Listening Process (Conclusions) - Where to From Here?

Iraq Veterans Against the War at Operation First Casualty, NYC.  Photo: Lovella Calica

Iraq Veterans Against the War at Operation
First Casualty, NYC.  Photo: Lovella Calica

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.

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What does base-building look like in antiwar organizing?

Interviewees and Organizations

Matthew Smucker

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