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Operation: Peace

Antiwar movement reflects a different America than in past eras, but diverse allies keep the spirit alive


"We want to poison your mind," teases the woman with slate-colored hair outside First Baptist Church in Koreatown. Swathed in natural fibers and sporting an anti-Dubya button, she's minding a table piled high with books, pamphlets and stickers decrying the sorry state of the planet--wars, corporate malfeasance, environmental disasters-in-the-making, and so on--along with half a dozen copies of the revolutionary rabble-rousings of Chairman Mao.

Change a few names and haircuts, and the scene could be an outtake from the American peace movement's tie-dyed past--Berkeley or Chicago, circa 1960-something. But inside the Romanesque-Revival church's packed sanctuary, a fired-up multilingual L.A. crowd mirrors the complex and rapidly changing profile of Americans opposed to a new war with Iraq.

As the Bush administration turns up the rhetorical heat on Saddam Hussein and an anxious world braces for a possible Desert Storm redux, American peace activists are busy marshaling their own forces. And while the choreography of dissent sometimes stirs up ghosts of Selma, Vietnam and the anti-nukes protests of the early 1980s, the current peace movement seems eager to find a voice and image suited to a very different America than existed 40 or even 20 years ago.

In that process, some observers say, peace activists are moving beyond a singular, post-Vietnam cultural stereotype that depicts them as clueless hippies hopelessly mired in the peacenik past, as apologists for whatever power-mad dictator is on the prowl, or as cynical trouble-makers of questionable patriotism whose "fringe" antics give aid and comfort to America's enemies, as Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has suggested.

"Dissident political activity that's portrayed in this country leads people to believe that anyone who gets out in the street must be kind of crazy," says Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, who became a marked man in the Lone Star State last fall after writing several columns attacking U.S. military policy in Afghanistan.

There was a vague feeling of the torch being passed at First Baptist's recent two-hour rally, an evening of agitprop theater that mixed old-time progressive sentiments with a newfound sense of urgency. And if anyone present was worrying aloud about finding the peace movement's next Martin Luther King, Tom Hayden or Helen Caldicott, it was drowned out in a poly-lingual chorus of shared convictions.

Filling the pews of the 1,500-seat church were the movement's traditional shock troops: trade unionists, middle-age progressives of various creeds, battle-hardened veterans of the civil rights and Vietnam War struggles. But clapping and singing alongside them were young anti-globalization activists, interspersed with many Central American and Asian immigrants, some of whose countries have suffered their own, albeit less publicized versions of 9/11-style terrorist atrocities.

Many of the speakers and much of the symbolism were familiar. Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo extolled a union member who perished at the World Trade Center. Syndicated columnist Bob Scheer chastised Taliban brutality and Washington demagoguery. Hollywood star Alfre Woodard gave soothing line-readings from the Koran, the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita. Between speakers, a mixed-race choir delivered a thin but plucky rendition of "Down by the Riverside."

But the rally's emotional climax occurred when Kelly Campbell and Barry Amundson, members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group composed of relatives of 9/11 victims, embraced beneath a giant video screen where images of the burning twin towers had flashed by moments earlier. Barry Amundson, 32, is the brother of Craig Amundson, a 28-year-old Army multimedia specialist who was killed when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon; Campbell is his sister-in-law. Both were in Los Angeles to voice their conviction that the response to last year's attacks on New York and Washington shouldn't be more mangled bodies and grieving relatives.

"Join us in a new peace movement," exhorted the Rev. George Regas, catching the evening's forward-looking tone. "We will change the face of this earth!" Rising to its feet, the congregation roared its approval.

Less easily pigeonholed than their predecessors, and more reliant on Internet mailing lists than sloganized placards, today's peace activists are more globally attuned and media-savvy than the bearded and sandaled legions of yore, some say.

"Our general argument is the same one: that we've got to find alternatives to war because we don't like the notion of killing people," says Medea Benjamin, a former U.N. economist and Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate whose face was on front pages from New York to Hong Kong last week after she and a colleague heckled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld while he was testifying on Capitol Hill.

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