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February 15, 2003: the day we almost stopped a war

James Clark

February 12, 2013

Ten years ago this month, millions of people around the world were part of an unprecedented mobilization against war. On February 15, 2003, record numbers protested US plans to attack Iraq: up to 30 million people in over 800 cities spanning every continent—including Antarctica, where dozens of research scientists at McMurdo Station formed a peace symbol in the snow. Days after the protests, the New York Times observed: “the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
At least 80 anti-war events took place in Canada on February 15, ranging from city-wide marches of tens of thousands, to more modest actions such as candle-light vigils, banner drops and local pickets of MPs’ offices. The biggest demonstration by far was in Montreal, where over 250,000 people completely shut down the downtown streets. Next was Toronto with 80,000 and then Vancouver with 40,000. Over 18,000 marched in Edmonton, 8,000 in Victoria, 6,000 in Ottawa and 4,000 in Halifax. Almost every urban centre—Calgary, Winnipeg, Quebec City and St. John’s, among others—hosted some kind of protest.
Even more impressive were the demonstrations organized in much smaller locations across the country; many had little or no tradition of anti-war activity before February 15. In some communities, these protests were the first-ever public demonstrations about any issue that anyone could remember. Participants numbered from a few dozen to hundreds, but often represented a much higher proportion of the local population than turnout in larger centres.
Together, the February 15 protests across Canada and Quebec were the high point of this country’s anti-war movement, just as the protests in other countries represented the peak of the global movement. In their wake, it became clear that “world public opinion” had shifted dramatically—and that millions were now willing to show their opposition by marching in the streets.
“F15,” as it came to be known among organizers, was one in a series of increasingly coordinated global actions against the war, and demonstrated the speed by which relatively new anti-war groups at the local level developed into well-connected national and international networks. Those groups first appeared in the days and weeks after 9/11, but had roots in the anti-globalization movement. Many of the networks that emerged then still exist today, and have played a role in facilitating the emergence of subsequent movements and struggles.
In Canada, the process of coordinating a cross-country anti-war opposition took longer than elsewhere, and developed largely independently of more established groups, such as the Canadian Peace Alliance (CPA), whose focus after the Cold War had been nuclear disarmament. For example, the most active and organized campaigners on Iraq were either anti-sanctions activists, who had been organizing for almost a decade, or newly radicalized anti-war activists, who had been schooled in anti-globalization struggles.
Both groups of activists came together at a meeting in Calgary during the mobilization against the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alberta in late June 2002. About 70 people met outside the local convergence centre to discuss building a pan-Canadian response to the looming threat of war in Iraq. Their first coordinated action took place in a dozen cities on Hiroshima Day in August, and led to the creation of new local anti-war coalitions—the foundation on which the movement would grow. Over the following weeks, the local coalitions continued to coordinate actions, attracting bigger numbers as global opposition to the war began to build. In the process, the CPA was re-invigorated by the new radicalization, and by 2004 had become the umbrella organization for subsequent pan-Canadian anti-war mobilizations. At the end of 2002, the more immediate success of coordination on a national level raised its possibility internationally.
By early January 2003, there was already a buzz among activists about February 15. The first public discussions about a coordinated anti-war action came up in November 2002, during the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence, Italy. An intense debate ensued between those who argued that the war was a distraction for the anti-globalization movement, and those who argued that war was “the military face of globalization.” Numerous contributions to the discussion by organized socialists and anti-capitalists from across Europe helped win the demand for a Europe-wide day of action against war. The date was set for February 15, 2003.
But what started as a Europe-wide day of action soon reached other parts of the world. Many ESF participants attended other global conferences weeks later, where they made the case for February 15. Two events were crucial in expanding the coordination: the first-ever Cairo Conference, which took place in Cairo, Egypt from December 17 to 19, 2002, and the World Social Forum, which took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil from January 31 to February 5, 2003. Within days of these events, anti-war activists in the Arab world and Latin America had endorsed the call for February 15. As these mobilizations gained their own momentum, they spread the call elsewhere.
When the day of action finally happened, the results were monumental. The mainstream media could no longer ignore the anti-war movement, and the topic of war was on everyone’s lips. Internationally, the biggest turnouts were in Rome, London and Madrid, where each demonstration numbered in the millions. At least half a million marched in New York City, with hundreds of thousands more joining protests in dozens of towns and cities across the United States. The level of participation in the US and Britain was significant, given the role those countries’ governments played in leading the drive to war. In the Arab world, there was mass opposition to an attack, but its expression was in many cases stifled by state-led violence and repression. Where demonstrations did take place, they drew tens of thousands.
Despite the obvious scale of the protests globally, their impact locally on foreign policy was not immediately apparent. In Canada, for example, the protests accelerated a crisis that was brewing inside the federal Liberal caucus, as party members and the wider public flooded Liberal MPs’ offices with phone calls, letters and petitions against the war. The crisis only became public when backbench Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish (Mississauga-Erindale, 1993-2006) announced at an anti-war rally that “50 MPs will cross the floor” if the government decides to back the war.
Still, the anti-war movement had no idea whether the crisis would tip the balance in its favour. Two subsequent events, both of them in Quebec, proved decisive. The first came exactly one month later: on March 15, 2003, another 250,000 people marched in Montreal, a repeat of its magnificent February demonstration. The second event took place over several weeks: the general election in Quebec. Anti-war sentiment was so widespread in Quebec that during the campaign all party leaders wore white ribbons for peace and repeatedly declared their opposition to the war. The Quebec Liberals were poised to defeat the Parti Québécois, but their victory would have been threatened had the federal Liberals supported the war. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was more worried about the wrath of Quebec voters for backing the war than fallout from Washington for sitting it out. On March 17—just days before the first bombs fell on Baghdad—Chrétien announced to the House of Commons that Canada would not join the war. The movement had won its demand.
Despite the unprecedented success of the February 15 protests, which helped keep Canada and other states outside Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” they ultimately failed to stop the war. The consequences for Iraq have been horrific: 1.2 million Iraqi deaths from war and occupation, on top of 1.5 million Iraqi deaths after 12 years of sanctions. The country remains deeply divided on sectarian grounds and its landscape and infrastructure have been completely devastated. As we mark the anniversary of the protests, we must remember these facts and remain sober about the movement’s limits, both then and now.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also recognize and celebrate the successes we did achieve. February 15 gave us a glimpse of the immense potential of mass movements, and trained a generation of activists who, in many cases, continue to be active on other fronts. The long-term effects of the protests, especially in the social movements, helped change the political terrain we operate on today, by raising our expectations about international solidarity and collective action, and by giving confidence to resistance movements throughout the region—from Iraq to Palestine to Lebanon to Egypt, the frontlines of resistance to imperialist war and occupation.
If anything, this is probably the most important effect of February 15: the developing bonds of solidarity between ordinary people in the Arab world and those outside it, particularly in countries whose governments backed the war. According to some activists in the region, those bonds contributed to emerging struggles that have subsequently developed into far-reaching revolutionary movements. Our role in this is no doubt small, perhaps even imperceptible, but it nevertheless shows that, although we didn’t stop the war, we still helped change the world.
Check out the video footage below of anti-war protests in Toronto from 2003 to 2008--including coverage of the historic February 15 demonstration--and on Friday, February 15, 2013, mark the ten-year anniversary of the protests by attending Celebrating a decade of resistance: Tens years since the emergence of the “other global superpower”

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