From time to time (most recently here) I ramble on about how activism and demonstrations, done stupidly, can backfire and do more harm than good to the cause. Today we have an example of what a backfire looks like. (And, yes, I understand the backfire is way out of proportion to the alleged act that triggered it; this is pretty much always true.)
Brigid Schulte reports for the Washington Post:
As war protesters marched toward Arlington Memorial Bridge en route to the Pentagon yesterday, they were flanked by long lines of military veterans and others who stood in solidarity with U.S. troops and the Bush administration’s cause in Iraq. Many booed loudly as the protesters passed, turned their backs to them or yelled, “If you don’t like America, get out!”
Several thousand vets, some of whom came by bus from New Jersey, car caravans from California or flights from Seattle or Michigan, lined the route from the bridge and down 23rd Street, waving signs such as “War There Or War Here.” Their lines snaked around the corner and down several blocks of Constitution Avenue in what organizers called the largest gathering of pro-administration counter-demonstrators since the war began four years ago.
The vets turned both sides of Constitution into a bitter, charged gantlet for the war protesters. “Jihadists!” some vets screamed. “You’re brain-dead!” Others chanted, “Workers World traitors must hang!” — a reference to the Communist newspaper. Some broke into “The Star-Spangled Banner” as war protesters sought to hand out pamphlets.
Most of us might agree that these counter-demonstrators overdosed on Kool-Aid sometime back. The counter-demonstration was organized by one of those astroturf organizations that pretends to be independent but is really an auxiliary of the Republican Party. But note this:
At a Jan. 27 antiwar rally, some protesters spray-painted the pavement on a Capitol terrace. Others crowned the Lone Sailor statue at the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue with a pink tiara that had “Women for Peace” written across it.
Word of those incidents ricocheted around the Internet.
“That was the real catalyst, right there,” said Navy veteran Larry Bailey. “They showed they were willing to desecrate something that’s sacred to the American soul.”
Well before 7 a.m., hundreds of people milled about near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in an effort to, they said, “occupy the ground” and keep any disrespectful war protesters away.
“This is sacred ground to us,” said Rick De Marco, 62, a Vietnam veteran from Cleveland.
It’s sacred ground to me, too, and to a lot of liberals and antiwar activists. I hate to think that anyone on our side planned to vandalize it. If anyone has any direct knowledge of any antiwar group threatening to deface the Vietnam Memorial, please up. I suspect any threats to the Vietnam memorial were fabricated by the Right, but I don’t know. (Also note below that leftie blogger BlondeSense is skeptical the spray-painting actually happened.)
I find this fascinating:
Within days of the spray-painting, people were using he Web to organize, making it their mission to protect the monuments, support the troops and accept nothing less than victory in Iraq.
Gathering of Eagles, the group that organized the protest, was so worried about threats to the monuments that it hired private security to guard the Wall, said Harry Riley, 69, a retired Army colonel from Florida. Other vets patrolled the area through the night and early morning, he said.
By early morning, the National Park Service had installed two metal detectors and carefully controlled entry along the path leading to the Wall. Blue-helmeted riot police were stationed along the length of the Wall. For a time, a handful of vets paraded back and forth with American flags waving in the stiff, cold breeze.
This has “stunt” written all over it. Where were these alleged threats coming from? Did someone in the White House arrange for riot police to make the threat more credible?
But this is how backfires happen. I saw it time and time again during the Vietnam years. Some small number of protesters would do something stupid, such as vandalism or waving a North Vietnamese flag during a protest march. Then the Nixon Administration would use the incident to discredit the entire antiwar movement and stir up public anger against it. Thus, Nixon used the antiwar movement to deflect much public criticism of his handling of the war. Although the Vietnam War was unpopular, large chunks of the American public hated the antiwar movement even more.
