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No Justice, No Peace ... Whatever 

In the country’s putative activist capital, all the protests and rallies may do more to sow apathy than draw people to the cause.

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006
A wave of catchphrases and exclamation points washes up on one corner of Third Street and Palou Avenue. "Unconditional Amnesty for All!" "Black & Brown Unite!" "Free Mumia!" "Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!"

The slogans adorn banners and signs brought by some of the 50 or 60 people attending a late-afternoon weekday rally in the Bayview. Still another exuberant motto — "Home of the Phone Man!" — hovers above their heads, painted in black on the peach façade of a corner store that advertises cheap cellphone services.

Beneath the words floats a 5-foot-tall image of Phone Man, a jaunty capitalist superhero in yellow tights and a cape flapping from his shoulders. His vigilant gaze trained on the modest crowd, he must be a little confused by what he sees.

The rally promotes four causes, an agenda that, if ambitious, borders on chaotic. Besides amnesty for illegal immigrants and harmony between blacks and Latinos, the organizers appeal for the release of death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and the end of capital punishment.

Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted in the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia cop, looms as a living martyr to those who believe his claims of innocence. But exactly how his plight or the death penalty pertains to immigrant rights or racial amity becomes no clearer as a series of speakers exhorts the gathering.

They talk into a microphone while standing beside a towering palm tree, its square wooden planter doubling as a crude dais. A strong wind and the lowing of bus engines sometimes drowns them out, their voices fading and returning like the reception on a distant AM station. Most address only one theme or another, reducing the event to something less than the sum of its parts.

Calling for solidarity among minorities, a tuba-voiced man with a shaved head says, "I hope you're not just here for the moment, but for the long haul"; he and two friends stroll away 20 minutes later, a half-hour before the rally ends. A thin gray-haired woman in a knit sweater shrieks, "Please join the struggle to free Mumia!" A man who resembles an aging Steve Urkel, ignoring the prescribed agenda altogether, urges resistance to any city plans to gentrify the Bayview.

Earnest pleas aside, however, the event's success in attracting new converts appears so marginal as to be invisible. Judging from the applause and cheers, the people here already back whatever cause drew them in the first place, and the majority of them look at least 50 years old. Luring a clutch of middle-aged believers to a rally might pass for a decent turnout in Muncie, Ind. But in a city that regards itself as a fount of civic spirit, one has to ask: Where the hell is everybody?

Considering San Francisco's history of activism, there's an impulse to assume — even insist — that every march or picket, no matter how small, aids a movement's greater purpose. Yet the paltry crowds at many gatherings suggest there may be too much of a good thing.

In fact, some political analysts and longtime activists contend the dizzying number of rallies harms progressive efforts by fracturing public support amid a glut of competing interests. With more groups jostling for media attention, voters can grow weary of the scrum, as evinced by the meager turnout for last month's primary elections, slowing the pace of policy reform.

Meanwhile, as more young people flee the Bay Area's high cost of living, cynicism bred by President Bush's murky election victories induces others to dismiss the worth of activism. Their absence leaves a graying grassroots base, and an old guard of shoe-leather warriors wondering who will take up the banner of change.

Dorothy Callison holds a wooden stake topped with a red, white, and blue placard that reads "Refuse Illegal War." She stands on the perimeter of Justin Herman Plaza, silently alerting Downtown workers on their way home about an anti-war rally soon to start. Few seem to notice her as they hurry to catch BART or the ferry, their faces as stiff as the sign in her hands.

Callison plunged into protesting in the 1980s, after her children had grown. The 71-year-old Pleasant Hill grandmother marched against nuclear weapons testing and U.S. intrusions in Nicaragua. The latter campaign led to her arrest when she and several cohorts staged a sit-in at the Orange County office of a U.S. congressman.

Watching the well-dressed apathy stride past this evening, Callison, a slight woman with a coiled nest of black hair and a soft voice, finds solace in her convictions. "You just want to be on the side of people fighting for justice and what's right," she says. Yet when asked whether the rally will influence anyone's opinion about the Iraq war or yield fresh recruits for the cause, she pauses a long moment before answering. "You hope so."

The event honors Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to deploy with his unit last month after calling the U.S. presence in Iraq an illegal occupation. (He remains on an Army base in Fort Lewis, Wash., awaiting a court martial hearing.)

One of two dozen related protests held across the nation on the same day, the plaza gathering draws 150 people. The figure dwarfs attendance at events in San Diego, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and most of the other cities, where the average crowd numbers 25. Still, for the country's putative lefty capital, the turnout qualifies as anemic. More people would show up to watch Dave Eggers play Boggle.

A recurring inertia bedevils the anti-war bloc nationwide, despite public opinion tilting heavily against the U.S. staying in Iraq. Between sporadic mass protests ignited by a specific date or figure — the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion, the 2,000th American soldier killed — the movement often appears at a standstill.

The lethargy derives from varied causes. The Bush administration has worn down dissenters by sticking to its war policies with steel-jaw resolve — or brain-damaged obduracy, if you prefer. The lingering dread of another terrorist attack on American soil dissuades fence-sitters from taking to the streets. At the same time, as top Democrats play hedge games, the only reliable anti-war partisan is Eugene McCarthy's ghost.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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