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Escalating the Antiwar Movement: After four years of marching, Iraq War opponents look to ramp up resistance

Jessica Lee Feb 6, 2007

A new Democratic congressional majority, growing public opposition to the war and George W. Bush’s call to “surge” 21,000 more troops to Iraq has brought the antiwar movement to a critical juncture. Will large marches, like the Jan. 27 march in Washington, D.C., and congressional lobbying stop the war? The Indypendent spoke with various activists within the movement – including students, advocates of direct action, military resisters, community organizers and engaged Buddhists, – in search of new directions for ending the war.

LESLIE KAUFFMAN
United For Peace And Justice (UFPJ)
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“It’s hard from the vantage point of 2007 to remember how little political space there was for dissent before the Iraq war,” said Leslie Kauffman, Mobilizing Coordinator for United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) – a coalition of more than 1,300 local and national organizations. UFPJ is the mainstream face of the antiwar movement; since its creation in Dec. 2002, it has successfully organized several of the largest marches against the Iraq War, bringing together a coalition of 1,400 groups to oppose the Bush administrations’ policy of permanent warfare.

“To do what UFPJ did in the early days, such as the organization of the massive Feb. 15, 2003 demonstration, wasn’t just an important move to try to prevent the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it was also a bold opening up of political space in this country. It opened the space for what we see now, a supermajority of people speaking out against the war.”

However, from its hierarchical organizing structure to its unique focus on mass mobilizations and, most recently, its decision to focus efforts to lobbying congress, UFPJ has been held responsible by many in the left for the failure of the antiwar movement to actually end the Iraq War.

“Criticizing UFPJ is not a constructive way to move the antiwar movement forward,” said Kauffman, whose activist history is deeply rooted in the direct action tradition. “The direct action movement for the most part has been invisible since the Iraq War began. The people from the direct action background should be doing the organizing, rather than criticizing UFPJ for what it is doing. We have emphasized creating an organization that can offer the broadest group of people a space to support opposition to the war… for ordinary people who won’t put themselves in the line of fire of tear gas or sit for four hour meetings.”

DREW HENDRICKS & PHAN NGUYEN
Port Militarization Resistance (Olympia, WA)
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In Olympia, Wash., a small antiwar community is directly confronting the U.S. military. “We are organizing against the militarization of Port Olympia, which might not seem like a big deal from an outsider,” said Drew Hendricks, Olympia organizer and DJ on Free Radio Olympia.

“Port Olympia is the only option the U.S. military has to ship combat vehicles and larger units from Fort Lewis, Wash. If we can stop them from using that port, then one of the largest military bases in the country cannot support the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Hendricks said.

In May 2006, activists with Port Militarization Resistance (PMR), part of the umbrella group Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace (OMJP), briefly began a 10-day protest at Port Olympia blocking a convoy of Stryker combat vehicles from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division of Fort Lewis. Police responded with pepper spray, tasers, and batons against the peaceful demonstrators, ultimately arresting 37 people.

One month later, as the troops were deploying to Iraq for a second tour, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada of the 3rd Stryker Brigade became the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq on grounds the war is illegal. Lt. Watada is facing a court martial on Feb. 5. Two journalists and one Olympia activist recently had subpoenas dropped after being ordered to testify at Watada’s hearing Evergreen College student Phan Nguyen, the subpoenaed activist who is also facing charges for the May actions, notes that antiwar direct action has been successful as a result of the small, dedicated community in Olympia.

“When people see people they know involved in a public act of civil disobedience, they can better relate to it. The key to empowering is letting people see that they can do this too.” Hendricks adds that the success of PMR is also due to the presence of independent media outlets in Olympia.

DAVID SOLNIT
People Powered Strategy Project

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“Hundreds of thousands of people have been turning out for four years, at some point it is time to escalate,” said longtime San Francisco Bay activist and artist David Solnit on the current antiwar movement. “It’s not up to UFPJ to do that. If the existing networks aren’t doing what needs to be done, then we need to do it ourselves. I am critical of why there isn’t national radical organizing. There is no reason way we can’t organize widespread direct action with public support.”

Solnit points to the antiwar movements’ missed opportunities to escalate the level of resistance at critical junctures such as in March 2003, when antiwar activists temporarily shut down downtown San Francisco and targeted war profiteers. “We should have shut down every city in the U.S. at that time and escalated from there.”

Two years ago at the Second National Assembly of UFPJ Solnit put forth an antiwar strategy to the voting member groups based on the People Powered Strategy Project, a decentralized strategy of encouraging communities to organize themselves to take action against the three pillars that support war – the military, the corporate war profiteers, and the corporate media – as a way to slowly crumble at the foundations of the war machine across the country. His proposal narrowly escaped the two-thirds majority vote needed to pass.

Since then, Solnit has chosen to focus his energy on the military pillar, supporting the organization “Courage to Resist” and building a movement in counter-recruitment, GI resister support and supporting soldiers.

“How many people are really doing civil disobedience or finically supporting families of resisters? When people like Lt. [Ehren] Watada are putting their lives on the line and going to jail, we need to have a community behind them,” said Solnit, who during the interview was traveling to Olympia to support Watada during his upcoming court martial for refusing to be deployed to Iraq.

