In Wisconsin and throughout the world, there are signs of hope beyond the bipartisan disgrace of the war in Iraq.
Whether or not you thought Spanish voters were right in voting former pro-Bush Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s party out of power, weren’t you jealous of their political system when you heard the news?
Think about it. Any Spaniard supporting Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist Party knew that he or she was voting for change. A vote for Zapatero was a vote against Aznar and Bush, and a vote for removing Spanish troops from Iraq. In America, do we even remember what it feels like to go into the voting booth knowing that if the party in power loses the election the country will chart a completely different course?
There are good reasons to vote for John Kerry, but does anyone honestly believe that vote will result in a total rejection of the Bush program? Kerry not only pleaded with Zapatero to renege on his promise to bring Spanish troops home from Iraq, but he also gives every indication of wanting to increase the U.S. military presence in that country, at least in the short term.
No matter if it is Bush or Kerry in November, expect the situation in Iraq to get worse. Also expect to see a dramatic increase in the size of our military forces, either through a return of the draft or more intense recruitment efforts. If these things do not happen, it will be not as a result of the policies of the White House occupant, but because the population at large demands a different course of action.
Still, there is hope. On March 20, I attended the "Wisconsin STILL says no to war" rally in Stevens Point. The rally was one of hundreds held globally, involving thousands of protesters, to recognize the one-year anniversary of the war in Iraq. The Wisconsin mainstream media coverage of the March 20 Stevens Point event was mostly nonexistent, as if 700 people rallying and marching through a small Midwestern city is not news.
Thankfully, peace activists realize that media attempts to minimize or marginalize the movement are signs of having an impact. They realize that today’s media executives are of the same character as those members of Congress who voted to authorize war on the basis of little or no evidence of a threat. They understand that Gannett, Clear Channel, and other protectors of profit over principle are part of the problem.
For people who believe we best support our troops by demanding they be brought home from wars that are the result of presidential deception and congressional cowardice, the March 20 events represented an important step toward widening the debate about Iraq. True, the size of the rallies did not match the record crowds of Feb. 15, 2003. But it is also true that the United States was in Vietnam for more than four years before protests of any consequence occurred.
The Stevens Point rally featured emotional speakers (including FightingBob.com editor and publisher Ed Garvey), protest music, and a downtown march.
Will Williams, an African-American Vietnam vet, asked for a moment of silence in memory of the Wisconsin soldiers killed in Iraq. He gave moving personal testimony about his conversion into a peace activist after many years of believing that the soldier’s only responsibility is to follow orders.
Neenah’s Barbara Hoffman, a passionate humanitarian who pleaded with each individual present to consider that pacifism is ultimately the only real answer to global strife, followed Williams. She led the crowd in a chant of John Lennon’s "Give Peace a Chance."
One speaker brought the audience to tears. Her name was Mary, a central Wisconsin mother of two children serving in Iraq. She said that both (a son and a daughter) enlisted primarily to obtain financial support for college. For many months after the invasion of Iraq, she believed as most Americans did that "we need to stay there and get the job done." Yet with letters from her children painting an increasingly bleak picture of the situation, Mary decided she could no longer remain silent. She read the demonstrators a letter from her son, filled with stories of daily mortar attacks, improvised explosive devices, and struggles to keep morale high. Is this the hidden price of unaffordable college tuition?
Devon I. Evans, former percussionist with Bob Marley and the Wailers, was on hand to give a riveting performance of some of that band’s protest songs.
A long march through downtown led to a peace fair at Frame Memorial Church and then an open stage at the Mission Coffee House. Folk singer Barry Weber capped the day’s events with a stunning sing-along version of "This Land Is Your Land."
When I arrived back home, there was an answering machine message from one of my former University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh students. He told me his wife (also a former student) gave birth to twins on March 17. The joy in his voice as he described his two new babies reminded me in yet another, even more poignant way of our responsibility to build a future more full of hope and free of fear.
(A version of this article originally appeared in The Scene, an alternative monthly newspaper for northeastern Wisconsin.)
April 4, 2004
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Tony Palmeri is an associate professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.