Over 300 antiwar protesters took part in a demonstration at the gates to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point Dec. 1 as President Barack Obama sought to justify his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Facing police and soldiers at the Highland Falls gate to the Academy, demonstrators repeatedly chanted, “30,000 more! What the Hell for? 30,000 more! What the Hell for?” Drummers and a trumpet player accompanied the chanting.
Six protestors were arrested for sitting down to block the road into the military facility. They were charged with disorderly conduct, released, and summoned to appear in court Dec. 15.
The protest was organized in less than a week, according to civil liberties attorney Michael Sussman, who leads the Orange County Democratic Alliance and was among the chief organizers. Another organizer, Nick Mottern of WESPAC and Consumers for Peace.org, first heard the announcement that Obama would speak locally, and sent out the message to a few local organizers. “They all got busy calling other people and groups and within 24 hours some 14 organizations signed up to protest Obama’s speech,” he said.
Hudson Valley peace groups sponsoring the demonstration were Rockland Coalition for Peace and Justice, WESPAC, Orange County Peace and Justice, Democratic Alliance, Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter, Peace & Social Progress Now, Consumers for Peace.org, Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Rock Tavern, N.Y.). National groups backing the protest included the ANSWER Coalition, International Action Center, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Peace Action of New York State, Troops Out Now, and World Can¹t Wait.
The protest began in the darkness of 6:30 p.m. at Veterans’ Park in Orange County’s Highland Falls, a town adjacent to the 16,000-acre military reservation on the banks of the Hudson River. Most of the demonstrators came from various peace groups in the counties of Orange, Rockland, Westchester, Ulster and Dutchess, but some attended from New York City, the Upper Hudson Valley, and even from Massachusetts.
Nine speakers representing different groups took the megaphone to denounce Obama’s escalation of the war. They included Rev. Jim Bridges, Rock Tavern Unitarian Universalist Congregation; Elaine Brower, Military Families Speak Out; former Sgt. Matthis Chiroux, of Iraq Veterans Against the War; Don DeBar, Green Party activist and reporter; Larry McGovern, Westchester County Peace and Justice; Jack A. Smith, editor of Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter*; Michael Sussman, Democratic Alliance; Deborah Sweet, World Can¹t Wait; and Nancy Tsou, Rockland County Peace and Justice.
Following the 45-minute rally, MC Bennett Weiss instructed participants to line up single file for the nearly half-mile silent, candlelight peace walk to the Academy gates. A full moon illuminated the night.
At the gates, demonstrators spontaneously began singing peace songs in subdued and unsure voices, but as the crowds grew the voices became more strident and determined. Individuals, then groups, began chanting “End the War!” “Bring Them Home Now!” “What do you want? Peace! When do you want it? Now!”
About 30 protesters sat down on the pavement in front of the gates, and were not removed by police. But when six of them moved to the road, they were arrested and transported to night court.
The Hudson Valley peace movement, as in the rest of the nation, has suffered declines in number in recent years, and particularly after warmaking President George W. Bush left office. Many Democratic voters who opposed Bush’s military adventurism have been reluctant to protest against any of Obama’s policies, including his enthusiastic support for the Afghan war.
Movement observers believe that after nearly 11 months of Obama’s presidency the tide is slowing turning, in good part since it became clear he was going to order a significant increase in U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan. The demonstration in West Point, as well as many protests throughout the country during and after the Dec. 1 speech, appears to be a harbinger of a movement in the process of rebuilding itself.
A test of this thesis will be on Saturday, March 20, on the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when a mass peace demonstration is set for Washington DC, and a number of large cities across America.
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Following is the text of the talk given at the Dec. 1 West Point demonstration by Jack A. Smith, editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter and co-chair of Peace & Social Progress Now.
During the election, at Barack Obama rallies, we frequently heard the multitudes exclaim in unison — Yes We Can! The crowds also spoke of “change we can believe in.”
I was suspicious of such slogans because it was never explained what they meant. Yes we can — what? And what was the “change we can believe in”?
Although a great deal was implied by these slogans — not least that Obama would end the wars and bring the troops home — the Democratic candidate never spelled it out.
But now I think we know what both statements mean.
Yes We Can vastly expand the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan by adding another 30,000 U.S. troops on top of nearly 68,000 already there, which include the 30,000 Obama sent in March. Obama has doubled Bush’s troop allotment.
Now that’s a change we can believe in!
And Yes We Can, in Obama’s recent words, “finish the job” in Afghanistan.
What job? The “job” of vastly expanding a totally unnecessary war. The intelligent response to 9/11 was worldwide police work, sanctions, and other means short of war. But Bush wanted a war to extend U.S. hegemony into Central Asia, and also to pave the way for invading Iraq.
Bush failed in Afghanistan. Obama wants to convey the impression he is “winning” in Afghanistan. By “winning” Obama will show his right-wing antagonists that he’s no weak-kneed, cut-and-run liberal, much less a leftist or socialist. Far from winning, however, a bigger war means a deeper quagmire.
The Republican Party supports the Afghan war. But 70% of Democratic voters oppose the war. That won’t stop Obama. Yes He Can thumb his nose at his own constituency because antiwar Democrats have no place else to go. Most will stick with the so-called “lesser evil.”
That’s the trouble with the two-party system when one party represents the right/far right and the other party represents the center/center right, and there’s no mass party of the left. It’s always a choice between evils.
So Yes We Can be led to the slaughter of other people who have done us no harm.
Yes We Can manipulate the masses of the American people.
Yes We Can in actual effect support an undemocratic coup in Honduras despite our rhetorical critique.
Yes We Can continue the Cold War economic embargo and travel restrictions against our small neighbor, Cuba.
Yes We Can raise the military budget to unparalleled heights.
Yes We Can end up supporting the worst aspects of the Patriot Act.
Yes We Can bail out the bankers and Wall St. but No We Can’t implement government programs to get people back to work or stop the foreclosures.
Yes We Can get rid of single payer, and transform the public option into a joke.
Yes We Can make the enrichment of insurance companies the key objective of the new healthcare plan.
Friends, we have to rebuild our antiwar movement. We’re in for a much longer war.
Our movement — the base of which is composed of Democratic voters — suffered a major decline since the 2006 election when the Democrats took control of Congress. And it nearly fell apart when Obama won the election, because Democratic voters thought they elected a president who would end Bush’s wars.
Even though Democrats oppose this war, most have not come back to antiwar activism. The main reason is not wanting to publicly oppose Obama. Also, too many Democrats think of Bush’s Afghan adventure as a “good war.”
To become a truly mass movement once again we’ll have to win those people back to the peace movement. We must convince them this is not a good war. We must bring them back into the streets by the millions.
In three and a half months — on March 20 in Washington — there will be a mass demonstration on the sixth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. ANSWER is the main organizer, and scores of national and regional organizations and coalitions are co-sponsoring. The Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter will supply the buses from several Mid-Hudson towns. Please help us fill them.
Friends, the American people oppose Obama’s war buildup, but without a mass peace movement their voices will never reach those in power. We have our work cut out for us.
You want a real change you can believe in? Here’s how:
End all the wars! Bring all the troops home now! Money for jobs and people’s needs, not for militarism, imperialism, and war!
Jack A. Smith is a former editor of the (US) Guardian Newsweekly and has edited the Activist Newsletter for the last decade: <activistnewsletter.blogspot.com>. He may be contacted at <email@example.com>. This article also appears in the 2 December 2009 issue of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter.