Listening Process
  

WIN Magazine

Special Spring/Summer 2008 Issue

Submitted by Listening Process on Monday, June 23, 2008


 

 

Listening Process

 

                Table of Contents:

Introduction

Section 1: What is lacking in the peace and antiwar movement?

Section 2: What prevents the emergence of a stronger, more
                   coordinated, more strategic movement?

Section 3: What are the biggest openings and opportunities for
                   organizing today?

Section 4: How do we build a more multiracial and cross-class antiwar
                 movement?

Section 5: What roles can veterans, soldiers and military families
                   play in ending war?

Section 6: What is the relevance of nonviolence today?

Section 7: How do we link peace and justice issues and build
                   alliances?

Section 8: What does base-building look like in antiwar organizing?

Conclusions: Where to From Here? By Matthew Smucker

 

 

Introduction

 

 
Welcome to a special issue of WIN, the magazine of the War Resisters League.

We are at a critical turning point in our struggle for peace and justice. In the past six years, public opinion has shifted dramatically on key issues, not least U.S. foreign policy. While there is now overwhelming popular support for an end to the occupation of Iraq, an antiwar movement with the kind of people-power necessary to achieve real, concrete wins—short-term and long-term, against specifically the current wars and occupations or for a broader anti-imperialist/pro-social justice agenda—has yet to emerge, and seems out of reach. Why is that? What accounts for the discrepancy between popular opposition to the war and the lack of popular identification with the antiwar movement?

Like most movement organizations, War Resisters League has been wrestling with this and related questions: What are key opportunities in this political moment? What prevents the emergence of a more strategic and coordinated movement? How can we build a more multiracial and cross-class movement, and what’s inhibiting us from doing so?

Too often, organizations jump into answering these questions in their rhetoric or actions insularly, without engaging with and learning from others outside their network. For the past several years, WRL has especially invested in building relationships beyond our limited base, striving to forge a truly multiracial and multi-issue movement against militarism. Like many organizations, we want to make sure our political vision is thoughtfully grounded and informed by a cross-pollination of ideas, reflecting wisdom from an array of sectors and perspectives. WRL initiated a listening process to better our own organizational assessments, and as a contribution to all activists’ efforts at dynamic movement-building.

Over recent months, we asked critical questions of nearly 100 grassroots organizers and activists across the country. We wanted to learn what our colleagues in the antiwar movement and allies in other social justice movements think about the current political moment and the best way forward. Many of the folks we interviewed primarily do antiwar/peace activism; others focus mainly on struggles like gender justice, labor, racial justice, and the environment.

What we found was that a cross-section of organizers from diverse groups—from local efforts like Coalition Against Militarism in our Schools in southern California and Port Militarization Resistance in the northwest; to constituency-based organizations like Women of Color Resource Center, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and Service Women’s Action Network; to national coalitions like U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation—are grappling with similar challenges related to demographics, cultural constraints, broad strategy and their own capacity.

We found broad consensus on many points, and where opinions diverged they often seemed to overlap or be in conversation with each other, painting a fuller picture. Some of the richest answers came in the form of additional questions. In this issue of WIN, we try to cover the range of views and insights we found in these conversations.

The main initial push behind the project was organizationally driven: to inform WRL’s work and outlook with the experience and knowledge of our allies. We were motivated to use the interviews to strengthen established relationships and invest in newer alliances with our interviewees’ organizations. The special edition of WIN magazine you’re now holding is our way of sharing our findings with the broader movement.

The quotes we feature are organized into eight thematic questions that largely framed all of our conversations. We let the organizers speak for themselves—we present them in conversation and debate with each other on the challenges we face. We hope this report contributes to an ongoing, thoughtful movement dialogue about strategy and direction. We encourage you to scribble notes in the margins or host a local reading group—answer the questions yourself, and certainly question the answers.

As this project was shaped by our lens of revolutionary nonviolence and organizational priorities, here’s a little background for those readers unfamiliar with WRL or picking up WIN magazine for the first time. Founded in 1923, WRL is the oldest secular pacifist organization in the United States. We strive nonviolently to end war and to remove the root causes of war and violence, including racism, sexism, and other forms of human exploitation. Our current work includes supporting GI resistance, countering military recruitment, challenging war profiteers, providing military budget education and promoting war tax resistance. We also provide training in organizing skills, nonviolent direct action, and more.

WIN, previously Nonviolent Activist, is the quarterly magazine of WRL. Through articles, interviews, and reviews, WIN reports and reflects on nonviolent action worldwide, as well as resistance to war abroad and to violence and militarism within the United States. WIN aims to help build bridges between various struggles for justice, freedom, and peace, in forging a broad-based, nonviolent, antiracist, and revolutionary movement to end all war and oppression. We hope you will subscribe!

Of course, we can’t put forward this special issue without disclaimers. First, we want to acknowledge that we can’t possibly do justice to our interviewees with such short quotes. We regrettably quote less than half of the organizers we interviewed, due primarily to space constraints. We plan to remedy this by publishing more features from this process (including full interviews) in WIN and on our new blog (warresisters.org/blog) in the coming months.

We know that there are essential movement voices missing. We (and many we reached out to) did our best; despite the mutual interest, circumstances sometimes didn’t end up allowing an interview to happen. We wanted a balance between organizations we were already in touch with and organizations with which we were less familiar—the former meetings tended to be easier to arrange than the latter. While we have tried to be aware of the assumptions or biases we carry into this project, we acknowledge that they affect how questions are framed and what quotes stood out to us. Lastly, as we tried to represent a range of opinions, WRL does not endorse every view expressed in these pages (though we want to engage with every perspective).

Special thanks first to everyone we interviewed, whose names and organizations are listed on page 33; to Clare Bayard, Francesca Fiorentini, Yeidy Rosa and Steve Theberge for the vision and original proposal for this project; Matthew Smucker for overall coordination, interviewing, transcription, reviewing, editing, writing of introductions and conclusion; Madeline Gardner for helping launch the process and conduct the first round of interviews and transcriptions; Joanne Sheehan (as well as Francesca Fiorentini) for conducting and reviewing some of the interviews, and helping guide the project through WRL’s Organizing Task Force; Uruj Sheikh for transcription, review, promotion, and communication with interviewees (and much more); Tej Nagaraja for reviewing transcripts and editing this magazine; Jeff Rummel for design; thanks to Newell “Chip” Embley IV, Jessica Smucker Falcon, Candace Laning, Jason Laning, Kris Wraight, Marigo Farr, Breonna Arder, Hena Ashraf, Niebal Atiyeh, Ines Farag for the long, tedious work of transcription; for reviewing interviews, thanks to Sarah Husain, Matthew Daloisio, Matt Meyer, and Jim Haber. We hope the following pages will inspire valuable conversations and debates. We invite you to respond by posting comments here on our website or by writing us at win[at]warresisters.org. We plan to run an extensive letters section with your responses in our next issue of WIN.


Back to Contents


 

Listening Process (Section 1) - What is lacking
in the peace and antiwar movement?


Nobody drew a blank on this question. Our interviewees had plenty of ideas about what the movement lacks. Some organizers first reacted to the question by distinguishing between a pro-peace movement and an antiwar movement, and a few disputed the use of the term movement at all, questioning whether we have a solid enough base of people taking collective action to warrant the term. Most interviewees see a fundamental shortage of active participants and a lack of strategies for plugging newcomers into productive roles. Many suggested that the movement is out of touch, and a few folks floated the idea of a different listening project that interviews people from constituencies we want to work with—who don’t identify as activists. In the same vein, many interviewees said we lacked organized bases of support, adequate consultation with communities, and messages and images that reach beyond the choir. Some cited a lack of visible movement leaders who are recognized and respected by large numbers of people in society. Most people said that we lack strategy, both in terms of an overarching framework and short—term winnable campaigns. Also named as lacking: skilled organizers, leadership development programs, institutional memory, staffing, resources, and funding.


In my introduction to the antiwar movement there was a real dearth of strategic thinking. You just do a symbolic direct action, and—in and of itself—it was supposed to do… I don’t know what it was supposed to do. It was more like it was a personal rite of passage than that it had any connection to actually ending the war.

—Kate Foran, Voluntown Peace Trust

We’re not able to identify our common goals nationally. People kind of grab at straws. They say, “Let’s do a boycott!” not really understanding what it takes to really do a boycott. What does a moratorium really need to look like? If we’re going to stop business-as-usual, where and when? Strikes … what’s the strategy? I feel like people have ideas that they pull from history—“Well maybe we could do this, or this.”

The peace movement, which has produced generations of activists who go on to do all kinds of great things—hasn’t figured out a way to continue its training so that our organizing excellence is reflected in the ranks of organizations. And if you don’t have the organizing experience or training, then you can’t even begin to comprehend how to make a strategic impact, how to tell a story, how to base-build, all of that. We have to prioritize training and this kind of development much more than we do now.

—Aimee Allison, Army of None

For an action to have an impact, you have to explain it to the public and build support. You want to create a situation where there’s potential for even more people to step in next time. That’s what scares politicians: Maybe this will escalate, they might have momentum—this might get out of control.

If we send the message that we’re ten or 12 individuals, or we organize a protest with 150 people on a campus of 35,000, the message we’re sending to politicians and the public is that we’re isolated and marginal. Four or five years into this war, lacking the creative initiative to change course, if this is all we can muster, that’s not a powerful message. A demonstration should be a sign of your power. That means they can also function to signify your weakness too, if you don’t plan strategically.

—Nathan Paulsen, Students for a Democratic Society Twin Cities

We need long-term strategy. We’re always on the defensive, driven by events beyond our control. When I look back to my experience doing environmental health and justice work: we set the agenda. We would say, “We want to pass a bill to get rid of carcinogenic pesticides in California schools.” Then, come up with the campaign plan and execute it. Unfortunately, we operate in constant emergency mode in the antiwar movement. We have to step back. We have to look at a bigger picture. It’s hard to do that because you know this bill is coming up for vote in Congress and we need to be at their offices, or this is the month that students can opt out from recruitment, so you have to be there.

Many more people would get involved if they had a way in and if they felt like there were some victories. We’re not very good about marking our little victories. For example, one of our representatives signed the Declaration of Peace, so we thanked him at his town hall meeting. We’re getting flak some of our allies: “He’s not great,” “He’s not calling for impeachment.” That’s all very true, but if we can’t ever say that we won something… It seems like there’s a culture of “nothing’s good enough.” We need to have some space to celebrate.

—Kelly Campbell, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

We are here in North Carolina at the largest military installation in the world—you would think peace groups would be breaking down our doors wanting to help and do things for us. But we have to beg people to come here, to have our rallies acknowledged. It doesn’t make sense.

—Debbie Liebers, Quaker House

We have to stop holding onto being a marginalized movement; we need a broader appeal. We need to preach beyond the choir, redefining what it means to win—for everybody. For me, “changing the story” has been a useful way to help activists move from a defeatist framework to a positive and inclusive narrative that isn’t only accessible to privileged people. Many people, particularly in a generation older than me, want to hang onto what is mostly a self-marginalizing model. They define movement work or “peace and justice” in a way that is never going to be popular. It cuts a lot of people out of the conversation right away. It doesn’t learn from and rely on things that have worked in other places, in terms of how people can be mobilized for change. We have to let go of these things that don’t really connect to possibilities of real change for everybody.

