Raechel Anne Jolie
Twenty years ago, al-Qaeda operatives flew airliners into the Twin Towers in New York City, propelling the United States into nationalist extremism, two hideous wars, egregious state surveillance, and vicious anti-Muslim racism. Alongside this burgeoned a massive, global anti-war movement: a nearly unprecedented display of organized resistance that was, according to some, a spectacular failure. It’s also the movement that politicized me, and one I continue to reflect on with reverence for giving me my radical roots. I am an ‘elder millennial,’ born a little too late to have been part of the early anti-globalization movement of the late ‘90s, and too early to have experienced Occupy Wall Street as formative. And so my foundation for approaching struggle, my origin story for coming to revolutionary consciousness, begins here, in 2001.
I was 16, a high school student at a rural-ish high school in Ohio, when the planes hit. I watched it on the television in the AP English room, until my teacher was told to turn it off. I lost a second cousin in the towers, and I grieved with the country over the loss of strangers, neighbors, loved ones. But within days of the attacks, talk of war began, fueled by patriotic jingoist rhetoric that turned my stomach. Soon after, I met my first radical punk boyfriend, joined Food Not Bombs, and eventually found my way to a community of anarchists and communists in Chicago, with whom I’d go on to march, organize, break things, and build. Although it wasn’t our only focus, the war took up a lot of our energy, and it will always be the anti-war movement that I understand as my radical birthplace.
As we pass the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I often find myself thinking about that era. What does the anti-war movement, and its context, have to offer the current moment? What worked and what didn’t? Where is history repeating itself? Can reflecting on some of the more forgotten histories generate a new sense of possibility? How do my generation of anti-war activists show up in the world today, and how did that movement work bring us here?
For organizer José Martín, the anti-war movement began as a pivot from radical anti-globalization work that was happening in the late ‘90s.
“9/11 shifted so much of the attention of the [radical movements] I was a part of,” Martín remembers. “Right before 9/11 there were a lot of issue-based movements—around prison and police abolition, specifically Mumia, around sweatshops, and the environment—that I was involved with. In 2000 [counter-globalization activists] shut down the IMF and World Bank, of course in 1999 there was the WTO in Seattle… Within two days of 9/11 it felt very clear that the same anti-capitalists I’d been working with on these other things were now going to be focused on the war. It felt to me like a big shift.”
Brad Thomson, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney at the People’s Law Office, agrees: “I remember going to the Permanent Autonomous Zone conference in Louisville in August 2001 and it felt like all this energy was building in size, becoming more militant and strategic. It seemed like people were learning to work with one another and figuring out how everyone could have a role—from union workers to Black Bloc—and it was very decentralized.”
Then 9/11 happened. Thomson recalls, “We knew we needed to have opposition to whatever militarism is coming out of this, but what will that look like? Unfortunately I think particular ideological groups capitalized on that very quickly. My memory is that ANSWER became the quote ‘coalition’ and they… shifted the focus to anti-militarism and anti-racism. Which was important and essential, of course, but it really was a reinvention of what was going on.” He adds, “It became a lot more of big permitted marches, trying to get as many people as possible, and there was a tension between that and people who wanted to be more militant.”
The ANSWER Coalition is an umbrella group that formed days after 9/11, led primarily by Marxist-Leninist organizers from the Workers World Party and International Action Center. The coalition would go on to incorporate numerous non-profits, college campus groups, and grassroots organizations. The horizontal organizing of the anti-globalization era was erased in favor of strategies that some criticized as authoritarian, in part because of the leadership’s ideological tendency.
Another grassroots leader in the anti-war movement was United For Peace and Justice, who had progressive, rather than radical, politics. Their rallying cries were less about ending U.S. imperialism and more about impeaching Bush. Divisions among the leadership created internal conflict, as did the tension among anti-war activists who wanted to do away with the hierarchical structure of the movement altogether. Whether for ideological or respectability purposes, the march leadership created a tacit categorization of “good protesters” and “bad protesters,” with groups at the top setting the terms.