Solnit challenges organizers across the country to escalate the level of direct action tactics and develop a national direct action network. “The biggest hurdles in organizing [are] our own consciousness of feeling disempowered. We need to shift how people think about protest and resistance in this country. Radicals and anti-authoritarians need to challenge themselves to organize locally and then network themselves nationally to create a broad base of power.”

He points to activists in Olympia as an inspiration for the movement. “When people blocked the Port of Olympia, people from all over the country were excited about it.”

JOSÉ VASQUEZ
Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)

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“I don’t feel a sense of urgency in the antiwar movement. But within the IVAW, the vets are doing what they are doing because they carry the deaths and injuries of their friends on their shoulders,” said José Vasquez, New York City Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) Chapter President.

IVAW members are uniquely positioned to speak about the situation on the ground in Iraq. Vasquez, staff sergeant and medical/health services instructor in the U.S. Army Reserves, still reports to duty one weekend a month while his application for conscientious objector is pending.

“We are speaking from within the military institution, giving a story people don’t see in the mainstream media,” Vasquez said. IVAW participated in the Jan. 27 D.C. march, although Vasquez admits he isn’t sure how effective it was.

“Given the nature of the war and the audacity of the Bush administration, I feel that people should be stepping it up a bit,” said Vasquez. IVAW members were arrested handing out fliers on depleted uranium in front of the Pentagon Sept. 9, and while protesting Bush’s speech to the U.N. on Sept. 19. In the next year, he said that IVAW plans to do more direct actions in front of military bases and offices of corporate war profiteers such as Hummer and KBR.

“We use our credibility to focus on the war on Iraq, however among our membership there is a spectrum of political views, including the contingent who believe one of the things that leads to these types of wars is capitalism itself.”

While many in the antiwar movement tout the need to organize the troops, Vasquez cautioned that you have to know how to do it. “We want to hold workshops on how to reach out to the troops, to understand military culture, such as what it feels like preparing to deploy. People in military can be intimidating, but we are all people like you, just in uniform. Also, don’t assume that all troops are pro-war.”

According to the website “Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, (www.icasualty.org) as of Jan. 31, the state of New York has suffered 142 casualties in Iraq.

LAWRENCE HAMM
People’s Organization for Progress, Troops Out Now Coalition

“The question becomes, what do you do when you return home after the massive, successful demonstrations in Washington, D.C.?” asked Lawrence Hamm, chairman for People’s Organization for Progress (POP) in Newark, New Jersey.

For the last four years, the public face of the antiwar movement has been largely in the form of a few large demonstrations a year, leaving a disturbing silence in between. “We need to organize and mobilize at the local level with the same intensity as you do to go to D.C. If everyone went back to their towns and organized and mobilized all over the country, we’d have an antiwar movement,” Hamm said.

And Hamm did just that. Last May he came up with the idea to help organize “The People’s Peace Conference.” “The U.S. War in Iraq & Our Communities,” which came together Jan. 20 in Newark. More than 115 local organizations and 500 people – largely people of color – came together for a day to learn how the war on Iraq is impacting their local communities. Hamm noted that one of the most popular workshops was “How do we stop the war in our streets?”

“For many people in urban communities, the violence going on in front of them is just as important as the war in Iraq,” Hamm said. “It is essential to make the connection between the two; the decay and despair is because we have to put so much of our national resources abroad in Iraq.”

The other goal of the conference was outreach to communities of color to get them involved in the peace movement. “African-American communities have consistently been opposed to this war from the beginning,” Hamm said. “African- Americans have a long history of struggle in America, and that makes us more sensitive to oppression and making war against other people of color.

He wanted the Conference to challenge the low involvement in antiwar movement, which for the African-American community, he believes is due to a failure of national and local Black leadership. “While people might not respond to a call from an antiwar activist, they would respond to a pastor, union or lodge president, or local elected officials.” He noted that the success of the recent conference was due to the immediate support from Rev. Dr. M William Howard, Jr. of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark.

CAITRIONA REED AND MAIA DUERR
Engaged Buddhism & Activism

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“We understand that social responsibility and spiritual practice is the same thing,” explained Caitriona Reed, Dharma instructor at Manzanita Village Retreat Center in Warner Springs, Calif.

“We teach people to take responsibility for their own personal tendencies to react to internal emotional issues in their lives or to the external dynamics of society. When we look at our personal shit, we see that how we respond to foreign policy and the neighbor’s dog are all part of the same internal process,” Reed said. “We all have choices of how to respond. We have to learn to take responsibility.”

However, many who practice meditation are not involved in the antiwar movement. “I often talk to people who are very resistant to the imperial thrust of our culture, but distance themselves from the antiwar movement because of its adversarial nature,” noted Reed. “They get turned off by the strident nature of the march.” Maia Duerr, Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), said that her job is to make sure there are alternative ways for people to feel involved in the peace movement.

