Editor’s note: Reporter Ryan Hume spoke with many individuals and groups involved in social activism in an effort to show all the different approaches to activism in Portland. Some of those interviewed agreed to be cited for this article, but all of them informed and lent insight to this piece.
As the war in Iraq moves past its initial stages and the focus of U.S. Forces shifts toward post-war reconstruction and the creation of a new institutionalized government in Iraq, in Portland, the anti-war movement continues to voice its opposition to the U.S.-led coalition that has invaded Iraq.
Portland’s anti-war movement was active long before bombs started dropping in Iraq on March 19. On the brink of war, organized peace marches brought together well over 30,000 people, flooding the streets of downtown, while similar marches took place all around the world.
On March 20, an unpermitted group of protesters assembled downtown to voice opposition to the beginning of the bombing campaign, which resulted in the prolonged closure of two bridges and managed to briefly close sections of two interstate highways. One hundred thirty-five arrests were made that night at a peaceful sit-in on the west side of the Burnside Bridge. The result of the night’s vigilance has echoed throughout the local mainstream media ever since.
Nonviolent civil disobedience, or direct action as it is sometimes referred to, is the act of protest unsanctioned by the government. While it is illegal, it is intended as an act of resistance outside of the system that it is resisting, to voice opposition to a system, or an agenda of a system, by such nonviolent tactics as sit-ins and unpermitted protests, to symbolically distance the people from the system.
America has enjoyed a long history of civil disobedience: from Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay war taxes, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests, civil disobedience is as a much a part of American history as baseball or apple pie.
Protesters claim that since the beginnings of the war, local mainstream media sources have concentrated upon isolated incidents of violence and/or vandalism perpetuated by individuals as a reflection of the entire anti-war movement. Many see that concentration as an effort to weaken the public’s tolerance for citizens’ rights to express and assemble themselves under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Whether this is the intention of the media or simply the effects of shock and awe journalism is unclear.
“I’m not sure if it is just ignorance,” said Will Seamen, an organizer with the Portland Peaceful Response Coalition (PPRC), “or if it is actually a conscious manipulation on their part. The mainstream media often have caricatures of social movements, yet there are individual independent reporters and cameramen, who try to get thorough coverage of an event within the very severe constraints of the mainstream media.”
The PPRC is involved with organizing permitted protests as a part of the Alliance for Peace, a coalition of more than 150 groups.
“I think that the local TV stations and The Oregonian have created a false dichotomy (amongst protesters),” stated Dave Mazza, editor of the Portland Alliance.
“It is an attempt to show that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters, but I think if you ask the majority of people out there, they respect the different, peaceful tactics.”
The Portland Peace and Justice Works is also a part of the Alliance for Peace.
“As a nonprofit, educational organization doing nonviolent, permitted protest is the way for us to get the most people involved,” said Dan Handelman, an organizer with the Portland Peace and Justice Works.
“But there is a place for nonviolent civil disobedience. There are a diversity of organizing styles and a variety of tactics, but nonviolent disobedience is nonviolence.”
“All forms of dissent are appropriate during a time when the (U.S.) government attempts to forward an imperialist agenda,” stated Laura Close, an organizer with Students For Unity.
She has been involved with direct action since 1998 and believes the purpose of creating false dichotomies among the protestors is that “it benefits the elite by selling images of us divided.” Although, she did concede that, “The result of having (at least) three cameras broadcasting live from the Burnside Bridge, which was the nexus of the sit-in (on March 20), decreased police brutality underneath the watchful eye of thousands of viewers.”
The recent media phenomenon of the “splinter group” also convolutes the organizations of the two different approaches to protest, activists say. “The problem with the notion of a splinter group,” Will Seamen continued, “is that it assumes that it split from another organization; where, really, these groups are autonomous organizations that are going to have different ideas and different organizational tactics.”
It is clear that for anyone who disagrees with the War in Iraq, there are a number of ways to approach opposition to war after that conclusion is reached. It is always up to the individual about what they are willing to risk and what they feel is the most appropriate response. While it should be the job of the media to approach these differences with fact and knowledge, it is clear that somewhere along the line, the differences between approaches and the opinions about these differences within the community are being taken less than seriously.