Reflections on the Stopping the Merchants of Death Strategic Conference
Gathered in the lobby at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, the participants arriving for the Stopping Merchants of Death (SMoD) Strategic Conference looked pretty innocuous. Except for the telltale signs of stacks of WIN Magazine and various other pamphlets and literature, one may never have guessed that an international conspiracy to stop war profiteers from pillaging the world’s resources was underway.
From September 29 to October 2, more than 60 activists from 37 different grassroots organizations throughout the country and beyond descended on the Twin Cities to share information and build and strengthen relationships. Participants represented a wide variety of groups including religious communities, environmentalists, veterans of the anti-nuclear movement, and student organizers and teachers. Each brought a particular focus and expertise to the overall struggle to expose and disarm war profiteers.
The conference was the result of a year-long collaboration between veteran organizers of the Honeywell Project, War Resisters League’s Anti-Militarism Program, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The Honeywell Project, a successful 30-year campaign to force the Honeywell Corporation to get rid of its military contracts in the wake of Vietnam, hosted the event from their home base in Minneapolis. The collective is now known as Alliant Action and continues its work against Honeywell’s spin-off corporation Alliant Tech, the makers of depleted uranium munitions.
The opening session of the conference began with a screening of Robert Greenwald’s documentary film, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” which was followed by comments from several panelists based on their extensive research and experience. Frida Berrigan of the Arms Trade Resource Center began by pointing out the enormous implications of a study mentioned briefly in the film. Commissioned by in 1992 by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the study was conducted by Halliburton and ultimately determined that privatization of formerly military contracts or outsourcing military logistics was both feasible and profitable. That same year, Berrigan explained, “Dick Cheney left public office to become the CEO of Halliburton, exemplifying the revolving door between government and corporations profiting from ‘reconstruction’. These same corporations then influence public policy, instigating endless war.”
David Meiran from the Uprise Tour on counter-military recruitment and corporate globalization suggested incorporating lessons from the struggle of Act Up! and other organizations who worked against drug profiteers in the 1980s. A successful strategy in those campaigns, Meiran says, was focusing on “pressuring individual CEOs and executives by exposing their deeds to the people in their own local community was very effective.” He also stressed the importance of differentiating between “front end” merchants of death—companies that develop resources and military infrastructure to support war—and “back end” merchants, who are engaged in lobbying and clandestine efforts to further corporate globalization.
This opening session helped build a common analysis among the divergent groups present, and heads were starting to nod to the refrain of a familiar tune: Corporate globalization has changed how government and business conduct war, therefore the peace movement can’t rely on old models for confronting war.
To shed some light on strategies for challenging war profiteers, one session of the conference zoomed in on case studies from other successful counter-corporate campaigns. Brian Payne of the Student/Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers offered a few powerful lessons for work against war profiteers based on the success of the recent Taco Bell boycott that won a wage increase and new codes of conduct for farmworkers employed by Yum Corporation. Success, he said, was due to the involvement of the workers themselves in the campaign, as well as the use of powerful imagery to “brand bust.” Brian also stressed the value of a decentralized campaign employing a variety of tactics including “everything from spray painting to praying.” Most importantly, he added, was the pointed, dignified tone of the campaign. “We didn’t ask for pity,” he said, “We asked for alliance.”
Other success stories and energetic campaigns discussed included the courtroom battle to hold Blackwater Inc. accountable for their role in the wrongful death of four civilian employees working in Fallujah, shareholders speaking out against Halliburton and Caterpillar, students and professors pushing for divestment from corporate war profiteers at universities, and boycotts of banks that are global financiers of war profiteers. The “Stop Bechtel” campaign, which passed a mile marker this October 31 when Bechtel announced its plans to leave Iraq, was also discussed.
Beyond devising counter-corporate strategy, a central goal of the weekend was forging intergenerational partnerships. A “Mutual Mentorship” workshop conducted by the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Nonviolent Youth Collective challenged participants to examine what practices support intergenerational relationships among activists and those that damage them. The workshop incited dialogue about the difference between authentic collaboration and tokenizing, stressing that without understanding and healing, youth organizations and those of elders remain segregated and distant, competing for resources instead of working together.
Later, a meeting of youth organizers assessed the needs and strategies of those working specifically with young people. Representatives of the National Youth Student Peace Coalition, Student Peace Action Network, and the Not Your Soldier Campaign spoke of the need for mentors and focused support for their work. At the same time, many older folks bemoaned a lack of age diversity in their organizations. The collaboration felt very historic—vanguard youth organizations speaking alongside 30 year veterans of the Honeywell Project—yet there was also some frustration in the air over a lack of understanding.
Challenges & Opportunities
By the end of the conference, the challenges to our work became clearer. They include the difficulty of small organizations with limited budgets to attend national events like the SMoD conference, the need to disseminate information between the different organizations and remain relevant to their local work, the importance of linking up with independent media to get out our message (organizers contacted the production team of “Iraq for Sale” that was less than eager to take part in the conference), and the need to continue building relationships across difference in order to build a broad-based movement. Connected to this is the fact that conference attendees were predominately white, which highlighted the challenge of building alliances beyond the communities represented.
Another important challenge is maintaining a dual focus on counter-military as well as counter-corporate recruitment. This means exposing the abominable practices of these corporations to prospective employees to deter their “enlistment” in such institutions. After all, corporate war profiteers offer lucrative career opportunities for young people in every field from psychology to video game design to robotics to food service.
These challenges however did not stop participants from planning concrete next steps for the budding network. In the final session, proposals from working groups included the creation of a central clearinghouse of information about coordinated national actions and a unifying mission statement to be developed and approved by a Coordinating Committee made up of representatives of organizations involved in the conference.
Beat goes on
On our last day in Minneapolis (also Gandhi’s birthday), we awoke at dawn and headed for the looming gates of Alliant Tech in nearby Edina, MN, armed with subpoenas to serve Daniel J. Murphy, the company’s CEO. Seventy-eight arrests later, he remained un-subpoenaed, but the folks of Alliant Action pledged to continue the symbolic mission.
We parted ways with a commitment to one another and to the ongoing struggle, knowing that our strength lies in our autonomous campaigns that are part of a shared collective vision of not just taking on one war or one corporation, but an entire system of violence, power, and profit. We’re coming at it from every angle imaginable.