By Elaine Brower
It has been eight long years since the invasion of Afghanistan, which was somewhat ignored by protesters over the Bush years, since the attack on Iraq took center stage. Obama rode into the presidency on the wave of high anti-war sentiment and promises of healthcare for all.
The democrats took of the Congress control in 2006 because people were fed up with the war in Iraq. During Obama’s candidacy, youth were mobilized into action and the entire democratic base congealed to take over the White House, and further their gains in the Congress. People in this Country expressed their dissatisfaction not only with the wars, but the overall pillaging of the middle and working class people by the republican party. Obama’s “political base” had certain expectations of his presidency, which at this point have been dashed against the proverbial wall. His approval ratings are plummeting, and that’s not a coincidence.
This past weekend anti-war actions in Washington, D.C. began with the “Eyes Wide Open Afghanistan,” exhibit, hosted by Military Families Speak Out, American Friends Service Committee and Veterans for Peace.
On Saturday, October 3rd and Sunday, October 4th on display for a continuous 36 hours at the “Ellipse” in Washington, directly in front of the White House front lawn, volunteers arranged 859 pairs of combat boots representing the fallen soldiers and marines from Afghanistan. Since the weekend, the death toll has risen to 869. In the grass alongside the combat boots over 100 pairs of civilian shoes, only a representation of the deaths inflicted by the invasion which began in 2001. For the entire weekend, hundreds of people, if not thousands, passed by and witnessed the human cost of war. The message is one of sobering and grim reality, which was not lost on anyone who witnessed the display.
By Monday morning, activists were ready to conduct a more vociferous action, calling attention to the continuation of both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, US torture and lack of prosecutions thereof, and the absence of any viable healthcare plan for the millions of people who need it. Hundreds gathered at McPherson Sqare Park, where a rally kicked off at 10 AM and by 11:30, people stepped off to head to the White House.
The coalition for October 5th planned diverse actions throughout the day, and something new and different was happening. It was not only planned for a weekday, but once again committed; determined and serious activists emerged from the ashes of the anti-war movement. Those protesting came from all over the country. They came with many issues that they wanted addressed by the president who campaigned on the slogan of “change”, and which had gone unheeded and unimplemented.
At the White House
At 10:45 am, a small contingent of “torture victims” broke off from the main rally to head over and with plans to stand at the White House press gate where the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was starting the daily press briefing. Directly in front of the gate, about 25 people started chanting “Healthcare not Warfare” and “Bring the troops home now!” with 3 megaphones blaring into the garden. Press was delayed from entering the area, and had to go around the building in order to get inside.
One of the first questions asked at the briefing was about the protesters outside the gates. Gibbs responded nonchalantly by saying the White House was unaware of any protests, and that this type of thing represented the “greatness of our country.” However, the press corps went on asking questions concerning the Afghanistan war policy. Gibbs then responded by saying that there is “no doubt that we will hear in tomorrow’s meetings, from members on Capitol Hill, ranges of and very diverse opinions on going forward.” When questioned further, he stated that President Obama has “no plans to walk away from the war in Afghanistan.”
Outside, however, there was a different scene, one in which clearly marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. The gathering was diffuse in its messages but cohesive in presentation. There were those wearing “orange jumpsuits” in solidarity with the detainees held in Guantanamo and Bagram, Afghanistan who protested the decision to stall on prosecuting war criminals and not shutting down “Gitmo”, which Obama had promised to do. Set up directly in front of the gate was a “detention cage”, and a “waterboarding demonstration” took place to show the media exactly what it meant to be tortured.
Anti-war protesters demanding an end to the occupation of Afghanistan and who represented over 57% of the Country, took to the street and sidewalk in front of the White House. Ending the continuing war in Iraq, healthcare for all, and prosecuting Bush era war criminals were the main messages.
Others held coffins and spoke the names of those killed in Afghanistan, while some with white “death masks” wearing the names of those killed around their neck, collapsed to the ground as if dead. On the other side, again by the press gate, activists tried to deliver a letter to Obama, only to be pushed and shoved off the sidewalk by overly-agitated secret service.
The protest was colorful, purposeful and shook the rafters of the White House itself. There was no way anyone could not know the intentions of those protesting outside the building, especiallythose sitting inside who planned to make the decisions effecting millions of people around the world.
The overwhelming peaceful nature of the protest brought a sense of calm assertive energy to the day. Even the Parks Police, generally easily agitated themselves, were patrolling the area by giving enough space for the actions happening. However, after a few hours, the mounted police pushed back the crowd, leaving those who decided to stay behind on the sidewalk.
Chained to the white house fence were “torture victims”, next to them were the Veterans for Peace who carried coffins and read the names of the dead and “Mourn the dead, Heal the Wounded, End the Wars,” wearing white “bibs” encircling their necks emblazoned with photos of those severely wounded Afghan civilians, and the “March of the Dead” white death masks, and all, laying “dead” next to them. It was a spectacular visual, and onlookers were quietly watching and chanting at the same time.
When all was said and done, 61 people remained to be arrested by the Parks Police. They were removed from the side walk in an orderly manner, some being carried, and some walking with their captors to the air-conditioned bus labeled “SPECIAL.”
And special it was. Out of the ashes of the old anti-war movement, arose a day of reconciliation, a moment in time when the forces of the people took to the streets and threatened the power that so threatens the world. Those present acted in unison, although apart. They felt each other’s movements, and on a higher plane, connected, finally.
Obama and the Democrats should heed this warning. At the end of the day, Gibbs made a statement that there was no intention to “pull out of Afghanistan.” If I were them, I would rethink that decision! The people have spoken, and will speak again, soon enough.