Get on the Bus

For one fellow traveler, the road to an anti-war protest in Washington is paved with good intentions and bad politics

It's hard to know how to dress for the peace protest in Washington, D.C.: warm gloves, ski parka, sensible shoes, a gas mask. My wife has unwittingly packed some snacks into a Gap bag. I repackage them in a Whole Foods sack, unwilling to risk the ire of anti-globalization types who might think I am too corporate to sit beside.

Activists at the Dallas Peace Center, which is sponsoring the grueling 27-hour bus trip, tell me that Dallas has a history of ignoring them. That certainly isn't the case in the early-morning chill of January 17 when camera crews and reporters search for meaning and sound bites from the 56 riders taking the journey.

All the usual suspects are here: graying lefties holding fast to their ideals and pacifists who object not to just this war but to all war. Joining them is an eclectic group of virgin demonstrators: parents who fret their children will be called to service, military vets who have seen enough war, anti-globalization types who rail against the inequities of capitalism and Muslim-Americans seeking to protect their own.

Mark Graham
Hadi Jawad is one of the coordinators of the Dallas 
Coalition Against War in Iraq, which has engaged in 
some questionable local coalition building with the 
Nation of Islam.
Mark Graham
Hadi Jawad is one of the coordinators of the Dallas Coalition Against War in Iraq, which has engaged in some questionable local coalition building with the Nation of Islam.

I sit beside three kids from North Dallas High School who belong to an organization they call Students for Solidarity (five members). Within earshot is Brandon, a precocious 10-year-old who is traveling with his mother from Texarkana. Across the narrow aisle are clusters of students from local colleges who sound the most strident: "This is about oil and money," says one. "If you did an autopsy on Cheney, he would have oil flowing through his body."

I recognize several fellow travelers from the Dallas Peace Center. In the month before the trip, I became one of them, or so they figured. Anyone who would brave a cramped bus ride of chiropractic implications had to be committed to the cause. It didn't hurt my credibility that as a student at the University of Texas I had protested against the Vietnam War or that I refused to let my subscription to Harpers Magazine lapse.

But as far as this war was concerned, I was of two minds: War with Iraq seemed a reckless exercise in American arrogance; then again, something had to be done about Saddam Hussein. If not now, when?

Observing these peacemakers in their organizational meetings, watching them leaflet the city with their anti-war literature and listening to them lobby the city council for an anti-war resolution only heightened my ambivalence. As political activists, they have little political acumen and even less clout. True ideologues, they seem more interested in making their point than winning it.

Although they may be of one mind they are not of one acronym.

The Dallas Peace Center--the lifeblood of Dallas activism, as anemic as that can be--has brought many local groups under its umbrella to protest the war. The North Texas Coalition for a Just Peace is the most ubiquitous group, but it should not be confused with the Dallas Coalition Against War in Iraq, even though they are each in coalition with the other. The Dallas Coalition, which only coalesced in September and coordinates anti-war protests in front of City Hall, has links to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Iraq, which seeks to end 12 years of international sanctions that it blames for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. None of these groups should be mistaken for another coalition partner, United for Peace and Justice, a local anti-Israel group that wants the city to end all business ties with Israel.

The bus trip was being orchestrated nationally by the ANSWER coalition, a front for the Workers World Party. They're terrific organizers, but their Marxist ideology rails against private property ownership and is zealously anti-Israel.

Being Jewish myself, all this coalescing certainly gives me pause. To have an effective anti-war movement, peace activists need to broaden their base beyond the hard left. Moral purity is fine, but the real battle in any grassroots movement is for the hearts and minds of the people in the middle. Solid arguments against the war--that the stakes are too high, the consequences unpredictable, the potential loss of life too great--should not be held hostage to fringe groups with incendiary agendas to advance.

What was most troubling was that local activists had entered into a coalition with the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan's black-Muslim sect that is not only anti-Israel, but also virulently anti-Semitic and anti-gay. The Dallas Coalition lacked the political savvy to cease its association even after Nation of Islam Minister Jeffery Muhammad spewed anti-Semitic invective during an October peace rally outside City Hall. Certainly this was no way to gain traction for their nascent peace movement, not in a town that has a history of showing little patience for protest. If these peace warriors were willing to alienate some of the very people they sought to reach, at least in this city, peace doesn't have a chance.

After an hour of bus-riding and note-taking, I begin to feel queasy, forgetting that I occasionally suffer from a kind of motion sickness called mal embarkation syndrome, which is Latin for bad embarking. When we arrive at our first rest stop in Hope, Arkansas, the birthplace of Bill Clinton, Marian Avalos, a kindhearted co-rider, offers me a Dramamine.
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