from the February 14, 2003 edition -

Antiwar rallies: how effective are they at swaying opinion?

On eve of a weekend of protests, activists say they at least offer another view.

By Kim Campbell | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Antiwar activists like to tell the story about how Richard Nixon used to claim he didn't pay attention to how many people showed up for war protests during the Vietnam War. He was too busy watching football, was the official word.

But later it came out that Mr. Nixon did care how many people took to the streets, and even likely changed war policy thanks to the size of marches in the late 1960s.

As another weekend of coordinated antiwar efforts gets under way, one of the tools of the activist trade - the demonstration - will be on display.

Protests often leave an imprint on the public - and make their way into the history books. But coming up with the next Boston Tea Party is tricky. How effective a big demonstration is depends on the memorability of its message and who is paying attention.

In the current campaign against a war with Iraq, large rallies are a valuable publicity tool for antiwar groups whose attempts to woo undecided Americans are frequently drowned out by a government that argues that it may be necessary to go to war. Given the disparity of antiwar groups and how some have tried to promote agendas that go beyond Iraq, swaying ordinary Americans on the issue isn't always easy.

"You get an opportunity to project an image on the 6 o'clock news that will go into the homes of mainstream Americans, many of whom are uncomfortable with this war. And so you don't want to blow it," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, a coalition of 29 civic and religious groups.

Over the weekend, protests will be held in New York, San Francisco, and cities across the US and the world. They follow major rallies held in October and January on both US coasts that totaled hundreds of thousands of people.

Unlike during the Vietnam era, or even a decade ago for the Gulf War, activists today can use the Internet to coordinate volunteers and disseminate information to the public about where and when to meet.

That gives access to more everyday Americans who might not otherwise know about such activities. At last month's rally in Washington, many first-time protesters showed up, some even with their children. Over the hubbub of conversation, a few spoke of how they viewed demonstrations as the only outlet for offering their opinion about the war.

Activists want people like that to go back to their communities and share what it was like with others to invigorate participation. They say word of mouth can be a more effective way of getting new recruits than through simply watching images on TV of crowds of strangers and speakers whose tone may not reflect their own.

As Mr. Andrews suggests, organizers have to be careful about how they present themselves when all of America is watching.

Last month in Washington, speakers selected by that rally's organizer, International ANSWER, addressed a wide range of topics, including American Indian rights and the release of imprisoned activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who killed a police officer in 1981. Critics say that diluted the message and left many observers with the impression that the antiwar movement lacks cohesion (an idea brought home in a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch.)

Some of the average Americans in attendance were also put off. One high-schooler wrote an essay in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently observing that the protest had a wide range of attendees but that its leaders "were so extreme and blatantly anti-American that it might have pushed me to the other camp if I had arrived undecided."

Not all groups organizing protests present their agenda in the same way, but they do say that multiple issues are likely to be raised at rallies because there are so many concerns linked to fighting terrorism and Iraq: impositions on civil liberties, detaining immigrants, preemptive attacks.

"Right now, every major demonstration that will take place around the war will cover a lot of issues, and it's a challenge to keep a focus on Iraq," says Bob Wing, a spokesman for United for Peace & Justice, main sponsor of Saturday's New York rally.

The goal is to generate support from a broad range of Americans, which in turn influences politicians. Many political leaders claim they don't pay attention to the protests and their numbers - much the same way they say they are uninfluenced by polls. But some say they do notice.

"Demonstrations are important," says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California. "It's one way the American people show their strength. In the war in Vietnam, that made a big difference."

What politicians look for, says Andrews, a democrat from Maine who served in the House of Representatives from 1990 to 1994, is to see how broad a range of demonstrators show up and how well organized they are.

They'll have another opportunity to evaluate that this weekend, when antiwar groups try to get the attention of the public. History suggests they will have to stay focused to be successful.

"I was in many marches during the Vietnam War," says Reginald Zelnik, a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "Some of them were just great, and some of them suffered from the same problem I think these last ones have. I think the jury is still out as to what direction these [weekend] ones will take."

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this story.

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