My involvement in protests began shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Like many Americans, this was a shocking wake-up call for me.
I assumed naively that our government would deal with the fallout with analysis and right action. When they began talking about invading Afghanistan, I thought that they would target a few extremists in caves somewhere in a country that had greatly suffered from the Cold War games between the U.S. and Soviets. Soon, it became clear to me that we were bombing the country rather indiscriminately. I was struck with the conviction that what we were doing was harmful, vengeful and was not accomplishing what we were claiming was our aim.
This led me to find as many alternative news sites as I could, to figure out what was “really” going on. My wife, who was less attached to the idea of a benevolent government’s benevolent actions, had a ready supply of newspapers, internet sources, etc. Reading these, it quickly became apparent to me that there were some ulterior motives driving the bloodlust, with people’s fears being manipulated to those ends, yet none of this information was being discussed in mainstream media venues. I decided that I needed to act and planned to protest at the weekly farmer’s market in our town. It must have been a bizarre scene, as just my wife and I walked through the crowds with our hand-made signs. Eventually, we were surrounded by a mostly hostile group and engaged them in some back and forth. I found the whole thing exhilarating.
A small peace group that had existed apparently got word of our little protest and joined us during the next week’s market. Several Quakers and the progressive student association from the local university, otherwise known for its conservatism, joined the effort. We continued marching each week, to a generally negative response or indifference. The first time I heard someone yell, “Support the troops” in our direction, I almost laughed at how ridiculous that sounded. As if sending troops to fight in a dubious war was somehow supportive. Yet, it seemed to give those hollering a kind of self-satisfaction that really made me want to do violence to them. But, hey, we were a peace group after all, and I was surrounded by Quakers, who were somehow able to maintain an equilibrium as I yelled back at the hecklers.
Things got worse as it became obvious that the Administration was planning to go to war in Iraq and they started ramping up the propaganda. Catcalls about Saddam Hussein, mustard gas and mushroom clouds pervaded the air. Again, I would try to engage with people, but had no success making a dent in the conviction instilled in them by all of the mainstream media outlets. Some of us set up a “Peace Table” at the Farmer’s Market, hoping to have more of a chance to have civil discussions with passersby. Each week I would try to set up a prop to persuade people come to the table. Once, we had a cardboard box filled with rocks with a sign saying “Weapons of Mass Destruction Inside.” People would walk gingerly to the table, afraid to look in the box. However, most would just walk by, avoiding eye contact. Another time, I went to WalMart and bought a collection of patriotic, war-based toys, noting “All these toys were made in China.” The irony was lost on most, and only children would approach the table to see the toys, before their parents would usher them away from the scary peace man.
As the push for an invasion of Iraq intensified, we planned a large march at a park in the center of town. It was exciting to see several hundred people come for that march. Many of the protesters who came were in throw-back, hippie, tie-dyed shirts, and some younger folks donned anarchist black. I wished people would dress more in regular work-a-day clothing, but I was at least happy to get a crowd. There were also a couple of counter-protesters, one holding a large cutout of a cardboard thumb in a “thumbs up” position and the other with the “Let’s Roll” refrain. A local news crew came and immediately went to the two counter-demonstrators, who received a sizable portion of the news attention that evening. I was incensed. And it was the same with every march we put on, as if there was some need to present the “other side” when that was all that anyone had been doing in the media.
Meanwhile, most of my friends stayed on the sidelines, even if they claimed to oppose the war. Some seemed put off by the people who were coming to the marches. Perhaps they were also influenced by all the propaganda that painted Saddam Hussein as the greatest threat since Hitler. It occurred to me later that we, the protesters, were the proverbial “crippled children” who did not follow the Pied Piper into the cave.
As things heated up, it became apparent that our protests were going to be for naught. It was a fantasy that we could somehow change people’s minds. Internet be damned, our information and admonitions, whether from me or the United Nations, fell flat in the face of the propaganda from the mainstream media. Clearly, people prioritize the information they receive in terms of its popularity and social acceptability. Truth and facts seemed to have little effect. As demonstrators of dissent to the dominant opinion, we were tagged as borderline traitors. I could see the look of disgust on the faces of those trying to shop downtown without being disturbed by our ragtag mob. I don’t believe we changed a single person’s mind about the war.
By the time “Operation Shock and Awe” started on March 22, 2003, I was demoralized. In spite of this, I continued our “Peace Table” at the Farmer’s Market, once again looking for the magic tool to shift communal awareness. Probably fueled in part by anger and resentment, I created signs with realistic pictures of the victims of the US-led bombing campaigns, then stood with my arms folded as people passed by, shocked at this assault to their senses and averting their eyes. On some level, it felt good to get even a momentary reaction of shame from people who had largely been impenetrable throughout my time protesting. The police were called, but they could find no basis to arrest me. I made the front page of the paper the next day; I felt a combination of pride and foolishness. I realized my soul was feeling spent and powerless. I was done with the protests. Fortunately, as a psychiatrist, I had the ability to find work overseas and made arrangements for a job in New Zealand. I was too angry and bitter at just about everyone to stay in the U.S.
When I got off the plane in New Zealand, my shoulders felt light and empty. My anger had dropped to a less lethal level and I was able to get some perspective, while desperately explaining to the Kiwis that I was not “one of them.” I had signed on for a year, there, but stayed another after George W Bush got reelected. It felt like one last slap in the face. When I returned to the States, I vowed to avoid getting involved in protests.
Years later, I made one exception shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I caught wind of a protest planned at a beach in the area that borders a nuclear power plant. I arrived early and saw a wedding going on at the beach adjacent to the protest spot and suggested to one of the leaders of the protest that we move to another location out of respect for the wedding. He replied, “This is the area we reserved.” People began trickling in, with the usual hippie garb, signs and other props, such as gas masks, loudly chanting as the wedding continued less than 50 yards away. Clearly, this protest was not going to be effective in convincing anyone of anything (least of all, the wedding party). I felt only a sense of shame and embarrassment as I walked away.
Today, I’ll admit I have no idea what an effective form of protest looks like, but getting together as a group with signs and props feels archaic and useless, almost as if it was invented by those who want any dissent to be easily dismissed. The only thing that really changed anyone’s mind about the war was when we began to lose. Likewise, only a few more nuclear accidents will bring down that industry. We appear to be mere observers of the processes of higher ups, who control the narrative, our votes only confirming what was already established. I won’t say that no protest has value, but it would take a lot of convincing to get me back out on the streets.