Anti-Iraq War Organizing in Grand Rapids 2002 – 2008: Part X – resistance lost out to electoral politics

In our tenth and final post covering the anti-Iraq war organizing in Grand Rapids, we look at the final year of resistance in 2008.

The group ACTIVATE organized an End the Occupation demonstration on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the US war/occupation of Iraq in March of 2008. Here is a video that Media Mouse produced about that demonstration.

The interest in going anti-war organizing in Grand Rapids had slowly dissipated and as with all presidential election cycles, people turned away from actual organizing and anti-war resistance to put their faith in electoral politics.

In May of 2008, when Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama came to Grand Rapids for a rally at the Van Andel Arena, the mood of those waiting in line was upbeat, since many people believed that Obama would usher in a new era of progressive politics. The group ACTIVATE didn’t drink the Kool-Aid and decided that people needed to take an honest look at his platform, especially as it related to the US occupation of Iraq (now it it’s 5th year) and the US war in Afghanistan (now in its 7th year.).

As a candidate, the Obama platform on Iraq and Afghanistan were not what most of his supporters thought, since his campaign rhetoric was significantly different that his actual platform. On the matter of Iraq, Obama didn’t condemn the war/occupation and as a Senator, he voted for every military spending bill related to Iraq. More importantly, the Bush administration had already brokered a deal that would see a significant US troop withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2008, even though Obama supports wanted to claim credit for this. However, the US government continued to use private military contractors, which continued to be paid for by taxpayers, thus replacing government soldiers for mercenaries.

On the matter of Afghanistan, the Obama platform was to shift the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, where Obama believed the War on Terror could be won. The candidate Obama proposed a US troop increase for Afghanistan, which ended up happening near the end of 2009.

When Obama was in Grand Rapids for the rally in May of 2008, ACTIVATE decided to hand out flyers with information on Obama’s Iraq and Afghanistan policies. They distributed nearly 1,000 that day, but many of the people who read the information that was being handed out, often responded with disbelieve or were antagonistic towards those who were flyering.

Of course ACTIVATE was not just against the Democratic platform on the war in Iraq, they also organized against the GOP. In fact, several members of ACTIVATE went to the Republican National Convention, held in Minneapolis in August of 2008, and took part in the resistance to the GOP platform, along with thousands of others who were protesting the Republican delegates to came to Minnesota.

Then in September of 2008, ACTIVATE organized one last demonstration against the US war/occupation of Iraq, when John McCain and Sara Palin came to Grand Rapids for a rally at GRCC. Here is how Media Mouse reported on that demonstration

Yesterday evening, around two-hundred people protested Republican presidential nominee John McCain and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin outside of the Ford Fieldhouse at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in downtown Grand Rapids. The loud and often boisterous protest went on for three hours–long enough to greet people on their way into the speech and greet them again on the way out.

As tends to be the case during election years, the protest was a mixed bag of messages, with the majority of those in attendance taking either a simple anti-McCain approach (waving signs reading “McSame” or “Palin = Pain”) or waving Obama signs. Throughout the evening, it was clear that much of the crowd wanted to engage in the highly partisan exchanges of insults that often come with these kind of events as people hurled insults at people attending the speech. Protestors yelled at attendees asking them if they “Took Palin’s ‘Bridge to Nowhere’” to the speech, told them to “Go back to East Grand Rapids,” and said that they were all “Rich white people.” These kind of comments increased as the night went on and reached their apex when McCain supporters left after the speech, with protestors yelling insults while McCain supporters waved their new “Country First” signs. Throughout the evening there were a number of chants as well, ranging from “No justice, no peace, US out of the Middle East” to “Obama, Obama.”

Amidst the partisan fray, two groups did attempt to get across a more focused message. ACTIVATE–a Grand Rapids based antiwar group–organized around fifty people to march to the Ford Field House with a message critiquing the Iraq War. The group–led by a banner reading “Stop Funding War”–called for an immediate end to the US occupation of Iraq and the funding of human needs over war. The group distributed a leaflet to those in attendance highlighting the cost of the Iraq War ($554 billion thus far) and explaining how the $1.2 billion that taxpayers in the 3rd Congressional District has spent could be used to fund healthcare (give insurance to 442,000 people for one year), education (provide 121,000 one-year university scholarships), and low income housing (build 9,488 low income housing units). The leaflet also reminded the crowd that the Democratic Party candidate–Barack Obama–has a reputation of being “antiwar” yet does not have a plan for actually ending the Iraq War. In light of this, the group calls for people to pressure both the Republican and Democratic candidate to support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

The other group was Progress Michigan who focused on McCain’s economic record. The group rallied behind a banner reading “Outsource McCain” and charged that McCain is out-of-touch with the plight of Michigan’s workers. They said that “Bush-McCain” policies–including support for foreign trade agreements that send US jobs overseas–have been responsible for 400,000 jobs lost in Michigan.

Throughout the protest, the Grand Rapids Police Department had a light deployment. Unlike when Bush was on GRCC’s campus in 2004, officers were not carrying gas masks and protestors were allowed to assemble directly across from the Field House. At various points, Police Chief Kevin Belk was seen outside directing officers. It is also worth noting that there were several undercover officers in the crowd. The only known incidents with police occurred when they confronted individuals carrying “obscene” signs. At one point, the officers confiscated a sign reading “Fuck McCain.”

After the 2008 Elections, most people forgot about Iraq even though the number of dead was astronomical and the devastation done to the country would put Iraq back decades. This reality played out all across the US and especially in Grand Rapids, thus demonstrating once again that electoral politics is the grave yard of social movements.

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