—Maryrose Dolezal, Fellowship of Reconciliation

The stuff we’re coming up with to do—the marches, the chants—a lot of it makes sense to people who have the context of professional activism, but wouldn’t be what Joe from Colorado would say. You know, “Let’s take a stand against military imperialism!” as opposed to “Fuck Bush!” There’s got to be some kind of happy medium. What would it look like, an antiwar movement that could really appeal to the masses? We’re not there yet. There’s so much disrespect for average folks who are not activists. Many activists think that if they were to go on the channels that would reach those people—if they would present their message in a way that works on MTV, not just Pacifica radio—that they would be selling out or diluting their message. But strategically, you need to go where people’s politics are being set. I don’t think the flyers—the small print breaking down the five points of imperialism—I don’t think that’s the way to do it. We create a movement that appeals to those in the movement already, rather than to those who need to come to it.

—Adrienne Maree Brown, Ruckus Society

We need to build leadership, particularly among young people of color. I think if you are interested or inspired by the antiwar movement and you go to a mobilization or you go to a couple of meetings, there is this wall you hit. It’s the same people running the meetings, or the same people are part of a few overlapping organizations. There are no stepping stones, no mentorship, no room to grow into involvement. There needs to be an “on—ramp” into leadership in the antiwar movement.

That is a problem with many organizations. After a while you just get disillusioned with it, and you say, “It’s not for me. I don’t feel like this is my space.” There has to be ownership of your role to play in the movement. This is a huge issue, ownership and leadership of people of color, because I see this gap between young people of color who get inspired and want to do something, but there’s no room or space to grow into it. We need to create that on-ramp to get people the skills they need to become more effective advocates and organizers.

—Xiomara Castro, Ella Baker Center


Back to Contents


 

Listening Process (Section 2) - What prevents
the emergence of a stronger, more coordinated,
more strategic movement?


While our interviewees were quick to name what they saw as lacking, some stressed to not get too down on the movement, arguing that specific historical and cultural circumstances limit what organizers can accomplish or at least set barriers that we have to get past. They discussed what they saw as the most significant constraints we face today. They named external factors having to do with the broader cultural, political, and economic context, such as the conservative backlash of the past few decades, the fall of the Soviet Union and its consequences for U.S. foreign policy, the climate of post-9/11 America and the “War on Terror,” social divisions around race and class, a militarized economy, consumerism, and negative cultural attitudes about protest and collective action. In discussing factors internal to the movement, organizers came from different angles to paint what may seem like a bleak overall picture of an underfunded, underresourced, low-capacity, reactive, fragmented, and marginalized movement. Our point in eliciting these comments was not to depress ourselves, but to build a better working assessment of the conditions we’re organizing to change, and a better understanding of how those conditions affect our work.


Our principal responsibility is to the people of the world. The United States has so much power for ill. Of course I’m not saying, “Screw the working class in this country,” but we have an extraordinary responsibility to try to limit what the U.S. government does and ideally try to get it to do something different. To not accept that responsibility is actually an assertion of national privilege. National privilege is a very serious thing. It’s pretty close to racial privilege.

—Van Gosse, Historians Against the War

By its nature the peace movement is so anarchic and decentralized; this structure tends to limit our political impact. There is really no such thing as a large national organization in the peace movement. If you look at other movements—environmental, labor —these movements have large national organizations. If you asked people on the street to name a major peace organization, they couldn’t. That means we stay underresourced, under capacity.

—Kevin Martin, Peace Action

One challenge in working with youth is getting them to feel that what they are doing has an impact. A lot of young people think, “What’s that going to change?” It’s extremely difficult for them daily issues about money, food, a place to sleep. Those are the things they have to take care of first, day to day. Some of them sell their CDs on the street, and that’s a huge jump in their lives if they were selling drugs before. So getting them to come out and get involved… they have to hustle on the street before they can do that.

—Xiomara Castro, Ella Baker Center

The last antiwar movement was on the heels of the civil rights movement and followed from 1930s radicalism. We had those experienced organizers who knew what they were doing, who others could learn from. We don’t have that same kind of support. There’s not the same environment. There has been a very deliberate, conscious counter-revolution. (Maybe that’s a bit too strong, since there wasn’t a revolution in the first place.) The rise of the Christian Right in the last 30 years has had a huge impact on cultural forces; we continue to face a serious demoralization process.

—Nathan Paulsen, Students for a Democratic Society Twin Cities

We’re kind of asking people to be against the war on moral grounds. Masses of people, generally speaking, don’t act on moral grounds. One thing I think the right wing sometimes has right about us is that we don’t give the average person credit to know whether something is in their best interest. While I certainly agree that war is not in the best interest of the average person, we’re not providing an alternative that is in their best interest other than some idea or some dream. The average person is not going to take some dream or idea and base their life on that. So it’s hard for them to identify with us.

Another thing that’s deeper is this idea of American exceptionalism, which racism plays a big part in. It’s ok for those people to die; it’s not happening to me. I don’t know all the psychological factors, but there’s a way of seeing the world that allows for people in the United States to feel like it’s okay for us to have these policies.

—Michael McPhearson, Veterans For Peace

I think that a big obstacle to the antiwar movement building stronger, longer-term institutions is the politics of the philanthropy community. So much of movement infrastructure has been professionalized and is anchored by nonprofits in this country—some quite effectively, some quite destructively. The antiwar movement lacks access to the millions of dollars of philanthropy money going into different social change ventures. That limits the antiwar movement’s ability to create the kind of basic infrastructure and organizing that would help turn popular antiwar sentiment into action.

Related to this, the antiwar movement doesn’t have many staffing opportunities. What happens then is nonprofits working on other issues scoop up the best organizers and activists. That is a real consideration for training and leadership development in the antiwar movement. As people get more effective, they’ll go off and do other (great) things, but it doesn’t build the capacity of the antiwar movement. It’s different if you’re training college activists who have an orientation toward workers’ rights. There’s a very good chance that the best, high-capacity folks are going to get jobs with labor unions if they want to. It’s the same if they have an environmental orientation. That’s just not the case with antimilitarism work. And because of the artificial way issues are framed as isolated and compartmentalized, that’s a big problem for the antiwar movement.

—Patrick Reinsborough, smartMeme Strategy & Training Project

A major constraint is politics—estimating who it is that’s going to end this war and change U.S. foreign policy. There has been a tendency to characterize the antiwar movement as leftist; actually, it’s a broad movement that involves everybody from Communists to Republicans. I’m a leader of the Communist Party and very left, but the majority of this movement isn’t. Activist-oriented, progressive leaning, yes. Left, no. If people conceptualize this as a left movement, then you automatically cut yourself off from 65 of the 70 percent of people who oppose the war. The left in this country is very small—it can’t do anything on its own. The vitality of the left is only realized when it’s related to that broad cross-section of folks in the political center—when it’s related to the mainstream and sparks action on critical issues.

—Judith Leblanc, United for Peace & Justice

Many people see us as in a stalemate. We’ve got a president who is obviously not going to do anything to end this war. In Congress they can’t muster the votes to do anything. So a lot of people are frustrated with that; there’s sort of a lag. I think most people are just riding it out until we get a new president. I’ve been telling people that even when we do, this war isn’t going to end immediately.

Jason Hurd, Iraq Veterans Against the War Asheville, NC Chapter


Back to Contents


 

 

Listening Process (Section 3) - What are the biggest
openings and opportunities for organizing today?

 

Palestine solidarity activists often take for granted that there are certain spaces unavailable to us. We are not solely to blame for this marginalization, but we sometimes accept it too much. Presenting and inviting an irresistible alternative vision has been challenging for our movement. So I think the movement for Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) against Israel is a really exciting grassroots organizing strategy that can re-energize and strengthen our movement.

We’re trying to promote a vision of the BDS movement as a way to have Palestine solidarity activism be more connected to and located in activism around things like the military-industrial complex and workers’ justice. So a vision of that might be: divest from Israel, invest in local worker-run cooperatives. If that process is done right, eventually it’s much more effective than having only a negative paradigm; you create positive alternatives. In terms of opposition, imagine the potential once we get it going, a campaign to divest from this state that is using our military aid and tax dollars to drop bombs on other countries … and re-invest in locally grown food or something like that. It makes it really hard to make us look like the bad guys. And we play into that a lot, we make it easy for our opposition when we are always just being defensive and not offering alternatives.

—Ora Wise, Palestine/Israel Education Project

Our strategy is very direct—it’s ending our community’s complicity in the war. And the most direct way to do that is to not allow our ports to be used to ship military equipment, materials for the war. That’s the focus that we bring people in on. It’s got to be educational—we put that on the front end. Okay, this shipment goes through this port at this time. Really, that’s the hook to get them to talk with you more broadly: “Hey, do you know how much money is being spent on militarism? Do you know how many bases we have around the world?” “You know it really doesn’t matter if we have Democrats or Republicans because they’re kind of walking down the same line?” It’s a conversation with the community, which we see as long term. It takes a long time to really have that conversation.

I think there’s a role for local government that’s not being tapped right now. Sure, you have cities passing resolutions against the war, but not many. Local government is the one level of government that’s most responsive to citizens and can move the fastest. I think that’s actually one of the things that has made us more successful here. We have a couple of people on the city council who are willing to take some risks. And we have a community of activists that have figured out that that’s probably one of the best ways to reach the community, because a lot of people watch the city council on TV. So you show up and you use your three minutes not to talk about some mundane local issue that may be important to you, but you use it to talk about how what’s happening at the national and international level is impacting your community. You talk about how much money has been robbed from our street-repair budget, our affordable housing, etc. And then when citizens start talking about this stuff, city council members notice. They have to notice because they see these people in the park and at the grocery store.

We got the Olympia City Council to mandate that our cops can’t be used as escorts for these military equipment convoys. And so, even though the port is in the city, they had to turn to the county sheriff. The first time, the sheriff provided the escort; but the second time the sheriff said, “Hey, this costs us a lot money. We can’t do this.”

—TJ Johnson, Port Militarization Resistance

The peace movement, along with many other single-issue movements, has been too segmented. The right wing has done a lot to blunt the interconnectedness among various movements. If we premise our organizing on the super-majorty opposition to the war in Iraq, we have the possibility of building a real majority unity in the country for progressive change.

The key to the longevity of the antiwar movement is political empowerment, organizing on the basis of mass political pressure connected with electoral politics. I think the main arena for finally ending this war is through Congress. Since the 2006 elections, we have begun a whole new level of Congressional actions from lobbying to sit-ins. In the 2008 election cycle, we’re going to see more organizing to bring communities of color, immigrant communities and labor unions together to make the war and the war economy the defining electoral issues.

We can build up the grassroots base that’s trully reflective of communities hit hard by the right-wing agends and budget cuts over the last 30 years. We must organize on the basis of the need for the movement that continues after this war ends—and it will—that can make a close connection between peace and justice issues.

—Judith Leblanc, United for Peace & Justice

The country is moving sharply to the left. This is what the left looks like: not people reading Marx and Chomsky, but people who say, “Fuck this, I want affordable health care; out of Iraq now!” This is the biggest opportunity in my lifetime, or since the mid ’70s when Nixon was collapsing. Iraq is the wedge issue.