All too often, speakers at the rallies and marches (coordinated by the non-profits and coalition groups) did not center their objectives and analyses on the actual struggles of the people in Iraq and Afghanistan. As organizer and folk singer Ryan Harvey remembers, “We didn’t build international bonds the way we should have with groups in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-war movements from day one need to be building these bridges, and [be] informed by those people. The discourse was people in the U.S.’s perception of what the war was, not what the war actually was.”
Co-optation of movements has existed for as long as movements have been around, but has grown more pervasive and insidious since the rise and expansion of the ‘non-profit industrial complex’ (NPIC). In The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by the radical feminist network INCITE!, the authors explain how the NPIC defangs movements:
“…the non-profit industrial complex has facilitated a bureaucratized management of fear that mitigates against the radical break with owning-class capital (read: foundation support) and hegemonic common sense (read: law and order) that might otherwise be posited as the necessary precondition for generating counter-hegemonic struggles. The racial and white supremacist fears of American civil society, in other words, tend to be respected and institutionally assimilated by a Left that fundamentally operates through the bureaucratic structure of the NPIC.”
But there’s hope, the INCITE! collective says, if we focus on the elements of struggle that might actually pose a threat to racial capitalism. “Arguably, the most vibrant sites of radical and proto-radical activity and organizing against racist U.S. state violence and white supremacist civil society are condensing among populations that the NPIC cannot easily or fully incorporate.”
It is worth keeping in mind the ways by which the radical mobilizing of the anti-globalization movement was strategically repositioned by top-down organizations. When marches became the central focus of “resistance,” the goal shifted from actively disrupting the war to getting masses of people in the streets for relatively passive protests. In that sense, the marches were successful: the February 15th, 2003 march against the war resulted in the largest single day of protest in modern history. And yet, even this vast protest had seemingly no effect: the war persisted, and U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan through 2021—until two weeks before this essay went to print. We should ask ourselves why even the largest street protest of all time can be shrugged off by the state, and how we might instead strategize and lead new movements that genuinely threaten power.
In today’s struggles, we have seen the NPIC recuperate the George Floyd Uprising from a spontaneous, radical rebellion in favor of police abolition, into a donor-generating movement to defund the police. (And, of course, there is no current shortage of left infighting). We can use this wisdom from the anti-war movement to identify avenues of co-optation early, and to perhaps resist the temptation to acquiesce to compromises that ultimately bolster, rather than dismantle, the state. And perhaps too the failure of the marches to end the wars can offer an opportunity to reflect on the organizational structure of the leadership—what happens when we continue to build movements around top-down, non-profit-influenced organizing? Arguably, very little.
Direct Action & A Diversity of Tactics
Thankfully, against the current of co-optation remained the insistent tactics of direct action, which Thomson says is thanks in part to the anti-globalization activists who had shifted to anti-war work. “It took a couple years to figure out what [strategic, militant tactics] looked like,” he explains. But eventually, within the larger movement, more decentralized, horizontally organized groups and direct actions started to emerge. Though their actions were barely covered in the media, across the globe, anarchists and others engaged in sabotage and destruction in an effort to disrupt the machinery of war.
For example, in Ireland, several protests mobilized at the Shannon Airport, which was serving as a stopping point to refuel U.S. military planes. Anarchists and other pro-direct action activists would often split off from the main protest to scale the barbed-wire fence in an effort to cause meaningful disruption. On February 3rd, 2002, five anti-war activists ran toward a U.S. aircraft on the Shannon runway with hammers, wrecking the plane. Ultimately, the U.S. military decided to stop sending planes through Shannon, citing “security concerns” after the disruption. The mainstream anti-war movement claimed that as a victory, but it’s likely that the sustained direct actions were more of a factor in their decision than the behind-the-fence gatherings.
In 2003 in Oakland, activists from Direct Action Against to Stop the War attempted to shut down the Port of Oakland where the American President Lines container shipping company transported military arms and supplies. In response to the occupation, activists and ILWU member longshoremen were attacked by police with sting balls, concussion grenades, and tear gas. Criminal charges were brought against 24 DASW activists and one longshoreman, then later dropped; eventually the City of Oakland ended up paying $2 million in settlement fees.
