Stomping his feet as a wicked winter wind whistled down Manhattan's Third Avenue on Saturday, Jerry Park, 61, cheerfully proclaimed the death of the generational divide — in his household, at least.
Clutching his father's arm, 14-year-old Timmy Park grinned in enthusiastic testimony to the pronouncement as his elder brother, Paul, 22, darted through the sea of protesters with his buddies, periodically returning to his father and brother with the latest "reports."
For Park, a Mt. Rainier, Md.-based community activist who has put in his time in anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War, Saturday's gathering of an estimated 300,000 people near the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan was a salve for his soul.
"Today is a real event," he said as the vast crowd attempted to outwit police barriers and make their way towards the stage set up on First Avenue and 51st Street. "On this issue, we all agree. And I can definitely see a steady flow of young people becoming involved in this issue."
In hundreds of rallies in about 60 countries, millions of people took to the streets this weekend in a dancing, chanting, banner-waving confrontation to Washington's threatened war on Iraq that, by all accounts, has reverberated throughout this week, drawing the attention of governments across the globe in a display of public discontent not witnessed since the Vietnam War.
It's been 30 years since U.S. troops pulled out of a humiliating war in Southeast Asia that cost about 58,000 American lives, many more Vietnamese ones, and led to a public mutiny of sorts on campuses and streets across the United States as an era of civil rights activism, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll rolled — in retrospect — to its conclusion.
Three decades after the end of the war that rattled America's psyche, the sartorial tastes of today's anti-war protesters may not be as flower powered, and the spiritual predilection of the crowd may be classified as more mainstream than New Age. But in cities across America, the protests against a war in Iraq featured a familiar blast from the past.
At the anti-war rally in San Francisco on Sunday, singer Joan Baez addressed a gathering of about 250,000 people in the same clarion-clear — if a trifled aged — voice she employed to sing to the 450,000-odd crowd gathered for the Woodstock festival in the summer of 1969.
More than 30 years after he screeched "freeeeedom, freeeeedom," at Woodstock in a powerful rendition of his anti-war song that brought home the horrors of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre, Richie Havens led the proceedings in New York City on Saturday with his inimitable Freedom song. He was followed by Hollywood actor Danny Glover, who cut his political teeth in the civil rights movement heralded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
And in London's jam-packed Hyde Park on Saturday, Pakistani-born British writer Tariq Ali was a major draw more than 11 years after the former student activist's best-selling account of the tumultuous '60s, Street Fighting Years, first hit the stands.
A March of Individuals
For many seasoned activists who took to the streets across the United States and Europe in the late '60s and early '70s, the rallies protesting military action in Iraq may have amassed some of the numbers of the Vietnam demonstrations, but they lacked a distinctive countercultural flavor of the earlier era.
"I was in the march [in London] on Saturday and it was quite unlike any demonstration I've been on," said Mary Kaldor, director of the Global Civil Society Program at the London School of Economics. "There was hardly any singing and chanting and very few banners — I used to love the banners in the old days. I felt it was more like a march of individuals."
Kaldor's informal assessment of the crowd was corroborated by a number of reporters at the rallies across the United States and Europe, many of whom found themselves interviewing "ordinary people" who defined themselves as apolitical citizens who had never before marched or demonstrated for a cause.
Late last year, experts writing about a series of demonstrations across several U.S. cities noted that the protests were organized and manned, for the most, by what is loosely called the "Old Left" of left-wing sectarians, many of whom have been accused of being noticeably silent about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's abysmal human rights records.
But since January, experts such as Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, say the peace movement has widened to include liberal-left and even conservative voices.
"Since I called attention to the ideology-bound, provincial nature of the nascent anti-war movement, the world has turned, other coalitions have joined the movement and the result is, it's much broader now. You won't find friends of [imprisoned ex-Black Panther] Mumia Abu Jamal or an Islamic cleric who asserts that the Jews were responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks," said Gitlin, referring to controversial Muslim cleric Abdul Malim Musa, whose assertions that Israel had launched the 9/11 attacks, created a maelstrom in U.S. anti-war circles.
