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

An action at Rep. Rahm Emanuel's office to oppose funding for the Iraq war, February 2008. Photo: Suzanne Sheridan

An action at Rep. Rahm Emanuel's office to oppose
funding for the Iraq war, February 2008.
Photo: Suzanne Sheridan

This is the brighter side of assessing our organizing context. These are the factors that are potentially in our favor. Overwhelmingly, our interviewees pointed first and foremost to popular disillusionment with the current administration and the neoconservative agenda. From Iraq to Katrina to the economy and the environment, opinions and political consciousness have shifted dramatically in the United States. Some interviewees contrasted the period immediately following 9/11, when everyone seemed lined up behind the president and peace advocates routinely faced ridicule, to now, when Bush is often met with jeers and motorists routinely honk to support protests. Organizers suggested that we have a historic opportunity to help deepen the popular critique and turn it into action. Some organizers focused their answers on specific strategies and tactics that they see as ripe for the political moment, such as GI organizing and resistance, counter-recruitment and truth-in-recruitment in schools, nonviolent direct action, legislative and electoral engagement, and fostering leadership and skills development in local groups. And some discussed new possibilities to build unity—or at least temporary alliances—with organizations and constituencies that may have been less open or connected to an antiwar message in the past.

We have a majority of public opinion on our side against the war; more than that, it’s really against the workings of the Bush administration—there’s a huge distrust for the U.S. government and its policies in general. I think it’s probably the highest it has been in a long time. Within the movement, we need to do a lot of work to unite ourselves, undo the divisions among us. We have to do that internal unity building and then really figure out programs that tap into this public opinion. There’s a major opening for grassroots organizations and the antiwar movement to use that popular sentiment and energy and move it forward.

—Monami Maulik, Desis Rising Up & Moving

The fact that the policy-making elite is so divided over Iraq poses a complicated challenge for us. Probably the majority of power brokers now think it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq in the first place. But the strategic stakes for the U.S. empire remain tremendous; I’ve written a lot about why it’s more difficult to get the United States out of Iraq than it was to get the U.S. out of Vietnam. And that wasn’t easy either. It was extremely difficult. The cost—the Vietnamese lives, the American lives, all kinds of human and social tragedies—was immense. Due to the complicated state of world politics right now and the role of the U.S. on the global scene, it’s going to be harder this time around. I think it’s probably accurate to say that the Bush administration has fought this war more incompetently—from an imperialist point of view—than Johnson and Nixon fought in Vietnam, so the elite is very divided and displeased. How to work that division to the point where some section of the policy-making elite is actually prepared to get the hell out… that’s the difficult task before us.

The general landscape is that public opinion has turned against the war; that’s not new, it goes back a couple years. But that public opinion is soft. It’s confused. It’s disillusioned with the war, but for a range of different reasons—not all the same reasons as those of people on the left or in the antiwar movement. So public opinion is hesitant to feel its weight in all the ways that it potentially could—social movement action or electoral action or whatever ways different social sectors exercise their clout. The challenge for the antiwar movement is how to break that dissonance between public opinion and the level of action masses of people are willing to take.

—Max Elbaum, War Times

People in the United States are very uncomfortable with our approach to the world. They are looking for something different, but that doesn’t mean they’re looking directly at the peace movement. It provides us with an opportunity.

I think about it in terms of what I call the initiative. Let’s say you’re watching boxing, and at the beginning of the fight they’re sort of feeling each other out. If it’s you and me, and all of a sudden I get a punch in and stagger you, from now on—after that punch—up until you get yourself back together, you’re reacting. I have the initiative. Once you get yourself back together, neither one of us might have the initiative, or you might strike me and then you have it. In 2005, Cindy Sheehan’s Camp Casey created a space where the antiwar movement gained the initiative on the Bush administration and the pro-war forces. And we kept that initiative all the way through to the midterm elections the following year. We lost it as we tried to make the new Congress respond to us. And now no one has it.

People are still looking for an answer. While we can’t control what happens in Iraq—and that can change the political environment here—we do have an opportunity to regain initiative, before events in Iraq or actions by the pro-war forces here gain it for them. We have to think about how we’re going to do that.

—Michael McPhearson, Veterans For Peace


Protest at Bush's second inauguration Washington, DC, January 2005.  photo:  Matthew Smucker
Protest at Bush's second inauguration Washington, DC, January 2005. 
Photo:  Matthew Smucker

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

Antiwar organizers and veterans strategizing at a gathering convened by smartMeme at the Highlander Center in Tennesse, 2006.
Antiwar organizers and veterans strategizing at a
gathering convened by smartMeme at the Highlander
Center in Tennesse, 2006.

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

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

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