Another powerful example of direct action took place in January 2003 on a railway line off a munitions facility in Loch Long, Scotland. The trains were scheduled to carry armaments to a U.K. naval base, but the drivers, in protest of the illegal war, refused. “Their wildcat action proved successful, with panicking rail managers forced to cancel the consignment,” writes Liam Turbett. It was the first industrial action against the Iraq War, but a successor to a long lineage of port and transit worker strikes for liberatory purposes. Dozens of additional acts of equipment destruction, delay-causing airport blockades, and recruitment center damage, among other disruptions, took place around the world during the peak years of the war.
The militant direct action efforts during the anti-war movement are significant for a number of reasons. First, it’s important to reflect on tactics that actually slowed down the process of war, which, in hindsight, seems evident came more from these types of actions than from the mass protests. Additionally, the arrests made during these actions (as well as at the marches) taught a new generation of activists about navigating the legal system: court and jail support, finding radical lawyers (in the United States, movement defense attorneys work and organize through the National Lawyers Guild, Tilted Scales Collective, and the People’s Law Office), the importance of refusing grand juries, finding methods to avoid state surveillance, among other skills that are necessary to understand while participating in struggle.
Finally, reflecting on direct action is an opportunity to illuminate the well-trodden debate about “violent” tactics that seems to recirculate in every new generation. Movement scholars trace the concept of a diversity of tactics back to the Black Power movement during the era of the fight for Civil Rights. While Martin Luther King, Jr. preached nonviolence, he also saw riots as a necessary and acceptable reaction to injustice.
For King, nonviolent resistance was both “the fruit of a rigorous spiritual discipline” and a tactic, writes Tobi Haslett in n+1, reflecting on the George Floyd Uprising. “By applying unremitting pressure to every facet of civic life, he wished, as he wrote in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ to foment ‘a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.’” Just before his assassination, King further clarified his position on the ongoing resistance. Haslett quotes from King’s essay titled “A Testament of Hope:” “I am not sad that black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable.” That King is now rhetorically invoked as the antithesis of street rioters is evidence of the extent to which his legacy has been whitewashed and recuperated.
Meanwhile, for their part, militant liberation activists formed armed resistance groups and moved towards open revolt. It was a struggle which, as Malcolm X famously declared, should be fought “by any means necessary.” Still, whether armed self-defense was “appropriate” remained a point of contention in the movement, as Charles Cobb Jr. illustrates in his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed. During the anti-war movement of the early ‘00s, we saw similar internal discussions emerge, particularly in relation to Black Bloc activity at permitted marches and outside of them.
The origins of Black Bloc methods can be found in the European autonomist movements, in which anarchists would dress in all black, cover their faces, and participate in direct actions against squatter evictions, nuclear power, and other oppressive conditions. In the U.S., Black Bloc tactics gained popularity during the anti-globalization protests, and, as previously discussed, anti-globalization currents were partially absorbed by the anti-war movement. Unsurprisingly, anarchists involved in the struggle against imperialism—both corporate and military exploitation—continued to take part in impactful tactics: property destruction, rioting, and other forms of militant civil disobedience. But it was the “peaceful protests” that gained the most support.
Peter Gelderloos has written extensively on the ways in which internal movement arguments against “violent” tactics are murky and incoherent at best, and counter-revolutionary at worst. When movements begin to shape their methods to be more palatable or respectable to the media, Gelderloos observes, they give power to the elites to set the terms for resistance.“Freedom as a concept sides with those who are struggling for theirs, whereas nonviolence as a concept sides with the enforcers of normality and the rulers of the status quo,” he writes.
As part of the movement space for twenty years, I have heard these same conversations repeat ad nauseam. I lived in Minneapolis during the summer of the George Floyd uprisings, and even in a moment of ecological crisis and a global pandemic, the discourse retreaded this tired subject. It has shifted a bit—some progressives now seem to largely be on board with the idea that anger and destruction is an understandable response to unaccountable, murderous police. In a Newsweek poll, 54% of Americans surveyed believed that the siege on the Minneapolis Third Precinct was “justified.”
