evening, a group of about 150 people in Oakland, California demonstrated to commemorate International Conscientious Objector Day.
The demonstration was a project of Courage to Resist and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and there was also support from Grandmothers Against the War, Code Pink and Not Your Soldier, and others.
The demonstration was run by, and mostly featured, young people — that is, people in the demographic being courted by military recruiters, which seems like a good sign.
I didn’t catch much of what the speakers had to say (the sound system was a couple of tinny battery-powered speakers atop some two-by-four scaffolding mounted to a wheelchair), but it seemed mostly to be complaints about the mendacity of the powers-that-be, sometimes delivered in verse.
This was preaching to the converted, for the most part, but an obsessive fringe blogger like me shouldn’t be caught complaining too loudly about that. And I remember when I was younger and just being allowed to broadcast my opinion in some forum felt really empowering — I was already a regular letter-to-the-editor writer before I entered my teens.
“Empowering,” I think, is one of those words I promised not to use — one of those fluffy adjectives that often embellish worthless gestures. Aw, heck. Folks who are fighting the good fight, or who are just trying to figure out how it’s done, need all the encouragement they can get. If it helps ’em to grab a bullhorn and yell out some familiar complaints to blow off steam, that’s okay with me.
Frank Chu was there, with his opinion about Bush & Cheney’s “treasons,” and I got corralled by somebody who wanted to impress upon me that the World Trade Center went down in a controlled demolition because 9/11 was an inside job just like the JFK assassination. Someone was sternly waving an upside-down American flag with “Indian Land” spray-painted on it in black, and there was a smiling, round-faced fellow holding a sign reading “Support our fraggers: Free Hasan Akbar!” There were lots of white guys with beards and a few punks in black hoodies with tattoos and canvas shoes. There were conscientious objectors from this war and others. There was some schmoe coming in from the airport to a downtown hotel and conference center who shouted at nobody in particular as he went by: “Conscientious objectors? We call ’em ‘conscientious cowards!’ ” There was a skinny guy walking up to people and trying to get them to buy his Street Sheets There was a big papier-mâché-and-bedsheet dove on stilts. There were lots of signs that looked like they had been painted by young children or by right handed people using their left hands. If you’re playing at home, you can call out “BINGO!” at any time.
There were security officers from the business plaza in dark suits and reflective glasses talking into cell phones and keeping their distance. There were cops in cop mustaches and all-black uniforms where even the patches were dark-gray-on-black — even the red-white-and-blue was gray-gray-and-black. The largest patch, along their backs, read “NEGOTIATOR” in no-nonsense bold. There were a couple-dozen other cops staying discreetly nearby on side streets.
The demonstrators marched a few blocks down the middle of Broadway with a small and effective drum corps keeping things lively. When they got to the military recruitment office they set up shop in the middle of the street and continued their rapping and denouncing while a few plastered large posters over the office windows and others set up information tables. A reporter from the Oakland Tribune asked a NEGOTIATOR why they were just standing around and allowing all of this vandalism and traffic-obstruction to go on without interfering or making any arrests. The NEGOTIATOR told her that she should ask so-and-so. She replied that it was so-and-so who told her to ask him.
A chubby guy with short hair in a khaki T-shirt and camouflage pants tucked into his boots stood across the street taking pictures with a little digital snapshot camera. I figure he was probably from the recruiting center, which had wisely closed up shop for the day.
A nice Quaker fellow tried to get me to sign a Declaration of Peace. I asked him what it was and he told me it was a demand that Congress develop a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. I laughed a little, then apologized. Three years plus into this war and we’re petitioning to demand a plan! by September! Or else! Good heavens.
I think I was in too cynical a mood. I took some time to talk with my petitioner and learn more about the Declaration’s features.
As you may know, I’m a self-styled critic of these sorts of manifestos (see, for instance, The Picket Line ). But this one has some good points. First off, notice how it starts:
Take steps to bring the troops home now —
And engage in nationwide nonviolent action if a concrete withdrawal plan is not established and activated…
The Declaration of Peace [is] A Commitment to Take Action to…
The focus of this declaration, like that of the resolution that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott that I’ve praised so much, is about what the people signing the declaration are going to do — not about the demands they’re making on other people. That’s a good thing.
But it gets diluted by the vagueness of calls for “bold, powerful and peaceful steps” and “tangible, nonviolent action” that never quite get specified. The specific actions that are listed (visiting legislators and candidates, participating in “marches, rallies, vigils, demonstrations and other creative expressions” and “nationally coordinated phone-ins and email campaigns”) are far too business-as-usual to be representative of the “bold, powerful” steps they are calling for.
Perhaps they mean to come up with a more specific campaign of nonviolent resistance — there is a vaguely worded threat in the Declaration that “If the deadline is not met, Declaration signers will engage in peaceful action in Washington, DC and at Congressional offices and other sites throughout the nation .”
(I’m imagining the scene at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters: “They say if we don’t submit to their demands they will… uh… engage in peaceful action in Washington!” “My god! Get the president on the red phone!”)
They are urging people to take nonviolent action training and to sign on to a set of guidelines from which I infer that things will eventually be heading in the direction of confrontational nonviolent civil disobedience.
Photos by Eric Wagner