Violent Protests Against the Iraq War

by Roger Alford

Richard Posner has an interesting but unconvincing post asking the question why there have been no violent, disruptive protests against the war in Iraq, as there were in 1968 over the Vietnam War. He suggests that in addition to “[t]he obvious answer that there is no longer a draft”, that there are five contributing factors that explain the absence of violent protests against the Iraq War:

[First], the opponents of the war in Iraq have the support of one of the two political parties…. [T]hey have less need to protest because they are aligned with a powerful political force. Stated differently, protests would have a modest incremental effect on ending our military involvement in Iraq, and perhaps even a negative effect.

Second, the opportunity costs of time are higher today than they were in the 1960s and early 1970s for potential protesters. This is partly because of higher wages, especially for educated people, and the fact that a higher percentage of women are employed. The greater competitiveness of the economy discourages people from taking risks with their careers by protesting. It discourages college students as well as the employed, because someone who gets the reputation in college of being a violent protester, or is suspended or simply gets very low grades because of the distraction of engaging in protest activities, will see his opportunities for a good job diminish.

Third, the great expansion of the electronic media, including the advent of blogs, gives people outlets to blow off steam that are much cheaper, in cost of time, than street demonstrations or acts of violence. The electronic media enable a message to be communicated to far more people than street demonstrations do, and at lower cost, so one expects substitution in favor of the media.

Fourth is a learning factor. The violent protests against the Vietnam war probably did not shorten the war, but instead helped Nixon become President….

[Fifth], [f]or many of the Vietnam war protesters, the war was a symbol of what they believed to be deeper and broader problems with the United States and the entire Western world. They thought the “system” rotten and entertained Utopian hopes of overthrowing it and substituting a socialist or anarchist paradise. This belief gave the war more resonance as a target. Partly because of the collapse of communism, partly because of greater prosperity, few Americans are hostile to the American system.

There is just one little problem with Posner’s thesis: Seattle. The violent, disruptive protests in November 1999 against the WTO ministerial meeting cannot be explained away based on the factors Posner presents. There was no draft at issue with the anti-globalist protests; many members of the Democratic Party were (and are) strongly aligned with the “fair trade” concerns of the protesters; there were opportunity costs and diminished job prospects attached to anyone who violently protested globalization; the electronic media was in full flower in the late 1990s and offered alternative avenues for communicating their message; and the violent protests against the WTO was a failed project, i.e., it did not dampen the general public’s enthusiasm for globalization and certainly did not help Gore defeat Bush in 2000. That leaves the fifth factor, which I will grant in the case of the WTO protests, it appears that the anti-globalists believed the capitalist, free-trade system was rotten to the core.

So by my count only one of Posner’s six factors explains why there were violent, disruptive protests in Seattle, but there have been no violent, disruptive protests over the Iraq War. This suggests that the more interesting question is why the protests against globalization but not the Iraq War? In short, why would one become more exercised about trade than war?

13 Responses

  1. Roger,

    I don’t want to answer your questions but simply point out that it will not do to characterize the protests at the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999 as ‘violent.’ Given the estimated number of protesters: from 50,000 to 100,000, the actual number of those engaged in violence was extremely small. Indeed, the protests were, for the most part, NONVIOLENT. The media attention, understandably, was directed to those engaged in acts of violence (there’s precedent for this from the 1960s as discussed in Todd Gitlin’s classic book, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making & Unmaking of the New Left, 1980). A brief and helpful discussion of this topic is found here (as well as some nice links):

  2. I’m going to more or less concur with Mr. O’Donnell. The violence in Seattle didn’t seem to be the intentional policy of most of the organizers and protestors present.

    The lack of violence in the anti-war protests could be attributed to better organizer control, or police tactics in confronting them. There are a number of possibilities.

  3. I want to echo Patrick’s excellent point. Most of the violence in Seattle was committed by the police overreacting to the the massive number of nonviolent protesters who showed up for the WTO protests, although — predictably — the right has managed to re-frame the events to place the blame for the violence on the protesters themselves. For an excellent account of what actually transpired, see Paul Hawken’s lengthy account here.

