We thought we were unstoppable: lessons for after the Women’s March

Now what?

That’s the question on the tips of tongues and pens since Saturday’s inspired outpouring of defiance. Never has the pressure to mount a next act in a hurry, yet not appear hasty and disorganized, been so great on organizers who have little preparation or history with one another to draw on. That’s not to disparage the organizing experience of the Women’s March leadership, which is considerable. But it’s all over the place — from Wall Street to human rights nonprofits to the Obama administration. They are not a group or even a coalition the way SCLC, CORE and SNCC were at the time of the 1963 March on Washington.

Movements usually build over time, beginning with campaign organizing, moving to small, focused actions and building up to mass mobilizations. Some, like the protests in Ferguson following the police murder of Michael Brown, begin as more or less spontaneous uprisings and resolve into smaller groups capable of building sustained activism. But the Women’s March was almost sui generis, because it was far from spontaneous — thousands of people booked flights, rented porta-potties and sound systems, chartered buses, negotiated for permits, set up a website, sent out memes and emails — but it was a beginning, not a culmination or climax. And anything that follows it will almost surely seem and feel like an anti-climax.

The Sad Tale of the Iraq Anti-War Movement

I say “nearly sui generis” because it is not without precedent, and unfortunately, it’s closest relative is not one of my favorites. On Saturday, February 15, 2003, between 6 and 11 million people in over 600 cities took part in a “global day of protest” against the impending US invasion of Iraq. In San Francisco, we probably had about 200,000 people, though the media reported far less (sound familiar?).

Six weeks later, on Thursday, March 20, with US cruise missiles pounding Baghdad, hundreds of thousands, probably not millions, participated in actions around the world, but the smaller numbers were okay because we stepped up our militancy. In San Francisco, an estimated 20,000 people, under the auspices of the affinity group-based network Direct Action to Stop the War, shut down the heart of the city, targeting corporate war profiteers, media headquarters (many owned by corporate war profiteers), government offices, financial backers of the war and ultimately traffic and “business as usual.” From early morning until late at night, you couldn’t move without running into a demonstration. We marched for hours and miles. It was a spectacular display of people power. We were back out on Friday with smaller but still impressive numbers; police, who were caught off-guard on Thursday and mostly let the protests continue, responded with considerable force and many arrests on Friday, meaning that the media impact was not blunted by the smaller turnout. On Saturday, permitted marches gave way to breakouts which blocked buses and invaded shopping malls and again tied up the city for most of the day and into the evening, enabling people who couldn’t take off work to be part of disruptive actions. Cities and towns around the country held peace fairs, marches, direct actions, teach-ins, prayer vigils, student walkouts. Although we had not ultimately managed to stop the war from beginning, we believed we were well on our way to ending it.

We were, we thought, unstoppable.

We weren’t. They were. When the Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) hard core met over Sunday brunch to plan our next steps, we were somewhat aghast to realize we didn’t know what they were. We had plenty of ideas. Some of us wanted to focus on Bechtel Corporation, the engineering giant headquartered here which had received contracts — ahead of the destruction — to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure at an enormous profit (note: Iraq’s infrastructure remains largely decimated). Others leaned toward Chevron, which was positioning itself to take over Iraqi oilfields and is also constantly poisoning the working-class town of Richmond, where it’s headquartered. Some affinity groups argued that we should take a step back and focus on deep organizing — canvassing and outreach and working with unions, traditional means of movement building. Some wanted to prioritize work with working-class people of color, who had probably been least activated by our organizing model. Still others felt it was time to deal with racism, sexism and other bad dynamics within the group.

We should have had more than enough folks to do all that, and more. We had gotten 20,000 to take off work and risk arrest! 2200 of them had actually been arrested! Thousands had been through direct action trainings, come to spokescouncils, helped make props. That should have been just the beginning. As it turned out, it was the beginning of the end.

There were more actions at Bechtel — they got so tired of being blockaded they moved out of the city — and at Chevron; there were outreach days and efforts to build coalitions with working-class people of color groups. There was a huge shutdown of the Port of Oakland, targeting shippers of war materiel. People involved in DASW helped found Courage to Resist, to support GI resistance and worked in support of Iraq Veterans Against War. When I returned from Palestine in 2005, I and other veterans of DASW founded Act Against Torture, which organized to stop U.S. torture and indefinite detention.

Instead of growing, the anti-war movement dwindled. In 2008, a group of us reconvened DASW under the slogan “Five Years Is Too Long.” We managed a series of decent actions that drew 500–1000 people in 2008 and 2009.

I’m talking about the San Francisco Bay Area, but the experience was the same all over the country and the world. By 2010, there was no antiwar movement to speak of. Contrary to legend, I don’t believe it was because Obama’s election made people think we had won. It was because we had lost. We lost momentum until we just stopped, like a very old car. In 2013, on the tenth anniversary of the war, Tariq Ali told The Guardian, “When they couldn’t stop the war, most of them never came out again. There was a sense of frustration but it did not lead anywhere….It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy in my opinion.”

I am very worried about what will happen to all the energy that coalesced and was fed on Saturday. It is not a given that people will find meaningful ways to follow up. And even if they do, and certainly many of them will, there is no guarantee that all of the actions they take will add up to a strategy, let alone a winning strategy.

There are times when it’s easy to get attention for political action on mainstream and social media. Our revived-DASW action on March 19, 2008, got huge press because everyone was looking for something to cover on the fifth anniversary of the war. Bigger actions at other times that were just as dramatic didn’t even get a mention (anyone remember Health Care for America Now?). Saturday’s protests were taken seriously because they were massive, but also because everyone was already focused on the inauguration and the media doesn’t like Trump. But they are going to get used to him and go back to their usual attitude toward activism, which is that it doesn’t happen and doesn’t make a difference.

We will not stop the Trump-Ryan train from accomplishing their deadly agenda unless we can very quickly move people from protest to resistance.

Resistance can look different in different situations, but it requires more than clicktivism, more than protest and more than individual actions. Boycotting banks that profiteer from the DAPL or foreclosures is great, but boycotting by itself is not resistance. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was not a bunch of people not riding the bus. It was a highly organized group of people refusing to ride the buses in a very public way that generated enormous backlash. The UFW didn’t win a contract just because consumers didn’t buy grapes. The people who didn’t buy grapes were amplifying and supporting the workers who were striking and picketing and marching 300 miles to Sacramento and talking about taking up arms and hunger striking. And it took eight years. Resistance is serious, it is daily, it must be visible and it takes enormous commitment. Most of the people who were out there on Saturday are not going to feel like they have the time or energy for that kind of commitment. So we will need to figure out ways people can participate in resistance and still live their lives.

And sadly, we need to figure it out FAST. If we don’t, we will lose people. And if that happens, the movement to stop Trump-Ryan train will end up like the anti-war movement or Occupy, providing a release for frustration and an appearance of democracy, but not enough to win anything, let alone everything.

Watch the video post-mortem on Direct Action to Stop the War.