Approximately 300 people attended a rally organized by the West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition today in downtown Grand Rapids. The rally was held in solidarity with the rallies and protests in over 200 cities around the world in response to United for Peace and Justice’s (UPJ) call for protests on the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Participants expressed their opposition to the United States illegal war on Iraq through signs, speakers, poetry, and songs. The rally did not make any specific demands opening the space for a variety of opinions—speakers called for an end to the lies used to justify the war, regime change in the United States, an end to the occupation of Iraq, an end to the occupation of Palestine, and even resistance to global capitalism. Signs presented a variety of messages—anger towards President Bush’s lies, “peace is patriotic,” “ban all biological and nuclear weapons,” “we’ve been bu$hwacked,” “imperialism breeds terror,” and others. Following the speakers there was a memorial for the fifteen soldiers from West Michigan who died in the war and a march around the block. As was the case with most antiwar actions in Grand Rapids, counter-protesters came to shout incoherent statements reflecting an unquestioning adoption of official US policy and an inability to think critically (or even form semi-valid arguments).
The rally was the first major action by antiwar activists in Grand Rapids since Vice President Dick Cheney’s June 2003 visit. The lack of visible opposition to the war was one of the reasons for the “global day of action”—it is hoped that the today’s events will reawaken an antiwar movement that has been incredibly inactive despite the ongoing occupation of Iraq and the continuing occupation of Afghanistan. While the antiwar movement was ultimately unable to stop the war, millions of people protested on February 15, 2003 and on the start of the war activists in San Francisco and other cities staged large protests designed to disrupt the state’s capacity to wage war. Even in Grand Rapids, there was an incredible surge in activism—a 400 person protest in October of 2002, a large, and by comparison to others in Grand Rapids, defiant protest against President Bush during his visit to Grand Rapids, a campaign for a city resolution opposing the war, weekly protests outside the Federal Building, and numerous other protests and direct actions.
However, today’s rally was indicative of the problems facing the antiwar movement as it attempts to remain relevant. The rally in Grand Rapids, while successful in bringing people together, had relatively few tangible outcomes. There is little traffic in downtown Grand Rapids, and while the march was certainly helpful in increasing visibility, Grand Rapids is not particularly busy on a Saturday afternoon. Moreover, there was no focus or target of opposition. While surrounding buildings, including the Federal Building, banks, and the Grand Rapids Press would provide possibilities for leafleting and other actions linking the war, the military, and the financial apparatus that supports imperialism, all of the buildings are closed. In many ways, this is endemic of the problems facing the antiwar movement—a lot of time and effort is expended organizing events that do not reach far beyond the attendees, and more importantly, present no challenge to the power structures that support war.
Nationally, the antiwar movement appears to be at a crossroads when faced with this reality. The movement seems to be heading in two directions—one which wishes to use the momentum of the antiwar movement to support Senator John Kerry’s candidacy against President Bush in hopes that a change in national leadership will prompt a shift in policy while the other group seeks the creation of a broad-based movement not just against war and occupation, but against “empire” and the power structures that sustain it—whether they be Democrat or Republican. While there are currently no plans for specifically antiwar related actions locally or nationally, this summer has a full slate of protests planned with decentralized actions against capitalism and empire in conjunction with the June meeting of G8, protests in Boston against the Democratic National Convention, and protests against the Republican National Convention in New York City.