Viewpoint: Why Was the Biggest Protest in World History Ignored?

Ten years ago today, the world saw what was by some accounts the largest single coordinated protest in history. But why was the antiwar movement ignored?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

People march outside Rome's Colosseum to protest war in Iraq on Feb. 15, 2003

Ten years ago today, the world saw what was by some accounts the largest single coordinated protest in history. Roughly 10 million to 15 million people (estimates vary widely) assembled and marched in more than 600 cities: as many as 3 million flooded the streets of Rome; more than a million massed in London and Barcelona; an estimated 200,000 rallied in San Francisco and New York City. From Auckland to Vancouver — and everywhere in between — tens of thousands came out, joining their voices in one simple, global message: no to the Iraq war.

I was among the antiwar contingent that swarmed Manhattan’s midtown on Feb. 15, 2003, a wintry Saturday. We spread across miles of city blocks, trundling past abandoned police barricades as we tried to inch toward the U.N., where 10 days earlier then Secretary of State Colin Powell had presented what we now know was illusory intelligence about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The multitudes in New York were diverse and legion. There were anarchists and military veterans, vociferous students (I was then a freshman in college) and a motley cast of graying peaceniks — many, including one grandmother memorably puttering along in a wheelchair, had opposed American involvement in Vietnam. And there were myriad others: a band of preppy suburbanites with banners announcing themselves — “Soccer Moms Against the War” — musicians, street artists and workaday New Yorkers. My uncle, a doctor with medical practices in both the U.K. and India, had flown in for the demonstration and was just another face in a vast crowd.

(MORE: Refighting the Last Wars)

The overwhelming feeling on New York’s streets, despite the grimness of the NYPD and the bite of that February afternoon, was one of unity and hope. Word was seeping in about the scale of the demonstrations elsewhere and it was hard not to bask in our sense of collective purpose. An article in the New York Times would soon trumpet, “There are two superpowers: the United States and world public opinion.” Here’s Sofia Fenner, then a high school senior in Seattle (now a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, currently doing dissertation work in Cairo): “I was just proud to stand with all those people, proud that we as dissenting Americans were not staying home while what seemed like the whole world took up our cause.” In Los Angeles, a pregnant Laila Lalami walked a mile with fellow protesters down Hollywood Boulevard. “I thought, ‘Hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. are making their voices heard. Surely they can’t be ignored,’” the Moroccan-American novelist told TIME this week. “But they were.”

And there it was. We failed. Slightly more than a month later, the U.S. was shocking and awing its way through Iraqi cities and Saddam Hussein’s defenses and bedding in — though it didn’t know it yet — for a near decadelong occupation. The protests, which by any measure were a world historic event, were brushed aside with blithe nonchalance by the Bush Administration and a rubber-stamp Congress that approved the war. The U.N.’s Security Council was bypassed, and the largely feckless, acquiescent American mainstream media did little to muffle Washington’s drumbeats of war.

(PHOTOS: War/Photography by Geoff Dyer)

A decade later, it’s hard to understand why the display of people power on Feb. 15 proved so ineffectual. The gun-slinging righteousness of post-9/11 America has given way to a more humble West, burdened by unwinnable wars, financial crises and a semipermanent funk of political dysfunction. Moreover, the explosion of social media in recent years has enabled previously obscure episodes of dissent to reach and reshape the global conversation. Protests matter again. Public spaces — from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to New York’s tiny Zuccotti Park — became sites of a renewed democratic vitality. Yet the mass antiausterity protests that have rocked Europe or even the largest actions of Occupy Wall Street have not been able to match the scale of what took place on Feb. 15, 2003.

There will be time yet to relitigate the justifications behind the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, 10 years after the fact. The ranks of the war’s cheerleaders have thinned in the intervening years, with a host of journalists and pundits in the U.S. offering their mea culpas for supporting the war so unquestioningly. A dictator is gone, but more than 100,000 Iraqis are dead, as well as 4,804 U.S. and coalition soldiers. The U.S. spent nearly a trillion dollars on a pre-emptive war that didn’t need to happen and a nation-building exercise that has achieved only fragile, uncertain gains. Far from a “mission accomplished,” the American adventure in Iraq has become a cautionary tale of hubris and poor planning. It’s clear the West’s current reluctance to take more direct action in ending Syria’s bloody civil war is, in part, a legacy of the U.S. experience in Iraq, where the disintegration of a regime spawned a whole new phase of sectarian slaughter and chaos.

