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