    I also strongly doubt that anything but a tiny minority of the protesters believed that “the capitalist, free-trade system was rotten to the core.” Demanding fair trade for workers and for the environment is not the same thing as opposing free trade — although, again, the right had done yeoman’s work in eliding the difference between the two positions.

  4. Posner’s post generated identical criticisms about the “violent” protests against the Vietnam War. My response to Patrick and others is the same as Posner’s response to comments he received arguing that the Vietnam War protests were not violent: “I should not have described the Vietnam War protests as ‘violent.’ There was some violence, but my subject was not protests that were violent, but rather protests that took the form of street demonstrations,picketing, and marches (sit-ins, disruptive though rarely violent, would be intermediate between violent and completely peaceful protests), for my analysis shows why we have not seen many such protests against the Iraq War.” So don’t focus on the word “violent” but ask why we do not have “disruptive” protests against the Iraq War as we did in Seattle.

  5. Consistent with my comment above, I have edited the post to include “disruptive” as an additional qualifer to more accurately describe the Seattle protests.

  6. I think Posner’s premise is just wrong – I do believe there have been a number of street protests. It just may be that the media do not cover all of them for fear of being seen “unpatriotic” to the warloving crowd. Of course we have Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas (I believe) all last summer. I can remember the protests outside the Republican Convention in 2004. Here in Toledo, on any given Sunday there are people on one or another street corner. There were the small groups of us whenever we can get advance knowledge of where the President is going to speak in Ohio. 300 of us were in the snow after his 2004 State of the Union address in early February 2004 and when he spoke in Fort Meigs in August 2004 – protesting the war.



  7. Well, to attempt an answer your question: I think Posner is largely on target on the second and fifth points (Although I wouldn’t express them quite the way he does: he should read the SDS’s 1962 Port Huron statement [reprinted in an appendix in Miller below] to see how the more articulate leaders of the student movement in its beginnings were not about overthrowing ‘the system’ and replacing it with a utopian socialist or anarchist paradise.). However, I believe the lack of a draft is the most important variable here.

    I also want to take a moment and counter some of the revisionist history of the 1960s that insinuates itself into such discussions. The following list represents a fair portrait of social movements, cultural protests and alternative community and institution building that took place in the 1960s (I’ve left out the voluminous and better known literature on the civil rights movement). [I had the privilege to take several classes with the 1960s SDS veteran Richard Flacks while an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara and learned quite a bit from his courses and my own research. Dick, now retired but living here in town with his wife Mickey, was savagely beaten close to death in his school office (suffering a partially severed hand and multiple skull fractures) in 1969 ‘shortly after the Chicago Tribune had named him as a radical troublemaker’. With Mickey, he remains active in local politics here in town, especially on ecological and housing issues.]:

    Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989 ed.

    Case, John and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, eds. Co-Ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

    Cohen, Robert and Reginald E. Zelnik, eds. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

    Flacks, Richard. Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

    Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

    Katsiaficas, George. The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1987.

    Melville, Keith. Communes in the Counter Culture: Origins, Theories, Styles of Life. New York: Morrow Qull, 1972.

    Miller, James. “Democracy Is In The Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

    Nicosta, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement. New York: Crown, 2001.

    Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

    Sale, Kirpatrick. SDS. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

  8. To reinforce something Ben says, I have participated in a handful of protests in Santa Barbara and there have been some rather large protests here and abroad, however intermittent. Yet I suspect many of us do not believe in our heart of hearts that they will have any noticeable effect (based on conversations with family and friends about this), and this has sapped our enthusiasm for such protests. And I believe Ben is right about the media coverage. Still, I think there are differences between then and now that need to be accounted for and thus suspect the lack of a draft is the most significant variable in accounting for that difference.

