The Real Enemy: Silence and Passivity -- Reflections on the Port Protests in Olympia
author : Zoltan Grossman
topic : Port Militarization Resistance | Port of Olympia | Iraq Occupation
by Zoltan Grossman
I attended the Port of Olympia protests as a witness taking video documentation, much as I have in conflicts back home in Wisconsin. Some of these videos are posted at http://www.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=zoltangrossman
I want to share some of my perspectives, not only on the street confrontations, but on the development of local antiwar activism as a social movement.
During the port protests, I often thought about my research into past eras of US history. When we read or watch films about the wartime loss of civil liberties, we often wonder why people didn’t do more to protect the right to dissent. How could people go on with business-as-usual when fellow human beings were being slaughtered in foreign countries, and beaten in the streets or jailed at home? How could our citizens remain quiet when democracy was being undermined in the name of protecting democracy?
Well, stop trying to find the answers in past history, because all we have to do is look around us. Even on the Evergreen campus, it is hard to tell not only that there’s a war on, but that there is a war at home directed against dissent, creating fear in our own city. When we see the police repressing dissidents in our own city—not safely removed in another city or country—we tend to blame the victims instead of the government.
More people should come out and speak their mind about this war and occupation—no matter what their opinion—and stop outsourcing their beliefs. Our society outsources everything these days; just try finding a plastic toy not Made in China. We are so used to outsourcing our production that we are now outsourcing our civic responsibility. If we support the war, we want someone else to fight it for us. If we oppose the war, we want someone else to protest it for us. But we all have a duty as citizens to get involved. If you support the war, enlist to fight in it. If you oppose the war, travel 10 minutes from your home to protest it.
We are already acting in support of this war and occupation. By paying federal taxes, we have already paid for the cluster bombs and white phosphorus that have killed so many Iraqis. We cannot simply blame George W. Bush, since we are all enabling his occupation. The protesters are trying to offset their daily tax payments in support of the war with just a tiny bit of being active to end the war. Those of us who verbally bash Bush—but do nothing else—are still financing the war without counterbalancing it with personal action. We are exercising our privilege to do nothing while the people on the frontlines—US soldiers and Iraqis alike—have had that choice taken away from them.
War touches us all, and we are all participating whether we like it or not. However you decide to do it, now is the time to get involved and help make a difference. As the Italian poet Dante wrote, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
At the very least, visibly protesting the war lets the rest of the world know that most Americans oppose the occupation, and we want to put our country on a different path. The elections were supposed to do that, but the Democratic Congress is not doing its job to represent the will of the 70% majority of Americans against the war. Our own congressman, Brian Baird, has even taken an extreme turn from the peace camp to the Bush camp. The major presidential candidates all say that our troops will be in Iraq even after their first term ends in 2013. If the politicians were fulfilling their duty, the protesters would not have to fulfill their duty to dissent. They could work within the system, but the system has broken down and failed us.
In Thurston County we have a situation unique to the entire country: the juxtaposition of a large antiwar progressive community next to one of the largest Army bases in the United States. Students, soldiers and other local residents are making a stand that is being noticed in the rest of the country and the world. We are at a time and a place when history is being made. Don’t let history pass you by. If you’re afraid of getting involved, then witness with a camera, write letters to the paper, question politicians and make them uncomfortable, or talk about it with neighbors, friends and family. Don’t wash your hands of it because one of your loved ones hasn’t yet been sent to Iraq, or because one of your friends hasn’t been injured at 4th and Plum.
US protesters were effective in helping to end the Vietnam War in the 1970s, preventing invasions of Central America in the 1980s, ending South African apartheid in the 1990s, and curbing the powers of the WTO in the 2000s. We have a long, proud tradition of dissent stretching even farther back in our history. Protests can make a difference—even if it is difficult to see at the time—and they include the Olympia port protests.
Many people wonder why the protests resisted military cargo returning to Fort Lewis, instead of equipment leaving for Iraq. I wondered this too, until I saw the Strykers, most of which exited the port on trucks because they were broken in Iraq. Repeatedly ramming into Iraqis’ front doors to conduct raids can put wear-and-tear on any vehicle. The ship and trucks are a glorified towing agency, bringing the Strykers back to repair them and return them to occupation duty. Protesters focused some of their blockades on trucks carrying the military equipment, while letting civilian cargo through. (On the morning of Nov. 13, the military tried once to sneak a military-cargo truck into a civilian convoy, but the truck followed so near and fast that it nearly rear-ended another truck, enabling protesters to block it.)
