Wow! Last weekend was pretty extraordinary. Americans turned out in large numbers, very large actually, to voice their opinions on three different issues. These are not all in agreement, although there is some overlap of interest. What ties them all together is a resurgence of citizen activism.
On Saturday, April 29, hundreds of thousands marched for “Peace, Justice and Democracy” in New York. It was initiated by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, National Organization for Women, Friends of the Earth, U.S. Labor Against the War, Climate Crisis Coalition, People's Hurricane Relief Fund, National Youth and Student Peace Coalition and Veterans For Peace. The UFPJ web site for the march says, “All these diverse groups (are) joining together in a unified call to bring the troops home from Iraq now, reverse our government's priorities, and turn our country around.” Opposition to the the war in Iraq, and the threatened attack on Iran, was the primary focus, along with a broad condemnation of Bush Administration policies.
Refreshingly, the march didn’t end with a long, boring rally, but rather with a “Peace and Justice Fair” with 19 tents featuring information, entertainment, food and opportunities to get involved with participating groups in their ongoing work. This is the work that will make the big difference in changing our policies. Most Americans already oppose the war but that alone is not enough to end it. Marches can be incredibly energizing and can demonstrate the strength of a movement but it will take lots of day to day work on a local level to convince Congress that they should change course - or to elect a better Congress.
On the next day, The Save Darfur Coalition staged a large rally in Washington, DC and thousands of people attended supporting rallies around the country. Almost 100,000 people at the Washington Monument listened to speakers ranging from politicians, including Sen. Barack Obama, celebrities (George Clooney and Manute Bol) and Sudanese refugees.
On Friday, 5 Congress members were arrested in a sit-in at the Sudanese Embassy to bring attention to this issue.
Once again, as in Bosnia, Jewish groups led the call for action to stop genocide. Remembering the Holocaust, these groups take the cry, “Never Again” to apply not just to Jews, but to the whole world. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel stressed this point as he joined the call for international peacekeeping action to stop the killing. "Silence helps the killer, never his victims," Wiesel said. "Darfur today is the capital of the world's human suffering. Darfur deserves to live." Christian and Muslim groups, and Human Rights organizations also joined the call. Students on many campuses have been working on Darfur for some time now. In Seattle, for instance, the demonstration downtown was organized by High School and college students.
Then, on Monday, immigrants marched in huge numbers everywhere. This movement has been able to turn out unprecedented number of people repeatedly over the last couple of months. They have immediately changed the debate over immigration. Before the marches started, new punitive measures against immigrants had passed the House and were headed to the Senate. That bill died with a million people in the streets of LA on March 25. The May 1st “Day without Immigrants” was designed to hammer home the point and try to make sure that the final bill is slanted more towards amnesty and less towards punishment.
The marches included people of all ages. from infants to seniors. Homemade signs abounded, as did American flags. The mood was joyful, at least at the march I attended in Seattle. They were determined to be visible and to show that they had political clout. Indeed any organization that can pull off dozens of huge marches across the country on the same day, has to be taken very seriously. Leaders talked about the need to follow up with voter registration and more involvement in the political process. It was very refreshing to see people that had been marginalized in our society realize the power they could have.
These three movements that all chose the same weekend to march are quite different from each other. Some people will agree with all of them, but others will not. Intervention in Darfur may or may not be embraced by those who want to get out of Iraq, probably depending on what form the intervention takes. There is certain to be skepticism about the ability of military power to solve the problem. At the same time, some who insist on action to Save Darfur are also in favor of saving Iraq militarily. In both instances there are many who know what they don’t want but aren’t so sure what will work. The immigration issue cuts across US political divisions in yet another way. The proliferation of US flags and protestations of patriotism evident at the immigration marches suggest that these activists are not interested in challenging the power structure on issues other than immigration. They will have their hands full building a coalition to achieve those goals.
What they all have in common is the belief that it is the right, perhaps the duty, of us all to make our voices heard. Our country professes to have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. We don’t always live up to those ideals. In fact, citizen activists are the most frustrated people I know because it is so hard to get the powers that be to acknowledge the concerns of ordinary people, much less do something about them. The unequal ways that money, and the power that goes with it in our country, is distributed make it difficult to have an effect. The antidote to this is persistent broad based citizen activism. We are seeing these movements arise in Nepal, Ukraine, Bolivia and elsewhere in the world. It is refreshing to see more of it here too.