War, Protests & Message

Jeff Bull

After taking in both the Oregonian's write-up and photo gallery of this weekend's protest against the Iraq war, I've got some observations and one question (OK, a cluster of them) to throw into the forum.

I'll begin with something trivial: I know that someone, somewhere can't count. Looking at this photo of the march and comparing that to what Portland Timbers officials say 5,000 or so looks like in PGE Park, I only know that one set of counters has it wrong. Which one depends, I suppose, on your politics.

Now to business…

I didn't attend this march and don't expect to attend any in the near future for one pretty simple reason: I don't really know what we should do vis-à-vis Iraq. Even as I'm convinced that the war has not only so far failed to accomplish what it set out to accomplish (and I have to confess to some confusion regarding the original intent) and that the long-term odds for an outcome all would view as "good" aren't the greatest either, that doesn't automatically translate to, "let's bag the whole thing and go home." The war happened; the question now is the best way forward.

(Yes, that's a bit of a sin against contemporary politics: I mean, this is either W's Corporatist/Militarist Hell or his Free-Market, God-Fearing Paradise, right? Sorry…random editorializing…old habit…)

What I think about the state of the nation or "direct action" isn't all that important; I'm not out to knock anyone. If you've figured out the world, or that part of it that the Iraq war occupies, and want to act on what you believe, swell. It's just that I haven't. And I don't think I'm alone in that regard. Americans may have turned against the war as "a good idea," but there's also ample evidence in the fine print that they don't know what to do next – or which party ought to be doing it. (take a tour through this polling report to see how heavily caveat-laden the view that "Iraq was a mistake" becomes the second one raises the question of what to do about it).

That does bring me to the second piece in all this: What message do the anti-war protests send? Just as important, to whom do they send a message? Once you go here, other questions present themselves. For instance, what message do marches send when they feature Americans burning the U.S. flag? More fundamentally, what message does one intend to send when he/she burns the U.S. flag? I'm asking here about the flag because I don't know the answer; I'm asking about the protests because, as a spectator of it all, I'm not sure how to react.

In this case, I'm assuming the purpose of protest as an act of speech is…well, what is it? Is it persuasion? Is it expression or rage or frustration? Is it a simple, physical demonstration against a policy? The march said to me that "Random, Large Group of People 'A'" want America out of Iraq not now, but right now. The sub-question is why? What will this accomplish? And why burn a flag to make this point? I'm merely suggesting here that when you reach for a flag to burn, there's a chance your message gets muddled, or even overtaken, by that single act. And I’m pretty sure that's not the goal…

Wouldn't it be wise to think this through as you organize the march?

The question here isn't what's permissible; for instance, I'd never support any law or amendment banning burning of the U.S flag; free speech is free speech, even free speech that pisses people off; I've been party to blocking I-5 traffic in the past and also count that as speech. The question here comes down to what is wise or effective. And, if one presumes that to be the great and growing mass of Americans with misgivings about the war, will they want to show up at the next protest if they see flags on fire at the last one?


  • (Show?)

    Jeff, do you have info that march organizers were either knowledgeable or compliant with plans to burn the flag? Otherwise, I think criticism or questions about what they hope to accomplish begins and ends with the people in the picture doing the burning, and not "the marchers" or "the anti-war movement" as a generality.

    But I have to say I share your ambivalence to the march as a form of direct action. For some reason, mass gatherings of protest that don't have a very specific and immediate aim (eg, blocking a forest road to prevent logging, or surrounding a jail to protest an incarcerated innocent) seem rather fruitless and passe these days.

    Why? My theory is that technology has rendered the awesome spectacle of gathered masses not only less impressive, but less necessary in order to gauge like-minded opinion. With internet communities, you don't need to be physically surrounded by 10,000 others to realize you are not alone. You don't need to march on City Hall in order to deliver a petition; you just email it.

    I certainly don't dismiss the passion and feeling that goes into a mass gathering, and it may yet have therapeutic and/or persuasive powers in some ways. I just find myself less inspired to join them.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)

    This won't happen, but it might be the last best hope to keep Iraq from getting any worse.

    1. Give 25% our current expenditures on the war to the Red Crescent (The Islamic Red Cross) to be used for humanitarian aid to Iraq.

