January 29, 2003

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opinion
by Lynn Rapoport

When the bombs fall

HEADING TOWARD THE 16th Street BART station the morning of the Jan. 18 peace march, I wasn't feeling the power of the people. Which is strange, given the empty Mission District streets, the hundreds of protesters waiting down on the platform and in the subway cars, and the thousands walking in a slow flood down Market Street and covering every inch of Civic Center Plaza.

Like a lot of other people, I was there because I believe in providing a body for the TV crews to film and the cops to count, no matter how wildly off target their numbers seem. The marches in October and this month – here, in D.C., and throughout the country – surely demonstrate to anyone who was watching that a vocal, sizable opposition to a war in Iraq exists in the United States. But I keep wondering: are the marches still a sign of the power of the people if no one in the Bush administration cares?

I hit the stairs of the BART station that day on the heels of about 200 loud, wildly enthusiastic teenagers – high school age, maybe – heading down to the march, and when we entered the station, the sound of their voices compacted so fast I could feel it in my stomach. The force of their energy filled the tunnel. Later, as we walked for four hours from the Embarcadero to Civic Center, I felt the same tidal wave of energy every time a yell went up from the front of the pack and traveled down Market Street, picked up by thousands of protesters in turn.

But I can't help feeling that all of this energy is being contained, penned in by the fact that we go down in the streets on Saturday to protest the war but on Monday return to work or school, sifting through the headlines and trying to make sense of the president's speeches. Life goes on, we pay our rent, and the war machine's wheels keep grinding forward, much like our marches.

I'm not knocking the protests. I'm just suggesting that when the first (official) bombs begin to fall on Iraq – as the president's speeches indicate may happen soon – we need to move our protest outside the relatively safe space of a weekend march that everyone knows about and plans for long in advance.

The International ANSWER Coalition is already calling for coordinated emergency-response actions to take place across the country at 5 p.m. the day the bombing begins or 5 p.m. the next day if it begins at night, and for local protests the following Saturday. What if, instead, on the morning after the bombs drop (or during the same day if they start before 5 p.m.), we all decide that daily life should not go on as usual? What if, instead of going to work or school or the movies or wherever we planned on being, we all immediately head down to Civic Center Plaza and spend the day there in protest, and refuse to move? And what if we all come back the next day, by which time the news will have gotten around, hopefully provoking similar actions in other cities?

A group like ANSWER, so effective in organizing the marches and rallies thus far, is ideally suited to coordinate this next stage of protest so that it has a chance of gaining critical mass. If a few hundred people walked away from work, from school, from their days off – from whatever normal life means – when the bombs fell, there would be a segment on the evening news. If half, or even a quarter, of the participants of the Jan. 18 march showed up in Civic Center Plaza that first day, we might have ourselves some power of the people.

It's a scary idea, and some – people without job security, people working in essential services like public safety and emergency health care – obviously won't be able to participate. But the rest of us should put aside our excuses and get into the streets.

We don't have a vote in this matter of war. But we do have the power to bring business as usual to a grinding halt, and when the bombs start falling, we should exercise it.

For more information about the International ANSWER Coalition's antiwar campaigns, go to www.internationalanswer.org. Lynn Rapoport is the Bay Guardian culture editor, and she'll call in sick if you will. E-mail her at lynn@sfbg.com.