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Iraq, MySpace and The Fading of Street Protests

I hope you enjoy today's biased coverage of this weekend's Iraq war demonstrations.

("Come quick, Martha -- the media's finally owning up to their bias!")

Anti- or pro-war, journalist, blogger or reader, we can probably agree that news coverage of events such as yesterday's rallies along the Mall routinely reveal a strong media bias toward covering crowds of people doing stuff outdoors, especially on a day featuring crisp air and brilliant sunshine.

I say this not to belittle the several thousand people who devoted their Saturday to the constitutionally sacred act of sounding off in their nation's capital. But after talking to many passionate people on both sides, I came away uncertain about whom they were trying to speak to and what they hoped to accomplish.

People at the pro-war, pro-surge Gathering of Eagles rally on the Mall and at the much larger antiwar, anti-Bush march from Lafayette Square to the Capitol had one thing in common: They were frustrated, both by smaller-than-expected crowds and by their inability to get their messages across, either in the media or to their elected officials.

"Nothing," Toby Mikle said when I asked what he expected would come out of the antiwar rally that he traveled to from St. Paul, Minn. "I'm really disappointed. I guess people are too busy with work. Everybody I know has two or three jobs."

At the pro-war rally, James Choate of Birmingham, Ala., attributed the lack of a massive turnout to many Americans' belief that they are safer than they really are. "Most of the country doesn't want to believe" that more terrorist attacks are inevitable, he said. "Everybody's getting a false feeling of security. Every morning, I wake up and just hope another 9/11 hasn't happened overnight."

There is, as ever, a vast middle range of people who don't have all the answers. They don't know whether it's better to withdraw the troops and let Iraqis kill each other or stick with a long-term military mission that has little prospect of success.

But many other Americans have concluded either that we must stay in Iraq and seek something called victory or that this is a war gone bad, and it's time to end it. The majority in both camps do not attend street rallies.

At any given moment, vastly more people argue and shout on Web sites and blogs such as dailykos.com and freerepublic.com than attended yesterday's rallies. Are new channels of protest pushing aside the grand American tradition of taking it to the streets? Protest organizers say it has become far easier to draw a crowd online than in person.

Why is it news when several thousand demonstrators take a pleasant walk through the city but not when many more express the same passions in an online forum?

Protest organizers are perplexed by their inability to turn high antiwar poll numbers into huge street gatherings. "The size and intensity of the demonstrations, protests and acts of resistance does not at all measure up to the vast magnitude of feelings against the Iraq war among the general population," says a treatise from the ANSWER Coalition, the main organizer of yesterday's antiwar event.

ANSWER blames a splintering of the antiwar movement. Some of the largest and best-funded antiwar groups neither embraced nor publicized yesterday's protest. Some organizers no longer see street actions as effective in changing minds or policies.

Does it advance a cause when people stand a few feet apart on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, some chanting "Hey Bush, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today?" while a man on the sidewalk shouts back, "Treason! You should be hung. You hate our country?" Do ritualistic antics and arrests for climbing over a barricade change any minds?

Hardly anyone on the streets seemed eager to discuss where to go from here. Many of those chanting slogans such as "out now" and "stay the course" find it hard to digest the notion that there are antiwar diehards who believe we must stay in Iraq to prevent wholesale slaughter or that there are true pro-war believers who have concluded that it would be immoral to allow more Americans to die in a war that cannot be won.

It would be a shame if our fascination with connecting electronically leads to the end of our history of gathering in throngs in the shadows of democracy's marble temples. But new ways of pressuring the powerful are evolving. It's hard to persuade someone who believes in the efficacy of online organizing that walking on a D.C. street is a better way to put the screws to politicians than, say, a demographically targeted e-mail fundraising campaign. Two hundred million MySpace members can't be wrong, can they?

Political organizers sound much like entertainment executives these days, as they wonder how to get people off their couches and into public places. But the real question isn't how to get people to engage in the old way -- it's how to use new ways to engage them where they are.

The same goes for reporters. Like flies drawn to a porch light bulb, we keep covering people who take to the streets. And we should.

But it's at least as important to get into the heads and hearts of those who spent yesterday in their living rooms and back yards or driving around doing errands, wondering, if only for a moment, whether their country is doing the right thing.

By Marc Fisher |  September 16, 2007; 6:33 AM ET
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Comments

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I don't know whether the keeping the troops in Iraq is a positive or not. Both sides have good arguments from a greater collapse in Iraq, to not fighting for people who just assume want us dead.

What I do know is that the people who run these events (ANSWER) are a bunch of psychos with suspected ties to communism (through the WWP) and anti-semitism. These rallies are not just about the war, they are about anything that is perceived to be aligned with the Hippy movement. Being Vegan has nothing to do with whether we should pull out of Iraq or not. Last time I was in the metro when people were on the way to protest, a teen had a button on that said coke causes AIDS in Africa. I asked him what his button meant and he didn't know. A friend who gave him it to wear said it was due to the lack of medical insurance provided to Coca-Cola workers in Africa. There are just way way to many fringe causes, and even more fringe groups for me to want to have anything to do with any of these protests or anti-protests.