    2. Give 25% of our current expenditures on the war to the U.N. to be used for nation-building/peacekeeping in Iraq.

    This partly removes some of the blame from the Great Satan. No matter how corrupt the U.N. and Red Crescent might be, it is not likely to be as bad as what American corporations are doing to Iraq now. In addition, a heavy Islamic participation (the Red Crescent) can only be a good thing.

    This can't happen until 2008 at the earliest. Our current thugs in power are Hitlerian in the sense that they would rather bring the whole country down with them than admit their mistakes and take ownership. Only a regime change has any hope of improving the situation in Iraq.

  • Jeff Bull (unverified)

    Very nice catch, torridjoe. The "burners" could very well be fringe and that bears more noting than I gave it. At the same time, in the press to get out the numbers, it gets harder to be selective; moreover, in the moment I'm guessing not a few people would refrain from challenging "burners" on their methods.

    Anyway, yes, good heads up.

  • (Show?)

    Sure wish I could have been there. I ended up spending the afternoon working since I'd been out a good chunk of the end of the week with either food poisoning or the stomach flu.

  • Karl (unverified)

    I'm sure people march for different reasons. I'm sure they would burn flags for different reasons too. If the law against flag burning ever passes, I have promised to burn one to honor it and in shame for how that law would defile what it stands for. I can understand how some might burn it now in shame for how this administration has defiled what it stands for. It makes me proud that Portland may have had the largest protest(if we're getting the straight poop about the numbers in other cities).

  • (Show?)


    Thank you for expressing some of my feelings about the march. I opposed entry to the war and joined the marches then. I believe we had more than 10,000 marchers at that point. Today it is the same crowd expressing their frustration, but not accomplishing much in my mind.

    The only way to end the war is to get people to move from support of the war to neutral or opposition or move those in neutral to action against the war. Then it requires getting Congressmen and Senators to change their position or to replace them. Short of Bush having a sudden awakening or getting the military to all desert, ultimately moving Congress is the only way to end the war. A march in Portland of people who have opposed the war from the beginning accomplishes none of the above. It may make the marchers feel better.

    At the same time it can do some damage as the flag burning picture illustrates. Events like that get in papers across the state and the country and harden the opposition, not soften it. When the parade was being organized, their public representatives echoed pacifist and generally leftish positions that did not seem welcoming to the people we need to convert to opposition to the war. The goal sounded more like getting people to support the broader positions of the organizers rather than a focus on the war in Iraq. The lack of discipline on the objective came across in the media. People in Portland forget what they sound like to people in Burns and we need to change the minds of the people in Burns.

  • Progressive Conservative (unverified)


    It is a clearly foreseeable action that some at a protest such as this would burn flags. The organizers either specifically support the flag burning, or didn't mind it enough to stop it. Claiming it was a fringe element is specious.

    The organizers could have taken steps to prevent the flag burning from occurring... request the crowd hold the flag high, and not disrespect it... ask the crowd to fly it upside down to send a distress signal... give out fire extinguishers... offer free bong rips on the east side of the river (that would have gotten the fringe out of there)...

    Whatever, it is obvious from the photos that the US flag is not something this crowd (not the fringe of it- THE crowd) holds in esteem. Look at the photo- lots of rainbow flags, banners and signs held up high, but I can't spot one star spangled banner.

    Jeff is dead on in his observation. Image, and Image Control matter tremendously.

  • Karl (unverified)

    I believe that marches and protests are hugely important. They are evidence of the growing groundswell of opinion. I believe they were mostly responsible for getting us out of Vietnam. Just because someone burns a flag doesn't mean they are not a patriot. I don't believe that most the people in Burns a so stupid they don't understand that. When we march we should be acting from our love of country, our people and life and not worring about image. The media will always control the image, but the truth can shine through.

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)

    Whether or not Saddam had WMD is irrelevant at this point. He was a mass murderer and the people of Iraq will be better off without him.

    Kari raised the same question last year. My response is the same as it was then. Democracy will only work in Iraq if the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds decide they want to live together, which is no time soon. Until we figure out a way to partition the country with some rational method to allocate oil revenues, the bloodshed will continue. The sooner we figure out a way to split up Iraq, the sooner we can leave.

  • (Show?)

