Photograph by Paul Smith

Several thousand anti-war activists gathered in Washington D.C. on March 20 to commemmorate the seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Eight demonstrators, including Cindy Sheehan, were arrested in front of the White House.

The numbers coming out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can be overwhelming and numbing.

First are the financial costs. Weapons contractor Lockheed’s defense contracts in 2008 came to $115 billion, according to Public Citizen.

CODEPINK said in an e-mail that the D.C. city council is considering paying defense contractor Northrop Grumman $25 million in taxpayers’ money to move its headquarters to the District of Columbia. According to a Northrop promotional video, the corporation receives 65 cents out of every $1 the government spends on “defense.”

It costs $1 million per year to support a single troop for one year, activist Tom Hayden reported in a Jan 26 e-mail titled, “NATO to Endorse U.S. Escalation Despite Rising Public Opposition.”

The Obama administration is requesting $159 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan combined, plus $33 billion for the recent troop escalation in the latter country.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the total cost of the wars has reached $1.08 trillion.

The General Accounting Office says the Pentagon spends more in budget overruns for weapons programs (nearly $300 billion) than a domestic spending freeze would save over a decade.

Second are the human costs of the wars, which are almost unimaginable. At least 334 GIs committed suicide in 2009. Also, the reported cases of depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder doubled among U.S. troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2009, the Sacramento Bee reported on Nov. 13, 2009.

The UN reported that in Afghanistan 2,412 civilians died from the war in 2009, for a 14 percent increase over 2008.

***

With those numbers in the background, several thousand citizens (estimates ranged from 3,000 to 10,000) gathered for a peace rally and march in D.C. on March 20 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and other current military invasions and occupation.

The calls to action were “U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan now,” “Free Palestine,” “Reparations for Haiti” and “No sanctions against Iran.” “Money for jobs, education and health care” was the alternative offered to war-making.

The high point of the march was the delivery of “coffins” draped in Afghan, Iraqi, Somali, Yemeni, Haitian and U.S. flags. The drop-off points were the offices of war profiteers and propaganda agents, including Halliburton, the Washington Post, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Mortgage Bankers Association. At Halliburton some demonstrators destroyed an effigy of former Vice President and Halliburton CEO Richard Cheney.


Photograph by Paul Smith

CODEPINK says the Washington, D.C., city council is considering paying defense contractor Northrop Grumman $25 million in taxpayers’ money to move its headquarters there.

The marched ended at the White House, where eight demonstrators, including well-known peace activist Cindy Sheehan, were arrested for “refusing to obey a legal order.” Their crimes consisted of lying down outside the barrier the police had constructed around the White House.

***

Some disturbing events occurred behind the scenes: attacks on dissent and freedom of speech, which have become increasingly frequent since the initiation of the “war on terror.” The war on terror spawned the PATRIOT Act and other repressive legislation.

As national coordinator of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the leading organizer of the march and rally, said in a message on the ANSWER Web site dated March 10, ANSWER is the target of “a serious assault on free speech that we believe is intended to hamper and obstruct the mobilization for the March 20 antiwar demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

On March 6 several volunteers in Los Angeles were arrested for allegedly putting up three posters announcing the march and rally and charged with felony vandalism and jailed. Bail was set at $20,000 each.

Earlier, in San Francisco, two ANSWER volunteers received the same charge for allegedly putting up the same poster, which said, “U.S. out of Afghanistan Iraq now!” and gave the details of the march and rally.

Meanwhile, in D.C. the coalition received a spate of fines for posting the fliers. The thousands of dollars of new fines came on top of the nearly $70,000 fine for posting 50 antiwar fliers during the two weekends before the March 20 demonstration.

The D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) had already charged ANSWER tens of thousands of dollars in fines for posting notices about a Sept. 15, 2007, mass demonstration.

In all cases, ANSWER and its attorneys insist, the volunteers complied with governmental regulations for posting fliers even though ANSWER calls some of the regulations “repressive and unconstitutional.”

Becker says on the Web site, “We are challenging the old and new fines. ... No organization, corporate entity or politician has ever been hit with these massive fines.”

ANSWER isn’t the only organization the government has targeted: other antiwar groups and volunteers have suffered heavy fines in Chicago and New York City, among other locations.

These massive fines and felony arrests with extremely high bail are unprecedented and clearly intended to intimidate and bankrupt progressive organizations.


Photograph by Paul Smith

Rally organizer ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) has been the target of “a serious assault on free speech that we believe is intended to hamper and obstruct the mobilization for the March 20 antiwar demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and in Los Angeles and San Francisco."

As Becker says, “The large corporations, including the biggest war contractors and banks, have billions of dollars to advertise their message of war and profit. Grassroots organizations have always relied on leaflets and posters to build progressive movements for change.”

Becker claims the government and law enforcement agencies are engaged in a nationally coordinated campaign to quell classic grassroots organizing.

In a letter to the director of the DPW unveiled at a press conference on March 18, two attorneys from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund demanded the DPW “cease and desist from its campaign of political harassment against the ANSWER Coalition and from its systematic practice of violating not only the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but also the DPW’s own regulations regarding postering on public space.”

The letter continues, “DPW’s targeting of ANSWER is nothing less than an attack on the substance of political speech.”

DPW failed to stop issuing “baseless violation notices demanding payment of fines and removal of antiwar posters,” so ANSWER sued.

DPW levied the most recent fines immediately after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in ANSWER’s favor, that the organization, according to the Web site, has “the right to proceed in [its] efforts to challenge D.C.’s regulations as unconstitutional.”

***

During the Vietnam War era, national peace marches in D.C. attracted hundreds of thousands of protestors. The small crowd on March 20 left the organizers and participants with some important questions about the future of the peace movement.

As Mike Ferner, president of Veterans for Peace, asked in an e-mail, “Who knows what the hell is the key to mobilizing the millions who are fed up? Or can we ever ‘beat’ the American propensity for ‘new and improved’ and to hell with what we've heard about for a couple years now?”

Linda Greene is a Bloomington activist and writer. She can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.