Peace Activists Transition to a Time of War ; Protesters from New York to San Francisco Blocked Traffic and Debated US Policy

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They couldn't stop the war, but US peace protesters are stopping traffic - reminding Americans and the world that despite what polls say, antiwar sentiments remain strong on President Bush's home turf.

Demonstrations from New York to San Francisco over the weekend drew hundreds of thousands of participants and punctuated a week of high-profile antiwar activities that included closing down major thoroughfares and lighting candles for peace.

Activists have been quick to dismiss charges that such protests are unpatriotic when troops are at risk. But at the same time, they've been waging a nuanced internal debate, struggling with how to transition from peace to wartime.

From determining the effectiveness of civil disobedience to identifying a position on a post-invasion regime, those opposed to the war are trying to define what their role in public discussion should be now that bombs are falling. Some organizers maintain that their mission remains the same: to effect long-term change.

"It's not just about stopping this war, it's about stopping the war system," says Brian Corr, who co-chairs the national board of Peace Action. The challenge now, he adds, is to transform new activists "from people who are working against the war in Iraq to people who are stopping the chain of war."

In the short run, the goal is to end the war as quickly as possible, with some activists planning to lobby Congress to cut off the funding so the troops can come home. In the meantime, organizers are providing information about where to send donations to relief organizations that help Iraqis and offering ways to send e-mail messages of support to military personnel in the Gulf.

"I am very much antiwar, I'm not anti-US troops," says Kendra Hoyt, who attended a rally in Boston on Friday and echoes the sentiment of many protesters.

The rally Ms. Hoyt attended featured speakers from different faiths, including Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, who drew on the Bible to offer encouragement to activists as they proceed: "Our most ancient Book of Psalms enjoins us to 'Seek peace and pursue it,'" she told a few hundred peaceful protesters. "Not only must we seek peace, we must pursue it when it is running away from us. We must not lose hope in the possibility of peace, as its light seems to dim in the world."

Why stop traffic?

One of the peace movement's biggest advantages is its ability to mobilize Americans quickly - thanks in large part to the Internet. Despite winning praise from some observers for its effective organizing in the last week, however, the movement is being held to high standards by critics who charge that activists should be doing more than shutting down streets in major cities like Chicago.

"I don't think any useful purpose is served by blocking Lake Shore Drive," says Bill Galston, who directs the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. "The issues [at hand] are of the utmost gravity for the future of the country, and shrill voices and guerrilla tactics are inappropriate for those issues."

Professor Galston, who opposes the war, recalls how quickly antiwar sentiment during the Vietnam War turned into anti- Americanism, and is concerned that current movement, with some of its more strident factions, could run the same risk.

He'd like to see a clearer message from activists, and offers these suggestions: that the movement insist on a serious commitment to decency and democracy in Iraq and that it critique the changed basis of post-9/11 US foreign policy, which appears to suggest that any country who may give weapons to terrorists is a threat to the US - and could be invaded.

Diverse opinions

But the range of opinions in the current movement is so wide that it's nearly impossible to have a single message other than "No War," note activists and those who study social movements. …