    There is no way for the event organizers to keep track of or know what all 10,000+ people are doing. People show up and participate. It's not something in a closed-off space where only those with tickets can get into. People show up and they walk along with the crowd.

    I get so tired of people blaming the event organizers of rallies and marches like this for the actions of a few.

    And just because people didn't have a "star spangled banner" doesn't mean they aren't patriotic or that they hate the flag.

    These pictures are also only a tiny sampling of all the people there. The photo gallery shows only a few hundred of the estimated 10,000-13,000 people there.

  • Garlynn (unverified)

    I agree with Jeff about my reasons for not attending the protest on Saturday. I instead went on a nice 54-mile bike ride and got some much-needed exercise. However, having attended some of the past protests, I can say that for the people who do attend, there is a feeling of getting out there and doing something to oppose the foreign policies of this administration. It certainly seems like the protests were the thing that finally did in the Vietnam war effort, and thus there is a feeling that the protests (both physical and on-line) are what will finally cause us to withdraw from Iraq.

    What form that withdrawal should take is certainly up for discussion; you can count me firmly in the camp that supports the 25% for Red Crescent, 25% for UN and 50% for rebuilding the physical infrastructure of our own damn country.

    As for burning the flag, yes that image may not convert many people who are not already opposed to the war/war in general/this administration... but the image also, I imagine, is transmitted abroad. And when somebody in a foreign country sees that image, they will know immediately that there is still dissent within the US, that our president does not represent all of us, and that regime change within the US could change the face of our foreign policy department dramatically.

    I recall reading a recent article where a representative of Iran was complaining that the US did not seem to speak with one voice, and he was wishing that just one viewpoint could be offered to him to respond to. Obviously, he does not understand the United States of America. In a democracy that is not totalitarian, there will never be one voice... that is the nature of the country. The trick, then, is to find a negotiating position that seems to be acceptable to a majority of the voices, and not blatantly offensive to most of the minority of the voices.


  • BOHICA (unverified)

    The march was lead by a veteran carrying Old Glory. Followed by at least 400 veterans and miltary family members including members of Gold Star Families for Peace. For the first time we had returned Iraq war veterans joining us. This of course was not reported by the "the paper of record" nor was the fact that there were thousands of people attending from over 100 church and faith based organization who were part of the organizing committee. The flag burners were at the tail end of the march. My only complaint with the flag burners is I wish they would stop burning nylon and polyester flags and stick with non polluting and less stinky cotton ones.

    Vets from WW2 to Iraq If this link doesn't work figure it out

  • Karl (unverified)

    Here are some of the reasons I think we should pull out of Iraq as soon as possible.

    Recent polls by the Brits show that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis want us out now. I believe we should respect that. We have zero moral authority in Iraq, especially after the exposing of prisoner abuse and torture- also the exposure of the lies that justified the war.

    Our soldiers were trained to fight a war, not to be occupiers. In frustration and fear they respond to a populace that supports the insurgents with heavy handed and indiscriminate force. This can quell things for a while in places, but builds an abiding hate and thirst for revenge. The longer we stay, the worse this becomes.

    The longer we stay, the greater the sectarian split seems to get. Now we have the constitution that basically divides Iraq into three independent countries. If that holds, can you imagine the horror of the ethnic cleansing? What of all the mixed families? and as SCIRI and the other religious parties become more powerful women's rights are getting set back 50 years. The soldiers we are trying to train to replace us are not loyal to the new government but to their own faction or militia. Twice now British secret service guys wearing abaiyas and transporting explosives have been caught by Iraqi police and then busted out by the British army. What the hell were they doing? The head Iraqi engineer said that the anceint Shia mosc blow up was done by professionals and took at least 12 hours to set up. It was holy to Sunnis too. What's with that? And our soldiers there aren't trying to stop a civil war, they're just trying to keep out of the way.

    We have destroyed Iraq's economy and put millions out of work. Instead of helping Iraqis rebuild their country and putting people to work,we've given huge no bid contracts to US and foreign companies. The corruption is unbelievable, and we are still supporting known convicted felons like Chalabi.

    Many Iraqis believe that the current rash of assassinations, disappearances,and torturing of those expressing opposition to the current gov. and occupation are being carried out by the gov. with our blessing. Did we send Negroponte there to set up death squads ala central American style as the rumors allege?

