San Francisco was the epicenter of the failed movement to prevent the Iraq War -- but the movement that emerged here may still change the country
The maddening march to an ill-advised war created a political dynamic in which a broad cross-section of Americans was willing to hit the streets.
"We had a wonderfully diverse group of people, from soccer moms to anarchists," said Mary Bull, who cofounded DASW, a collective of various affinity groups and concerned individuals formed in October of 2002 as Bush started beating the drums of war.
It was a group fiercely determined to prevent the war — and really believed that was possible. In fact, Bull recalls how she and other members of the group burst out crying at one meeting when a key activist said the war was going to happen.
Richard Becker, who cofounded ANSWER and serves as its West Coast coordinator, said that in the summer of 2002, "we came to the conclusion that [the war] was going to happen." The group called its first big protest for Sept. 15, 2002, and another one two weeks later. But the movement really exploded on Oct. 26 when almost 100,000 people took to Market Street, much of it a spontaneous popular uprising.
"We were overwhelmed," Becker said. "We were in a perpetual state of mobilization to keep up with what was going on. But then it didn't stop the war."
Did he think they could?
"I think a lot of people thought maybe it was possible to stop it. And we thought maybe it was possible to stop it," Becker said.
The high point, according to Becker and Norr, was Feb. 17, 2003, when the New York Times ran a front page analysis piece entitled "A new power in the streets" that claimed "the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion." But then Colin Powell went to the United Nations to argue for the invasion, and the Democrats in Congress did nothing, and it became clear war was coming.
Norr stayed out there protesting, being arrested several times and even shot in the leg by Oakland police with a rubber bullet during a protest at the Oakland docks. And he thinks some good came from the experience.
"The lesson for people is the political and economic elites are committed to preserving and extending empire. And they basically say as much in their own writing," Norr said. "Wars are not anomalies."
Despite being a frustrating and depressing exercise, most saw benefits to the failed movement. "People got an incredible education about how the system really worked," Becker said. "Building a movement is mostly about a series of setbacks."
Medea Benjamin, cofounder of both Global Exchange and CodePink and fixture of the anti-establishment peace movement for years, was upbeat about the protests. "We did our job as citizens. We did what we were supposed to do: organize, get people to take action, get people onto the streets," she said. "We did everything we could think of.
"What you take from it is we don't have a very well-developed democracy because the people spoke and the government didn't listen."
The ever-evolving "Democracy Wall" on Valencia Street, March 2003, helped stir up debate (Photo by Lars Howlett)
The collective action of five years ago starts with a series of personal stories — tens of thousands of them — so let me briefly begin with mine.
My arrival in San Francisco was closely tied to the march to war. I was living in Sacramento and working as the news editor of the Sacramento News & Review when Bush began his saber rattling against Saddam Hussein, but by the end of 2002 I had a falling out with my boss and found myself jobless.