Back in January 1991, the peace movement pretty much folded its tents as soon as the U.S. missiles started dropping on Baghdad. Here we are in March 2003. Will it be the same?

Listen to Leslie Cagan, who's organized some legendary demonstrations across the past four decades, starting with the March on the Pentagon in 1967. Fifteen years later, she put a million people into New York's Central Park, demonstrating for a nuclear freeze. These days she's co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella group that put half a million people on the streets of New York on Feb. 15.

In Cagan's view, "We're not going to see that drop off. This time the president did not make his case, did not build support, as his father did in 1990. I think we'll see an increase in activism." When I talked to her at the start of the week, Cagan's group was working around the clock toward a march for peace down Broadway on March 22, which could be the first march after bombing begins. With plenty of egg on their faces after the furor over the ban on marching on Feb. 15, this time, Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD have OK'd the march.

Looking beyond March 22, Cagan sees the peace movement building up pressure on Congress, which will soon have to authorize $90 billion for the war. "They need to be leaned on. We're also looking at targeting privately owned companies that make money out of war. We have to lend even more support to groups like Military Families Speak Out, a small group of people who have sons and daughters in the military, speaking out against this war. And hopefully, fairly soon, we'll have soldiers going AWOL, refusing to be called up."

Talk to anyone with experience of the peace movements from Vietnam forward, through the efforts to stop intervention in Central America in the Reagan years, and they all agree that what's phenomenal about the current anti-war movement is the speed with which it has grown up, and the way in which it has involved people from all walks of life.
It's not been a matter of just a few huge rallies either. On March 5, we saw student walkouts. There have been the candlelight vigils, some 6,000 of them, pushed by The same meeting in October 2002, which saw the birth of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), also produced the Cities for Peace project, run out of the Institute for Policy Studies. To date, around 150 cities across the United States have passed resolutions against war in Iraq. This week, the spotlight is on a very definite upping of the ante, civil disobedience in Washington D.C., and New York, promoted by the Washington D.C.-based Iraq Pledge of Resistance.

As Bill Dobbs, also of UFPJ, says, 'The Iraq crisis comes in the context of Enron, of decaying school systems and all the other problems, and now this gang of thugs want to take us to war.' It's symbolic of a whole agenda. People understand something is very wrong. If Bush and his gang are left unchecked, they will lead us into further wars and economic ruin."

There are plenty of fears that increased domestic repression may be just around the corner. As Cagan says, "the Homeland Security stuff and the code color terror alerts look likely to translate into further attacks on civil liberties; more roundups of immigrants, denial of permits and marches."

These are upsetting times. Across the left you can sense the nervy dejection. True, testing times loom, though not in such measure as for the people of Iraq, or for Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza every day of the year. But how can one be entirely disheartened amid the amazing flowering of the anti-war movement, a movement that has produced the largest (almost entirely peaceful) protests in the history of the world.

In my local northern California town of Eureka, there was a march over the weekend that brought out 3,500. Huge for Eureka. Only a handful of louts jeered from the courthouse at the marchers. There was a vigil here in tiny Petrolia. I wrote recently of the antiwar Dixie Chicks about to play a concert in Greenville, S.C., adding that Greenville is "not noted as a bastion of antiwar sentiment," at least when I was there a couple of months ago.

It was a dumb thing to write, because I should have remembered what I've said so often, that in every American town there are people of spirit and conscience. John Hanson, secretary of the local Amnesty International chapter, promptly e-mailed me from Greenville, advising me that "You may be pleased to know we scheduled a small peace rally two weeks ago (200 people) and a vigil just last night (80). We also put on Lysistrata at Furman University March 3."

Multiply that a thousand times over, and you have a huge movement, a new generation of young people inducted into the fun, boredom, fear, exhilaration and experience of popular protest. It was that movement, here and across the world, that frightened Bush out of the Security Council and into the lawless cliches of a Hollywood Western. That's something to exult over, as we brace for the next stage.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.