    We are a magnet for anyone who wants to fight America to come to Iraq to fight us. What did the Iraqis ever do to us to deserve that? There were no suicide bombers blowing up civilians before we showed up. And we've made the borders way more porous. After we are gone, I don't believe the Iraqis will put up with terrorists in their midst.

    I have another, more selfish reason to want to pull out now. This war is destroying our country. We can't afford it. We are fighting it with borrowed money that will be a terrible burden on our children and grand children to pay back. We are creating a hate and fear of Americans around the world that they will have to bear too. We are killing our children there and maiming tens of thousands. How many are we harming with the spent nuclear fuel dust they are breathing? How many psyches and minds are being maimed by what they have seen and done? And we're cutting funding to the VA.

    I know some Americans believe we are in Iraq fighting for democracy. I'm also sure that no one in a White House that recently snuffed out the democracy in Haiti and is threatening the democracy in Venezuela believes that.

    Most Iraqis want us out and I respect that.

  • Barry (unverified)

    To the person who said:

    "The organizers either specifically support the flag burning, or didn't mind it enough to stop it. Claiming it was a fringe element is specious."

    That's funny. You want the organizers of the march (actually a comittee of groups) to run around telling people to take down a sign that 'they' don't like. Or a group of people in a public street to not do whatever they are doing. You want all the marchers at the rally or walking on the public street to have their own nanny? Or some kind of Peace Rally Public Relations superhero would sweep in and say "attention blackbloc anti-imperialist kids! do not burn that flag for it is a PR nightmare, I say!"

    I find burning the flag stupid, and It's too bad that a couple of people doing something dumb can make the news, though.

    You also say: "Whatever, it is obvious from the photos that the US flag is not something this crowd (not the fringe of it- THE crowd) holds in esteem. Look at the photo- lots of rainbow flags, banners and signs held up high, but I can't spot one star spangled banner."

    You know I've thought it would do great good for more people to bring a flag. I have done it before. Actually I saw plenty of flags, though. Held by Vetrans of wars.. It sounds like you didn't go to the March at all, but are generalizing and engaging in a bit of fallacy and generalization to say THE crowd wouldn't hold the flag in esteem because you don't see any being waved. BTW, I think they are patriotic by being there, they probably don't feel they need to wave a flag to show how much they love this country. It seems to me the flag is unfortunately claimed by those that are doing the most disrespect to it.

    And: "Image Control matter tremendously."

    Yes, it does. That's why we have the kinds of people we have in power right now, they've focused on it, and developed it to a point where even someone like yourself - a 'progressive conservative' are repeating talking points and framing issues on their terms, consciously or not.

    It's also why the progressive left consistently fails to have a consistent message at these events - because it's big, messy, and gloriously democratic, valueing diversity in opinions, with all kinds of people in the crowd and on the stage representing all kinds of causes and opinions. Have you ever been to a meeting where anything like this is organized, coalition-building? It's what is required, even if the easiest thing to do would be to have a benevolent or not-so-benevolent dictator in charge.

    Contrast that to the PR machine of the right wing, repeating the same message over and over.. from the GOP leaders to the right wing hate radio, all in sync. Big business economic right wingers learned to speak the populist and social conservatives language. This is something that the left is going to have to figure out at if it ever is going to make a difference in this country - learn how to be as effective at media strategy without losing our soul as the right wing has using it's lowest common denominator messaging of fear-tactics, victimization and fake populism.

  • fat (unverified)

    The flag represents our country. Many people have died protecting our country, hence they also died protecting our flag. So why burn it because you don't like something our gov't is presently doing?

    Want to burn a flag, go to Mexico or the middle East and burn their flag and see what happens to you. Burning our flag has nothing to do with free speech. It just shows your disrepect for all Americans. It also shows your IQ, which is on the bottom of the IQ scale.

  • cicolini (unverified)

    I went to the protest because it was a beautiful day & I love my country. Sufficient reason.

    Three blocks off the rally I saw Portland's finest, dressed out in full battle gear hanging off a SUV, waiting for a ruckus. As if. This was the downer of the day.

