Thursday, July 22, 2010

Peace Update: Roads Traveled, Roads Ahead

October 6, 2002 - Central Park, New York City

The Peace Movement: 

What Happened & What Next

by Michael T. McPhearson
Veterans for Peace, UFPJ
July 2010 – The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has laid bare a number of weaknesses in the peace and anti-war movements. Perhaps most notable is our lack of numbers of people who identify as part of our movements and are willing to take open action to protest the wars. As a result, the movements are weakened and many people within the movements are understandably frustrated. This frustration and disappointment has been ongoing for nearly 2 years now, as protest numbers fell starting during the presidential election and dwindling further by the time of  ANSWER’s Iraq War invasion commemoration DC protest and United for Peace and Justice’s “Beyond War: Another Economy is Possible” demonstration in March and April 2009, respectively.
There has been a long line of analysis as to why people haven’t hit the streets against the war in the same numbers as when President Bush was in office. Some articles and statements deride the peace movement for not protesting with Democrats in power. To me, this accusation does not have  merit; the core of the movement has continued to protest, engage in civil disobedience and pressure elected officials. That never ceased.  Nevertheless, the number of overall protestors has clearly shrunk; here are my top four reasons why.

September 29, 2001 - Washington DC
Most of the people who hit the streets with us were uncomfortable with war, butdid not see themselves as part of the peace movement. Rather, their involvement was motivated by overall frustration with domestic politics, and what they saw and many still see as Republicans leading an assault on progressive political gains of the 60’s and 70s, and acting as obstacles to current struggles for equal rights. People who are engaged in or supporters of the rights of immigrants, women, people of color, LGBTQ, free speech, labor, environmental, separation of Church and state and other progressive struggles vented their frustration and anger with government, specifically Bush led Republican policies. They expressed their feelings together via mobilizations organized by A.N.S.W.E.R. and UFPJ.  The occupation of Iraq was the easiest issue around which to unite against the President as he was most vulnerable on the wars. In Afghanistan the only significant news of success was the initial defeat of the Taliban, but no capture of Osama bin Laden. With all the efforts to legitimize the war in Iraq, it was still nearly indefensible and going very badly. Setting politics aside, people who protested with us genuinely did not and I think still do not feel good about the wars, but now their primary motivation for resistance has shifted from war to immediate economic considerations like jobs, education and housing.

Elizabeth Caddy Staton

Frederick Douglas
People are tired of negativity and protesting. Fear of the future and xenophobia is not a tendency of the left. The left is built on optimism and tolerance. Nearly eight years of anger and frustration created a pent-up need to feel good and have fun. The close race between Senators Obama and Clinton and Obama’s eventual election to the White House presents a challenge for current progressive political struggles and a validation of past struggles. The Democrat’s primary race and Obama’s election were great events because of their historical and symbolic meaning. The struggles to abolish slavery, to then gain voting rights for women and Blacks, and to change the general perception of women and Blacks, saw huge fruit that caused jubilation.  So whether it was Barack or Hillary in office, people would have a similar outlook on protesting. They wanted to give the new President a chance to clean up the mess left by the Bush administration and some time to keep his campaign promises. This does not mean people accept the wars, but believing a brighter day was at hand after the darkness of the previous years, our allies engaged the President and tried to press him on their individual issues believing they would gain headway.
Obama, being the first Black President represents part of the vision put forth by leaders in the struggle for equal rights and equal access for all people. He represents the ideal of equality and the myth of U.S. American egalitarianism. Obama uses the rhetoric of past Black civil rights leaders to bolster his position by framing his presidency in that context. As a result of the historical realities of White racism, Black struggle and Obama’s oratory skills, he began his presidency with a larger than normal reservoir of good will from Americana. He also faces backlash from the rising Tea Party movement and far right quarters which creates a highly visible squeeze on him. This also helps give him political space on the left as people do not want to be seen as sympathetic with reactionaries. Obama and his family are very likeable, esthetically pleasing and present a wonderful image. These are important factors compounding why people have been resistant to openly protest the wars.

January 27, 2007 - Washington DC
The anti-war and peace movements made some mistakes that contribute to where we find ourselves now. Our rhetoric made the wars too much about Bush and not U.S. foreign policy. In our defense, the people wanted to focus on Bush and we followed their lead.
Our contrast and comparisons of Afghanistan and Iraq left too much space for the Good War scenario. Once again in our defense, then and now most people think military operations in Afghanistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden seem reasonable because they believe al Qaeda led by bin Laden in Afghanistan attacked the U.S. The Bush Administration used September 11 as an excuse to invade Iraq, which for many was a distraction. With the peace movement’s limited resources and public anger about the Sep 11 attacks, I am not sure it was possible to wage a relevant effort to challenge U.S. presence in Afghanistan and dismantle the Administration’s lies connecting Iraq to al Qaeda and the Sep 11 attacks.
We did a great job of keeping the wars visible and making clear the connections between scarce resources and war spending. However, we did a bad job of developing political drive around this awareness. We did not provide a credible alternative vision or sufficient modeling to help people believe there is a better way than war.
Setting the Stage for the Future

September 2001 - DC
The anti-war and peace movements have been working hard to analyze why protest has subsided and what to do about it. We have made considerable progress in re-establishing our political presence. We may no longer have the same numbers willing to hit the streets, but the anti–war sentiment created by our efforts continues to affect politics. As I said before, because the average person believes al Qaeda attacked the U.S., people see logic in the invasion of Afghanistan. But people are weary of war.  They are more skeptical than ever of U.S. foreign policy due in great part to our consistent challenges of the official reasons for the wars and our echo chamber of information that contradicts the rosy picture painted of their progress. USA Today reported in a January 2002 poll, 6% of respondents called the war a mistake. A March 2009 poll showed 42% of respondents saying the invasion was a mistake (see same USA Today article for both polls). A June 2010 USA Today poll shows when asked, “Do you favor or oppose this timetable?” for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, 58% favor the timetable. Newsweek and ABC News/ Washington Post poll both report 53% against the war and a May CNN poll shows 56%. The same ABC/Washington Post poll reporting 53% against the war also reports only 39% think the U.S. is losing. This indicates a good number of people who are against the war also believe the U.S. is winning and want the policy to change for reasons other than failure or success. I do not want to overstate the significance these numbers, but it could be a measure of people examining wider U.S. foreign policy rather each war in isolation. (For polling follow this link)
The most profound factor affecting the political landscape at this time is the anemic world economy. The “recovery” appears to be weak with at best a slow increase in employment and high government debt.  Millions of individuals and families continue to struggle to keep their heads above the waters of financial ruin. Others may never work again. The economic pressure has the potential to overwhelm all other political realities. Our groundwork over the years is helping more and more people facing these conditions take a critical look at war spending.  (See: Pentagon Spending on Chopping Block)
Although our domestic allies continue to engage government piecemeal, the leaders and organizers understand that no matter their feelings of hope or disappointment with the current administration, a peoples’ movement must emerge to force change. The 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit brought together thousand of grassroots activist across a wide spectrum of struggles. It was a unique opportunity for activists to step outside their lanes and cross fertilize, beginning the process of visioning strategies to shape our common future.

Mass Mobilization in Washington DC, October 2, 2010
A direct example of struggles stepping outside of their lanes to build a peoples’ movement will be theOctober 2nd One Nation mobilization in Washington D.C. Called by the leaders of the NAACP, SEIU 1199, Center for Community Change, National Council of La Raza, the United States Student Association and, they ask us to join them on a march to demand jobs, education investment, affordable housing, immigration reform and a shift of resources from war to human needs.
What now?
What should the anti-war and peace movements do to forward our goals? We must continue to do many of the same things we have always done. We must keep the wars visible. With so few U.S. Americans bearing the direct burden of the wars, the wars and the soldiers fighting them are nearly out of sight, out of mind. Not feeling and seeing the cost confront them in their living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms; it is easy for people to believe the wars are proceeding well and rationalize them as necessary. Vigils, protest of all sizes, direct action and demanding redress from all levels of government are essential.With people focused on immediate challenges to find a job, save their home and make ends meet, the importance of our efforts to keep the wars in the public eye is greater than ever.

Eight years of protest, while exhausting, were also an exercise in resistance. However fleeting, we and our allies felt our collective potential and saw the impact it had on national politics. For a time, anti-war/peace activist gained the initiative in forwarding our goals. It was expended by the efforts and money plowed into 2006 midterm campaigns and subsequent inaction to end the wars by the then new Democrat led Congress. The 2008 Clinton and Obama campaigns and the economic downturn further eroded our position. But the campaigns brought millions of people into the political process. For a time, Clinton and Obama supporters felt their collective potential as reflected in the phrase, “Yes, we can”. We all long to feel that potential again in our efforts to see the changes we seek come into fruition.

Iraq War protest on January 27, 2007 in Washington, D.C. organized by United for Peace and Justice.
After their disappointing issue by issue efforts to engage government, our allies sensing the need to unite are ready to hit the streets again, but this time around domestic issues with jobs at the forefront. We must join together to build a people’s movement, but this time the war will not be the center of organizing efforts. We will not be in the lead. Nevertheless our focus on war and U.S. Imperialism is central to our domestic problems. We must provide relevant and timely information to our allies about the huge waste of money, material and human resources on war that should be invested in people. We must introduce the understanding that the wars are a symptom of a failed and immoral foreign policy of global hegemony. National security begins with domestic security and is ensured by international security; when nations feel safe in good relations with their neighbors and not in fear of domination by great powers be it China, Russia or the U.S. We must do a better in job of turning our rhetoric connecting domestic economic issues to war issues into common strategy and action with our domestic allies. This means we must listen and find ways to be in support of economic and other struggles with our message.

Abraham Johannes Muste and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
But perhaps our most important task is to envision and model a better world, a better way to solve conflicts and a more sustainable way to live. This includes how we interact and relate to each other as individuals, as philosophical and political rivals in our movements, and yes, even to war mongers and our detractors. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and A.J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way,” both speak directly to the process needed to end wars and find peace. And guess what? We have total control of this approach to change. We need no one to join or agree with us. It is an individual challenge and journey. It is the toughest but most relevant and rewarding action to take.
I will see you in the streets, and on the road of peace.

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