By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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.
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.
Avalos is new to activism, although she has always considered herself something of "a liberal." As a 12-year-old living in Texas City, her own views began to sharpen when her brother returned from Vietnam mentally broken.
"He would be sleeping on the couch and the slightest noise would cause him to jump," she says. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he was stalked by recurring nightmares of burning villages and slain Vietnamese children.
Avalos married after high school and eventually enjoyed the comfortable life of a Plano housewife, though her conservative friends would brand her their token "bleeding heart liberal." Her views were nothing radical; just a belief in a strong safety net for the poor, affordable housing, decent food.
In 1989, divorce changed her life, opening her mind and freeing her to seek other friends and ideas. She returned to college at UTD, where she would learn about the Dallas Peace Center.
Like so many new to the peace movement, she grew upset over the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. She attended meetings at the Peace Center in East Dallas, looking for ways to help, and grew friendly with Julie Ryan, the coordinator for the North Texas Coalition for a Just Peace.
As a single parent, Avalos was concerned about getting arrested for her activism, which is why she asked an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer to attend a coalition meeting on January 8 at the Peace Center.
Surprisingly, attorney Michael Linz chastised the group for its one act of civil disobedience, which occurred when Ryan led several dozen protesters inside SMU's Moody Coliseum in November and interrupted President Bush's speech by shouting anti-war slogans. Sounding far too Bush-like for the group, Linz insisted that the American bombing of Afghanistan was an appropriate response to the "evil" posed by Osama bin Laden. Grumbling from the peacemakers turned almost hostile.
"The real axis of evil is the government," said Michael Machicek, a barefoot '60s retread who could scarcely contain his contempt. "It's in the executive branch, the legislative branch and the boardroom."
"We do ourselves a disservice if we think people in the legislative and executive branch are evil," defended Linz. "Perhaps they are just misinformed."
"If Al Qaeda is evil for killing innocents," argued a bookish-looking high-schooler, "why isn't the U.S. evil for killing innocents?"
Linz had misread his audience. Many in this group were anti-war hardcore, but for them to be so dismissive of a civil libertarian because he held a nuanced view of American foreign policy certainly didn't bode well for the inclusive peace movement they envisioned building in conservative Dallas.
Longtime activists say Dallas has little tolerance for dissent; they jokingly call it a "warm-bed of activism," "a city whose civil rights movement was more akin to a civil right movement." It's the image-conscious Dallas with its myriad defense contractors, they argue, that sees anti-war protests as being bad for business. "The North Texas metroplex is just too narcissistically obsessed with organized sports and shopping," says Lon Burnam, the executive director of the Dallas Peace Center. "People are basically apolitical and don't take time to focus on the big issues of the day."
Michael Phillips, a professor of history at UT-Austin, faults the city's "origin myth,"--the belief that business leaders created a city with no reason for being other than business--for helping stifle dissent. "If you are taught to believe that all the good things in Dallas are the result of the status-quo business leadership, then you are going to be discouraged from engaging in dissent."
The Dallas Citizens Council, the oligarchy that once ran this town, tried to manage the local civil rights movement as they might a business. Committees of black and white activists were formed to study the problems of segregation, cooperation was rewarded, confrontation practically outlawed. Although sit-ins and protests could not be held in check forever, they were meek by northern standards.
"Because Dallas never had any race riots during the civil rights era, its leaders felt they dodged a bullet," Phillips says. "But they still fear if the genie of dissent is ever let loose, the entire city will explode."
Certainly that fear was never realized during the Vietnam War. Beginning in 1970, a small group of people met at the Kennedy Memorial for a Saturday-morning vigil to protest the war, but its tone was indicative of Dallas activism: silent, peaceful, unobtrusively done on a weekend. Although other groups were more confrontational, the Dallas response to the Vietnam War was at best tepid. A few marches took place at hippie-haven Lee Park, a quiet protest at SMU, but no mass rallies or hostile student strikes.