Until the recent protests, I think that some activists believed that action speaks for itself, and there is no need to explain to the public or media about the reasons for the action. This is a fatalistic and self-defeating attitude that assumes people will never change their minds—so why bother? But increasingly the peace movement is reaching out, and shifting from episodic activism to more stable community organizing. Social movements need both “organizing” to grow a movement, and “activism” to make it effective.
The media coverage of the protests predictably focused on the confrontations. But by attending the protests, one could see another part of the picture that was not covered at all. As a researcher of social movements, it is clear to me that the makeup of the local antiwar movement has shifted over the past two weeks, due to both the port protests and the high school walkouts. This shift can be seen in contrasting the bookend rallies of this protest cycle. The crowd at the Nov. 17 port rally was noticeably larger, younger, more spirited, and more diverse than the first Nov. 6 rally.
Many rallies I’ve attended around the country since the Iraq invasion have fit the stereotype of a privileged peace movement led by hippies or yuppies, and largely dominated by men. But the recent port protests felt different, with new faces, perspectives and life experiences. I noticed a slight increase in participation by people of color, especially women of color who participated in the street actions. There may be more people who are bored or frustrated with just attending vigils or listening to talking heads, but who come out of the woodwork to join an action.
The women’s affinity group was at first not well received by some of the male (and female) protesters, who saw it as divisive or splitting the “unity” of the movement. They did not understand that women’s autonomy helps to grow a social movement, because many women feel more comfortable and empowered by working with other women. (I heard the exact same debate during the Gulf War, when I was a man who did not fully understand.) But the nonviolent women’s blockade on Tuesday evening completely shifted this negative thinking, through a positive and uplifting action. Women’s voices are now stronger in the local movement, and this may contribute to more inclusive strategies and level-headed tactics in future actions.
All the protesters faced nationalist, misogynist and homophobic verbal abuse from the counterprotesters across the street, but for the most part did not take the bait, and defused potential conflicts with humor. It was difficult to turn the other cheek, especially when the police did not lift a finger to stop the threatening behavior of the pro-war side. But most protesters understood that the reason they were there was to resist the institutionalized machinery of war—not soldiers, military families, or other fellow human beings. After the police attacked the crowd on the night of Nov. 13, a handful of protesters retaliated with amateurish actions that detracted from the message and purpose of the protests, and I am sure they have been criticized by other protesters. But the only violence I actually witnessed in the streets was directed by police against protesters.
The protesters that I saw were not naive about police brutality. Some of them had experienced the WTO protests, or past port actions in Olympia and Tacoma. Protesters came prepared with bandanas for the pepper spray and seasoned street medics for the injured. So they weren’t surprised at all by the police violence. I was perhaps more naive, because I had partly believed the hype about Olympia being a tolerant oasis.
What surprised me was how much some police seemed to enjoy their role, rapping their batons loudly against their padded shins, and smiling when they aimed weapons at people’s heads. On Tuesday night, teenagers not even involved in the blockades were attacked with police clubs and chemicals simply for being on the wrong street when the Strykers passed by. Like in the 1960s, this kind of police response will only get more people involved in the movement.
Perhaps a way to ask historical questions is not only to compare the present to the past, but to compare the present to possible futures. When we are in the middle of history in the making, we find it difficult to have perspective, to see the big picture. But it helps to ask how the next generation will view our actions—or lack of action—in the moral crisis of this decade.
I believe that 20–30 years from now, historians will not be wondering why there was unrest in the streets of Olympia against the Iraq War. The reasons for the antiwar protests and pro-war counterprotests will probably be obvious. Instead, historians will be pondering why the majority of antiwar Americans were so silent and passive for the first four years of the occupation. They may see that the protests were directed not so much at the port and the military, but at public silence and passivity. They may remember the ACT UP slogan about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and apply it to the Iraq War today: “Silence = Death.”