Kosovo bombings spur anti-war activism online

Columbia College Chicago

As the conflict in Kosovo wears on, activists from across the political spectrum are utilizing the power of the Internet to express and organize their opposition to the U.S.-led NATO bombings, as well as their hope for peace in the Balkans.

Eric Garris is one such activist. He is the webmaster at Antiwar.com, which he calls a “one-stop shopping place for anti-war views and actions set in a broad-based, nonsectarian fashion.” Though four years old, Antiwar.com has “taken off” since NATO began bombing Kosovo, skyrocketing from 1,000 visitors a day to 55,000 a week, aided greatly by what Garris, 45, calls “word of Web.”

Run by the self-described “libertarian slash conservative” Committee Against U.S. Intervention, Antiwar.com features news-wire stories from around the world and essays from sources as disparate as conservative pundit Pat Buchanan and liberal weekly The Nation. “You can’t get this type of [anti-war] information in the American press,” says Garris, who avoided the Vietnam draft by simply not registering when he turned 18 in 1972.

Garris, a Web production manager for NurseWeek magazine in Sunnyvale, Calif., says the Internet “is a great equalizer. It allows people to do endless things with a small amount of money. The Internet gives everybody the ability to be a publisher,” as evidenced by Antiwar.com’s monthly budget of less than a $1,000.

While Antiwar.com attempts to provide a central location for Web users to get their anti-war information and opinion, StopTheWarNow.com, run by the Libertarian Party, tries to make petitioning Congress as easy as possible. Online since April, the Web site automatically submits each user’s petition form to his district representative and both senators.

“People can protest with the click of a button,” says Libertarian Party press secretary George Getz. “They can contact their congressional representatives this way, even if they don’t know who they are; all they have to know is their own ZIP code.”

Getz notes that the impact of Internet protest on Congress “is the same in the sense that each e-mail counts the same as a letter or phone call. But it’s simply easier for us to mobilize support this way.”

A Libertarian Party press release claims that StopTheWarNow.com is already generating 1,000 anti-war e-mail messages a day. The Internet “has helped tie together the anti-war movement,” Getz says. “That wouldn’t have been possible without the Net.”

The Internet seems to have made protesting easier for everyone, regardless of political orientation or geography. Len Strazewski, coordinator of computer-assisted reporting at Columbia College Chicago and a widely published Internet expert, points to Eurobasket.com as an example, where “Yugoslavian professional basketball players and coaches have called for the support of all American and European players against the U.S. bombings in Kosovo.

“This protest and others like it,” Strazewski, 44, says, “reflect the way the Internet allows small and often ignored voices to be heard and diverse, dispersed groups to come together and share their opinions.”

Another good example of this is Protest.Net, a site which lists “progressive and leftist protests, meetings, and conferences worldwide” to “help resolve logistical problems that activists face in organizing events with limited resources and access to mass media.”

Run by the ambitious “Rabble-Rouser,” in real-life Evan Henshaw-Plath, a 22-year-old computer programmer from Amherst, Mass., Protest.Net attempts to join the virtual protests on the Internet with in-the-streets protesting. For example, the site features news about a “national march on the Pentagon to end the war,” set for June 5.

“Implicit in the real world protest is the threat of people rising up and taking the power in to their own hands,” says Henshaw-Plath, discussing the differences between the two. “Online protests are much more focused on the fight for ideas … people can use the Internet to provide a forum for in-depth discussion.”

In that vein, Protest.Net has partnered with the Z Mag Network to provide a leftist, anti-war viewpoint on the conflict in Kosovo.

The people behind the MomentofSilence.org, meanwhile, claim to eschew any particular point of view on the Kosovo matter in their efforts to organize a worldwide moment of silence for peace in the Balkans.

“This is not a statement against the United States, or against the Kosovars, or against the Serbians,” the Web site says, although it links to each of the aforementioned anti-war Web sites. “It is about the value of individual human life and liberty. It is a gesture of peace and good will for all men, women, and children.”

MomentofSilence.org asks users to participate by entering their name (or alias) and hometown, along with any comments. Webmaster Chris Whitten, 27, views the site as “a way to encourage people to think about the Yugoslavians and especially the Serbians as human beings. It’s sort of outrageous on the news when you hear them talked about as collateral damage.”

More than 25,400 people seemed to agree, pledging to observe two minutes of silence at 11 a.m., Chicago time, on May 24. Whitten estimates that the number of actual participants was two to three times the number who signed up, representing people who observed the moment of silence with their families or in prayer groups. The Web site itself went completely black when the moment came.

Among those who pledged were Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and the only Serbian-American in Congress, Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) of Chicago. The Web site is still active, and since May 24 close to 4,200 more people have signed up, observing a moment of silence on their own.

“It is different,” Whitten says of the Moment of Silence campaign. “It’s one of those things that could never have been done before the Internet. This is not being led by big media or big religion or big politics, it’s just people.”