    Well, not quite. Scanning the crowd I looked for the clear message. I saw "Ban the Bomb" and "Peace Now" and "Bush Sucks" and "US out of Iraq." All fruitless messages. I listened to bongo drums and dull folksy music and dumb kids panhandle and whisper revolution. Revolve to what? To where? Why? And most worrisome, with you?

    Powell's "broke it / fix it" problem surmounts. Our surrogate Cheney / Rumsfield / Bush broke it, now we're going to pay for it to be fixed. Pay through the nose. And until Demos get their message clarified and in front of the revolution, Republicans are the ones who will do the fixing and Demos will continue as the whiners.

  • Jeff Bull (unverified)

    Quick responses to some of the above:

    Jenni, Karl (way up the thread) and Barry: I think you both missed progressive conservative's point - and mine as well. We're both essentially questioning the value of marching when the message is so muddled and, yes, at times fringe. Flag-burning is actually a side-show to this - a self-destructive one, I'd argue - but I think cicolini's comments get to a more central problem: if people think a march supports, say, die-hard pacifism, they won't show. Why? That's not where their head is. I'm not "blaming" anyone for flag-burning, or anything else; the question, as I said at the end, is effective communication. These marches aren't a good medium for the times because they fail to capture where most people are.

    To Karl's Longer Point about Withdrawing: I don't claim to "know" what's going on in Iraq. There may very well be a "yankee go home" mentality in Iraq - I've seen polls that say as much too - but I've read plenty of pieces that suggest that the thin U.S. presence is all that prevents a civil war of even larger proportions. I make this point less to second-guess what Iraqis want than to suggest that hating the American presence isn't necessarily a rational position. I don't know which of these versions of reality best reflects reality; I only believe that if U.S. troops did leave tomorrow, the country would tear itself apart. How much responsibility do we bear for that decaying dynamic? I can't tell you. I've got some guesses - I'd call it about 30% us and 60% reasonable, pre-existing against the Sunnis (see the bits about Saddam) and 10% pure bad luck - but that's about all.

    But there's also something deeper in your analysis that's a perennial fallacy of the Left: we all LOVE to obsess on where the U.S. has blown it in Iraq; in doing so, we fall into the vexing trap of suggesting 1) that life was somehow swell under Saddam, and 2) when we point to collapsed economic indicators and use phrases like "we have destroyed Iraq's economy," it's almost like we're pretending their aren't lunatics out there driving carbombs and sabotaging their country's infrastructure. While we absolutely bear the burden of the many, many mistakes we've made, this mess isn't happening in a vacuum and we didn't squat our 150,000+ troops on top of some utopia. Iraq's ethnic groups didn't "fight" because the Saddam kept a lid on those tensions by ruling like a monster; to our eternal regret, he also allowed Sunnis to grossly abuse the apparatus of the state to repress and kill the other two main groups.

    This is less an argument against Karl's points about the situation than to caution against thinking about it too exclusively through the lens of "Bush's stupid war." Things sucked in Iraq before - they still suck in huge chunks of the Middle East. Worse, there be fanatics out that way who want to do everything in their power to make it suck worse: we often call these guys Islamo-fascists. Bush's war will, in all likelihood given current trends, turn out to be a costly blind alley. I agree that that's terrible. If and when we extract ourselves from this alley, there will still be some form of work to do...and that work will quite probably involve killing/war.

    If you want my guess as to why people aren't showing up to protests, it's because they believe the Left doesn't understand this last point.

  • (Show?)

    I didn't miss progressive conservatives's point. This person said:

    It is a clearly foreseeable action that some at a protest such as this would burn flags. The organizers either specifically support the flag burning, or didn't mind it enough to stop it. Claiming it was a fringe element is specious.

    The organizers could have taken steps to prevent the flag burning from occurring... request the crowd hold the flag high, and not disrespect it... ask the crowd to fly it upside down to send a distress signal... give out fire extinguishers... offer free bong rips on the east side of the river (that would have gotten the fringe out of there)...

    This person was saying that the organizers should have done something about it and they either support it or don't care enough to stop it. They also talked about there not being any U.S. flags in the crowd.

    This is what we were responding to. It doesn't take much to understand this person's point-- the marchers didn't care about the U.S. flag, didn't have any, and either supported flag burning or it didn't bother them.

  • John O'Leary (unverified)

    "Whiners" is right.