  9. I agree that the lack of a draft is the most significant variable. I think the nature of the discussion in media right now is to make us all feel that protest will have no noticeable effect. It is an effort to seek our acquiescence – no calls to sacrifice, no pictures of dead soldiers to be shown etc. This reminds me: the Nixon White House said the protesters in the street had no influence on them (later of course we found this to be completely untrue). So keep the brave heart and do not let the nabobs of negativism sap your enthusiasm for protest. When it all comes back to haunt us, you can explain to your kids what you did.



  10. Just to take this a bit farther, John Mayer’s says it very well in his song Waiting on the world to change lyrics below and video also at

    Waiting On The World To Change lyrics by John Mayer.

    me and all my friends

    we’re all misunderstood

    they say we stand for nothing and

    there’s no way we ever could

    now we see everything that’s going wrong

    with the world and those who lead it

    we just feel like we don’t have the means

    to rise above and beat it

    so we keep waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    we keep on waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    it’s hard to beat the system

    when we’re standing at a distance

    so we keep waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    now if we had the power

    to bring our neighbors home from war

    they would have never missed a Christmas

    no more ribbons on their door

    and when you trust your television

    what you get is what you got

    cause when they own the information, oh

    they can bend it all they want

    that’s why we’re waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    we keep on waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    it’s not that we don’t care,

    we just know that the fight ain’t fair

    so we keep on waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    and we’re still waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    we keep on waiting waiting on the world to change

    one day our generation

    is gonna rule the population

    so we keep on waiting

    waiting on the world to change

    we keep on waiting



  11. I taught an Ethics course last semester and asked my students this very question. It came up when we were discussing the elite theory of democracy. This theory states that Joe/Jane Q. Citizen is no more informed on foreign or trade policy than they are on, say, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Treatment of the ill is left to doctors and those trained in the medical arts; why lay the decisions of a nation at the feet of the un-informed? If you really don’t know what you’re protesting against, it’s hard to protest. To that end, I woudl argue that the general public has become rather nonchalant regarding protests. Why extend ones energy much beyond, say, signing a petition at Is it really making a difference and if so, is that difference better or worse than the decisions of informed policy makers with security clearances and Harvard educated staff members?

    I would therefore refute most of Posner’s claims. It would be interesting, however, to examine the demographic factors comparing the protests at WTO rallies and protests in the 60’s. Were there larger numbers of unemployed during the 60’s? Are there sociological differences between college students in teh 60’s and college students in the 21st century? Another way to examine it would be to look at other cultures. It’s reported that protests in areas such as the Gaza strip are related to the fact they having nothing better to do; no jobs, etc.

    Finally, in regards to Seattle…I’m not sure if it was Seattle or not, but there are reports of farmers (I think in this case, a Chinese farmer) matyring himself at one of these rallies. Violence is relative in that sense.

  12. Most of the violence in Seattle was committed by the police overreacting to the the massive number of nonviolent protesters who showed up for the WTO protests, although — predictably — the right has managed to re-frame the events to place the blame for the violence on the protesters themselves.

    Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. At the very least, a great deal of the destruction of private property was the result of the actions of a small minority of the protestors. The violence after that, I suppose could be attributed in some part to the police.

    Any protest runs the risk of being defined in the public eye by the most extreme of its members.

  13. I’m rather surprised that Posner didn’t include demographics in his list. Might the fact of the mass of baby boomers being, well, young people and lots and lots and lots of them be its own independent cause – not just in the US, but May 1968 in Paris, Prague Spring, different places where an enormous and historically more or less unprecedented age cohort was coming of age in the Western world’s middle classes? One feature of the baby boom, of course, is that its concerns have dominated all other age groups while it is still alive. And I sometimes wonder whether one important way to understand Islamist extremism is on account of the fact that – especially compared to the Western societies where it often arises, the aging societies of baby boomers in Western Europe – is as Islam’s 1968, a vast cohort of young people, relatively mobile worldwide, out to change the world in their way.

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