The response in Austin was a different story. After the U.S. bombing of Cambodia in 1970, 20,000 people marched around the Capitol to protest the war. I was there, my hair long, my temper short, radicalized by my government instructor, a sizzling socialist who convinced me the war was immoral, unjustified, a brazen act of American imperialism. I flashed the peace sign to a camera crew that had set up on the sidewalk. That evening my father phoned me. I had made the 6 o'clock news in Dallas. "If you ever march again," he told me, "I'll cut off your legs."
Like so many students motivated by self and national interest, my life as an activist ended when the war did, but others couldn't give up trying to make the world a better place. A handful in Dallas turned their attention to the environment, farm workers and the nuclear freeze campaign.
Other activists approached their non-violence from a more spiritual perspective, which led Dallas Mennonites such as Sam Nance to begin the Dallas Peace Center in 1981. Nance had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and for him, a commitment to peace was a confession of faith.
"We wanted our church [Dallas Mennonite Fellowship] to have an outreach project, and a few of us started kicking around the idea of a peace center," Nance recalls. "A place to do research, education and take action in peacemaking from a Christian perspective." The committee began to bring together the small but scattered network of peace activists throughout the city, reaching across religious lines to include on its board Jews, Muslims and agnostics.
In the '80s, the Dallas Peace Center provided a venue for local groups that were opposed to American foreign policy in Central America. "Those were our glory days," says activist Rita Clarke. "We had thousands of people marching through the streets of downtown Dallas to protest our involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua. A bunch of us were arrested in Senator Lloyd Bentsen's office. I was arrested three times. It was wonderful!" And yet no one from either The Dallas Morning News or Dallas Times Herald covered the protest. "The mainstream press figured if they just ignored us, we would go away," she says.
With no big-check writer, the Peace Center almost folded three times. There has been a resounding lack of support from mainstream churches, particularly when things got too radical or left wing. Throughout the Dallas Peace Center's history, when our government began drumming up support for war, whether it was in Central America, the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan, the center has acted as a gathering place for those whose attitudes differ from the mainstream of public opinion.
Many hardcore Peace Center activists, both pacifist and secular, have never met a U.S. military intervention they liked. Some believe there is no such thing as a just war, while others admit that World War II, which liberated Nazi death camps, meets the "just war" criterion. Certainly the corporate culture of this city has made it difficult for activism to gain traction here; yet so has the left-leaning ideology of these activists, who are unflinching in their moral certainty that our government is up to no good.
Part of me--the part that is nauseated and on the bus--wants to buy their arguments. It's the cynical part, the part that thinks this war is all about oil or imperialism, the part that finds it reckless and illogical to fight a war to prevent a war. Then there is this other part--the part that can justify the use of force if it can prevent a dictator from exterminating his own people. It's the part of me that comes from being the child of Holocaust survivors.
Julie Ryan felt compelled to come. "I was so overwhelmed by 9/11, it made me go deep into my religious background to figure out how to respond," she recalls. "If we wanted to stop terrorism, we had to look at what we were doing to fuel their fury. Not that it was our fault," she hastens to add.
At 35, Ryan had never been an activist before, had never taken the time to understand the issues. At the small Minnesota college she attended, she was something of a feminist, and she still considered herself "left-leaning" enough to vote for Ralph Nader for president. But it was the birth of her children--now ages 2 and 3--that began to shift her worldview. "As a mother, I have a larger stake in the future," she says.
From those post-9/11 meetings at the Peace Center came the North Texas Coalition for a Just Peace, which staged a rally in front of the Kennedy Memorial on October 9, 2001, two days after American bombs began to pound Afghanistan. Although she hasn't seen the numbers she would like, she says her e-mail list has grown substantially since the coalition began. "There is a lot of stigma about activism in general here. People are so lulled by consumerism, they think it doesn't matter what we do in other countries."
It certainly mattered to activists at the Dallas Peace Center last summer after the Bush administration began to ratchet up its war rhetoric against Iraq.
"Do I believe this is about bringing democracy to the people of Iraq? No," Lon Burnam says. "Do I believe a major part of this is about access and control of oil? Yes."