It’s very risky right now—the odds are that there’s going to be a Democratic president with a large Democratic majority in Congress come 2009. If we abstain from the ’08 electoral scene, we cede the ground to centrist forces. We have to intervene, to take the Democrats to the best possible point, not just on Iraq, but on the entire U.S. global policy. You want to make them really compete for us.

—Van Gosse, Historians Against the War

I try to get people to think about strengths and weaknesses. What are my—or my organization’s —strengths and weaknesses? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the military system, as it’s most accessible to us? Match them up. Protect your weaknesses; try to remedy them. Find ways to put your strengths to work against the weaknesses of the military system: recruitment, retention—there are lots of them.

—Chuck Fager, Quaker House

A key long-term strategy is to develop a language and culture that rejects militarism among the generations coming of age now. People who live in that head space—like “They need to come to us,” or “Someday we’re going to fill up our event when they learn enough”—it’s a dead-end road. That’s why counter-recruitment and military resistance come at such a strategic moment in this movement, because the people who are intrinsically affected and involved are younger and more diverse.

People who identify with the peace movement can provide important resources and support to the counter-recruitment and soldier resistance movements, while letting younger folks take the lead. Putting a real focus on cutting off the supply of troops is a way we can be very effective organizing locally. We don’t need a national office for counter-recruitment or even that much money; all we have to do is spread the resources we have access to all across the country to local groups.

—Aimee Allison, Army of None

Schools are getting a lot more open. We see administrators who in the past were not at all sympathetic now saying they know there is aggressive recruiting and they need to put parameters on it. One school we did work with had six students opt out. There was student organizing, and they had 200 the next year. There was a school that was getting military recruiters every day. The counselor told them they could only come once a week. She realized the career colleges only come once in three months. Then she started working with another high school because she realized their administrator was starting to lean the same way. That was a heavily militarized district. I can’t tell you how bad it’s been. That’s changing.

—Arlene Inouye, Coalition Against Militarism in our Schools

The military is sick of the war—totally at a breaking point. That’s something that IVAW says all the time, that this war is breaking our military. You have a lot of high-ranking people who are criticizing the war. A lot of the lower-ranking enlisted people who actually have to go and do the missions are instead doing things like joining IVAW, going AWOL, going to Canada, filing conscientious objector claims.

I think what the antiwar movement needs to do is think about what tactics can actually have an impact on the people who are managing the war, to limit and challenge their capability. I think one of the things that’s strongest about our strategy is the withdrawal of military support: it inhibits the government’s ability to continue the war. You don’t have to have the majority of the military refusing to fight; even a minority who is vocally or even covertly opposed to the war has a major ripple effect.

Kelly Dougherty, Iraq Veterans Against the War

If we had a solid strategic framework, then people could see where they fit into that, as opposed to feeling like they’re going to do their own thing and this other group is going to do their thing. You have a multiplicity of voices, but they’re not all on message, they’re not working together for the most part. I think the door is open. Maybe IVAW is uniquely situated to bring people together. Because whether it’s ANSWER or UFPJ or any peace group out there, everyone is cool with IVAW. So we’re kind of in a position where we can say, “If you guys are looking for something to rally around, this is it.”

If we can convince people that the strategy we’re working on is worthwhile, and that there are places where others fit in, then we can avoid people just getting excited about doing actions without really having an understanding of how to escalate those actions toward a specific goal.

Jose Vasquez, Iraq Veterans Against the War, NYC Chapter

Our current approach to supporting organizing is long-term engagement with communities, with an investment in leadership development, action support, organizational development—whatever we have to offer from our toolbox. The critical difference is that back in the day, Ruckus would hold an open-call action camp and folks would come for direct-action training. People would hopefully run off and do some really powerful work, but there was no way to track that or measure the impact or effectiveness of that model.

The other part that is distinct is that we are working with communities to leave the skills there. Once the issue is no longer uranium mines, they’ll still have the organizing skills when it’s water rights or sacred site protection.

—Marty Aranaydo, Ruckus Society, Indigenous Peoples’ Power Project


Back to Contents


 

Listening Process (Section 4) - How do we
build a more multiracial and cross-class
antiwar movement?



In the first round of interviews we asked, “How do we build a more multiracial, antiracist antiwar movement, and what inhibits us from doing so?” As a lot of folks also discussed class as an interlocking system of oppression, we added it explicitly to the question. Many organizers discussed how working-class people and communities of color often feel alienated from the white, privileged counterculture image of the peace/antiwar movement. Some discussed this as partially a problem of media caricature, but everyone seemed to agree that the perception has a basis in reality. Interviewees talked about how social movements tend to reflect broader societal divisions, including along race and class lines. Some discussed how military service is seen as an opportunity in many communities, and most of the veterans we interviewed talked about organizing other veterans, soldiers and military families as a key opportunity to build diverse, working-class-based organizations. Some interviewees discussed organizing challenges and opportunities specific to certain demographics like Arabs and Muslims, Latino immigrants, rural working-class whites, and African-Americans. Some discussed how opposition to war can understandably take a backseat to more immediately pressing day-to-day struggles; many also pointed out how important leadership on peace and antiwar work is coming out of these communities. People also spoke to the variety of forms that can feed multiracial movement building. They discussed distinctions between building—or transitioning to become—a multiracial organization and building alliances between people of color-led organizations and predominantly white ones.


Among most people active in the movement, there’s a lack of understanding of Islam. Whereas there are organic connections between U.S. and Latin American activists, this kind of relationship hardly existed with Middle East activists before 9/11. People have a very static view of Islamist activists. They’re not all right wing. Some might even be considered progressive. When we consider liberation theology in Latin America or the role of the church in the Black civil rights movement, there are parallels to the role Islam may play in liberation movements in the Middle East.

If people’s misunderstanding of Islam and wholesale dismissal of all Islamist politics is not addressed, it sets us up for the next war. Islamophobia exists to dehumanize Muslims (and by extension, all people in the Middle East), to make killing them easier. Activists have to work to change these attitudes in the culture.

—Rami El-Amine, Coalition for Justice & Accountability

The peace movement isn’t just white, but it can look that way. I think there is a whole communications training and messaging plan that needs to be developed around that. It always feels like victimized women and men of color in the back and white people in the front, and everyone feels bad about it. How can we have an orientation, so that people most impacted—people of color or veterans and military families or Iraqi people—are more visible? What would that look like?

—Maryam Roberts, Women of Color Resource Center

Let’s say that we decide we want more people of color involved in the antiwar movement in a way that they normally wouldn’t? Is it a question of how we count, is it about how many people show up at meetings or demonstrations, or is there another way to account for different communities’ participation?

Another question worth framing: What is it that your organization or space brings that allows people to come together in a way they normally wouldn’t? If you think that way, then it might change what kinds of ideas, projects, connections develop. It has to be long-term, though—a five, ten, 15 year view.

—Mandy Carter, Southerners On New Ground (SONG)

Multiracial organizing is difficult because of the communities people live in; there’s segregation in neighborhoods, schools, all of society. In organizations like ours, we work to be more diverse ourselves and we try to be good allies to people of color. We work with Black Voices for Peace: we gave them some money that we had designated for promoting racial diversity. We were their fiscal sponsor for a while and set up a joint fellowship project. We knew this had nothing to do with making Peace Action more diverse—it was good ally work.

We have to be clear about what exactly we are doing. Are you trying to make your group more diverse? Are you trying to be a good ally? Are you trying to work in coalition? You have to be real about what the limitations are. If you have a strong commitment to having an organization’s board be more racially diverse and you succeed at that, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean your membership is going to be more diverse. We have to be clear about how we assess these things.

—Kevin Martin, Peace Action

It’s not going to happen because you have some good internal process. I don’t mean you shouldn’t have them—you should—but they have to be done right. You can have all the internal process in the world, and that’s not going to change your base. Unless your base, your members, your active members, all of that, become more diverse—it doesn’t matter that you commit to hiring one person of color for every white staff person. Or that you put all these at-large people on your board.

I think we should accept that society is segregated and people tend to organize among their own. We shouldn’t worry so much about diversifying our aging white peace groups. The question is, are people of color, working-class people, are they going to come into this movement on their own terms? Are they going to have their own organizations? They do actually, of course.

—Van Gosse, Historians Against the War

I’m a big proponent of allowing grassroots groups to grow on their own and determine for themselves what they need. And then, through tried-and-true leadership development, getting them to hook into broader connections. I constantly get asked, “How can we be more antiracist? How can we outreach to communities of color or ethnic communities that we want involved in this work? We’re trying—I emailed this person, I called too—nobody is responding.” You need to really look within.

How are you perceiving people? How are you approaching people? Is it respectful? Is there a trust issue? It’s also about power sharing and giving up a little power, which usually doesn’t happen enough. Are you putting out this vibe that you’re asking, inviting, allowing a community to join you—as opposed to movement-building together?

—Pam Phan, Opt Out Street Project (AFSC)

In my experience with an organization transforming from being mostly white to being multiracial, a lot of it is actually in what you do with your resources and not just your rhetoric: that you really intend to make the shift. Are you supporting people already doing work rather than parachuting in with your own campaign? Providing fundraising support to facilitate participation? Hiring people from impacted communities? That’s not easy, because what you actually look for is someone who already has this complete analysis. How do you hire from a community who doesn’t share your activist common language? There are certain things that have to change before others—values before language, for instance. In organizations where there is hierarchy in place, some change has to happen at the top to create a safe space for a shift to happen in the rest of the organization.

Just having token Black people on staff, that’s how some groups try to do it. They say, “We want to be more diverse. Let’s add some color.” It does shift something. But often it comes from a well-intentioned ignorance, creating a space where the person of color is overwhelmed as it becomes their job to change the entire organization. It is too much to ask for unless the whole organization is committed to multiracialism and it becomes a piece of work that everyone is doing.

We have a limited time on this planet to get the work done. It takes time to bring people up to speed as an entire body—white people, people of color, everyone. To get people on the same page takes a commitment from the whole organization to facilitate that deep alignment process and feel like ‘We all want this.’ You have to reach a point where it’s really deep in everyone’s heart that that’s what they really want.

—Adrienne Maree Brown, Ruckus Society

It takes real focus for antiwar groups to build more with and in communities of color and immigrant communities. The peace movement has to make it a priority. To make it a point on each agenda, how the outreach is going, the who and what of the work being done. We developed a plan for multiracial organizing and a series of workshops we were going to lead to strengthen the efforts of UFPJ. It never really got off the ground because it kept dropping down on the list of priorities. We had this big demonstration and this national lobby and this national meeting. So it requires concentration and commitment.

—Judith Leblanc, United for Peace & Justice

It seems the larger national coalitions have tried to find the most expedient way to build a mass movement. This is understandable. But expediency rarely facilitates a deepening connection to the issues and struggles of disenfranchised people. In many communities of color, economically depressed and facing repression, they don’t view Bush’s policies as their own. American policies aren’t part of their America, so for them to invest in the platform that focuses on the State Department and the Bush adminstration is a stretch. Yet it is precisely among these sectors that—if you were to devote the time and attention to building a real mass movement—you would see a remarkable rollout. You would see a sense of determination among everyday people about defeating this war because they can relate it to their own sense of injustice.