But there’s no satisfaction in looking back and saying, “I told you so” — not with the blood that has been spilled and continues to be spilled. That profound solidarity I felt 10 years ago has faded into a form of resignation and sadness. In a region as complex and politically volatile as the Middle East, fixed moral positions are difficult. “Our demands were simple [on Feb. 15], and we were right,” says Fenner, the University of Chicago doctoral candidate. “What I didn’t realize at the time was that when the war went ahead, nothing would ever be so simple again.”

MORE: Is Iraq Falling Apart?

97 comments
FailingDream
FailingDream

I was there freezing my butt off too... It was ignored because there was a concerted effort by the NYPD to break the protest up, by diverting the incoming mass of protesters into smaller groups on different blocks. They were successfully sued some years later - again, with barely any media coverage. 


I remember coming home after the protest that day, eager to see the news report for what surely was the largest protest that I had ever seen, or been to, in my entire life in NYC.... There was MAYBE a 5 minute coverage on CNN. That was pretty much it. Aerial footage from CNN over the protest that day proved the effect of the NYPD to be a success - it was one of the smaller groups of protesters that were purposefully separated from the main march, to make the protest look smaller than it was. I've often looked back on that day with regret; we should've been more violent. Had the media been forced to report with some significant attention to the actual scale of those NYC protests, I think more of the country would've been shaken from the prevailing false assumption of the time - that those who were protesting were only a small "unpatriotic" bunch who didn't really reflect the will of the American people at large. Peaceful protests are not always the ideal... A lesson learned too late.

TomEinhardNilsen
TomEinhardNilsen

watch this doku ... "The four horsemen" ..well made, and tells you what you need to know about what you are talking about ..Some of it ;)

HikaruSulu
HikaruSulu

If it was Ignored, wouldn't that just be a result of a split in the media. Those that influenced Americans to ignore the protest and those that stirred people to protest. Since everything people see is filtered by the media any 'Grass-Roots' actions on the subjects chosen by the media are the direct result of the given stimulation.

oroborus777
oroborus777

You can have millions of protesters but it won't matter until you know where to protest.  Sit down strikes, work stoppages, on a mass and perpetual scale, for starters.  You hit them where it hurts:  their wallets.  And then you form a political movement, gather resources, endorse candidates who aren't afraid to stand up to the military-industrial-security complex and it's Washington cronies, or back your own candidates.  There is every key ingredient for a Peace Spring in the US as there was for the Arab Spring.  Technology, numbers, leaders, etc.  Make it happen, people.

RickHunter
RickHunter

The problem with the protest is that it wasn't backed by the big money political establishment.  Had ONE influential politician joined in, it would have been more successful because the media would have been on it night and day.  As it was, at the time, if you were against the war, you weren't American enough (according to Darth Cheney and his apprentice Lord Bush) therefore were considered a traitor and not worthy of the office they held.  And, of course, the politicians do whatever they have to do to stay in power.

georges_kanoute
georges_kanoute

After reading your article, I'm getting one lesson out of it: Dictatorships don't let you talk and "Democracies" let you talk as much as you want because they know they don't have to listen, so next time you go protest, make sure to riot properly, then they'll have to listen. 

judithsj
judithsj

Thanks for your article.  It's important to remember.  I was one of the greying peaceniks marching with Quakers in San Francisco after having marched against the Viet Nam War in the '60's.  I believe our challenge is not to succumb to resignation.  Take heart and remember Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."  Yes, the rules change, but I don't believe the sentiment does.


atpcliff
atpcliff

It would do better now because of social media and a more pervasive internet: More people would have been organized to protest, and more people would have heard about it....it would have had more influence now via the internet...."big media" is now no longer as important.