An Unfair Comparison
But what the nascent peace movement lacks in distinctive flavor, experts say it more than makes up for in momentum and reach. And though the Vietnam protests did succeed in producing a culture of dissent that tapped into the zeitgeist of the times, many experts and politicians say comparisons been the Vietnam and Iraq peace movements are not justified.
At a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the comparisons on the grounds that Iraq had the potential to use weapons of mass destruction.
"For one thing, what we're talking about here are [sic] the potential for weapons of mass destruction to be used against our country. That is a very different fact," he said. "It is a different era, it's a different century, and the threats are notably different and vastly more lethal."
And when it comes to the speed and depth of mobilization in the anti-war camp, many experts say comparisons are unjustified.
"It's not a fair comparison because the Vietnam movement started only after we were well into the war," said Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University. "In many ways, the anti-war movement now is more successful — just in terms of the sheer numbers and the fact that this is happening before any war has begun. In the '60s, the peace movement didn't start until the war began to go bad and the bloodshed was apparent."
The mass mobilization of protesters against a possible war in Iraq has taken many experts by surprise.
"I thought the era of mass demonstrations had come to an end, that we had entered an apathetic period. I was confidently writing about how we do things in a different way," said Kaldor, a leading voice in the 1980s European nuclear disarmament movement.
But Will it Make Any Difference?
While Kaldor says the pressure from the European peace movement helped bring about the democratization of the former Soviet bloc starting with the moderate regimes in Hungary and Poland, she's not so sure if this time around, peace demonstrators will be able to affect policy.
"I think France and Germany have discovered a way to close the gap between politics and the people. But in countries like Spain and Italy, Washington is being supported by right-wing regimes that do not reflect the popular opinion in their countries. In the 'new Europe,' there are huge splits between governments and the people."
The classification of a so-called 'new Europe' has raised a storm across the Atlantic following Rumsfeld's declaration earlier this year that the French, Germans and others opposed to U.S. strategy on Iraq belonged to "old Europe," an entity distinct from the "new Europe" farther east whose governments have proved to be more willing allies.
But recent polls indicate that public opinion in Eastern Europe is largely hostile to a war in Iraq.
An EOS Gallup Europe poll conducted last month in 30 European nations found big majorities opposed to U.S. action against Iraq, or their own countries' participation in such action, without U.N. approval.
While 82 percent of citizens of EU countries believed a military intervention in Iraq without U.N. approval was unjustified, the figure for 13 EU candidate countries — including "coalition of the willing" countries such as Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia — was 74 percent.
"If there's apathy in the West, there's even more apathy in Eastern Europe," said Kaldor. "Many citizens have the feeling that democracy is not what they had hoped for. And while the U.S. was seen as an ideal, I'm being told that public opinion is changing quite quickly."
And in Britain, America's staunchest ally on Iraq, experts say Saturday's protests, which attracted an estimated 1 million people, succeeded in turning up the anti-war heat on Prime Minister Tony Blair. Days after the protests, opinion polls showed Blair at his lowest approval rating in more than two years amid open calls in some quarters for his resignation.
'An Epidemic of Peace'
For his part, Park said the anti-war rally helped confirm his view that public opinion in the United States has rapidly changed into "an epidemic of peace" not seen since the Vietnam War.
While Timmy vigorously waved his banner proclaiming, "Support our troops, bring them home," Park exchanged pleasantries and swapped opinions with a number of fellow demonstrators, including a young couple from New York who had survived the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
As a co-director of Little Friends for Peace, an organization dedicated to teaching non-violence skills to young children, Park said he has been committed to helping children resolve perceived injustices "with love, not hate; with cooperation, not retaliation."
While he has steadily pursued his personal vision for peace through the decades, it was Saturday's rally that convinced him that he was not alone in wanting to give peace a chance.
"We felt united with all the people of the planet," he said a few days after the rally. "There's a real hunger to frustrate the violence and to really build harmony among the people."