To mobilize local activists, Burnam, a Quaker who also doubles as a state representative from Fort Worth ("I may be the only pacifist in the Texas Legislature," he says), called a meeting that led to the birth of yet another coalition: the Dallas Coalition Against the War in Iraq, which would stage weekly demonstrations outside City Hall. Hadi Jawad, a Dallas Peace Center board member, agreed to help coordinate the coalition.
Jawad was born in Pakistan and has lived in this country since 1972. "I am as American as macaroni and cheese. Baseball, football, apple pie--the whole bit," he says.
A gentle man who writes poetry and calls everyone "friend," Jawad says he was "radicalized" several years earlier after he received a phone call from his sister informing him that their uncle had fled Iraq and showed up in Pakistan. "Life under sanctions had become unbearable," Jawad says. "My uncle shut down his watch-repair business; he sold his car, his possessions. Except for a few elite, the entire Iraqi society has been devastated by sanctions."
But doesn't Saddam bear responsibility for those sanctions? Hasn't he prolonged the agony of his own people by playing hide-and-seek with U.N. inspectors?
"We have imposed the most comprehensive sanctions in modern history," Jawad argues. "I have to wonder about the value of Arab and Muslim lives to our government."
The more Jawad learned about the sanctions, the more he began to speak out publicly. The Peace Center heard about his activities and asked him to help coordinate the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Iraq. Apart from educating the public about sanctions, the committee helped raise funds to rebuild four Iraqi water purification plants.
Jawad's anti-sanction campaign, however, has gone beyond the charitable and includes a harsh indictment of what he perceives as this country's uneven policy toward Israel. "Iraq is in violation of 16 U.N. resolutions, while Israel has thumbed its nose at 70," he says. "Even if Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, so does Israel." His anti-Israel position has fermented into yet another group he helps coordinate, United for Peace and Justice. That committee--also led by African-American activist and perennial municipal candidate Marvin Crenshaw--appeared before the city council in August, asking that the council divest itself of all business dealings with Israeli companies, much like the council had with South Africa under apartheid. Not only is this divestment group pro-Palestinian, but it also struck an anti-Semitic tone at the council meeting.
"The speakers [Crenshaw] publicly attacked Mayor Miller and two other city council members from the podium, saying they were not neutral on the Israel/Palestinian question because they were Jewish," recalls Cliff Pearson, then a Green Party member who was present at the meeting. "When the mayor said the issue wasn't a local one that the council could do anything about, she was attacked as being a Zionist."
Jawad says he is not anti-Semitic and believes the group was making its case against the Israeli government, not the Jewish faith. But Pearson says that after the meeting he rode on an elevator with the group whose members spoke freely about Miller's membership in several Jewish charitable organizations. "I would expect Jewish people to give money to Jewish charities," Pearson says. "This group seemed to be doing some very frightening surveillance of the mayor," Pearson says.
That some of these activists would later petition the city council for a resolution against the war seemed politically naïve. Yet 40 activists again led by Crenshaw filed into the council chambers on January 8, challenging members to join the dozens of cities that have signed off on a similar resolution. Even if their argument had been compelling, it lost its authority when framed by Crenshaw, who seemed to alienate at least one African-American council member. Leo Chaney complained he was tired of Crenshaw's "we're not black enough for you" rhetoric.
United for Peace and Justice is certainly entitled to lobby the city council for whatever cause it deems righteous. But the Dallas coalition has allowed it to join its anti-war protests. Any peace movement that would align itself with a group that would hector city council members over their religious beliefs risks losing credibility, as well as its soul.
"What we are seeing are groups that were formed because of anti-Israelism are now coalescing on the anti-war movement," says Mark Briskman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "These coalitions want a big tent, and they hope to bring together those who have genuine concerns about a war in Iraq. But as these groups come together, there is no vetting, and they let some garbage into the tent."