MollyCruz
MollyCruz

I have committed to the plan that if we invade Iran, we won't do it with my money. So I won't pay my taxes in that event. I suspect this passive resistance would make quite an impression on those planning to spend us into poverty to make a point, even if simply threatened by a committed faction of those who don't wish to pay for another suicide mission without a goal simply withheld their taxes. 

jerry48
jerry48

1/ " the biggest protest in world history " ????  the guy doesn't seem to know or remember the world wide protests against the war in Viet Nam !!! ( or, by " world " does he mean the american world only ? 

2/ OBAMA was right in helping to get rid of Gaddafi .  BUSH lied ! the invasion of Iraq was wrong and cost thousands of lives ! ( where are the weapons of mass destruction ?? )

3/ and YES Obama is right when he uses drones against enemies ! after all they are weapons and I don't see why we wouldn't use them ! ( these terrorists will always hide behind innocent civilians anyway ! )

4/ Winston CHURCHILL said " It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried "

so YES America is the biggest Democracy in the World, even if it is not perfect and makes mistakes sometimes !


carterpeterson24
carterpeterson24

The Iraq war had the unintended consequence of making Iran the hegemonic power in the region. I call it 'W's folly.'

bombeer
bombeer

The US is a huge propaganda machine... it can even drown out the obvious if it chooses to.

FdfdAsaa
FdfdAsaa

The Sheep love being lied into wars and about wars: WW1 (Lusitania) , WW2 (Pearl Harbour – prior knowledge) , Cold War ( Gladio) , Vietnam ( the fake Tonkin incident) , Iraq (wmds) , Afghanistan ( 9/11 Tim Osman , Al-CIA -da ?!? ) , Libya , Syria ( both attacked covertly with NATO backed “rebels” ie. more lies ).


So now the herd of mind controlled uninformed programmed sheep salivate over the lie of the Iran threat .

Why are sheep so dangerously mal-informed ? 
Ans: The dangerously grossly mal-informing MSM .

Why does the MSM grossly mislead us ?
Ans: Because thats how our owners , the banking corporate monied establishment ( the same ones who own MSM ) want it .

Why do they want it like this ? 
Ans: So military piracy and murder can go unexposed !

'The obvious is what is never seen until someone expresses it with simplicity' - Khalil Gibran

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

It was ignored by the media for the same reason that hormonal teenagers are tuned out.

Look, those protesters could shout, scream, and gather in large groups for a sustained period of time.  Big, freaking deal.

Did those protesters actually propose any kind of sensible policy?  None that I remember.

All they did was whine about a policy that was not going to change.

Their time would have been better spent working at their jobs (or finding one), or getting more educated about foreign affairs.

With grand displays like the protests, it's no wonder that America is the laughing stock of the globe.

Just look at our infantile youth.

FdfdAsaa
FdfdAsaa

if the mass media doesn't cover it , it doesn't exist 

ameer.jabril
ameer.jabril

@FailingDream U would have only given the nypd an excuse to become more violent. Nothing more. And the police state would have gotten even stronger then it already is.

ameer.jabril
ameer.jabril

@atpcliff Well with the rise and fall of the occupy movement i would disagree. Police now have far more power and far greater equipment then they did then and they have learned how to weaken the protest movement to the point of collapse. They ensures the protest movement is broken before it can fully take off.

SaltyDave
SaltyDave

@jerry48What kind of a democracy allows an undemocratic, authoritarian movement - the Tea Party - to dominate its political discourse? These people are not able to engage in democratic political debate, they want their views to dominate without discussion. Their attitude does not add to a healthy, functioning democracy. And yet one of the 2 political parties cannot exist without them; and cannot win elections without disenfranchising other citizens. Not even a truncated democracy like Canada, or Australia or Holland or Germany is as undemocratic at its core. These countries actually experience democracy in a purer form than do Americans.

India is the biggest democracy in the world, you are either ignorant or culturally chauvinist, most probably both. Just a typical American ensconced in a cocoon of propaganda. So what else is new?