Nixon’s operatives were very good at getting groups of people fired up about the dirty bleeping hippies and then arranging for those groups to counter-protest. For example, when Vietnam Veterans Against the War planned a march to Valley Forge in 1970, White House staffer Chuck Colson arranged for local VFW chapters to confront the VVAW. (A documentary of the march is said to contain footage of the VFW members spitting on the Vietnam vets.) Colson also had a hand in arranging the “hard hat parade” of May 1970. The parade got national television news coverage and helped Richard Nixon paint the protesters as “effete snobs” and privileged elitists who didn’t appreciate the virtues of hard-working “middle America.”
But let’s return to the present. BlondeSense was there:
… there was a significant anti-peace crowd who came to make their presence known, and a surprisingly high number were veterans. At the prior marches, the pro-war contingent had been pitifully small (and by pitifully small I mean maybe a couple dozen). I will readily admit I was wrong to think the anti-peace crowd this time would be roughly the same. I estimate between 2,000 and 3,000 “uber-patriots” showed up on this occasion, suitably wrapped in the American flag, as if they and they alone owned it. They were a pretty foul bunch, widely profain and abusive. One thing that struck us as we walked past them was that they were almost universally white men: very few women; very few people of color. Interesting that there were no African-American or Latino vets among their ranks, given the disproportionate numbers of these who served in Viet Nam. Still, I learned a few things from them that I didn’t know before. Along with the usual “I’m not fonda Jane” signs, I was informed that I am a parasite, and that Nancy Pelosi is owned by al-Queda. Hmmm, learn something new every day.
Third, some who visit here may recall that at the march in January, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on the steps of the US Capitol, with the MSM reporting that the steps had been “defaced” with some spray paint by some young punk anarchists. Now, the part about the spray paint may or may not have been true (and I only have my own lying eyes to believe that it was not), but as a consequence, rumors apparently abounded that the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial was going to be defaced. So the Gathering of Beagles, as the anti-peace crowd called themselves (okay, not really, they called themselves the Gathering of Eagles, but I couldn’t resist because they sounded like so many hound dogs baying at the fox to me), were there to “protect” the memorial from us Godless, filthy, hippie-lovin’, librul scum. I’m going to state this as succintly as possible: Bullshit. I have a 99.9999% confidence level that no threats of that nature came from the anti-war protesters. To the extent such a threat actually happened, I’d be willing to make a significant wager that it was someone from the pro-war group who actually manufactured the threat in order to rally the vets to protect their hallowed ground. And to get coverage from the MSM regarding their “noble” cause. (Naturally, it worked.) In any event, access to the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial was tightly controlled, with each person being hand-searched before being allowed to visit the wall.
And I’m 99.9999% confident that BlondeSense is right about who started the rumors. It’s a classic rightie propaganda move. I’m only surprised it’s taken the Bush White House this long to get a counter-movement going, although that may be because public demonstrations against the war haven’t been as common as they were during Vietnam.
One of the groups behind the counter-protest is Move America Forward, which you can read about here. In a nutshell, MAF is an “astroturf” organization put together by a political consulting/public affairs firm with many connections to the Republican Party, and MAF’s organizers and boosters amount to a Who’s Who of American Wingnuts and Chickenhawks — Melanie Morgan, Michelle Malkin, Hugh Hewitt, Rush Limbaugh. The counter-demonstration was organized mainly by A Gathering of Eagles, which calls itself a “partner” organization to MAF. And if the “Eagles” aren’t astroturf, too, I’ll eat my mousepad.
At the end of the day the “Eagles” had successfully guarded the Vietnam Memorial from the fantasy threat. Expect to see more of them a future antiwar demonstrations. No expense will be spared to ensure a big turnout. The danger is that the “Eagles,” who are utterly oblivious to the fact that they’re being used, will goad antiwar demonstrators into shouting matches and fights that will make for great television (flag-waving, uniformed veterans versus dirty bleeping hippies) and deflect attention away from the war itself.
Update: See Sadly, No.