But on occasion, in place of outright condemnation, I heard the disingenuous concern over “small business owners,” and the impact on the community of a burned-down Target. (Never mind that the rebellions consciously targeted wealthy, and insured, commercial districts, and that there were community pantries on nearly every corner of Minneapolis for months after the riots. Offered free fresh fruit and vegetables, canned goods, diapers, and other household staples, these neighbors were deprived of the freedom to pay money for their food!) In addition, the tenacity with which many liberals clung to the state-furnished “outside agitators” narrative made clear that we still have a long way to go before diverse tactics are more widely embraced.
Another tangible result of the movement was the formation of a new generation of anti-war veterans. Iraq Veterans Against the War was founded in July 2004 by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, with the goals of “immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq,” “reparations for the human and structural damages Iraq has suffered, and stopping the corporate pillaging of Iraq so that their people can control their own lives and future,” along with “full benefits, adequate healthcare (including mental health), and other supports for returning servicemen and women.”
IVAW members organized the “Truth in Recruiting” campaign, in which members spent time in high schools that military tends to target (usually low-income schools, disproportionately ones with majority Black and Brown students). They offered anti-racist, anti-imperialist counter-narratives to the nationalist rhetoric, and outright lies, spouted by recruiters. It’s difficult to document how these conversations between vets and young people have impacted enlistment numbers, but meaningful connections have been reported from both students and counter-recruiters.
In addition, IVAW and other counter-recruitment organizations have worked to limit legal military recruitment access to students in the first place. In a 2019 In These Times article, Elizabeth King argues this tactic is just as important today as it was at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: “Counter-recruitment is about starving the military of the labor it needs to accomplish… destructive missions,” which will continue as long as the U.S. remains an empire.
Marches & Collective Belonging
Despite all the warranted criticism (chief among them that marches did not stop the war), for many, the mass mobilizations still mattered—despite, not because of, non-profits and front groups. Ryan Harvey thinks the big protests did what they could, to a point. “The mass protest did work for what they [were] able to accomplish. Right after 9/11, I remember I was at a punk show and I went outside and stood with a piece of cardboard with something against going to war, and I got attacked. Right after that we protested at a National Guard armory and got bottles thrown at us. But after the mass protests? People supported us. The mass protests confirmed that the majority of Americans were against the war. It made it a very normal and popular thing to be against the wars.”
I remember marches as a space for connection, movement building, and, ultimately, trust. The marches didn’t get U.S. soldiers out of Iraq or Afghanistan, and in terms of “shutting things down” they rarely did more than slow down traffic. But as a young, budding radical, it meant something to be prepared for the possibility of arrest, to face tear gas and the threat of rubber bullets, to believe my comrades when they said they’d have my back. And the unique embodied sensation of being part of a mass group of people—it kept me energized, galvanized.
Jeffrey S. Juris’s work on counter-summit protests from the anti-globalization era explains how protest becomes a site for manipulating media messaging, as well as embodying praxis and solidifying collective identity. He writes:
“Externally, they are powerful ‘image events’, where diverse activist networks communicate their messages to an audience by ‘hijacking’ the global media space… Internally, they provide terrains where identities are expressed through distinct bodily techniques and emotions are generated through ritual conflict and the lived experience of prefigured utopias.”
For these reasons, marches can be valuable entry points. Experiencing the scale of the anti-war marches after 9/11 gave me, and many others, an affective connection to a collective that solidified a place of belonging in the struggle, even long after the marches stopped.
Additionally, the broad formal and informal coalitions of leftists and radicals that could agree on their opposition to U.S. imperialism meant many young people were exposed to anarchism, anti-imperialist Marxism, and other more liberatory frameworks that circumvented electoralism. Although Bush was the target of a lot of rallying, I quickly found comrades who helped me understand that a Democrat wouldn’t necessarily be any better, and that in fact the U.S. empire was foundational to the capitalist, colonial state’s existence. The movement served as a form of popular education—I learned through conversations, punk song mixtapes, borrowed books, and ambient radicalism. To me, if one is politicized through the anti-war movement and keeps one’s eyes and ears open, it seems difficult to avoid coming to radically anti-capitalist and anti-state conclusions.
