U.S. protests savvier, but slim on clout

In the heady days of Students for a Democratic Society, Robert J.S. Ross held collating parties with fellow anti-war protesters at the University of Chicago. Fueled by pizza and beer, they churned out fliers that might reach 5,000 people thanks to that wonderful machine, the mimeograph.

Ross took pride in the fact that in 1965 he was able to help organize five busloads of people from Chicago, then a city of more than 3 million, to travel to a march on Washington and join about 25,000 others to protest the war in Vietnam.

When he looks at today's movement against war in Iraq, Ross is struck not by how few protesters there are but by how many; not by how disparate the activist groups are but by how coordinated; and not by how little impact they have but by how much.

Stoked by the power of the Internet, fanned by the tactics of high-priced public-relations firms, burnished by celebrities, the current anti-war movement has a decidedly different cast from protests past. Activists connect around the world through Web sites such as and are able to turn out impressive numbers--by the millions in Europe and by the hundreds of thousands in the United States.

But while they seem to be having some effect on governments abroad, anti-war protesters have not gained political strength in the United States despite their numbers.

Some organizers hope to change that on Wednesday with a "virtual protest." They have asked activists to flood switchboards, servers and fax machines on Capitol Hill and the White House with anti-war messages--tactics that provide one measure of how the nature of anti-war protests have changed.

Perhaps it is understandable that President Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive warfare would be met with pre-emptive protest.

Americans have almost always gone reluctantly to war, and it has not been unusual to see large protests in the streets. There were numerous anti-war demonstrations before the gulf war in 1991, for instance, even though Congress, the United Nations and a broad worldwide coalition supported military action. After the fact, a sweeping majority in this country thought the cause was justified.

Leadership structure lacking

As the U.S. approaches the prospect of a new conflict in Iraq, the anti-war movement is hardly fully formed, lacking a leadership structure and organizational hierarchy. And some of those involved in the coalition are quick to put distance between themselves and some of the primary demonstration organizers.

While there is always a core peace movement afoot in the U.S., several analysts said that the opposition to war in Iraq goes well beyond it.

"There is definitely an anti-war movement, but a movement is a very loosely defined thing in the best of circumstances," said Ann Florini, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies protest movements.

And this time, unlike Vietnam-era protests, she said, "there is a lot more involvement of large, mainstream organizations" such as organized labor and environmental activists. "There is a very large middle-class professional component of people going out in the streets now," Florini said.

The international coordination of the anti-war protests is also distinctive, Florini added. Peace groups gravitate to the Web and have instant, multinational communications, even if they don't have a completely common agenda.

Some Democratic presidential candidates, especially former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, have made opposition to any unilateral attack of Iraq a refrain in their speeches, often to rousing applause. And opinion polls indicate that while most Americans support the need to go to war to oust Saddam Hussein, they feel with almost equal vigor that the U.S. should not do so without UN backing.

The Bush administration has been at times solicitous and at times dismissive of the protest movement. While Bush has said he welcomes "people's right to say what they believe," he also said that the protest would have no impact on his policy.

"First of all, you know, size of protests is like deciding, `Well, I'm going to decide policy based on a focus group,'" Bush said recently. "The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security . . . of the people."

Some opponents of the peace movement and others dismiss its importance. "The anti-war folks are less of a problem than the growing sense that our allies are not with us, in my view," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

And there have been some demonstrations supporting the military, such as one last weekend in Indianapolis that drew about 1,000 people.

But those who have demonstrated against conflict, even in places unaccustomed to protest activity, have left the larger impression. There have been demonstrations of varying size in dozens of U.S. cities, with the biggest drawing more than 100,000 people in New York City and San Francisco.

"It's been growing by leaps and bounds here," said David Wells, a member of the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice, citing a protest that drew 5,000 to downtown Phoenix on Feb. 15. "The number of people who actually come out and protest is always a very small fraction of how everybody is feeling."

While some have portrayed the peace movement as marginal in contrast with the demonstrations that engulfed the nation during the Vietnam War, Ross said they compare favorably, especially given that the first shot in Iraq has yet to be fired.

"Let's go back to 1967-68, when the war is either three, four or 10 years old," said Ross, now a sociology professor at Clark College in Worcester, Mass. "The October march on Washington in 1967 where Abbie Hoffman levitated the Pentagon--that march had not 100,000 people at it [actually closer to 50,000]. Now we've exceeded that three times already, and the war has not yet begun."

Protests go professional

Part of the reason for the widespread character of the demonstrations has been that the protest movement in some respects has gone professional.

Fenton Communications, a Washington-based public-relations firm, is serving as the consultant and clearinghouse for Win Without War, a coalition of anti-war groups. The firm helps stage media events and put anti-war activists before the public. Win Without War's national director, former Rep. Tom Andrews (D-Maine), makes no apologies for the approach.

After trying to get coverage with testimony from former Clinton administration officials and even some from the first Bush administration, Andrews said that Win Without War had to concede that celebrity is a more powerful magnet for coverage. "When we [had] the same kind of presentation with Martin Sheen or Janeane Garofalo or Angelica Huston, there were 32 television cameras."

On Thursday, Andrews said, Win Without War will announce "big-name musicians from rock 'n' roll and hip-hop" to give further voice to the cause.

"I think it is definitely having an impact," Florini said. " . . . Given that there is no actual war going on and no draft, I found it striking they have mobilized the number of people they have mobilized."