—Eric Tang, Bronx community organizer

Military members represent a diversity in society that movement people often don’t. I’ve had the experience as a former military member of looking around a room of peace activists and thinking, “I can’t relate to where you’re coming from.” Soldiers and vets framing the work of the peace movement gives credence and makes a connection to the issues the average person in the United States faces, the same reasons for joining the military: the need for education, jobs, opportunities.

—Aimee Allison, Army of None

The majority of the military is working-class—there are connections there that we have not capitalized on. I think that even the construction worker with the American flag sticking on his helmet probably has a pretty negative opinion of the war and probably knows somebody who got fucked up over there. If the Longshoremen received a phone call from Iraq Veterans Against the War saying, “We’d like to talk to you guys about possible action,” we would probably get a response, out of respect for the veteran part of it. I think the opportunity is almost ripe for the picking, and that’s probably the next step.

—Jose Vasquez, IVAW, NYC Chapter

The town and gown divide is significant. One of the features of campus culture—and this goes for faculty and students—there’s nobody more parochial than somebody centered around a university. And there’s nobody who thinks they’re more cosmopolitan. It is hard as hell to persuade some of the folks in Chapel Hill that they need to get out more. It’s partly class, partly race—I don’t think those cover the bottom line: There’s this cultural divide between educated Americans and the people who end up in the military. You’ve got all these pro-peace people, but what do they know about the military? Whatever they hear on NPR. They’ve never been on a military base. Maybe their grandfather was in the military, but not people they work and live and associate with. This divide between military America and civilian America has been growing and deepening since the Vietnam War era.

Movement folks have got to get out more and begin to develop personal experience with the military. It’s not a comfortable thing to do in many senses. You can arrange your life so that you don’t have to. The people in charge want us to do that, to stay in our little boxes and go about our usual business. That serves their purposes very well.

—Chuck Fager, Quaker House

There are certainly people in the movement who are less privileged than others. There are also a lot of middle-classers who are not wealthy but have a very comfortable life. They think the war is wrong, or the ways of our society are wrong. They show up to protests—that’s their thing, that’s what they do. That’s all they do. Their analysis doesn’t go any deeper, across the proverbial tracks, where you see folk living in the projects or who are homeless, or dealing with crack addiction—whatever it is, that’s not their reality, that’s not their issue. They don’t see how demonstrating at a recruiting station also has a relationship to the crime problem, this drug war problem. They’re not making these connections. And they’re not working with the communities that are working to resolve these issues. Because they’re not from these communities. And they’re afraid to go to these communities.

I think the way to really build bridges is to take people where they’re at and say, “We know what’s important to you.” Which in many cases is simply surviving. I think the big conversation should be about how we all link up with all the other social movements that are existing and struggling right now.

—Oskar Castro, American Friends Service Committee (War Resisters League National Committee Member)

We can’t expect people who have different positions in society of privilege and oppression to be standing alongside each other, or fighting in the same way. Sometimes it’s frustrating: As the raids against immigrants are going on, we want so bad to coordinate with groups in the Latino community, and do these activities together. They’re telling us they’re interested, they care about the issue, they know about the DREAM Act and the connections to military recruitment and citizenship. But at the moment, it’s more important for them to know if immigration is going to shut down some factory and sweep up everybody tomorrow. That’s the reality, and we just have to know when to back off, give each other a little time.

—Phil Weaver, Eugene Peace Works (War Resisters League affiliate)

I don’t think inviting oppressed communities of color to join existing coalitions that already have a structure or are seen a certain way is a realistic approach for building together. There are concerted efforts to unify our communities and take a position and have our own antiwar strategy. One beneficial kind of work is supporting the capacity-building of grassroots, communities-of-color organizations to take on antiwar strategies that they can incorporate into their own work, strategies that link antiwar work to local issues that move and politicize people, to build bases against war and imperialism. Oppressed communities should be supported in ways that help them to come together and develop their own strategies, to implement in the best way that makes sense for them. So the day-to-day work and ideas are coming out of base-building organizations rather than somebody who goes to them and tries to convince them to take up their project.

—Monami Maulik, Desis Rising Up & Moving

We’re going to have to rebuild this alliance from the ground up. It’s going to have to be coming out of racial justice organizing and community organizing, communities of color, to really create something that’s different from what stands as the peace movement. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or use a concept as trite as branding, but the peace movement is branded white. The peace symbol, the bearded hippie image, that’s not even as true as it may appear in people’s imaginations.

Even the demand for peace can sound quite naive and privileged when it is separated from an analysis of systemic change, a recognition that these wars aren’t coincidences and U.S. foreign policy is not an accident. … That these are all parts of the same deeply flawed, pathological, racist system that leads to so much injustice and deprivation inside the United States too. In the long term, I think there’s going to be a need for something that’s maybe not called a peace movement, that’s maybe not even called an antiwar movement, to really connect those.

—Patrick Reinsborough, smartMeme Strategy & Training Project


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Listening Process (Section 5) - What roles
can veterans, soldiers and military families
play in ending war?

 

We interviewed members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, Service Women’s Action Network, and other organizers who are military veterans or military family members. We also asked all of our interviewees about the role of soldiers, veterans, and their families in ending war, and how others can best support their efforts. Most everyone felt that they are uniquely positioned to organize in ways that others cannot, particularly in organizing active-duty GIs. Our interviewees unanimously saw veterans as effective spokespeople, and many folks viewed them primarily as such. The vets themselves were more excited about organizing their peers. They tended to describe support in practical terms: lending a hand with logistics, raising money, etc. Some veterans saw themselves as particularly well positioned to connect with working-class constituencies and help build a more broad-based movement. Challenges they named include struggling with trauma from their experiences, coming out of a culture that discourages dissent, balancing activism with personal and economic needs, dealing with a movement that they often find alienating and unstrategic, and finding adequate funding and resources to carry the organizing work forward.


The most important thing about Veterans For Peace is that we are vets. Many of us have been to war. All of us are trained to fight. We know what war is about. In the public eye, we have credibility. We want to use that privilege to struggle for peace and justice. Some of our programs involve educating people about what war really is. Part of that is counter-recruitment or truth in recruiting. Also sharing our experiences, going to speak to Congress, writing letters—what the average citizen does, but because we are or were soldiers, airmen, seamen, marines, people tend to listen to what we have to say more. At the beginning of the current war in Iraq, we created space for other people to be able to speak out and not be demonized as easily, with us standing with them. We certainly helped military families feel more comfortable speaking out against the war. It’s very difficult for a military family person to do that, but when they see that there are other people associated with the military doing this, then they can too. We’re kind of like a family. And then when the Iraq veterans came back, they had somewhere to go, to help them get off the ground and organize themselves. Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) is growing their organization. The average person who comes off active duty or out of the war doesn’t necessarily want to get politically involved. That’s one barrier. Another is the cultural divide. If the perception of IVAW by people on active duty is that they’re too ensconced in a culture that they don’t like, then they’re not going to join. So if the peace movement, in trying to help, is creating that image, then that’s not very helpful. People need to think about how they’re supporting the vets and make sure it’s not so colored that it diminishes what IVAW is trying to accomplish with their outreach. If other groups can act as a support mechanism, that will allow us veterans to be able to do the things that we can do, that nobody else can do.

—Michael McPhearson, Veterans For Peace

During the Vietnam War, the role of active-duty soldiers and veterans was a key factor in strengthening the movement and building pressure against the war. In 1970 and ’71, when Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) really emerged in the public arena, it caused enormous distress and heartburn in the White House. We know from his own memoir that Chief of Staff J.R. Haldeman said to Nixon, “These guys are killing us in the media.” And Attorney General John Mitchell called VVAW the most dangerous organization in America, by which he meant the most effective at organizing against the war.

Voices from the military are given prominence. On the one hand they deserve respect for the sacrifices they made, but it’s also a reflection of our unfortunately militarized culture. We need to take advantage of this because so many of those who serve in our military know better than anyone else just how foolish and unjust our American policy objective is. They absolutely need to be elevated as primary voices of our movement.

It’s necessary to recognize the differences between the Vietnam and Iraq eras. Today they are in a volunteer force—they don’t have opportunities for education and employment, and most are married or have children. They cannot afford to get out. In our day, we couldn’t wait to get out; part of our organizing was to get out. Many of us could figure we’ll go on to college and figure something out. We have to be more patient with and understanding of the military community.

—David Cortright, Fourth Freedom Forum

There is an ongoing tension about how much do we want vets at the front of the movement. Is this about stopping this war or about ending militarism? You can get a lot of military families to support you on the first one, but when you start talking about radical downscaling of the arms industry and the size of the military, that’s a whole different ball game. That tension is always there.

—TJ Johnson, Port Militarization Resistance

Veterans and resisters are central to building the antiwar movement. Many of them are newly politicized from their own experiences; in the United States, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on the deaths of soldiers, and a serious under-emphasis on the deaths and suffering of Iraqi people and Afghani people. It becomes really intolerable, especially for people from those regions and the Third World in general. There’s a minute spent talking about a million people—Iraqis who have been killed—and so much time on how many military personnel are injured and their conditions. We went to a workshop at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta with all of our youth, who are doing a counter-recruitment campaign. It was led by soldiers of color who are resisters or have been in Iraq. It seemed to me that nobody was really challenging people on a deeper level to think about how—as people within the United States—we have a responsibility to understand that the level of oppression of the people being bombed is far, far greater than the level of oppression of soldiers. It’s a constant issue for our community—it’s really hard to feel invisible even within antiwar circles. That kind of politics really needs to be pushed. During the Vietnam War, global conditions were different and there was a real sense of internationalism in the movement. There needs to be more of that in today’s antiwar movement.

—Monami Maulik, Desis Rising Up & Moving

In my experience, I don’t think the veterans groups or military families protesting this war have fallen into the problem of, “It’s all about us, and it’s not about the Iraqis.” That’s a real challenge in an antiwar movement in an imperial country: how do you talk about the impact on people in and from the United States when the most impacted people are in the country under occupation?

Racism is beaten into our heads all the time, particularly the attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims in a post-9/11 world. Challenging that dehumanization has to be an integral part of any antiwar movement. It’s always complicated how you do that, how that translates into a leaflet or demand or campaign. In the talks I’ve heard, demonstrations I’ve seen, things I’ve read, I think most of the messages that have come out of the GI resistance movement have been quite sensitive to the humanity of the Iraqis. Not every single thing. But I tend to think they’ve done a very good job on this point overall, and I don’t feel at all hesitant about supporting the veterans, soldiers and military family antiwar groups.

—Max Elbaum, War Times

The young folks coming home are a really important generational voice about what war is. We need to strengthen the alliance between active GI organizing and grassroots movements outside the military—a critical lesson from the Vietnam era. And whether we’re out of Iraq in a month or five years, we need to make sure the political lessons of this occupation continue to resonate and that our government can’t do this again. Some of the most important voices that will make that possible are going to be the veterans. Long-term, they are one of the most important bases for the antiwar movement to be building.