In early October, the Dallas Coalition Against the War in Iraq began to stage weekly demonstrations outside City Hall. Among its coalition partners was the Nation of Islam, which has a well-documented history of hate-speech. When its local leader, Minister Jeffery Muhammad, spoke to the gathering of about 300 people, he lapsed into an anti-Semitic rant. "He told the crowd that the vast Zionist Jewish conspiracy that controlled the media, the government and the world economy was the wicked and corruptive influence behind the United States' plans to go to war in Iraq," Pearson says. No one challenged his statements, and Muhammad spoke at two more rallies, during the last of which, "He said that gays, lesbians and fornicators were an abomination before God and the terrorist attacks were God's punishment against their wickedness," Pearson recalls.
Jim Hopkins, an SMU professor of history, left the first rally in disgust. "It was an environment I did not want to be in," he says. "I just loathed that a very rational position against the war would be bushwhacked by those who clearly have a heinous message to convey."
Similar complaints were made to the Dallas Peace Center, which considered the matter and decided to continue its association with the Nation of Islam. "We have a common purpose of ending the war in Iraq," Julie Ryan says. "They share our beliefs, and they have agreed there will be no further speeches that attack religion or sexual orientation."
Muhammad stands by his comments and says he won't be "muzzled by any group for speaking the truth."
Certainly for the anti-war movement to be successful, it needs as expansive a base as possible, but it's doubtful it would let other hate-groups like the Ku Klux Klan join its coalition. The leaders of the Nation of Islam espouse a black-segregationist theology that is anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-white. Even the local Green Party voted to withdraw from the coalition in protest.
I also find it troubling marching in solidarity with people who hate me.
Although some bus riders (including me) are openly critical of the current Israeli government and believe the Bush administration should be making the Palestinian question the real focus of its Middle Eastern policy, their animus is directed at our government's involvement in Iraq. That they may be joining forces with the pro-Palestinian movement under false pretenses makes no difference.
Talk on the bus includes much speculation about Bush's motives. There is the SUV view: It's all about oil and satisfying the insatiable American demand for gas-guzzlers. The psychoanalytic view: The son has an obsessive desire to complete the unfinished business of the father. The buying-his-own-bullshit view: Bush genuinely believes that by democratizing Iraq, the seeds of freedom will flower throughout the autocratic Middle East.
As we make our way into Tennessee, 10-year-old Brandon begs me to interview him. Instead, I speak with Michael Millican, a thoughtful Dallas attorney who is reading a Gandhi anthology and says he is committed to non-violence.
It must be difficult, I say, practicing non-violence and law at the same time.
He smiles warmly, and begins telling his story. Growing up in Houston, he was a member of Teens Against Communism, an Eagle Scout and supporter of Barry Goldwater for president. Though deeply patriotic, he grew "confused" after he was drafted into the Marines his first year of law school. His best friend had served in the Navy and encouraged him to enlist, but that was right before he died in Vietnam.
Millican began his tour of duty in June 1968 and was assigned to a South Vietnamese village. "We killed a lot of the enemy. A lot of us were killed, too...I have seen our failed attempts at empire building firsthand," he says.
After a year "in country," he returned to law school, growing his hair long and dressing in military fatigues. "I kept reflecting on all the people who had gotten killed in my unit--friends of mine. War seemed so wasteful."
In the late '70s, a business venture resulted in some easy wealth, and he grew protective of his good fortune. He even voted for Ronald Reagan twice. He bought a ranch in Oklahoma, became an avid hunter and fisherman and had few qualms about eating beef. "Until one day I just stopped." He sold his ranch and stopped hunting. "I am not even sure why," he says. "I just didn't want to do things that caused harm anymore."
A piece of the puzzle came to him after he saw the movie Gandhi. "Here was a man who was living the principles of non-violence," he says. "His life had a profound effect on me and is the main reason I am on this bus."
But how can these principles of non-violence stop a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein?
"I think everyone agrees he is a heinous person who is not doing anything good for his people. But I think to commit violence, all it does is promote more violence. It may breed the very thing we are trying to prevent--a whole new crop of terrorists."
Our bus is making terrible time, too many rest stops and too many activists who believe in self-determination and insist on keeping their own schedules. Bill Maxwell, our rally organizer, is a benevolent man but worries openly the revolution may start without us. After dinner for 56 at the Cracker Barrel outside Jackson, Tennessee, attempts are made to bed down for the night, but sleep comes hard for those of us who came of age in the '60s.
