal people who are willing to
sacrifice everything" to complete a mission, but in Iraq "the mission keeps
"What is the mission? Tell me what the mission is."
A Distant Echo
A bare stage with nine actors. The theater is the room with the mural and
the hovering prayer to let America be America. An audience of about 70
fills nearly every seat.
An actor playing a troubled FBI interrogator says:
"Some of these techniques, I don't want to see, or be a part of. I took an
oath to the Constitution to uphold the laws against enemies both inside the
U.S. and out. . . . The [Pentagon] guy got really upset. He said he took
the oath, too. I told him that we must have different interpretations, then."
"Fear Up" is set in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay. It's nonfiction, drawn from
testimony, memoirs and journalistic sources, like that quote from a recent
New Yorker article.
A few days before opening night, the two assemblers -- not playwrights,
exactly -- meet in a Capitol Hill coffee shop over a laptop and do final
tinkering. One -- Karen Bradley, 54, director of graduate studies in dance
at the University of Maryland -- had demonstrated against the Vietnam War
as a college student, and she recalls the possibility and power in the
movement then. She detects something similar in the air now.
"People are angry, but they're focused," she says. "It's not blind rage.
People are sober, and very determined."
Part of Bradley's evidence that Something Is Happening is that she knows so
many people who have never demonstrated before who are on their way to
Washington for this weekend. People like Michael Kahn, 46, an oncologist
from outside Chicago. ("This is a critical point for our country," he
says.) And Susan Krueger, 44, a mother who home-schooled her children in
small-town Michigan. ("We have to make a big noise and a continuous noise,"
The other creator of "Fear Up" -- Marietta Hedges, 44, assistant professor
of acting at Catholic University -- reaches back to the same point of
"The September 24 demonstrations could be a pivotal turning point like you
remember from the Vietnam War," she says.
But knowing when Something Is Really Happening has always been tricky.
Hedges was in London when hundreds of thousands marched for peace shortly
before the invasion, in an effort to forestall war. It was a stirring
experience. Hedges remembers what a woman marching beside her said: "I
think we're going to stop this war. I think we're going to prevent it from