One way to support veterans’ organizing is resources. We need more vets who are in a position to be out organizing other soldiers and vets. We need to be in the role of supporting their organizing, amplifying their voices—to make sure they’re getting the support and training that they need to be organizers—instead of expecting a constituency that is struggling to heal from the shattering effects of war to organize from scratch and on a shoestring. I’ve seen projects where vets are expected to go from zero to 60. And the antiwar movement kind of uses vets to legitimize our work, rather than legitimizing veterans’ work and supporting their efforts to mobilize their own constituencies.

—Patrick Reinsborough, smartMeme Strategy & Training Project

IVAW’s three goals are: immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq, full veterans benefits, and reparations for the Iraqi people. Our strategy to end the war is to withdraw military support from the war.

Kelly Dougherty, Iraq Veterans Against the War

I’m a firm believer that you should exert yourself where you have the most influence. IVAW’s strategy is to undercut military support for the war. If you think about all the things that support this war— corporations, big oil, Congress, the executive branch —those are all things that none of us can do anything about. There’s too much money. There’s too much political power. Where we have the largest impact, as IVAW, is on the military community. There’s a mutual respect among every veteran I’ve met, especially every combat veteran. Regardless of your views on the war, you look at each other and you say, “You’ve experienced the same things that I’ve experienced.” I think organizing military bases is where we can have the most impact. If other organizations could help us get a larger presence around military bases—get us help organizing—I think that’s going to have a great impact. The philosophy is that if they don’t have soldiers to fight the war, they can’t fight the war no matter how much money they have. We see what helped end the Vietnam War was that all these soldiers said, “No. We’re not going to do this anymore. This is screwed up.” That’s what we want to do.

Jason Hurd, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Asheville, NC Chapter

The government simply cannot fight sustained wars and maintain occupations without enough personnel. Strategically, on a very practical level, when GIs resist—and there’s a whole spectrum of resistance, from outright refusal, to not re-enlisting, etc.—it means the military leadership is being held accountable by those asked to sacrifice. This is a powerful way that people can impact foreign policy.

The movement is concerned mainly with public resisters; if we continue on that path, we’re always going to have a thin stream of people. You won’t read about most of the people I support because they don’t make their cases public. Supporting GI resistance to illegal war is about more than making headlines. Resisters need funds for their legal defense, help providing for their families, mental health care, as well as political support and media guidance. Our real work in stopping the war is not going to be all bright lights. It’s going to be some hardcore, long-term work. Right now, many veterans’ and church groups are committed to supporting vets for the long run. I would love to see more organizations orienting that way.

—Aimee Allison, Army of None

When I visit the Veterans Affairs hospital I see vets from the Korean War who are still dealing with their issues when it comes to benefits, and nobody is there to support them. So what kind of vet do we support?

Definitely there needs to be more understanding. We have this assumption that they’re all the same and we have one box that we put them into, but there are different types of vets—not just in terms of gender or race, but culturally how they are affected by their diverse experiences in the service. I think this is lacking in a lot of veterans groups and in the peace movement. We also need to start figuring out what our support work, after this war, is going to look like.

—Maricela Guzman, Service Women Action Network

There are all different categories of support, including political pressure (like public support campaigns), legal, economic, moral, emotional, often spiritual. We need to break those down and understand who is doing what and how we can strengthen that. Groups should make that part of their organizing. We’re not asking everyone to be Courage to Resist or IVAW or WRL, but I think it’s about making military resistance a key part of your work and identifying what resources you have locally. What can you do? For example, with church members: Can you become a sanctuary for war resisters? You start by identifying the strengths within your own community.

—Lori Hurlebaus, Courage to Resist

There is a tendency for groups to get excited about having war resisters come talk to high school classes about their experiences. It’s true that we need to get these voices and stories to our young folks so they don’t enlist and so communities understand the dangers. At the same time, we often don’t give vets the space to go through what they need to go through, to take care of their own lives.

That’s one of the pitfalls we’re seeing in Portland: there are peace groups that really want to support an IVAW chapter here, but we don’t have vets that are in a place to do that right now. There are a couple who do have an interest, but it’s important to provide the space to let them do it in their own time. We can do some of the ground work and say, “You’ve got community support to make this happen, and we’ve got funding and other stuff ready for you.” But it’s about letting go of the reins a little bit and saying, “Hey, these aren’t our reins to hold.”

—Pam Phan, Opt Out Street Project (AFSC)

We’re tired of being window dressing for other people’s events. However, working with other groups allows us to not have to re-invent the wheel. IVAW members are often green when it comes to organizing— lacking nuts-and-bolts skills that a lot of activists have—others can bring that to what we’re doing. Something as simple as getting a permit; an IVAW member might not know the process, whereas another activist has done that tons of times. Bringing food to our strategy session, providing transportation or lodging—all of these things are really helpful. In the military it’s what we call a “force multiplier”: things that add to your ability to conduct your mission. For every grunt in combat on the front lines, there are nine other soldiers doing essential support work. Somebody has got to get the bullets there, food, the mail; somebody has to do the medical. So what we call “combat support,” other groups can provide. If the best thing that we have to offer is our credibility, then free us up to be the people in the front, on camera.

Being able to connect with other young people who care about politics and ending the war is really empowering for a young vet who is just raising their own consciousness. To meet another young student who is sort of at the same place but has different experiences, for them to be able to grow together and hang out together and laugh together and struggle together—that is really powerful for a lot of our members. In IVAW, the camaraderie is a huge asset. It’s probably saved a couple of people’s lives, actually. They meet up with other members and realize, “I’m not alone. It’s okay for me to be against what I just did.” That’s enormously important. I think being able to share that with other young people is also powerful and cathartic.

Jose Vasquez, Iraq Veterans Against the War, NYC Chapter


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Listening Process (Section 6) - What is
the relevance of nonviolence today?


As an organization that frequently uses the term revolutionary nonviolence to describe our vision and work, we wanted to hear organizers’ thoughts on nonviolence. We asked our interviewees what nonviolence means to them, and also how useful and relevant nonviolence—both the concept and the word itself—is to their work. The concept was important to many of our interviewees, but some of them suggested a need for fresh language to communicate it. Two different interpretations of the question emerged: one focusing more internally on tactics and strategies employed by movements, the other focusing more broadly on a critique of social, political and economic violence. In the tactical discussion, no one suggested anything other than nonviolent action as a viable option for
U.S. social movements today. While nonviolence was non-negotiable to some, others talked about self-defense and armed struggle as necessary under certain circumstances. Some described nonviolence as a moral compass that should inform all our thinking. A few interviewees saw peace and nonviolence as growing values in communities struggling with violence, and a potential opening to advance a broader systemic critique of militarism and also capitalism. We also include in this section discussions navigating the tension between working to end a particular war and working to end all war.


I like the term nonviolent activist or nonviolent direct action. It is motivating, in helping people realize how powerful nonviolence can be—it’s not passive and it’s not like you’re just giving in or allowing yourself to be dominated. Nonviolence is a tool, a different way of fighting back. We need outreach and education along these lines, teaching people exactly what it is and how it can be revolutionary. More people should hear stories both from the distant and recent past about the power of this type of action.

—Katrina Plotz, Anti-War Committee

I think that nonviolence as a way of life is probably less relevant to young people than nonviolence as a means to an end in the political spectrum of movement tactics and tools. That it is expected of activists to be nonviolent as a way of life is not prudent, not appropriate, especially concerning young people. They have to come to that or not.

—Oskar Castro, American Friends Service Committee (War Resisters League National Committee Member)

Nonviolence is a very important concept. It’s interesting: you get a lot of white folks in the peace movement that run around fetishizing Gandhi and King. … What have people taken from them? You have these spiritual leaders who used nonviolence as a central tool in their toolbox. Yet a lot of key things have been dropped away. You have people for whom nonviolence has become such a spiritual activity that it has very little relationship with strategy and goals. Or you get people that have taken nonviolence so far out of the global context from which it emerged that it often gets misused. My sense is that nonviolence has become very racialized, ironically. In this country, it’s become very white.

Perhaps we’ll find the biggest danger is of nonviolence becoming a moral code rather than a philosophical approach. For me, working with communities of color in the movement around the political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, I recognized that nonviolence is incredibly important, but that there’s many reasons why people aren’t nonviolent. People who are advocating nonviolence, the last thing they should do is only work with people who share their view. Nonviolence is best expressed to other people for its value strategically rather than morally. That is the way for it to eventually become a deeper moral value in our culture. ’Cause right now, to judge people whose strategies extend beyond the realm of nonviolence, is to fall into lines of segregation in our culture. You can’t separate that from an understanding of privilege and power in our society.

—Patrick Reinsborough, smartMeme Strategy & Training Project

It would be worth doing a class and race analysis of those who are drawn to pacifism and those who aren’t. I think those who experience the right or privilege of peace in their lives will be more readily drawn to that type of core tenet, whereas those who have experienced violence (in different forms) realize how situations are more complicated. For instance if you lived under a dictatorship whose crimes others couldn’t imagine, you would be less receptive to the idea that war against that dictatorship is unethical and will not achieve positive ends, whereas those who have only known peace and see it as their birthright—and it is, it should be for everyone—will be more willing to accept that universally any type of conflict is unjust and immoral.

—Eric Tang, Activist, Professor

When you are dealing with people who come from a military background, I don’t know if the language of nonviolence is useful; I think it implies complete pacifism, and I think that serves as a barrier to connecting. There are challenging tensions between people from the military and civilian worlds which come out when you’re working with people who have a radically different perspective. I’m not sure how to navigate that.

I think the best way is to find some common ground and really honor where the other person is. You meet people where they’re at and understand that how people come to their ideas about society or change is their own process. We have to allow space for differences as we navigate through this process together. It means being okay with that and willing to dialogue about it. Actually being able to do that day to day is a huge part of personal growth, an evolving process for everybody. When I say “meeting people where they’re at,” it’s not just being accepting, but actively trying to understand the other perspective. How can you challenge somebody if you don’t understand their core beliefs? Why do they think the U.S. military is the greatest institution? Only then can you start to mutually dialogue and challenge.

—Lori Hurlebaus, Courage to Resist

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Lt. Ehren Watada for refusing to deploy to Iraq. His position has consistently been the illegality of the particular war in which he was ordered to participate, not against war in general. He had no problem with his military service, and he said that he would accept orders to go to Afghanistan. I really respect his capacity and intelligence to be able to make that distinction.

A lot of people don’t distinguish one from the other; I think it’s a very important thing to acknowledge and to reach across, to respect and embrace all those trying to stop this war. We have to work together, while clearly understanding that when we’re successful stopping this particular war, some may choose to keep doing what they’re doing and some won’t. People can always change their minds after they’ve had a chance to have some education and exposure about the cost of war; at least for now, we have to respect everyone for opposing this war.

—Wes Hamilton, Port Militarization Resistance

It is very clear to me that antiwar and peace are two different things. Antiwar means being opposed to this war—but once this war is over, what are you going to be doing? A peace movement asks, “How do you create a culture of peace?” Which is a bigger challenge, especially since we live in the most violent country in the world. For the larger movement of those identified as peace groups that have focused primarily on national or international policy, the challenge is: How do we bring it home to our communities and assure that we are being more than antiwar—that we have to create a culture of peace. And what does that look like?