Media & The Movement
Looking back at the use of media during this era of anti-war organizing offers a unique archive of wisdom and warning to unpack. Naturally, contentious debates around the alternate value and distortions of the media arose, just as they have in movements past and present. Yet this time was unique, in that it was one of the first mass movements in which early forms of social media were present. We also witnessed the corporate media, over time, shift from hostile to vaguely (and contingently) supportive, fluctuating in the amount of airtime they offered to anti-war voices.
The use of media to shape narratives is foundational to any mass movement.. Propaganda is a key part of building support, identifying ideological and real-world targets to act against, and providing context to struggle. From pamphlets to pirate radio to videos to online messaging, radicals have always found ways to tell stories on their own terms. They have also, for almost as long, had to wrestle with the question of whether to engage with mass media as a site of struggle—and if so, how.
During the Civil Rights movement, television news footage of schoolchildren being hit with fire hoses or attacked by police dogs was, social movement historians argue, instrumental to gaining wide support for the cause. But working through the mass media risks co-optation and distortion, and it is crucial that movements sustain their own outlets in parallel, for both outward-facing propaganda and internal purposes. Independent Black Panther newspapers were printed not to gain wider appeal but to strengthen the radical sentiments of the small base of liberationists. Although this tension between mass and independent media is present in every struggle, it hinges on and is inflected by the capabilities of the comunications technology of the era.
Nearly all of the people I spoke with about their experiences in anti-war organizing mentioned media—and, often, conflicted feelings about it. “In my experience, I barely saw any images of anti-war protests [in mainstream media],” movement scholar Austin McCoy recalls—a “politically isolating place” for those who stood against the war at the outset.
As McCoy’s experience reflects, positive protest coverage in the mainstream was a rarity in the first years of the movement. The New York Times, in addition to infamously carrying water for spurious claims about weapons of mass destruction, was blithely disparaging of protesters in the war’s first years. A Times headline from October 2001 read: “A NATION CHALLENGED: THE PROTEST; Marches Oppose Waging War Against Terrorists.” Mainstream papers played a key role in cheerleading the war and manipulating public opinion to align with the Bush administration’s foreign and domestic agendas.
“Myself, and many of the Black folks around me, greeted George W. Bush’s ‘election’ with suspicion,” McCoy tells me. “I remember sitting in the barbershop after Bush’s election and hearing my barber say he wouldn’t be surprised if Bush took us to war soon after the election.” When that came true, McCoy went searching for voices “who were critical of the wars such as Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Manning Marable, Angela Davis, and others.” He explains, “I started reading The Nation, Adbusters, Dissent, and watching Democracy Now!… All of those sources helped radicalize me.”
I remember the early years of the wars as a bit of a scavenger hunt, seeking out counter-narratives to the rampant jingoism in the major outlets. In high school, I became nearly obsessed with the comparatively rare op-eds that offered anti-war perspectives. Once I got to college and became more immersed in radical spaces, I gained access to more literature, was handed socialist newspapers at every demo, and started building my zine collection. Additionally, I discovered the Indymedia journalist collective—“A Global Network of Independent Media Centers”—that came out of Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests. It began as a way to cover those anti-globalization actions, then continued to serve as a space for anti-war movement coverage and other radical left news and information. It was in many ways a precursor to and foundation of the radical, participatory online spaces that flourish today.
Internet communication brings with it serious complications, of course—more opportunities for the anti-war movement to organize online, and through other technology (text messaging was newly popular at the time), also meant the state had more opportunities for surveillance. Surveilling activists is as old as the FBI (and older), but the climate after 9/11 enabled new, egregious extents of spying activity, all in the guise of security.
The Bush administration’s USA PATRIOT Act expanded law enforcement’s right to surveillance measures, including tapping domestic phones and searching property without warrants; it also increased penalties for ‘terrorist’ charges, with provisions that allowed indefinite detention without trial, resulting in the decades-long incarceration of purported “enemy combatants” in the Guantánamo Bay prison. Many anti-war activist groups were also classified as terrorist organizations, and marches were deemed “potential terrorist activity.” There were multiple documented instances of the FBI’s use of informants to collect purportedly incriminating correspondence on phones or emails. On September 24th, 2010, a massive FBI raid swept through the Midwest, resulting in the subpoenaing of 23 anti-war and pro-Palestine activists.
“What state repression looked like after 9/11 and the fear it inserted into movements… really changed everything,” stated civil rights attorney Thomson.
