Protesters eye civil disobedience
John Ritter USA TODAY - 10 March
SAN FRANCISCO -- At a rundown walkup gallery next to a McDonald's, Olivier Monnier joins 12 other novices in the call to civil disobedience. He's against war with Iraq (news - web sites) but not sure he's ready to get arrested.
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The 27-year-old software engineer is here for three hours of training from Direct Action to Stop the War, a Bay Area group that plans disruptions aimed at shutting down the city's financial district if war breaks out.
''I'm thinking at which point I want to act and what risk I want to take,'' says Monnier, just before the group conducts a ''mingle,'' introducing themselves to each other and explaining why they oppose war with Iraq. ''But sometimes if you feel strongly about a cause, you have to go for it.''
With a U.S. invasion of Iraq possible this month, factions in the anti-war movement are turning their focus beyond marches and rallies to more aggressive forms of dissent.
Following a long tradition of social protest in the United States -- from the Civil War-era underground railroad to lunch-counter civil rights sit-ins to street confrontations at the 1999 World Trade Organization (news - web sites) meeting in Seattle -- these groups are trying to enlist recruits willing to pay a price for their peace passion.
Mass gatherings still will be a key tactic. Over the weekend, 25 women, including authors Alice Walker and Maxine Hong Kingston, were arrested in front of the White House in an anti-war protest. That event attracted several thousand demonstrators. This Saturday, demonstrations are planned in Washington, San Francisco and European capitals that could rival the large turnouts worldwide Feb. 15-16.
Increasingly, though, some organizers are focusing on non-violent civil disobedience. ''There's a large and growing number of people who see this as the appropriate next step,'' says Gordon Clark, coordinator of an Internet-based campaign called Iraq Pledge of Resistance. ''A lot of groups are lining up.''
Activists in more than 50 cities have promised civil disobedience the day war starts or the day after, Clark says. Acts range from coordinated efforts in major cities to smaller, symbolic gestures elsewhere.
In this traditional cauldron of pacifist fervor, Direct Action's Web site urges thousands of people to call in sick from work or school and gather in downtown San Francisco at 7 a.m. on the first business day after bombs start falling in Baghdad. The group suggests blocking key intersections, taking over corporate and government buildings and clogging thoroughfares with bicycles and slow-moving vehicles.
But many actions around the country still are being planned, and some groups haven't decided what they'll do.
In other places, plans don't fit civil disobedience criteria:
* In the nation's capital, for example, organizers are trying to coordinate a mass bike ride and march with symbolic stops at financial and military facilities. Those actions are legal. Even so, Washington groups hint of surprises as well.
''We don't know what's going to happen if war should occur, but we'll respond accordingly,'' says Kenneth Bryson, a spokesman for Washington police.
* In St. Louis, anti-war protesters will try to block the entrance to a Boeing factory that makes satellite-guided bombs for the military.
* Near Lexington, Ky., plans call for blockading gates at Bluegrass Army Depot, which supplies small munitions to the armed forces.
* Detroit activists are appealing for 72 hours of non-violent disruptions at government installations after the war starts.
* Discussions in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia center on blocking traffic and entering downtown federal buildings.
In Europe, campaigns to disrupt U.S. forces have started, including the arrests of Dutch activists who chained themselves to a U.S. military facility's gates and Irish protesters who damaged a Navy plane at Shannon International Airport.
There's no way to know whether U.S. protests will grow more vociferous once war starts or whether the civil disobedience talk will amount to anything. Anti-war activists acknowledge that initially, public opinion may swing in support of U.S. troops. ''There's a danger that if anti-war groups play the disruption card too early, it might backfire,'' says Bruce Cain, political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley. ''If they don't show patience, they could lose the battle for public opinion.''
Others aren't so sure. ''If untold thousands of people are becoming casualties in Baghdad, we're not going to stand on the sidelines and wait for something,'' says Bill Hackwell of International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). ''We're going to express ourselves immediately.''
ANSWER and three other groups -- United for Peace and Justice, Win Without War, and U.S. Labor Against the War -- are organizing Saturday's demonstration but have no plans for civil disobedience. That is harder to organize at a national level, activists say.
The work of all groups has been made substantially easier by the Internet. Every group has a Web site with details of plans, schedules and events, links to other anti-war sites, news updates, and information on how to get involved. The groups use mass e-mails to update members and to recruit. It's a cheaper, more efficient and farther-reaching method than regular mail. The Internet has helped the movement grow faster. Nothing in U.S. history compares with its size before the start of a war.
Communications are instant and global and pave the way for conferences such as the one in London on March 1, when 120 representatives from 28 countries talked strategy.
The Internet also breeds new forms of protest. Last month, anti-war Web sites urged readers to call, fax and e-mail the White House and Congress in a ''virtual march.'' No count of calls was made, but Win Without War said 85,000 supporters had signed up to call. ''We heard from a lot of members of Congress that we practically shut down the congressional switchboard that day,'' says Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action.
As organizing evolved beyond the Vietnam War era's limitations of fliers and phone calls, civil disobedience is likely to evolve also. Protests of that conflict had martyrs who set themselves afire, but nothing like the 200 Western protesters who traveled to Baghdad last month to act as human shields during bombing.
''It's one thing to be willing to go to jail. It's another thing to be willing to sit under a bomb that's going to drop on top of you,'' Cain says.