“Our intention is to strongly express some peaceful solution to the war and more humanitarian ways to respond to conflicts,” said Duerr, who helped plan the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Jan. 27 D.C. antiwar march. “We won’t be screaming or yelling, but rather trying to embody peace as much as possible during the march.”

According to the mission of BPF, the work of an engaged Buddhist is to free all beings from contemporary suffering caused by racism, sexism, militarism, species-ism and class oppression.

Reed noted that many activists visit Manzanita Village because it is a safe place to practice meditation for individuals in queer, mixed race and political communities. “How many social organizations have been destroyed by interpersonal dynamics?” Reed noted. “We have so little time to make social transformation to resist the machinery of this nightmare.”

MATT MCLAUGHLIN
Students For a Democratic Society (SDS)
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“Some, like those in charge of UFPJ, see the antiwar movement as a pool of support for the Democratic Party, yet the Democrats have just as much at stake for maintaining U.S. control over Middle East oil,” said Matt McLaughlin, a freshman at Capital Community College in Hartford, Conn. “Others, like ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and World Can’t Wait, see the antiwar movement as one of many recruiting grounds for building their own vanguard parties.”

McLaughlin is one of the founders of the newly-revived Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the radical student movement that helped found the New Left in the 1960s. The revival of SDS is proof that while it hasn’t yet stopped the war, the antiwar movement has been successful in inciting a new era of student led activism.

“The initiative largely came from youth who were in their first or second year of activism and they were struck by the [antiwar] movement’s inadequacies in terms of long term militant strategy as well as a democratic process,” explained McLaughlin.

With 245 registered SDS chapters in the country, the philosophical roots of new SDS stem more from the autonomist/anti-authoritarian/anarchist tradition than the socialist beginnings of the original organization.

“Many of us in SDS are disillusioned with the tactics, strategy and partisanship within the antiwar movement. We’ve managed to make youth and students more prominent at demonstrations by putting pressure on the movement hierarchy. There simply doesn’t seem to be much interest in talking strategy, at least among those in positions of power in the large coalitions. Action has become ritualized. And frankly, without a major shake-up of the status quo in the movement, I can’t imagine how the movement could ever become a relevant force in shaping U.S. foreign policy.”

McLaughlin emphasized that the antiwar movement needs to provide solidarity with people in Iraq, such as the Iraq Freedom Caucus (IFC), a coalition of trade and industrial unions, women’s groups, student unions, Left parties and others committed to a non-sectarian Iraq and a popular front against the occupation. “If we’re serious about ‘supporting the resistance,’ this is the way to do it,” said McLaughlin.

MEDEA BENJAMIN
Code Pink, Global Exchange

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve been arrested in the last six years,” said Medea Benjamin co-founder of CodePink and founding director of Global Exchange. “We’ve feel that in the midst of war, it is always the time for civil disobedience.”

Benjamin has made headlines by disrupting speeches with antiwar messages and was the only person to be detained at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions for unfurling banners with peace messages.

“It’s not jut about doing civil disobedience for its own sake, but rather using it to build a movement. The actions need to be creative so you don’t turn people off to your message,” Benjamin said.

She adheres to the “inside/outside strategy” of levering pressure within the system by lobbying politicians, but also taking the streets. “I also support bringing the outside strategy to the inside too,” she said.

CodePink is working with Voices for Creative Nonviolence to initiate the Occupation Project, a campaign of sustained nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at ending the Iraq War, which will be launched in Feb. with occupations of the offices of U.S. congressional members who refuse to vote against additional war funding.

“It’s time to do sit-ins, but in a creative way. We have totally redecorated political offices with pink interior decorations and banners, turning them into halls of peace,” Benjamin recalled. “The action disarmed the police. Ya, they still arrested us, but they did it in a less aggressive way. It’s about doing actions that are serious, yet whimsical. Angry, yet joyful.”

RUTH BENN & STEVE THEBERGE
National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee &
War Resisters League

While the November elections pivoted the antiwar movement to focus its main strategy to politically-leveraging the new Democratic majority to introduce legislation to cut off funding for the war, thousands of Americans have already stopped paying for all wars.

“If you invest in war, you will get war,” said Ruth Benn, coordinator for the War Resisters League and National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. Benn estimates that at least 8,000-10,000 Americans are currently war tax resisters, however, for the movement to gain a real foot-hold it would need visibility from larger antiwar groups. “Most peace movements are non-profit organizations, thus are scared to promote this type of action,” Benn said.

Aside from participating in tax resistance, Benn explained that, “Many people choose to reorganize their lives around an anti-capitalism lifestyle.’’

“We believe that war is a crime against humanity,” said Steve Theberge, Youth and Counter-recruitment Coordinator with the War Resisters League (WRL). Theberge works with the “Not Your Soldier Project,” a nationwide program that empowers youth to challenge not only military recruitment in schools and communities, but also the corporations that profit from war.

“We are working to organize a youth-led movement where young people are engaged in peer education,” Theberge said. “We need to expand our perspectives on what an antiwar movement as a way to address the larger system that creates a world where these types of wars are possible. We need to connect with organizations whose work is not necessarily anti-war, but it is building a world based on justice.”