And by the way, if you use weapons against people in other countries that is akin to declaring war on them. But of course, Americans are expert at throwing rocks and then hiding their hands behind their backs - from the local asswipe on the streetcorner to the military official most probably from the Hillbilly country or the old Southern slave lands. What was in reality human history's largest slave society - not the largest democracy. Unless you revere the human garbage that believed democracy was just for white WASP men with property including human beings as slaves. The concept of democracy actually evolved on planet Earth, except many Americans missed the bus.

WillardPhillips
WillardPhillips

@jerry48  I'm certain you think obama is right when he kills American citizens without due process, when he illegally pushes new laws and regulations through without congressional and senate approval, lies about Benghazi and why the Ambassador was in a CIA hideout, increases the national debt nearly 100%, allows gas prices to go over $5, gives billions to companies that then go belly up, spends millions on vacations and ignores his duties, etc, etc. He is undoubtedly the sorriest excuse for a president in this countries history, and it's people like you that gave him the job a second time.

ameer.jabril
ameer.jabril

@FdfdAsaa got proof to back up ur conspiracy claims. Cause as someone from a Muslim majority nation they only thing i found surprising about 9-11 is that it didn't happen sooner. Yea much of the Muslim world doesn't like u in case u still haven't noticed.

georges_kanoute
georges_kanoute

@mrbomb13 Actually, they were proposing an excellent policy: "don't go to war". Funny you don't remember it...

FdfdAsaa
FdfdAsaa

@mrbomb13REALITY :- We live on free range serf farms structured by a top-down money-pyramid system where serf control is maintained via mass conditioning-schooling and mass programming media ; giving serfs the illusion that governments actually represent them rather than their owners , the banking monied establishment .

internationalcrosser
internationalcrosser

@@Saltydave - you're a bona fide idiot.  You are the prime example of why American education lags. Please go back to school and educate yourself.

WillardPhillips
WillardPhillips

@SaltyDave @jerry48 Your questions make it clear that you have no idea what a democratic republic is about. Go to school. learn somethings, stop reading garbage, and then come back.

SaltyDave
SaltyDave

@WillardPhillips @jerry48 It is possible, Willard, for you to be even more ignorant than Jerry. I hope you realize that. The mere mention of Benghazi marks you as an imbecile. Do you support the Tea Party as well? Do you understand what "democracy" means?

SageJerryLevine
SageJerryLevine

@FdfdAsaa @mrbomb13 You give the government way too much credit.  As well as the media. Your paranoid visions are interesting and remind me of a couple of turn of the 20 century novels. stay in your bunker, all will be well. 

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@FdfdAsaa @mrbomb13 

"Free range serf farms"...that's a new one.

I teach American/European History (in addition to the other Social Studies), and the last time I used the term "serf" was while teaching the Middle Ages/Medieval Period back in October.  

Sorry, but America has operated as a republican democracy since its founding.  Our supreme law of the land is the U.S. Constitution, and our government is divided into three separate and distinct branches, with checks and balances to ensure that no branch assumes more power/control over the others. 

The "serfs" were part of the European feudal system, and worked the manors (land) of the wealthy Earls/Lords/etc..  Additionally, unlike slaves (which were considered property, and not people), lords did not "own" their serfs.  Instead, the serf operated as an indentured servant, who could be released from service with the lord's permission.  The only similarities between serfs and slaves were their comparative poverty and lack of societal status.

So, contrary to your comment, our democracy is not some illusion.  While it does represent the banking establishment to a limited degree (like any other special interest group), that by no means results in the banks figuratively controlling the puppet strings.

SaltyDave
SaltyDave

@TheRealNappyG @SaltyDave And that was before "12 Years a Slave" came out - a film that gets to the essence of the Canadian mentality even in the 1830's. The only sane person to come to the aid of  the protagonist was not one of the millions of Americans farting around the slave lands of America, but a passing Canadian who had proper values.  Canadians have the values Americans pretend to have, which is why Canadian politics are based on reasonable discussion and US politics are based on fear and hate and fueled by "dog-whistles"; because straight talk on common values is impossible when you stimulate ethnic animus to gain political power (which is actually a crime in Canada).  Personally, I do not like the Canadian Conservative Party, but I am impressed that the foreign minister is gay, the Harper cabinet is as multi-ethnic as any other party, Harper appeals to and gets support from new immigrants, and women are everywhere in government, even running many provinces.


