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

United for Peace and Justice organized hundreds of thousands ofpeople to call for end to the Iraq occupation, January 27, 2007.Photo: Diane Greene Lent

United for Peace and Justice organized hundreds
of thousands of people to call for end to the
Iraq occupation, January 27, 2007.
Photo: Diane Greene Lent

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

Project YANO's outreach to Latino communities includes counter-recruitment workshops for parents conducted in Spanish.
Project YANO's outreach to Latino communities includes
counter-recruitment workshops for parents conducted in Spanish.

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

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

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