—Jody Dodd, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Creating a vision of nonviolence is important because so much of our society—especially what our young people get from music, movies, slang, just about everything out there—is fed by violence. They are bombarded by it all the time. Through our campaign Silence the Violence, we are trying to create a culture where we can make music that is nonviolent, hold events that are nonviolent, etc. It is something we are building on all the time, trying to move towards building a culture of nonviolence.

—Xiomara Castro, Ella Baker Center

I think it’s important to understand violence as a tool of imperialism and how violence in the world is impacting violence in our communities. How do we build a sustainable world without violence? That’s something I’ve been trying to research or flesh out in a real way in preventing violence in Oakland. It’s a cycle. The ease with which violence is used to get resources is an obvious model for how we treat people in our communities; it also drives greed, when people are acting out of crisis.

—Claire Tran, Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy & Leadership

In many ways, the concept of nonviolence as an elaborate framework is alien to me. Even while writing my conscientious objector application, I didn’t feel like it was a statement of nonviolence. It was a statement about egregious mass violence. I haven’t come to terms yet with how exactly I feel about it. I need to write a CO application about nonviolence to explore that. … My gut instinct is that I’m not a pacifist. It seems an extreme philosophy. I don’t know if I fit into it. I’m totally interested in reading all this abstract philosophical stuff and looking at the arguments, but I’m so not into making esoteric ideals my starting point.

Militarism, incarceration—all the different issues I’d like to work on—are forms of violence, and I’m certainly opposed to them. I want to deal with meat and potatoes. I don’t feel like just having the right terminology is an end in itself. There’s a big difference between trying to put ideals into practical terms and trying to preach philosophy. When you use language that’s detached from the practical world of your intended audience, you lose people. They’re not interested. It doesn’t relate to or affect their reality. It starts to slip into propaganda, which I don’t ever want to peddle. To the extent that frameworks like nonviolence are relevant, important, and useful, they will arise organically without reading five books on the concept. Maybe that’s idealistic, but it keeps me grounded.

—Pablo Paredes, GI Rights Hotline

Nonviolence is the central motivator for most of my work, that and anti-authoritarianism. I love the concept. I love the word. But I’m not sure I’ve ever even used it in organizing and high school presentations. When you’re discussing non-cooperation with a system of massive violence, it relates to nonviolence on every level. But most of the counter-recruitment opportunities are in 55-minute chunks, so there’s a hell of a lot you’re never going to get to.

So it’s just sort of what guides me. It’s an ideal that I personally will never reach. It’s out there, like anarchy. Living in the world, you can have these principles that you need to stay in touch with. Whatever beliefs you have, you can work together with others and not come from the same ideology. For me, it’s really important to come back and check in. Am I doing things that conflict with nonviolence? Is there any way in which I am encouraging violence or authoritarianism? Or racism, sexism … so you don’t end up working counter to your personal beliefs.

—Susan Quinlan, BAY-Peace: Better Alternatives for Youth

We need to be more than just a broken record calling for nonviolent action. Yes, nonviolent action is good—and here’s how we create smart, exciting, fun, strategically effective nonviolent actions. So that we’re not only saying, “Let’s be nonviolent about it”—we’re not just going to play our role, the police play their role, we get arrested and try to get a small article in the paper, and that’s the end of it. People get tired of that, particularly younger people I talk to don’t want to do that. They’re itching to do things that really make a difference, and I am too.

We should try asking people to use nonviolence as a lens through which to see everything. A while ago I spent some time looking at everything through the lens of gender and got a lot more sensitive about that, I hope. I think we can ask people to do that, just for a month or two: look at everything in terms of what’s violent and what’s not violent and what’s nonviolent. Hopefully they will be excited about it and build a sensitivity about violence and see nonviolence as an overriding way of seeing the world.

—Larry Dansinger, Resources for Organizing and Social Change (War Resisters League local)


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Listening Process (Section 7) - How do
we link peace and justice issues and
build alliances?


We asked folks about how they connect issues of foreign policy, military invasions and occupations, and global climate change: with domestic issues like healthcare, education, immigration, detention, civil liberties, policing and prisons. Some organizers talked about the economic links between the military budget and social spending cutbacks. Some talked about a culture of violence that connects war and militarism to violence inside the
United States. Some described a poverty draft where social and economic conditions lead to higher levels of military recruitment and enlistment in lower-income communities, particularly among immigrants. Many interviewees suggested that connections between issues are often obvious and that the task of antiwar organizers has less to do with spelling it out and more to do with engaging organizations that may focus on other issues—like labor unions and community organizations—and providing concrete ways to add an antiwar component to their work. They see linking issues as important to the political analysis of left organizations, but stressed that left groups have to ally with broader—based and sometimes more centrist forces if we’re to build the kind of power it takes to end a war.


We need to recognize that people can contribute to the peace movement in a variety of ways. We need to open it up and re-define what peace work is. It is the people impacted telling their own stories, it is creating alternatives, it is scholarship programs, it is arts activism, after-school programs—everything that strengthens our communities is peace work too. It is not just about what we are up against; it is what we are for. What are we creating, and how do we talk about that?

With police brutality, with youth killing youth on the street—these are the same kids who are being recruited. The more we are compartmentalized and not coordinated, the more this is just a peace issue or just a “street violence in Oakland” issue or just a welfare issue. We are constantly talking about the victims of street violence and their families here in Oakland and the war veterans and military families, and how incredible it would be to show the links between their stories and connect their voices. We need to focus on solutions at home as well as the impact of the military abroad. This approach could motivate a whole new population to be aware, excited, and mobilized about the peace issue, connecting it to our lives at home.

—Maryam Roberts, Women of Color Resource Center

I’m becoming convinced that if you talk more about quality-of -life issues rather than the language of antiwar, it brings different people into the room.

—Mandy Carter, Southerners On New Ground (SONG)

The economic link is so obvious—if you are a parent in Oakland you know how lacking the public school system is. Schools are crumbling, students don’t have textbooks. That’s a message that parents would hear: Where is the money going? It is going to the war. Many communities are experiencing the domestic symptoms of the cost of war in their day-to-day lives. There’s a huge opportunity there to make these connections. When activists speak to the media and talk about the war in certain ways … if they included this kind of messaging, it would bring a whole new audience to the antiwar movement.

—Xiomara Castro, Ella Baker Center

“Money for books, not for war! U.S. out of El Salvador.” Fill in the blanks. … I don’t know; I’ve never felt very good about that approach, to be honest. It’s always had a kind of ritual quality; the assertion that you must do that is so often used as a political tool to beat others over the head with. I just haven’t seen it done well. I don’t mean you should stop doing it—the military budget and the military-industrial complex, it’s so invisible and yet so huge. I wish emphasizing budget priorities and all that was more effective; it’s been tried over and over, and people don’t actually respond in the way we think they should or will.

—Van Gosse, Historians Against the War

Soon after 9/11, we had many people in our community with family members going to war. Not just young men but young women as well—that was when the intense recruitment was escalating in high schools, and everybody was getting called at home about ROTC. So our members were coming in like, “What do I do?” And some people said, “Maybe I should,” ’cause they’re offering all this money to join. So we had to respond. We started the solidarity work team to do international solidarity against the war, but connect it to what’s happening here. There’s a recruitment office in Bushwick that’s in a busy commercial district, a good place to have a presence, so our group would go there and do counter-recruitment: “Don’t join them—join us.”

As of 9/11, we started to meet with the organizations from our Coalition Against Police Brutality and others; new coalitions were born, Third World Within in New York City and nationally Racial Justice 911. We had some real internal debates over political questions. Some people had the more pragmatist approach, saying the only way that poor working-class people are going to care about the war is if it directly affects them, but they’re not going to really care about what’s happening to other people in other places. It only has to be about directly affecting their pocket or their ’hood. And some of us were saying that building real political solidarity among poor folks here is totally possible. It just takes time. It’s not an overnight thing—we have to do that work.

—Paula X Rojas, Sista II Sista

There can be an unwillingness to find the common ground and work outward from there. This is a problem that plagues the left in general; it’s not exclusive to the antiwar movement. And this is where the right does very well: “Let’s find the point we can agree on, build our power from there, and then we can move out from there.”

—Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn

As long as we feel that the coalition or group we’re partnering with at any time meets the direction we’re trying to go in, we’re happy to work with them. You have to be careful, though; sometimes if you work with one group you risk alienating a wing of your organizational core. VFP’s membership itself is a big umbrella. One of the reasons I joined is that I could see that. We have Republicans, all the way over to communist revolutionaries. We have just-war theorists and pacifists. The process to decide what kind of political stance to take on certain things can be difficult.

—Michael McPhearson, Veterans For Peace

We sometimes collaborate too much!, especially with the surge of antiwar groupings in the last few years. I couldn’t even count the number of coalitions we participate in; we try to always be responsible partners. Sometimes coalition-building can be prioritized at the expense of base-building.

—Kevin Martin, Peace Action

We need certain organizers to take on the convening piece—bringing together different constituencies and movements around the war issue is not a one place, one time, mega-convention kind of thing. It’s ongoing bridge-building work across deep divides, particularly of race and class. We need more organizations to be the connective tissue, a kind of central nervous system—not a command and control structure—communicating and responding and sharing information among and across many communities and movements.

—Patrick Reinsborough, smartMeme Strategy & Training Project

Working with the unions—in our context ILWU, the longshore union—they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. This is their job, but at the same time they don’t like the idea of their labor being used to support wars they consider immoral. I think that national coordination could help, not only in working with that union, but more unions nationwide to begin to bring them on board and develop them as a strong political foundation. If we had the unions working with us, it’d be a done deal, the military would have no place to go.

—Wes Hamilton, Port Militarization Resistance

I think a lot of anti-globalization activists drew the wrong conclusions after 9/11 and went too far into the local. There’s been a failure to connect different issues. That’s what made the global justice movement so strong: it could tie together a range of struggles. Many activists are doing good local work, but there’s not enough effort to really link up. Even with that, it needs to be done in a concrete as opposed to abstract way, so that it doesn’t seem contrived.

Immigrant rights is an important place I’ve seen potential: the issue of detainees is key for making links. We should be drawing out the connections between the anti-immigrant wave and the “war on terror” fear-mongering, linking Latino and Arab-American struggles.

—Rami El-Amine, Coalition for Justice & Accountability

As an immigrant organization, the war has been an essential piece of our work locally. Through every campaign, we always centralize challenging the war abroad: both the military war as well as the U.S. economic agenda that is devastating to the global South (including our constituency). Even though our main issues are things like immigration repression and legalization policies, driver’s licenses, etc., the main thing that our members identify with as Muslims and South Asians living in the United States is really the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. I think the biggest turnouts we have are for our antiwar demonstrations and Palestine marches.

In all of the messaging and materials around our campaigns, we talk about how Muslims in our base are being targeted under the “global war on terror”—a concerted effort to silence dissent from U.S. Arab, Muslim, South Asian communities. We see our role as building safe, secure leadership in our community to voice political dissent both on domestic and foreign policy issues and having support to do that. We’ve had members who’ve been detained or put into deportation proceedings because of their political work.