And yes, Canadians have been witnessing US history since Day One. Ontario was the 1st British colony to outlaw slavery and that was from looking at the US example in disgust and horror.  Even the French Canadians in Quebec preferred to be under British rule and form a country with the Anglo Canadians than join the Americans (who salivated over the St.Lawrence lowlands).  The US is very well known to its neighbours in both Canada and Mexico, even if most Americans are ignorant of their neighbours, or even the fact they actually have neighbours.

TheRealNappyG
TheRealNappyG

@SaltyDave You, sir, are speaking The Truth! Thank you! These American "exceptionalists" drive me crazy with their revisionist views of history. The rest of the world sees it, even if they don't.

SaltyDave
SaltyDave

A coward with no honor. You must be a white from Dixie, or a vicious hillbilly. Many Americans are like white South Africans from the late 1980's.

Never, ever trust someone who is afraid of their own history.

SaltyDave
SaltyDave

@WillardPhillips In addition, it was the Republican Party that did not want the USA to enter WWII. They were happy that US industrialists were making $ selling arms to both the Nazi's and the allies. How many Canadians were killed by American arms in WWII? This is a question that will always be asked in Canada. Parts of the USA agreed with Nazism - especially the US South that was a race-based society where White Protestants hated everyone, from Blacks to Jews and even Catholics. The USA then managed its entry into WWII in a manner that would maximize its benefits post-war. They waited for the Russians to weaken the Germans before entering the European theater of war. They did nothing upon learning of the Holocaust. The plan was to allow the British  and Russians to weaken themselves and then come in at the end and clean up and establish itself as a superpower.

The Republicans actually called WWII "Roosevelt's War", considering it a Democratic war. This is the great Canadian protector? BS. You thought you were so brave in the Cold War but always needed allies. The Iraq War proved American limits and weakness and once and for all established that Americans need allies in order to help maintain international stability. Kind of like it always was until you thought your penis became magic.

SaltyDave
SaltyDave

@WillardPhillips @SaltyDave  

1) US territory (pre USA but on the land that is now USA and an indelible part of the land's history) started its slave society in the Virginia with gusto around 1675 = Slavery on the United States territory for about 215 years. The economy was organized around slavery. Post slavery the region did not allow African American private sector economic growth  and maintained the African Americans in a socio-economically disadvantaged position through terrorism which could only be defeated in the 1960's with the help of the federal government. That is at least 300 years as a  slave/caste society. To tiop it off, the Europeans fetishized the white race and that is yet another reason Americans are so unpleasant compared to say, Australians and Canadians who do not fetishize being white. Pathetic.

2) Rome was not as widespread a slave society as the United States. No other country held as many slaves for as long. Comparison with smaller countries, even Brazil, is beside the point. Accept your history like an adult and stop looking for false equivalencies - the American favorite pastime to basically negate responsibility (again, like children). Add the "American exceptionalism" stupidity to that.

3) Benghazi is an administrative issue where a security lapse had unfortunate consequences and the proper course of action is to discover what went wrong and to correct deficiencies. No conspiracy except in the Republican authoritarian's mind. Need to examine and rectify. Unfortunately, GOP irresponsible politicians slashed the security budget for the State Dept. You people are so easily motivated by your animus like the perfect authoritarian followers. You are clearly unable to examine a situation and apply logic to it, especially if you can be ignited by misplaced anger.

4) On behalf of all Canadians go f**! yourself. In both WW1 aand WW2 Canada entered the war at its beginning and lost proportionaltely more of its people in thoise wars than the USA. In WW1 Canada, with 1/13 the population at the time, lost more people than the whole of the USA. Also, don't mistake your cultural paranoia for real, actual threats. We all know fear and threat (and hate) are the mother's milk of right-wing Americans.

