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Antiwar movement fighting burnout and awkwardness

Activists find themselves up against the same politician many helped elect. Only 1,500 are expected today at a rally against the Afghanistan war, a shadow of the masses that came out against the Iraq

December 12, 2009|By Kate Linthicum

The antiwar movement isn't what it was in 2003.

Then, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across America to protest the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Today in Washington -- in what's billed as the largest peace protest since President Obama announced that he would send more soldiers to Afghanistan -- organizers are planning for a crowd of 1,500.

"People are burned out," explained the rally's organizer, Laurie Dobson. As she and other antiwar activists struggle to remake their movement, they also acknowledge there are obstacles.

"We're fighting a harder fight right now," said Dobson, who said antiwar efforts had been upstaged by the battle for healthcare reform and had been hampered by the bad economy. She and others also acknowledge a certain awkwardness: Activists now find themselves up against the same politician many of them helped elect.

"The peace movement has a new adversary in front of them," said Tom Hayden, a former California state senator who was a leading critic of the Vietnam War. "He's intelligent, speaks the language of the peace movement and is trying to reach out to the center-left of the country with his message. It's much more formidable to argue with Barack Obama than it was with Bush or Cheney."

Hayden said many of the activists who once used antiwar protest to convey their contempt of President George W. Bush have been reluctant to criticize Obama, who, while he was a candidate, made much of his opposition to the war in Iraq.

While he was campaigning, Obama pledged to end the war in Iraq within 16 months of entering office. His current timeline calls for most soldiers to be out of Iraq by the end of August, but he has said he will keep up to 50,000 troops there through 2011 to train Iraqi military and protect "our ongoing civilian and military efforts" -- a plan that displeased antiwar activists.

Neither were they happy when Obama announced this month that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Obama's Afghanistan plans didn't come as a surprise -- during the campaign he spoke of sending additional brigades there -- but they were a disappointment, said activist and Iraq war veteran Mike Prysner.

"There was this honeymoon period where people believed we were going to get some change," said Prysner, who works for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, or ANSWER, a coalition of antiwar groups.

Prysner, whose group helped organize a Los Angeles protest last week against the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, predicted that the antiwar movement would strengthen once people start realizing that "Obama represents the same interests that the Bush administration represents."

He expects protests to be increasingly aimed at Obama -- and to shift focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.

More than 5,000 U.S. military and Department of Defense-employed civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For activists, it may be harder to drum up opposition to the war in Afghanistan because it served as a base for Al Qaeda, which launched the Sept. 11 attacks.

The fact that some Americans may find the war in Afghanistan "morally ambiguous" has hurt antiwar efforts, said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor who studies social movements.

During the Vietnam War, Gitlin said, many people on the left "felt very clear emotionally that the war was wrong and unjustified." Without that conviction, he said, "you won't throw yourself into the antiwar movement."

Julie Schneyer, an activist in New York City, said peace protesters have always struggled to make wars abroad seem relevant to people at home.

Schneyer said antiwar activists should shift efforts away from marches and use new tactics to draw connections between America's defense spending and the financial crisis. "We need to ask people: 'What are we giving up, and what are we getting, and are those things equal?' " she said.

Others say activists need to rethink their mission.

"The so-called antiwar movement has been a colossal failure," said the Rev. James Lawson, a longtime peace activist who played a key role in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. "The whole thing has failed. We have not prevented the United States from becoming the most militarized society in the world. We have not stopped our tax dollars from going toward military and war."

Dobson, the organizer of today's rally, said future antiwar efforts would be fueled by criticism of Obama. "People have struggled and fought, and they need new blood and new passion and a new vision," she said. "But the president who campaigned for change is instead continuing war."

The theme of the rally, she said, is "No You Can't."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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