First shot fired in new antiwar movement in Winston-Salem

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Tony Ndege (third from left) organized an antiwar rally in Winston-Salem on Sept. 27.
Tony Ndege (third from left) organized an antiwar rally in Winston-Salem on Sept. 27.

by Jordan Green

A handful of Winston-Salem residents take a lonely stand in opposition to US military intervention in Iraq and Syria.

It’s been said that the generals are always fighting the last war, and also said that the antiwar movement is always protesting the last war.

These days, it’s hard to keep up with which war we’re fighting.

Tony Ndege, a 37-year-old IT worker who tutors in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, and a handful of other activists had just wrapped up a 90-minute protest at the busy intersection of Stratford Road and Hanes Mall Boulevard. A man named John, who declined to give his last name, helped Ndege carry a stack of placards to his car.

“I purposely made it a little ambiguous as to where we’re bombing,” Ndege said, referring to his Facebook invitation for the event, which took place on Sept. 27. “It changes from week to week.”

John examined a sign reading, “Stop the escalation. No war with Iran.” Ndege grimaced.

“We’ll probably need that in a year,” he said.

It’s understandable that antiwar activists are having difficulty settling on appropriate signage for their cause. President Obama, who was elected in 2008 on a promise to wind down the wars in the Middle East, probably couldn’t imagine that six years later he would be vowing to eradicate a group called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The new threat posed by Islamic State, a Sunni group that aspires to create a theologically absolutist caliphate across the region, aligns the United States with Iran, which is dominated by the Shia sect. Even more ironically, the US bombing of Islamic State-controlled oil refineries in Syria is being carried out with the cooperation of the Syrian government. Only a year ago, Obama was threatening to carry out air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.

“The US gets in temporary alliances all the time,” Ndege said. “They had a long-term alliance, almost a marriage with Saddam Hussein. It’s interesting how the villains change and the villains are former allies. This whole ISIS explosion came out of the US trying to contain factions and play factions off each other.”

Ndege took the minimal turnout — six, not counting the 5-year-old son of one of the protesters — in stride. He organized the event in less than a week, juggling the task with his work and continuing education in information technology. He is planning another protest at the so-called “Five Points” intersection, where Stratford Road, Country Club Road, West First Street and Miller Street converge — for Oct. 6, and expressed hope that the numbers will continue to build.

Ndege and five others stood on the sidewalk in front of Jared Jewelers at the busy four-lane intersection of Stratford Road and Hanes Mall Boulevard on Sept. 27. They chanted “One, two, three, four — we don’t want your stinking war; five, six, seven, eight — no more police state” and “Money for jobs and education, not for war and incarceration.”

A committed core, each of them have turned out for protests like this before, speaking out against war and various other social ills, and often as part of small cohorts.

Anne Paisley, an 82-year-old pacifist, said she believes in a message emphasized by the late progressive historian Howard Zinn and author Chris Hedges — that it’s the duty of people of conscience to take to the streets and demand change.

“When I was about 12 it struck me that having wars and killing people had to be the stupidest way to solve problems,” she said. “Things are heating up again, if they ever cooled down. I’ve got to be active and put my money where my mouth is.”

Paisley regularly writes letters to the Winston-Salem Journal about a range of issues, including the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, along with the killing of Michael Brown and militarized police response to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. She said she’s as troubled by the state of race relations in the United States as she is US foreign policy in the Middle East.

“I think it has reached a crisis point,” she said. “There were race riots in this town in 1943. It could happen again.”

To the extent that the public is engaged with the military response of the United States and its allies to Islamic State, local antiwar activists find themselves in a lonely position. Outrage against Islamic State’s beheading of two American journalists and a British aid worker, along with its persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, is widespread. Military plans to eradicate or at least curb Islamic State’s power enjoy bipartisan support.

Paisley said she believes the US media is acting in complicity with a pro-war agenda by displaying images of Islamic State’s atrocities.

“The media cooperates by showing us pictures of people who are decapitated or are about to be decapitated,” she said. “I know this will sound cynical, but one decapitated person is the equivalent of a thousand refugees.”

Ndege acknowledged that the conflict in the Middle East is complex, and that this military intervention is harder to rally people against than the US invasion of Iraq, when hundreds of thousands of progressives in the United States demonstrated against the Republican administration of George W. Bush.

He said he sees both a positive and a negative legacy from the antiwar movement of 10 years ago.

“The positive legacy to the Iraq war protests, which were massive, is that the US public is very skeptical of any ground-war invasion,” he said, adding that he was disappointed that leaders of antiwar organizations such as ANSWER dismantled their networks to throw their support behind the 2004 presidential campaign of Democratic nominee John Kerry.

While arguing against US military intervention, Ndege acknowledged that the unfolding situation in Iraq and Syria is bleak.

“I don’t think we can trust the Pentagon and military that’s exacerbated the conflict to solve it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be a bloody situation either way, but I think it’s best to have people figure things out face to face rather than to have another player in the [game].”