    This country (your's and mine) went to war against terrorism for a lot more than it went to war after Pearl Harbor (WW11) or (????) (WW1) or Dominoes (Korea, Vietnam). The problem is... how do you fight terrorism?

    You can't really bomb it out of existence, you can't charge uphill at it and you can't throw a grenade into the bunker. We need to think about new ways to fight a war. Or maybe terrorism is really OK with you and we should all just worry about it, feel guilty and look as happy as we can! Bullshit!

    Bush thinks you can fight terrorism by taking on state sponsors, of which there are several, and he picked Iraq for reasons everyone knows (disagree with them or not). Does anyone have a better plan?

    Just remember, 9/11 was "pre 9/11" in reality. The next 9/11 hasn't happened yet. Let's do our best to keep it so.

  • cicolini (unverified)

    True we fight war - and protest great injustice advertised as war - with new tools in every generation.

    But as Eisenhower identified in 1960, the military industry has developed amazingly expensive and truely useless weapons which our corrupt avatars in DC keep buying. As we prepare for our parent's wars, we lose our own. Simple.

    But what's the message of NOW? Who is the messager?

    Ask: Who is the voice of American conservatives? Bush. No doubt.

    Ask: Who is the voice of American progressives? Dean. No - Obama. No. Pelosi. No, it's Paul Newman. No. It's Judy Collins. No. It's Al Gore. No, it's Hillary. No it's James Carville. No, it's Jon Stewart. No no no no no no. Nobody knows.

    Read George Lakoff. The message is the message.

  • John O'Leary (unverified)

    Cicolini: We struggle with the same dilemma. And I don't know George Lakoff. But I'll look for him.

    I guess the point is we don't know what to do - but surely to do nothing is not the answer as we were "doing nothing" on 9/11.

    Iraq?? A creation of Winston Churchill and others (Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George et al)who drew lines on a map without looking at the lines in the sand or caring much about the people who lived there and their beliefs and differences.

    I'm not sure we are well advised to try to perpetuate that but trying to change it would seem a much greater and deadlier task. Viz. Yugoslavia. The dream of a peaceful democratic Iraq is hardly a nightmare and is worth a serious (sustained) effort.

    One alternative would be to come home, turn Saddam loose (seems he knows more about running Iraq than anyone else), and let them get on with it. Maybe they'll have another war with Iran. In the famous words of Henry Kissinger: "What a pity they can't both lose"

    Seriously, its a hell-uv-a-problem and we really can't be such altruistic peaceniks as to want the world's oil reserves go up in smoke, or turn our backs to the terrorists, who will surely come after us again if we do.

    So what's the answer? As a nation, we elected Bush to lead us in this. We should have the decency now to follow him (Criticism OK : Mutiny not OK) until we elect a new leader.

  • John O'Leary (unverified)

    OK Now I know Lakoff.

    Lakoff is a 60's hippie and a professor of "linguistics" (i.e. grammar - are you serious?) at a university where he would seldom hear an opposing view.

    Too bad you quoted him as I felt an affinity to what else you had to say.

    Without quoting anyone, could we please save the world now, admit the US leads it and not be ashamed? (I'm so glad I don't live in medieval christendom when christian idiots behaved much as islamist idiots do now). We grew out of it. I hope they do very soon.

  • (Show?)

    Linguistics and grammar are not the same.

    Grammar is taught in english, writing, or communications classes.

    Linguistics is the study of speech, such as how it's changed, how it fits into society, etc.

    Specifically, he teaches cognitive linguistics. You can read more on that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_linguistics

    While the area he works in may deal with grammar, it's more on how it got to be that way, why it's that way, how it's evolved, etc. He isn't teaching grammar.

    And why can't he have great ideas on messaging just because he works at a school where you say he'd never hear an opposing view? Do you think the Christian Coalition Republicans went out and surrounded themselves with Democrats for years before putting together their message? No. They surrounded themselves with like-minded people and spent years coming up with their message. They tested and revised. And in a decade and a half they took over their party. And in another decade and a half they took over the country.

    There's some good info on Lakoff here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lakoff

    <h2>Lakoff is a good person to talk about messaging, as he's spent years studying language, how it works the best, how people interpret what is said, etc.</h2>

connect with blueoregon