WASHINGTON – The war in Iraq (search) has infused renewed energy into protests against the Bush administration, but some activists said Thursday that a stronger, more unified anti-war message is needed to achieve any future success in the movement.
"It doesn't seem to be organized in a very effective way," said Ben Kreith, of New York City, who traveled with his friends to attend the inaugural demonstrations. They participated in a march to McPherson Square near the White House, brandishing life-size images of soldiers carrying wounded children in their arms. "There is an organized (anti-war) movement, but it doesn't seem to be much."
Kreith, who demonstrated at what he believed were much larger Republican National Convention (search) protests in New York City last August, said at that time hope emerged that they could make a difference and President Bush would lose the Nov. 2 election. Instead, they continued their effort in Washington, D.C., on the day of the president's second oath of office.
"I certainly feel more heavy-hearted," said Kreith. "We were much more excited then, before the election."
Hundreds of protesters packed at least three organized rallies before and during the parade and staged events of their own — mostly street theater, like a procession of fake coffins draped with American flags to signify the Americans dead in Iraq. Others lined the parade route in sanctioned bleachers and turned their backs in unison when Bush's motorcade passed. Others participated in a "die-in" by the White House, lying down in the street in protest of the war.
Signs ranged from the strong but simple — "Bush is a WMD (weapon of mass destruction)" — to the more provocative — "Party in Hell, Torture Boy." Several female protesters were heard shouting "Bring the troops home" during the president's inaugural address. They were quickly hauled away by security officials.
But as in all of the protests since the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle that shut down the World Trade Organization (search) meetings there in 2000, a cacophony of voices under myriad banners — from abortion and gay rights to environment preservation and overturning the Nov. 2 election — could be heard Thursday. The variety prompted some to say that a more coherent message against the war may be more appropriate, at least on this one day.
"It's the same stuff we've seen at the Republican National Convention and the Democratic convention … the same signs and the same people, and I appreciate that and respect that but for me, I'm really getting to a point where I need to see more," said Ken Krayeske, a Connecticut activist who worked in Ralph Nader's (search) presidential campaign office last year.
He said that failed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and the Democratic Party abandoned the anti-war effort in order to win, and ended up losing both. He said there is no real leader of the movement now, no mainstream effort to reverse the Iraq policy.
"There is no Martin Luther King Jr., no one person — and maybe you want a leaderless resistance — but at the same time I don't see anybody that people are coalescing around, with solid ideas," he said. "[John] Kerry's biggest accomplishment in the election was smashing the anti-war movement."
John Hammer, of Manassas, Va., said his son's current National Guard service in Afghanistan prompted him to march in the first anti-war protest of his life. A 50-year-old Democrat, Hammer rejected declarations by the president and the Republican Party that Bush was elected on a mandate for his policy in Iraq.
"We feel the war is a totally, totally immoral and that's what we're marching for," he said, but added that the different banners and causes do not hurt the message overall.
"It's not a cohesive protest," he said of the inaugural demonstrations, "but that is the beauty of America. We have a lot of different reasons for protesting."
Others warned that the anti-war struggle is growing, particularly as more men and women are killed or come home permanently disabled. As of Wednesday, 1,364 U.S. troops had died in Iraq, and more than 10,000 were injured.
"To a certain extent I think there was a tactical error made when the progressives spent so much time trying to elect Kerry — I don't think it was the wisest use of the scarce resources," said Beth Oram, a New York City anti-war protester, who said she left her 17-year-old son home crying because his 18-year-old friend was just killed fighting in Iraq.
"I think the movement is going to start growing," she insisted, calling the $40 million inaugural celebration "obscene."
"These are good people," she said, pointing to the protesters. "They've been fighting for a long time. It's not about sour grapes, it's about the next four years."
Oram's brother Ken Coughlin, also a New Yorker, said mainstream America needs to be more actively concerned about the war, which is admittedly hard when there is no draft taking sons and daughters involuntarily.
"In order for this movement to be effective, it has to make inroads into the center," he said, "Yes, if we had a draft, there would be many more people in the streets."
Elaine Messner, an activist from New York who was holding a "Bomb-B-Q" sign depicting Bush astride a torpedo, said the day's protests didn't necessarily have to center on one, anti-war issue, though it was an overriding theme.
"I think there are a lot of issues, even if the connections aren't readily made, they are all together, they are all against Bush policies," she said. "People are really mad."
Some people who were waiting in the long security lines to enter the parade route Thursday said they support the right to protest, but said certain demonstrators went a little too far.
"They go beyond differences of opinion," said Paul Nicklas, of Eureka, Calif., who traveled with his wife and young son to the inauguration and in one moment, found himself the target of angry anti-war protesters holding a sign that called the president a war criminal. "That seems to be a liberal privilege."
Paul Messner, an upstate New York resident who was attending his ninth inaugural parade, appeared to have fun mixing it up with protesters, particularly those with signs like "F—- You Bush" and "Who Would Jesus Bomb?"
"Every year the protesters are out, no matter who is president, it's all part of the American milieu," he said, noting that this anti-war demonstration was a "pale reflection" of the ones at his first inauguration in 1973, during the Vietnam War. "I don’t think most people have a clue of what they are talking about here."
Tom Harvey, a Quaker from Rockville, Md., who said he is morally opposed to the war, said "it's not whether (the protest) is big enough. I'm interested in results."
Krayeske said there needs to be less street theater and more grassroots activism to achieve the results these protesters are asking for.
"It's a good show of force, but you need to be down on the ground, working every day in small local communities and organizing — and maybe I'm missing it, but I'm not necessarily seeing the kind of work we need."