The USA never, ever gave Canada anything it did not get a return on. Canadians (and everyone else) know this very, very well. Canadians also have been American neighbors since the beginning if you understand history at all, and Canadians on multiple occasions over time did not want to join the Americans in one country. They did not like you enough. In fact, you had poor values in Canadian eyes, what with the genocide of the First Nations, the slavery, the addiction to violence, and ultimately the lower value Americans attached to human life compared to Canadians. There are stories that resounded in Canada in the 1800's of the stench of rotting human flesh that filled the great plantation mansions of the South from tortured slaves. You were often seen as a mean and hard people. This was the time Canadians were forming their own country.

If you want valued allies going forward you need to abandon some of your myths and children''s stories you tell about yourselves. Funny, it's always the right wingers who are the most disillusioned and wrapped up in myth and dogma - like medieval villagers.

WillardPhillips
WillardPhillips

@SaltyDave Keep it up, Dave. The more you write the more your ignorance becomes apparent. 90 years of slavery in this country, max number less than 4 million. Read about Rome, Asia under Ghengis Kahn, etc. As a percentage of population there were more slaves in South American countries such as Bolivia. Africa, the home of U S and European slaves held millions in slavery, the Arabs made slavery an industry. The truth about Benghazi will come out and hopefully be obama's demise. He put Stevens in harms-way while attempting a clandestine deal and then let the man die rather than take a chance on being found out. I take it you are a Canadian. Thank your stars you've had the U S to protect you for a hundred years. You sure couldn't have resisted invasion with your paltry army and navy. 

SaltyDave
SaltyDave

Again, Willard. The mere mention of Benghazi marks you as an idiot. You must have voted for "W" and kept quiet as he tricked the public into war in Iraq and created the massive debt and then economic collapse by overstimulating the economy. Maybe you should pick up a standard intro to economics textbook and disentangle yourself from the rotted thought you willfully polluted yourself with. You are far more stupid than a Democrat could hope to be, and that is saying a lot.

I'll bet you are afraid of your country's history and would deny that the largest slave society in all of human history was in the United States of America and that there are consequences of that history which makes people who deny that history both disgusting and ignorant; and most probably white supremacists. Maybe if you ask nicely the Canadians will send missionaries to civilize you savages.

 

WillardPhillips
WillardPhillips

@mrbomb13 @FdfdAsaa  C'mon, Fdf is enjoying his toy box of words garnered from books written by communist and socialist activists. He thinks he's another Che, and giving me a lot of laughs.

FdfdAsaa
FdfdAsaa

@mrbomb13 @FdfdAsaa Democracy  is most certainly an illusion and the money system underpins this fact .

Ask yourself , do the people want to fight immoral wars of aggression as in Iraq over the lies of wmd ? No of course they don't ! But does that matter to our so called representative govt ? Not a chance . 

Do the people want sudden mass immigration from 3rd world countries ? No of course they don't ! But does that matter to our so called representative govt ? Not a chance . 

Do presidents come from the same power cliques like skull and bones , bilderberg , CFR , ....and prime ministers from the 'oxford mafia' ? Can't you see objectively around you how govts are simply the puppets of 'big money' ?

Eg. from above 2 examples, " all wars are over money " socrates ......  and money talks louder than a herd of sheep !  The mass immigration is also about money and contrary to the electorate's consensus .

I have chosen only 2 examples to support my position , there are countless more !

Join me on my FB page  and begin the journey to The Seeing !

ameer.jabril
ameer.jabril

@SaltyDave @TheRealNappyG Canada wouldn't even be a first world country if not for the US economy buying your resources. So please stop talking like ur so much better.

ameer.jabril
ameer.jabril

@TheRealNappyG @SaltyDave Every country changes there history especially u white westerners regardless of where u come from. So what gives u the right to judge?

ameer.jabril
ameer.jabril

@SaltyDave Once again america has a black man as its president and half the US population (myself included) is not even white. The united states of white america is becoming a thing of the past so u might want to find some other excuse to hate the US as that one ain't gonna work no more:)))

ameer.jabril
ameer.jabril

@SaltyDave actually as far as slave societies go that title goes to u british common wealth nations formerly a part of the british empire along with the Ottoman turks. I'm an african btw so don't even try to debate slavery with me as i promise u you'll lose.