ten years ago today, the world said no to war. say no to obama's wars, too.

Ten years ago today, my partner and I took the day off work, dressed in many layers of clothing, and joined nearly a million people in the streets of New York City. It was February 15, 2003, and the world was saying no to war.

The bitter cold didn't stop demonstrations in 80 Canadians towns and cities, including 150,000 people who braved minus-30 wind chill in Montreal. In the US, protests were held in 225 communities.

In London, at least one million people gathered. Every European country saw huge crowds, but they were all topped by Rome, where three million people formed the largest antiwar demonstration in one place in history.

In Australia, major protests were held in all six state capitals. The scientists stationed on Antarctica held a protest on the ice. In Brazil, in Argentina - in Tokyo, in Beirut - in Dhaka and Calcutta - in Seoul and Johannesburg - in every continent of the planet - large crowds gathered, all with the same message.

In all, up to 30 million people in 800 locations came together to say no to war.

Commentary in the New York Times conjectured "that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion".

* * * *

Of course, the United States invaded Iraq, as they had intended to from at least 2001. The resident of the White House at the time, an unelected figurehead, became the most hated man on the planet.

Many Americans viewed the invasion of Iraq as a turning point in their country's history, as something unprecedented, an aberration. They couldn't have been more wrong.

The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq was in keeping with US history from the very beginning - from the western expansion, on to Hawaii, straight through to Guatemala and Vietnam. In this regard, I recommend reading Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. Kinzer tells you up-front that he uses a very narrow definition of overthrow as his focus. Dozens of other military coups, assassinations, and dismantlings of democratically elected governments, all bought and paid for by the United States, didn't make the cut. Kinzer's book is just a beginning, but it's an excellent starting place to see the Iraq invasion in historical context. And of course, the United States still occupies Iraq, maintaining thousands of "security contractors," otherwise known as occupying forces.

Americans viewing the unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Iraq as an aberration only underscores so many people's ignorance of their own country's history. I'm not talking about the gun-nuts and the bible thumpers, or so many Canadians' stereotypes of Texans. I'm talking about moderate US liberals, the people who elected Barack Obama. They breathed a sigh of relief; the nightmare was over. For the people of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan - and who will join the list tomorrow? - the nightmare continues.

I found this excellent page from St. Pete for Peace: Obama Fact Sheet. I thank the good people of St. Petersburg, Florida, who put this together.

* * * *

So what of February 15, 2003? Was it a failure, since we were unable to stop the US from invading Iraq? Here's what my friend James Clark, writing at Socialist.ca, has to say.
Despite the unprecedented success of the February 15 protests, which helped keep Canada and other states outside Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” they ultimately failed to stop the war. The consequences for Iraq have been horrific: 1.2 million Iraqi deaths from war and occupation, on top of 1.5 million Iraqi deaths after 12 years of sanctions. The country remains deeply divided on sectarian grounds and its landscape and infrastructure have been completely devastated. As we mark the anniversary of the protests, we must remember these facts and remain sober about the movement’s limits, both then and now.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also recognize and celebrate the successes we did achieve. February 15 gave us a glimpse of the immense potential of mass movements, and trained a generation of activists who, in many cases, continue to be active on other fronts. The long-term effects of the protests, especially in the social movements, helped change the political terrain we operate on today, by raising our expectations about international solidarity and collective action, and by giving confidence to resistance movements throughout the region—from Iraq to Palestine to Lebanon to Egypt, the frontlines of resistance to imperialist war and occupation.

If anything, this is probably the most important effect of February 15: the developing bonds of solidarity between ordinary people in the Arab world and those outside it, particularly in countries whose governments backed the war. According to some activists in the region, those bonds contributed to emerging struggles that have subsequently developed into far-reaching revolutionary movements. Our role in this is no doubt small, perhaps even imperceptible, but it nevertheless shows that, although we didn’t stop the war, we still helped change the world.


laura k said...

View the trailer for We Are Many, an upcoming film about the global antiwar demos on Feb 15, 2003.

West End Bob said...

Excellent post, laura k.

Glad you referenced Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: - One of my all-time favourite reads on the real history of The Excited States . . . .

laura k said...

Thank you, WEB! Funny you should mention Overthrow. When I looked back to see what I had written about that book - i.e. how many times I had repeated myself - I found comments where you and I were talking about it.

Like here, for example.

West End Bob said...

Ha! What a nice trip down Memory Lane, laura k!

To quote both of us: "Glad we still have the same values!"

;-) . . . .

deang said...

I remember that day. Here in Austin, Texas, ten thousand people marched from the state capitol down the major downtown street and across a large bridge. There were so many people that the bridge swayed with our weight, which was a little disconcerting. The day had been hyped a lot all over the place, and we'd been having demonstrations every week or two for a few months before that, at each of which more people would show up and passing city bus drivers would honk in support. But I wasn't prepared for the huge turnout on the 15th. I ran into people from work that I had no idea had an activist bone in their bodies. But then everyone went home and was disappointed that one day of mass protest didn't stop the US military machine. A friend in Boulder, Colorado, got involved in planning for the 2/15/03 demo in her town, believing that demonstrations alone had ended the Vietnam War in the sixties. She still hasn't gotten over her disappointment that the massive numbers they brought out in Colorado on that day didn't stop the US from attacking.

laura k said...

That is sad.

It's not surprising, and I understand where it comes from, but it's so sad and frustrating that people took away the exact wrong wrong message from that experience: "We tried protesting. It didn't work."

It's difficult to explain how activism works, how it is cumulative, how its effects are often invisible (yet real), the importance of sustaining a movement, a process, rather than an event.

People are accustomed to thinking individually, and in terms of
cause-effect-result. Activism works as a collective, and it's all about process. Two completely opposite dynamics.