Stick to an issue, with a group not run by the insane (or that picks NK as their idol government) and more people will show up.

Posted by: Jon | September 16, 2007 9:38 AM

There's a vast difference between what you know and what you think you know. You unquestionably demonstrate in your second paragraph your bias and preference for hyperbole rather than reasoned consideration and gainful debate.

At this point the people participating aren't protesting the causes but rather protesting the people who are protesting the causes.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 16, 2007 10:09 AM

Marc,

You most certainly are biased about outdoor protests. However, your bias is towards dismissing them ("ritualistic antics and arrests"), not covering them them favorably (as you seem to think).

I was one of the anti-war demonstrators. I spent over 20 hours bussing down there and back from Boston, MA. I didn't give up sleep and my weekend to enjoy the "crisp air and brilliant sunshine" (besides, there were forecasts of rain). I did it to protest a war that is harming Iraqis and Americans alike.

Street protest, civil disobedience, and other forms of overt political demonstration are far more important than posting on a message board. It costs nothing to post on DailyKos, or to forward an email, and very little to contribute to some cause online. Yesterday, you saw people coming to DC from across the country. You saw people going forward to get pepper-sprayed and arrested by police officers. This is a far higher level of dedication than simply making a blog entry, and that's why it should be news. (Never mind that most anti-war demonstrations receive little coverage at all.)

And yet who do you want to focus on? The people not on display, the ordinary people who spent yesterday doing their chores. You can read whatever you like into their silence, but silence is NOT political expression. Silence did NOT end slavery, it did NOT propel the civil rights movement, and it will NEVER end a war.

My favorite chant from yesterday was "This is what democracy looks like." Our system of government thrives when its constituents are active politically, not when they withdraw into their own lives in the face of tough issues.

Posted by: Andrew F | September 16, 2007 4:03 PM

The thing I've noticed from both sides of the debate is this:

Anti-War protesters tend to focus on what the problem is. That would be the war, the politicians pushing for war, and the reasons behind the war. (As well as other criminal activities from our current administration).

Pro-War protesters (as well as some representatives who are all aflame about the moveon.org ad...still...)focus on the groups who are protesting the war, rather than anything else.

Why is that you ask? Typically the purpose of smearing a person or group rather than focusing on the debate at hand is a tactic commonly used when there is nothing else to debate with. Calling groups or people "Psychos" and the like, such as Jon above, is nothing more than an ad hominem attack. It is worthless in debate, but its the best that many of them have.


Oh and, contrary to media bias, the numbers for the anti-war side are much, much higher than reported here. Just look at some of the videos up and running now, and you will see just how many people did turn up.

http:identitycheck-anok.blogspot.com

Posted by: Anok | September 16, 2007 10:08 PM

Pointing out the group that runs the protest is extremely anti-american (not just anti-war) makes a big difference.

If the KKK staged an anti-immagration rally, the attendance would be way less because the group that was organizing it is considered horrific. People don't know as much about ANSWER, but research shows that the group is not out for the troops best interest, unlike many of the protesters.

Posted by: Jon | September 17, 2007 8:02 AM

What is anti-American, according to you? From most of the people I have heard from and even worked with along the pro-war side consider any person who disagrees with this - and almost any - war, any person who disagrees with the president or speaks out against the president, anyone who participates in any form of dissent - be it a protest or letter writing campaign - against policies set forth by our current administration are considered anti-American. None of which is true, of course.

One thing needs to be remembered, while ANSWER may be setting up the stages for protests other groups like Iraq Veterans against the war, Code Pink (whose name is derived from the color coded warning system and has nothing to do with communism), state named coalitions for peace, students against the war, scientists against the war (or Bush admin), professors against the war and admin, and just plain individuals and smaller groups are the ones participating in the protests.

Think what you will about ANSWER, but keep in mind they are not the only ones who are outraged and active and present at these protests.

As for the KKK hosting an anti-immigration rally, you are comparing apples and oranges. Never has ANSWER become a group of hatred focusing on a particular group for no reason other than hatred, as groups like the KKK do. Nor has ANSWER ever tried, over the period of history to kill anyone because of their race, religion, creed etc...Matter of fact, they've never been violent at all.

But again, the idea that a person or group having a difference in political opinion outside the normal bi-partisan and sometimes only staying from the conservative republican party serves as smearing grounds for anyone who stands against the war and this administration because there is no other argument to be had.

http://identitycheck-anok.blogspot.com

Posted by: Anok | September 17, 2007 9:02 AM

On Friday, a fellow at Farragut West Metro was handing out leaflets promoting the Anti-War Rally. I'm not so thrilled about the war myself, but this guy was wearing a Che Guevera T-shirt. If he really believes in peace, why is he celebrating a well-known terrorist and cold-blooded murderer?

Its stupid stuff like this keeps middle of the road people in the middle and stops us from embracing the extremes.

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