The immigrant rights movement really frames everything, especially with the upsurge in the last two years. Immigration being a key domestic issue on the radar for the elections, with the war as the main foreign policy issue—they have everything to do with each other. Immigration policy is under the war on terror regime now: every piece of legislation uses the war on terror to stack it up with a thousand different enforcement provisions. In all of the immigration campaigns we do, we constantly expose the need to de-link the war on terror from immigration policy. We highlight why people come here in the first place, because of war and displacement, and imperialist trade policies. The immigrant rights movement and where it’s headed is one of the key racial justice struggles of our time, at the same moment as the U.S. global agenda spirals out of control.

—Monami Maulik, Desis Rising Up & Moving

How do we not allow our struggles to be thought of as single-issue? When we talk about Palestine or Iraq or New Orleans or Brooklyn, we have to understand that there’s never going to be an end to this war or colonization or incarceration without people transforming larger systems. When people get politicized around an issue or have some personal relationship to a struggle, and get involved in the movement, we have to make sure we’re not limiting those people (or turning them off). The culture of an organization or space can either be alienating or exciting.

Community organizers against police brutality can feel affinity with occupied people in Iraq if we share stories and information in a way that invites that. And when people are getting exposed to Palestine through our education and organizing, they identify the connections with their own experiences of gentrification, police brutality and displacement, and resistance to these. We need to be an incubating space for a trans-radical vision—we’ve got to help people cross borders.

—Ora Wise, Palestine/Israel Education Project


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Listening Process (Section 8) - What does
base-building look like in antiwar organizing?



As the term implies, base-building means building a social base of support that helps an organization accomplish its goals. A classic base-building model involves identifying a key constituency, bringing people from the constituency into a base that identifies with the organization’s goals, and then facilitating the base’s participation, supporting members to invest themselves and step into leadership roles that help the organization grow and accomplish goals. So why is this model—which is regularly utilized by labor and community organizers—so rarely utilized by peace and antiwar groups? We asked interviewees what base-building means to them, and what it looks like—or could look like—in antiwar organizing. Some organizers revisited a constraint from earlier—that war seems abstracted from most U.S. people’s immediate lives, and it is difficult to build a base around an issue that people feel so much distance from. Given that, some suggested that peace groups focus more on engaging existing organized bases—like religious and community centers—than on trying to build their own distinct base and infrastructure from scratch. On the other hand, some saw military veterans as a constituency with a direct relationship to war that is doing important base-building work. Others consider engaging students, parents and teachers around military recruitment as a worthwhile base-building opportunity.

Base-building is giving community members a chance to take the message of their organization to individuals that want to see a change happen, giving individuals who are not yet involved a chance to participate. Given the idea of strength in numbers, you bring in as many people as possible. Lasting change is made by people who are affected by an issue, giving those persons a chance to take a demand, make it theirs, and act on it.

—Marty Aranaydo, Ruckus Society, Indigenous Peoples’ Power Project

Base-building has to be a key focus. It takes a lot of work. It doesn’t have immediate payoffs. It’s less rewarding in the short term, but more effective—if it works—in the long term. It’s about getting people who are most affected by an issue or struggle more involved than just signing a petition or showing up to a demo. Getting them equipped with skills. It’s reaching out to folks who are not “activists”—particularly, supporting them in familiar places like schools and community spaces.

—Rami El-Amine, Coalition for Justice & Accountability

U.S. Labor Against the War has a pretty good model. They have a core of activists. They work within the institutions that define that sector, unions. They organize at the base level as well as get bigger-name endorsements so they have an opening to talk to people. They do certain campaigns that appeal to that sector. They bring Iraqi trade unionists to speak out here. They have a sector that is by definition already organized, because it’s labor.

There’s African-American, campus, women’s, religious formations and forums of antiwar organizing, different models to consider. You can initiate an organization, do a map of your sector, and decide you’re going to work on this for a few years. It’s not going to happen short-term. You have to ally with existing organizations, participate in the ones you can. You operate differently in different constituencies. If you’re driven by the logic that’s popular in the funding world—what numbers do you have? what concrete plan do you have?—that’s a non-starter, because what you’re talking about is building a real movement and consciousness, which takes time. You’ll have some tangible results—X number of people at a demo, you got this elected official to do Y—but it’s not going to be the kind of thing that looks good on a funding proposal.

—Max Elbaum, War Times

Building grassroots organizations in the United States should mainly be centered on leadership from oppressed communities that are continually fighting for change. We’re not necessarily always winning on this issue or that issue. So a lot of our resources are committed to political education and leadership development. I see the current period we’re in in the United States and globally as more of a reactive period; we’re often not advancing or winning key struggles, even at the very local level. Most of our energy goes into building up our organization as an institution in the community, building up leaders who will be aligned with an anti-imperialist politics. We should always be building up our basis and capacity to fight, for decades to come.

—Monami Maulik, Desis Rising Up & Moving

I think strategic base-building intentionally and consistently profiles those who have lost the most or who have the most to lose, because there’s a moral value that people respond to there. You’ve got a lot of people who know the war is wrong but it doesn't affect their daily lives, and there isn't infrastructure in place to bring forward leaders from communites who can speak personally and with conviction about the real cost of this war. I don’t mean that that’s not happening. I see it happening. In fact, it’s starting to reach a national level, where those folks are commanding the attention of broad swaths of the American people who oppose the war.

—Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn

People think that to have a movement against the war, you just have to show up on a certain day and do something, and don’t realize all the work that goes into organizing and planning. It doesn’t get you on the news—you can’t make a headline every day if you’re serious about building a movement.

Chapter building is really key in growing our membership, because it’s tough when you are just one or two isolated individuals in your small city or state (which is a lot of our at-large membership). So it’s important to connect the people in our network to have others to talk and plan with; at least get together for a social event and hang out together, that’s really important for where we’re at now.

Kelly Dougherty, Iraq Veterans Against the War

The key is relationship-building, really meeting people. I’ve been meeting and talking with parents of young people who have been affected by violence in the community, and it’s just about listening. Sometimes they come by and just want to talk about where they are at or what’s going on in their neighborhood. You just have to put that into your work plan; we get really busy and have all of these tasks from A to Z, but base-building is slow and you have to hear people out and spend time with them, invite them to an event where we have a meal together and share stories. Sometimes I feel like as an activist we get used to doing things a certain way and take for granted that you have a base—“Let’s just get the base out” or “Let’s just outreach to such and such community or neighborhood”—but it takes a real commitment of time and energy to build trust with people. And it is crucial.

—Xiomara Castro, Ella Baker Center

I think you also have to make it fun, you have to make it something that people feel adds enjoyment and meaning to their lives; not just work that will drain you until you’re frustrated and disillusioned. You have to give people opportunities to use their skills and talents. If we meet a musician trying to get their name out there we say, “Hey we’re having this event, do you want to play at it?” Maybe they bring some friends out, and we talk to them about what we’re doing. Supporting and connecting with people in their own activities motivates people to feel they have something to contribute, that they have a place and are being appreciated.

Sometimes activists approach people with “Do you want to sign up on our list?” They think, “I did a great job cause I got these ten names.” But if you don’t make a personal connection you’re not going to see any of them again; sometimes people just sign it ’cause they want you to go away or they feel bad saying no. You have to (at least) make that two-minute friendly conversation. That conversation is really necessary to make people want to connect and participate.

—Katrina Plotz, Anti-War Commitee

Internal training, skills building, is key. I think back to my work in the environmental movement: We were doing media trainings for grassroots activists all the time. I’ve been shocked by how few people in the peace movement even know how to write a press release or when you should send it out. There’s basic trainings—facilitation, media, anti-oppression, nonviolent direct action—that need to happen. But we’re always in emergency mode, so there’s no time… “I’m just gonna do the press release, cause no one else will.”

We need organizations willing to take on a focus on skills building—as well as facilitating strategy. You talk about power-mapping for a campaign, and some people have no idea what that is. I think that explains some of why we don’t have any long-term strategies; we don’t even have the tools to do short-term skilled work. It’s been talked about for a long time, that we should have something where there’s trainers who travel around; this needs to be a priority.

—Kelly Campbell, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

If smaller radical groups don’t engage with broader-based organizations, then we are having a circular conversation that is very privileged and self-indulgent—kind of ridiculous. It can feel self-gratifying, like movement is happening. But if you look back over the years at policy and if people’s lives have been impacted through the work, you find there’s little to show for it.

We should be finding ways to partner with big nonprofits and mainstream direct-service organizations that have a broad vision to help people be healthier families and communities. I think that base-building through these institutions could happen in a powerful and exciting way—sort of infiltrating, rather than seeing the mainstream as the enemy. We all know nurses or teachers we could connect with. Many of these institutions provide support for people today so they can participate in making systemic changes tomorrow.

—Maryrose Dolezal, Fellowship of Reconciliation

Something we’ve been focusing on is being active within the community and already existing organization, because Lancaster is small enough that it’s feasible to do that well. A lot of us came out of the same church and have a place where we’ve met for a long time and thought out our political beliefs. Religion has become taboo to many groups, when really it’s an important space to work in because they already have a supportive community that all know each other—if you plug into it, it’s a lot easier than creating your own group.

I’ve been taking steps to be more integrated into what’s going on in my high school so people see me not … well, people still see me as a hippie kid who’s into politics, but now it’s more like people come to me saying, “Okay, I don’t understand what’s going on with Iran,” and I can talk to them. And they’re willing to listen and take my opinion. And teachers kind of tokenize me, but in a more positive light than “you’re a radical crazy feminist,” but instead, “You know what’s going on—tell your classmates about it.” Building up that respect accomplishes a lot. And not being rude if someone doesn’t agree with you, actually sitting down and talking with them and not just brushing them off.

—Becca Rast, Lancaster Students for a Democratic Society (War Resisters League affiliate)

Our primary target audience—our natural allies—are people who are opposed to the war but aren’t doing much about it, just assuming, “If I occasionally hold a sign or put a bumper sticker on my car, that’s good enough.” Our goal is to get those people to move to the next level, to figure out where someone is at on the continuum of involvement and move them one step further down. If you’ve never held a sign, hold a sign. If you’re tired of holding signs, go to your congressperson’s office. If you’re tired of doing things legally, occupy their office and get yourself arrested. We’re trying to create space for all of those people within our same organization.

—TJ Johnson, Port Militarization Resistance

Fighting for reforms build people’s power and engagement, especially if you’re building the power of oppressed people. It develops skills to understand power, to understand what it means to hold power in certain moments, how you can use it and abuse it. Once you win a campaign victory, as small as it may be, you’re faced with the opportunity to capitulate in some way on whatever other demands you were hoping to get, or go the next step. Base-building organizations that have a long-term vision for systemic change aren’t organizing around revolution in this moment. They’re organizing around reform struggles that change material conditions so that people feel a sense of their own power and that teach people about organizing and fighting.

This is actually an opportune political moment. The war is the wedge issue that can help shift the overall landscape. The left wants to be present in a stronger way. At SOUL, we feel like we’re part of the social movement left, the communities of color left. It is challenging, to translate how to throw down around antiwar struggles while simultaneously doing this base—building work that tends to be focused on local issues.

—Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, School of Unity & Liberation

We were doing local work around police violence; after 9/11, we realized we couldn’t do that work in the same way, we had to broaden out. There was so much manipulation around gender happening, all these mainstream feminists actually supporting the war on Afghanistan—it was horrible. So Incite! Women of Color Against Violence intervened in the messaging nationally with these great posters about how imperial wars won’t liberate women. As a grassroots organization, Sista II Sista took that up locally. We had a community gathering around this in a neighborhood high school in Brooklyn. We held actions weekly (street theater, vigils, etc.), and that’s how we recruited new people.

We did actions, citywide as well as in our community, creating a real buzz in our neighborhood against the war. It was always very grounded—if someone we knew had a cousin that got killed in the war, we’d connect to those real stories so that more people would identify. And we did these solidarity vigils for Iraqis being killed, with blown-up photos down the streets of Bushwick. People would pay attention, be like “What is that?” Nobody ever gets to see those pictures on TV or really talk about what’s going on; we created a chance to talk to people in our community and all engage about the war.

—Paula Rojas, Sista II Sista

Many antiwar activists spend too much time trying to get access to and connect with people who don’t want to build with them, instead of pouring our support and energy into groups already doing local work organically. They might be against the war, but it’s not their primary issue. Yo! the Movement in Minneapolis, Campaign Against Violence in Milwaukee, 21st Century Youth Movement in Selma, Alabama: Though war is not their primary issue, they’re all working against violence in their communities. They’re already educating, organizing, using the arts in exciting ways. Other activists could sit down with these kinds of groups and support them with resources to add or build an antiwar piece of whatever they’re already doing. To work it into their analysis, to work it into their training, to help figure out alternatives that can be developed in their community.

If you support groups already organizing they get stronger and their base gets bigger. We’ve tried it both ways. We’d go in, I’d give a big old speech and then sit down with people afterwards. Those groupings didn’t last very long because there was no organic process. Once I was gone, they didn’t have that energy or glue because I was the one who was really passionate. But the times where I sat down with organizers who were already on the ground, those groups are still around. They’re doing great. They’re bigger than ever. If you go to that community, people know who they are and what they’re doing, and they want to be part of it.

—Adrienne Maree Brown, Ruckus Society


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Listening Process Conclusions:
Where to From Here?

by Matthew Smucker


It was a real privilege to hear from so many smart and dedicated people from across the country who are working for peace and justice. It’s difficult to know how to even begin trying to summarize such a wealth of insights. For all the antiwar movement may be lacking, we found no shortage of brilliant analysis and ideas. And creative tactics and campaigns are happening everywhere—from counter-recruitment to GI resistance, from public demonstrations to town hall meetings, from calling up legislators to occupying their offices. However creative and dedicated the movement is, our primary challenge seems to be that there are far too few of us and we are operating without adequate money, resources, infrastructure, and relationships to a broad base. Fundamentally, we need to grow our capacity if we are to mount a real challenge to the forces we are up against.

We are up against trillions of dollars. The corporate interests—especially the petroleum and weapons industries—are entrenched in the political machinery. The past few decades have been a period of extreme right-wing governance, perhaps culminating with the Bush administration, which was able to use 9/11 to propagate fear, turning tragedy into political capital. Considering the United States’ status as the world’s leading imperial power and how heavily invested this power is in the Middle East, one realizes what a difficult task it is to end the current occupations.

To add to our challenge, we are not riding the momentum that existed in the Vietnam War era, with the victories and mass movement-building of the civil rights movement and the global upsurge of decolonization struggles around the world. We are instead deep into decades of social cutbacks, profound wedges between social movements, and an individualist and consumerist culture that breeds a dog-eat-dog mindset that makes organizing collective action all the more difficult.

We have very limited resources to accomplish an enormous task—so how do we use what we’ve got to put the movement on a growth trajectory? Rather than investing in reactive battles with diminishing turnouts, how can we channel our energy into the kinds of organizing that will bring in additional energies and build toward the capacity we need? War Resisters League launched this listening process in part because we saw a lack of long-term base-building within our own organization and in the broader movement. The organizers we interviewed helped to illuminate key reasons for this, and also provided instructive examples of places where strategic base-building is happening.

One simple reason why base-building is particularly difficult in antiwar organizing is that a very small percentage of the population feels the weight of the current occupations on a daily basis. The most obvious exception to this is soldiers, veterans, and military families. Iraq Veterans Against the War in particular has been exponentially expanding its leadership, membership, chapters, and public campaigns—most notably Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan. Supporting organizing efforts within military communities is strategic not only because the military is the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy, but also because the leadership of antiwar veterans may prove crucial to activating the broader society. Ilyse Hogue of MoveOn said that “strategic base-building intentionally and consistently profiles those who have lost the most or who have the most to lose, because there’s a moral value that people respond to there,” with the potential of “commanding the attention of broad swaths of the American people who oppose the war.”

Along the same vein, Jose Vasquez of IVAW said, “If the Longshoremen received a phone call from Iraq Veterans Against the War saying, ‘We’d like to talk to you guys about possible action,’ we would probably get a response, out of respect for the veteran part of it. I think the opportunity is almost ripe for the picking.”

If more than 70 percent of the U.S. population opposes the Iraq occupation, the proportion is probably much higher in left-leaning organizations, and particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, which historically and currently lean toward antiwar sentiment. From community organizations like the Ella Baker Center in Oakland and Desis Rising Up & Moving in Queens to the NAACP, unions, and religious institutions—the opportunity is there to meet with these organizations’ rank and file and leadership, to support them in adopting a strategic antiwar component in their work.

Nearly everyone in the United States is negatively affected by war and occupation, and part of our job is to make this clearer. Grassroots political power tends to come from large organized constituencies. Mass movements are typically not built from scratch or by only recruiting individuals one at a time. Getting buy-in from already organized and resourced sectors is the only way to build a broad-based antiwar movement that is powerful enough to effect change. A central challenge we face is a system that obscures the connections between intersecting issues. An organization that has built a large base focusing on a particular issue will reasonably hesitate to take a strong stance on another issue. As Michael McPhearson of Veterans For Peace said, “Sometimes if you work with one group you risk alienating a wing of your organizational core. … The process to decide what kind of political stance to take on certain things can be difficult.”

We need to appreciate the reality of this dilemma, not scorn the organizers who are stuck in it. The answer is not for every organization to adopt a laundry list of demands to address every issue under the sun. What is needed is a far more nuanced process that takes time and relationship-building. And, in order for organizations to devote even a small portion of their organizational resources to something, they also have to be convinced that there’s a winning strategy.

We need to conceive of already organized constituencies as the base of power that will pressure an end to this war. U.S. Labor Against the War is a strong burgeoning example of this kind of organizing, recently highlighted by the May Day ILWU shutdown of all West Coast ports to protest the Iraq occupation. Generally, organizations will start with less dramatic steps, building buy-in over time. Such efforts make antiwar something that is integrated into the fabric of people’s lives and identities. Instead of individuals having to assimilate into a counterculture in order to participate, they can participate as workers with their fellow workers, students with fellow students, people of faith with their faith communities, veterans with fellow veterans.

We have to remember that antiwar does not mean leftist. Antiwar leftists have an interest in building both, but should not confuse the two. Building political power requires us to work with organizations and constituencies that do not share all of our analysis. As Judith Leblanc of United for Peace & Justice explained, “The left in this country is very small—it can’t do anything on its own. The vitality of the left is only realized when it’s related to that broad cross-section of folks in the political center.” Some of the reasons for popular antiwar sentiment are problematic (because the United States seems to be losing or because Iraq is a distraction from the supposedly legitimate mission in Afghanistan). Dismissing popular opposition because of this is one of the worst mistakes we can make. We need to recognize that the majority position largely aligns with our specific, short-term objective of ending the Iraq occupation. We must do whatever we can to engage and activate and leverage that majority, while simultaneously looking for chances to deepen the political discourse.

Looking for Common Ground

While there are many external barriers to building a bigger movement, we can also be limited by our own mindsets—particularly the resignation that has understandably emerged in the context of the prolonged rightward shift of the past few decades. For many reasons, most beyond our control, antiwar and left positions have tended to be politically impotent. Many of today’s antiwar activists were opposing war when it was very unpopular to do so, and this courage to take an unpopular stand—especially in the time immediately following 9/11—is admirable. The problem is when we become so accustomed to being ostracized or marginalized for our politics that standing against the majority becomes a merit in itself, hard-wired into our circuitry. We cling to an identity of the righteous few who cry out in the desert, with no one listening. We stop looking for common ground and for openings and become resigned to a world in which our hopes will never be realized.

As Maryrose Dolezal of Fellowship of Reconciliation suggested, we need to “move from a defeatist framework to a positive and inclusive narrative that isn’t only accessible to privileged people.” Today we are seeing more and more space opening up in the culture, we are finding unlikely allies, and we are presented with opportunities to leverage complex fissures among the ruling elite. We have to bring our thinking in line with the shifting context. We need to believe we can make progress and to think like winners.

We need to have an outwardly focused orientation, and to take seriously how we are popularly perceived. Part of the problem is that our messages, posters, etc. are geared toward ourselves as the audience. We often unconsciously put more effort into expressing ourselves to each other—like a pep rally—than into trying to communicate to a broader audience. If we are to build a broader base, we have to orient ourselves toward communicating with specific constituencies. Greg Payton of U.S. Labor Against the War suggested in his interview that we consider standard market research strategies, like any enterprise that wants its message to resonate with a target audience—that we “bounce our messages, images, and campaigns off of people” from the sectors that we want to become the base of a broader movement. “We have what we think are good ideas, but often we don’t check with other people to see if they think it’s a good idea.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Widespread opinion against the Iraq occupation does not yet equal large-scale identification with a peace or antiwar movement, and it is probably fair to say that the majority of people who oppose the Iraq occupation feel some alienation from the visible movement to end it. Stereotypes of naïve, privileged protesters and a residual hippie counterculture help inoculate masses of people against grassroots collective action. Many of our interviewees found this particularly true for communities of color and working-class communities. Aimee Allison of the Army of None Project talked about “looking around a room of peace activists and thinking, ‘I can’t relate to where you’re coming from.’”

The current antiwar movement—which appears predominantly white and middle class—needs to break with the perception that it holds a monopoly on antiwar. As long as that view thrives in society and in our own heads, we will fail to build a truly mass movement. We have to recognize the antiwar sentiment and the leadership that already exists in communities that we may currently think of as outside the movement. For example, military enlistment among African-Americans has plummeted since the start of the Iraq War, but this trend is rarely talked about as a collective act of resistance or viewed as antiwar. The good news is that in this political moment we have a real opportunity to break down some of these perceptions and barriers. But to take advantage of this opening, we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

The U.S. military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually come to an end. But will we be able to build a grassroots political force in the United States strong enough to positively influence when and how that happens? The details of withdrawal will be important: first the question of how soon it happens, then the issues of permanent military bases, “residual forces,” military contractors, etc., and also the question of U.S. reparations to Iraq. Besides all that, the eventual military withdrawal from Iraq will not in itself prevent future wars or change the nature of our permanent war economy. Nor will it automatically defeat the war-enabling forces of xenophobia and racism. Will we be able to seize on the openings before us enough to start moving these mountains?
The answer—the future—depends on who the “we” is.

Matthew Smucker is the national field organizer for War Resisters League and coordinates WRL’s GI resistance support work.


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