A version of this article was originally published in New Ground 96, September — October, 2004.
by Bob Roman
While hundreds of thousands marched against the Bush agenda at the Republican National Convention in New York, similar demonstrations were held on a much smaller scale in numerous cities across the nation on Sunday, August 29. In Chicago, some fifteen hundred people gathered in the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams for a Unity Rally for Peace and Justice, a demonstration against the Bush agenda.
Some press reports estimated the crowd at 1000, others at 500, and all of them were accurate. It was a bright, unseasonably chilly afternoon. Even fifteen minutes after the scheduled start, there were only a few hundred people. The numbers then ballooned until, after about an hour, people began drifting away faster than they gathered. But people had come from all across the metropolitan area and beyond. A “feeder” rally was organized in DuPage County with participants taking the train into Chicago, a chartered bus came from the Rogers Park neighborhood, and car pools were organized from as far away as Fort Wayne, Indiana.
One of the goals of the rally was to answer the policies that the Bush Administration would be advocating at the Republican National Convention by providing the news media with an alternate story. And the rally was somewhat successful at this despite the modest turnout.
The “Unity Rally for Peace and Justice” was organized by a coalition of community, labor, political and religious organizations. In July, a call to organize the rally was issued by 30 of the leaders who had organized the March 16, 2003, Daly Plaza demonstration against the Iraq war. The number of participating groups grew to over 60 by August 29. Much of the organizing work was done by Chicago Jobs with Justice and its Committee for New Priorities, Chicago Labor for Peace Prosperity and Justice, Chicagoans Against War and Injustice, and the American Friends Service Committee. But the event actually mobilized a significant percentage of the sponsoring organizations to help with various tasks beyond mobilizing their own people.
Rallies such as this one are not cheap. This event had a bare bones budget of $12,000. That this was an ad hoc coalition and that the money had to be raised in a month and a half, these facts made fundraising interesting. Deep pocket contributions from SEIU and UNITE HERE started the process, but the overwhelming majority of the money came in smaller amounts from each of the other sponsors, including Chicago DSA. Some additional money came from a grant and from individuals.
The rally organizers emphasized that the opposition to the Bush agenda was far more than just being against the Iraq war and occupation. But they did want that issue prominently displayed at the rally. To that end, Chicago DSA distributed hundreds of fluorescent “No War” buttons. DSA signs also complimented the broader agenda of the demonstration and were quoted by the press, for example: “Bush says leave no billionaire behind” and “Georgie Porgie, president by theft. We will not miss you, once you have left.”
The rally organizers needn’t have worried about the war. While the speakers at the rally did indeed cover a range of issues, they also made the war a central issue. It is ironic, then, that the speakers almost uniformly boosted Kerry, a candidate with not exactly an anti-Iraq war record. (The organizers had told the speakers that this was not a Kerry rally, but once you let people loose on a platform…) It’s even more ironic that the best turn out for the rally was from the anti-war movement.
But I think it’s true that if the rally audience had been polled, the vote would have been overwhelmingly (not at all unanimously) for Kerry. And it’s not that most of those (and certainly not the rally organizers) have any great expectations for Kerry. We’ve had far too many Presidents who have promised peace then delivered war. For example, Daniel Ellsberg pointed out in his memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, how U.S. policy toward Vietnam was really pretty consistent from Truman through Nixon. Ellsberg does not claim that it makes no difference who wins a presidential election even in the context of Vietnam, but it does illustrate the difficulty in voting for peace except, perhaps, as a gesture or wishful thinking.
Yet from Tariq Ali to George Kennan, analysts have noted how domestic political considerations in the States (and we are not unique) have driven U.S. foreign policy. In electoral politics here, the foremost principle guiding most of our politicians is “Cover Your Ass.” It seems that it should be easy: that the guiding principle for the peace movement should be to speak loudly and carry a big stick.
Except it’s never so straightforward. Because of the deliberately built in advantages of incumbency (including gerrymandering of districts), Kerry will (should he win) most likely face a Congress still run by Republicans, Republicans mostly well protected by safe districts. It will be conservatives who have a first and best shot at Kerry’s hams.
What to do? This is very much on the minds of the rally organizers. And in the weeks and months following the November elections, you will be hearing more from them as part of an effort to address that very question. But that brings us to the final goal of this rally, one explicit in its title: unity.
Those with an eye for such things will have noticed a fairly well balanced selection of speakers at the rally, from politicians (Representatives Schakowsky and Gutierrez, Alderman Munoz), labor (Lynn Talbott and Tom Balanoff), religious, community and others. This was not to display an aesthetic of political correctness; these speakers were intended to illustrate the breadth of opposition to the Bush agenda and the unity of the opposition to it. I’m afraid the latter is mostly wishful thinking.
First, my experience with ad hoc coalitions has been that they do their work then die or they are institutionalized as an organization or as part of an organization, gaining resources while narrowing in scope. Except that the core of this coalition is a network of organizations that have a history of working together, I don’t see that there is any reason to expect things to be different. The coalition that organized this rally will not be that One Big Venue sought so earnestly and endlessly by the left, nor will it even be the harbinger of it.
Second, with respect to foreign policy, the movement has always been fragmented among a variety of ideologies, theologies and constituencies, all speaking in one way or another to a basic political fracture. That is: it would be possible to develop a laundry list of policies and approaches to policy for a democratic, peaceful foreign policy that would be supported by a large majority of the movement. But there would be no agreement on whether it would be possible to use as tools the State Department or the Defense Department to implement such a policy. The arguments vary from case to case, from ideology to ideology, etc., but the point is the permanent lack of agreement.
The peace movement is fairly good at saying “no”. Often enough that is a good and honorable statement. But it is a crippled vehicle for proactive advocacy.
Even so, the Unity Rally for Peace and Justice accomplished most of its immediate goals. The two most common criticisms were that, however worthy individually, the speakers in sum were too much. And a great many people really were not in the mood to be talked at; they wanted to march, to demonstrate their displeasure, something that a rally alone did not provide.