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Antiwar Activists Down, but Not Out

Although many still oppose U.S. action against Iraq, they are rechanneling their energy. Some hope to unseat Bush next year.

June 08, 2003|Jeff Donn | Associated Press Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass — CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The war is over in Iraq, but Reyko Shiraishi's heart is not at peace.

Outwardly, things are much the same in her life as before the war. No more antiwar vigils, forums or protests. She has returned to her gardening and quiet routines of retirement.

But sadness again darkens the eyes of Shiraishi, 73, of Brookline, who spent 3 1/2 years in U.S. internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Like many who objected to this latest war, she carries away a sense of failure -- protests didn't prevent the fighting -- and dejection over hardships in post-war Iraq.

"I feel so discouraged by what our country has done," said Shiraishi, a former schoolteacher. "We 'won the war,' but I personally feel defeated."

Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Iraq war opponents like Shiraishi hoisted signs, waved banners, marched, and blocked streets and federal offices in dozens of American cities. It was the largest outpouring of domestic protest since the Vietnam War.

Since early April, when American forces took control of Baghdad, the booming voice of protest has subsided to a murmur.

What has become of the peace movement? Did protesters come to see the war as more justified when they learned more of Saddam Hussein's oppression? Did the relatively easy victory relieve their fears of military and civilian casualties?

The short answer is that minds were not changed, according to an Associated Press sampling of war opponents' postwar views.

The AP spoke with 20 people from Maine to California who had opposed the war, from protest leaders to objectors who never went to a single demonstration. Included was a panel discussion at the regional headquarters of the American Friends Service Committee, an arm of the pacifist Quaker church, in Cambridge. The interviews did not represent a scientific survey sample.

In their comments, the interviewees struck some common themes. Many profess to feel personally changed by the war, which they view as a history-making act of aggression, a brutish projection of American military and corporate might, and an embarrassing flouting of international opinion.

Many acknowledge feeling powerlessness and weariness after standing up against a military campaign that rolled over both Iraqi defenses and the antiwar movement. However, many are already rechanneling their energy into other social causes or party politics, often with a mind to unseating President Bush in next year's election.

"Has my passion diminished? It's not focused in the same direction. I would say it's focused on the next election and regime change at home," said Donna Francescani, 35, a lawyer in Bethesda, Md.

She has begun attending campaign events for Sen. John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. He hasn't taken the strongest antiwar stand of all presidential candidates, but his big asset, in her mind, is simply that she believes that he can defeat Bush.

Some of the calm on the antiwar front is perhaps natural. The immediate crisis seems to have passed. Many peace activists had been driving themselves hard since the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. They simply needed a break.

Gordon Clark was sometimes putting in 50-hour weeks, or more, as national coordinator of the Iraq Pledge of Resistance. Last month, he was vacationing in California with his wife.

"One of the things that I've tried to do as much as possible during vacation is ignore current events," he said.

Many who opposed the war have paused to take stock of themselves and consider new directions for their activism.

Joseph Gerson, programs director at the American Friends Service Committee in Cambridge, said he feels "a profound and internalized sadness" over what has happened.

Annie Bartos, 25, a coordinator for the Boston-area United for Justice with Peace, was left with a deeper cynicism about government. "They're not listening, and it's getting harder to stay optimistic," she said.

Yet the explosive growth of the peace movement earlier this year is a consolation to the war's opponents.

Anna Hendricks, 21, a Cambridge dance teacher, said the war gave her the chance to connect with activists from the Vietnam and other eras.

Peace Action, a large national group, has launched a Campaign for a New Foreign Policy, refocusing on international human rights, arms control and cooperation. It also has joined in placing get-out-the-vote ads in advance of the presidential election.

"It may be quieter out there, but the groups aren't fading away. They're looking toward the future," said Scott Lynch, spokesman for Peace Action.

In Montpelier, Vt., Andrea Stander, 50, who works for an arts group, has contacted the presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat. She is attracted by his opposition to the war.

"I certainly have a greater sense of urgency. I feel that we are facing an unprecedented crisis, at least in my lifetime," she said.

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