Organizers of Portland's antiwar movement think they're finally about to translate their street strength into political results almost four years after U.S. soldiers invaded Iraq.
They expect a turnout of up to 30,000 people at a downtown march planned for this Sunday, March 18, compared to an estimated 10,000 people who turned out for last year's third-anniversary rally.
The movement has yet to succeed in changing White House policy as Vietnam-era protesters did. But there has been optimism since the antiwar turn of voters in the 2006 election. That's a welcome contrast with the movement's demoralization after the re-election of President Bush in 2004, says Kelly Campbell, staff organizer at the Portland office of the American Friends Service Committee.
"It was a depressing time," says Campbell, 34, one of about three dozen activist leaders who've been meeting to plan the rally. "Now Congress is ready to talk about defunding the war. The mood is really changing."
Event organizers say the changes call for a similar change in tactics.
Now that Congress could shut down the war, activists can't afford tactical blunders like the "mission creep" that afflicted past demonstrations.
Portland's third-anniversary war protest featured an almost comical pileup of subthemes: no blood for oil; end the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank and Gaza; fund education, health care, jobs and the environment; get military recruiters out of schools; and respect human rights and international law.
"The theory was that the more messages you bring in, the more people you line up behind you," says Peter Bergel, head of Oregon Peaceworks. "The truth is, when your main point enjoys majority support, adding in causes that are not majoritarian actually loses people."
While organizers can't stop people from bringing in other signs, this year's big march has but two points: stop the war, and bring the troops home now.
In addition to the tightly focused message, there will be "action tents" to give everyone something concrete to do. Kids can make peace art. Voters can write letters and be trained how to lobby politicians. And people can sign up to be trained for future acts of civil disobedience.
Fully six in 10 Americans want U.S. troops home within a year, and an equal number want Congress to set a timetable for doing so, according to a Gallup poll conducted the first week of March.
Although the White House is hardly quaking, Portland's City Council passed an antiwar resolution in November. A similar effort failed in 2003.
The Oregon House—which endorsed the war in a 2003 vote—is expected to pass an antiwar resolution any day. The Oregon Senate is likely to follow.
Congress, with Democrats in power, could make those nonbinding resolutions real. In Oregon's seven-member congressional delegation, all five Democrats voted against the original resolution that authorized the president to use force in Iraq.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland), who will address the March 18 rally, has introduced a bill that would end the war. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Springfield) is co-sponsoring Blumenauer's bill and was on board with the "Out of Iraq" Congressional Caucus from the get-go. Reps. Darlene Hooley (D-West Linn) and David Wu (D-Portland) have squeakier but still audible antiwar voices. Activists consider Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) a lost cause.
Then there are Oregon's U.S. senators. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, in addition to voting against the original war resolution, has since voted for two antiwar resolutions.
That leaves Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican who's been taking the brunt of activist ire. Smith supported the war, then reversed that stance after the November 2006 election and has since left a trail of confusion about his position.
Smith's Portland office has been under siege from sit-ins as often as twice a week. If a video of protesters singing "Frere Jacques" (youtube.com/watch?v=0w5-Ajtga5k) is typical, one would imagine he'd be willing to do anything to get rid of them.
"All these politicians that are starting to sound antiwar weren't sounding this way a year ago," says John Olmsted, one of the rally organizers. "They are freaked out."