It's 7 a.m. and time for breakfast at McDonald's, much to the distress of Mark Smithhisler, a video director.
"Is it an anti-globalization thing?" I ask him.
"No, it's an anti-McDonald's thing," he admits. "I hate their food."
Stragglers from breakfast are beginning to try Maxwell's patience, and I wonder if he is as dedicated to pacifism as he says. Forty-five minutes later, we enter Washington, and Maxwell transforms himself into a tour guide, pointing out the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Watergate Hotel and the Washington Monument. It's odd, the childlike sense of awe a few monuments to freedom can inspire, even for this assortment of anti-authority types.
No way that 56 people can march together among a crowd that numbered anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000, depending on who's counting. "I don't know an attorney in Washington," Maxwell cautions us. "So don't embarrass me."
Exiting the bus, I see a large man standing by the wire fence, holding a sign high that bears a photo of Ariel Sharon and Adolf Hitler, a swastika and a Star of David. I tell him his sign is offensive and ask him if he is with ANSWER. He says he only represents himself, but then passes out half a dozen anti-war signs that bear the ANSWER Web site.
The Dallas peaceniks fight their way through the masses toward the main podium at the Washington mall. The crowd is relatively young, decidedly Anglo and primed to respond. Speakers include former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who urges us to impeach George Bush. Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran who inspired the movie Born on the Fourth of July, has us chant for health care, not warfare; the Reverend Al Sharpton asks us to wish Martin Luther King Jr. a happy birthday. And a pro-Palestinian speaker insists we stop American imperialism by standing up for the plight of the Palestinian people.
Signs proliferate, and many share a common theme: Bush-bashing. "Stop the Son of a Bush's War; Regime Change Starts at Home; and the crowd-pleasing, "Who elected this fucker anyway?"
After a dozen speeches we begin our three-mile march, glad to finally feel our feet again. Then one of the speakers announces that a 10-year-old boy is lost and asks if his mother would please come claim him at the Red Cross booth. Bill Maxwell can't believe it: It was the second time Brandon had been missing in an hour.
With the march came chanting and drumming: "One, two, three, four, we don't want your oil war; Bush, Cheney, Exxon, Shell. Take your war and go to hell." There are Buddhists for Peace, Raging Grannies for Peace, Greens for Peace, Okies for Peace.
Two miles into the march, I lose sight of everyone from Dallas, which is fine because it gives me the opportunity to duck inside a Starbucks and defrost. Of course, it isn't fine with anti-globalization protesters who shout "Down with Starbucks" as they parade by. I ask several people why Starbucks is such a lightning rod. One college kid from New York says it may be because the company refuses to divest from Israel. I buy another cup of coffee.
By 5 p.m., the rally is over and we return to the bus. Most don't know if they have made a difference, but it's enough that they tried. This rally marks the beginning of their activism, and they intend to march again, to volunteer at the Dallas Peace Center, to lobby their legislators, to do whatever they can to stop the war.
A few are put off by the moral absolutism of the protests: "I think we lose credibility as a movement if we resort to the same rhetoric that the administration uses in describing Saddam," Smithhisler says. "By saying Bush is this evil guy, so everything he does is evil, we seem too fringe. That misses the boat in trying to convince the bulk of Americans that this war is a bad idea."
Many Americans won't be convinced until we actually go to war and only then if it becomes clear that the costs are too great. These fresh peace recruits then may feel more comfortable with coalitions such as Win Without War, which are positioning themselves for more mainstream appeal.
Still, I admire the pacifists on the bus for their reverence and the leftists for their moral certainty, but it's 10-year-old Brandon--precocious and misplaced--who helps me resolve my own ambivalence.
Later at the motel lobby, I run into him as he peddles anti-war T-shirts for his mother. He is wearing pajamas and looks beat, but still wants to be interviewed.
"So why do you think we shouldn't invade Iraq?" I finally ask him.
"I just don't want to," he says.
"Well, why don't you want to?"
"I don't know. It just doesn't feel right."