As technology and social media evolve, so too do our tactics to protect one another. On the defensive end, secure email systems like riseup.net began in 1999 in Seattle but were expanded during the anti-war movement. And on the offensive, we saw the emergence of groups like Anonymous, Wikileaks, and other “hacktivist” groups that leaked damning government documents. I would argue that the methods we found to keep people safe—through harrowing trial and error—have laid the foundation for our current era of security culture, setting precedents for the modern antifa-led defense against doxxing.
“Movements are Part of a Continuum”
Where does this leave us today? What can these reflections offer our contemporary struggles, some of which, like climate change, can feel even more behemoth than war? And—of particular importance to older generations of activists and rabble rousers who can sometimes be mired in our familiar ways—how have younger generations done better?
“Movements are part of a continuum,” contends organizer José Martín. “Generally they are in part a product of movements that came before them. Anti-globalization in part came out of the Free Mumia, anti-sweatshop, and labor and environmentalist movements; so much of the Ferguson uprising included a lot of Occupy Wall Street activists; the tactics and communication and language that we develop in each of these places has an impact on the next movement.”
Ryan Harvey, the musician and organizer, agrees that lessons have been learned, but notes that that’s not necessarily because of an earnest engagement with our history—partly because we haven’t done a great job of documenting that era. Still, he says: “If you look at the protests that the Zoomers have led—they’re wild. They’re fucking wild! We never would’ve done shit like that. Everything that’s happened since Ferguson, a young generation of people doing things like tearing statues down all the time, rioting….I think happened through osmosis sort of, maybe starting with the Arab Spring, but it didn’t happen through study. There’s an extent to which we have lessons to pass on, and there’s an extent to which the road gets paved by whatever gets passed on organically.”
When I ask Sharlyn Grace, an abolitionist lawyer and founding member of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, what felt unique about being politicized by the anti-war movement, she talks about the value of a global lens, and about imagination.
“This was an era when we were all focused internationally. I think I would have a lot less perspective on what’s possible if I had come through classic, local community organizing, or electoral organizing. I’m thinking about learning about the Zapatistas and the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra/the Landless Workers’ Movement) and those are such different visions of what’s possible than we get when we’re trying to shift votes. I think the scale and vision and imagination, and the conception of what liberation or self-governance could be, is so different. Being introduced to that as a starting point is different.”
I often feel lucky that instead of candidates or policy initiatives, my starting point for radical imagination was full of thriving squatter collectives, guerilla gardens, autonomous zones, and Indigenous rebellions. I don’t say this from a place of judgment—I understand how and why rallying against Trump brought masses of new people to the streets—but I do think it’s imperative we tell stories from earlier movements that offer more expansive understandings of what it means to be free.
Today, when I am tempted to give into despair in these seemingly apocalyptic times, I think back to how I held onto hope in my anti-war days. And I remember: fighting the wars felt impossible, but we did it anyway. We did small things: picking up our comrades from jail, serving reclaimed food at teach-ins, and hosting fundraisers for women’s groups in Afghanistan. Those of us who stayed active on the far left after the war were, I think, the ones who put down roots in the fertile ground created through small daily acts and insistent, ambitious dreams.
Twenty years after my start, reflecting on an arguably “failed” movement doesn’t make me want to give up—it makes me want to use this archive of experience as a weapon. There is power in remembering defeat, and the little wins we found within it. There is power in remembering an impossible battle. The struggle today often feels impossible too—but we’ll do it anyway. We’ll fight co-optation through untamed rebellion, we’ll fight surveillance through community security, we’ll fight the machinery of war and capital—from drones abroad to pipelines at home—by any means necessary. And we’ll keep imagining, alongside those engaged in struggle across the globe, prefiguring spaces. In solidarity with each other in the streets, with our neighbors, with strangers, and with the Earth, we will seek every possible way to be free.♦
Raechel Anne Jolie is a writer and educator living in Ohio, on Erie land. They are the author of Rust Belt Femme. Her other writing has appeared in The Baffler, In These Times, and Novara Media, among others. You can subscribe to radical love letters (their newsletter) here.
All images courtesy of the author.