Mixed Messages
By A.D. Freudenheim

23 February 2003

It happens that I was in London during last weekend’s anti-war march in Hyde Park, allegedly the largest ever in the United Kingdom and, with its partners around the world, claimed as well to be the single biggest day of protest in human history. All true, perhaps, but as I slogged around Hyde Park in the cold, I had moments of wondering just what it was everyone was protesting.

Stopping the upcoming war with Iraq was the ostensible purpose of the world’s largest march. What then to make of all the posters, flyers, buttons, banners, and even clothing focused on a very different series of issues? Posters demanding a “Free Palestine” actually seemed the most prevalent, some with pictures of Arafat on them (while a number of people wore keffiya’s, the traditional black-and-white checked head-scarf Arafat is usually seen with). Signs demanding an end to racism – or even signs calling for no war with Iraq and an end to racism – were quite common, too. And there were, of course, the predictable number of anti-Bush or anti-American slogans floating around. While I certainly saw people who stayed on message, and even one industrious group which had produced a sign on several large bedsheets (presumably making the message readable by the helicopters overhead), there were too many competing issues here to make me feel comfortable, or particularly engaged by the whole notion of the protest.

Indeed, I did not stay very long. I heard the end of Mayor Ken Livingstone’s speech, which was firm and strong and received rousing applause from the crowd. (A crowd that probably hated him two days later, when his new £5 “congestion charges” went into effect for anyone driving into Central London.) Livingstone introduced the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and from several hundred feet away his recognizable face appeared on the large screen behind the stage. He was awful. Jackson seemed to think that the best way to get his English audience focused on an anti-war message would be to quote John Lennon (presumably the person he most readily identifies as the peacenik hero of England; this could almost be called a reverse sort of racism), and so, with several “imagine all the people, living life in peace”-type references, the crowd dulled down. If Jackson had boldly addressed the anti-Americanism of the crowd, if he had presented himself not as an English working class hero but as the representation of American liberalism that he once was, perhaps there would have been more energy – and perhaps I would have been encouraged to stay. As it was, I left rather dispirited while Jackson began to talk about the promise of America.

I could not find the incentive to stick around; these people didn’t need me. The freedom of Palestine, they seem to think, is integrally connected to the American war with Iraq, and how could I dissuade them otherwise? I support the concept of a free Palestine. But it has nothing to do with Iraq – except to the extent that Arafat once again seems to be supporting Iraq against the U.S., a position sure to help his international standing[1]; and except to the extent that the Palestinians think that Israel should be supplying them with free gas masks in the event that Saddam Hussein’s bio-weapon or chemical weapon Scud missiles go awry and land in Occupied Palestine instead of in Israel.[2] Likewise, I am not advocating a position in favor of racism, but calling for an end to racism seemed trite under the circumstances. More importantly, however, is the implied connection here, and one I also refute. This war is not about racism, and as much as I am against the war and against racism, I am also against bad political sloganeering – because it does not help convince people to change their minds. It is a distraction, and the last thing an anti-war movement needs is distractions.

Walking around, it became clear at the London march (and, I can only assume, also in the U.S. and elsewhere) that the organizers running the show were ... socialists, or perhaps Stalinists or Maoists, or some other kind of left-ists that stepped way beyond mere pacifists. The posters with the off-target slogans had the names of one or another socialist organizations running across the bottom, while socialist party drones were running around passing out a broad variety of free newspapers, along with posters for anyone who needed something to hold. Some of the “Free Palestine” posters were provided by the Muslim Association of Britain, which handily had its web address running across the bottom. No wonder the focus on Palestine; why not wrap up your peace protest with a good dose of anti-Zionism.

There are – of course – valid political relationships between all of these messages in the very broad scheme of things. I have read Edward Said, and I’ll not deny that most Americans and Western Europeans have a fundamentally screwed-up and patronizing view of Arab culture. I know that some piece of the connection with racism is really about political oppression, and I think that to a certain extent the war with Iraq – and the government-issue warnings about terror threats in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere – is really about creating an environment in which it is acceptable to crack down on civil liberties, freedom of expression, and non-standard, non-Bushian, non-Ashcroftian political beliefs. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clearly a microcosm of a broader Arab-Israel conflict that has never been resolved, only tamped down.

I have a problem, however, with organizing groups that use unwitting marchers as a means to get out a more complicated message than what a given individual might have shown up to protest. I have even bigger issues with unwitting marchers, willing to pick up posters for groups they do not know and messages they may only partly understand or have thought about. This is how mobs are created, by twisting complex issues into narrow-minded slogans digestible by the masses, a la Mussolini, Hitler, or Mao. A friend told me that in his view, considering the world-wide scope of the march, there was no way that any one group could legitimately claim credit for organizing the protests, and that really, this was about people, not groups. I suppose that is true. But it sure did not feel that way at the time – and at that moment, peaceful as the march was, it was all too easy to imagine what those 750,000 people could have been inspired to do in the name of some other message, having nothing to do with the absurd American war against Iraq.

[1] See: http://www.debka.com/article.php?aid=256
[2] http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/

And probably they should be supplying them with gas masks...
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