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A Hundred Peace Movements Bloom | The Nation

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A Hundred Peace Movements Bloom

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This article is part of the "Waging Peace" series, covering the movement that is emerging across America to oppose war on Iraq.
   --The Editors

Esther Kaplan is co-chair of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which has
endorsed United for Peace.

Click here for a list of activist groups opposing war on Iraq.

About the Author

Esther Kaplan
Esther Kaplan is investigative editor at The Nation Institute, and author of With God on Their Side: George Bush and...

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Even with an enemy as easy to hate as Saddam Hussein, the Bush Administration's war plans in Iraq have awakened "huge reservoirs of unease" in the American public, says Peace Action spokesperson Scott Lynch. The Administration's bullying autumn war drive, its explicit discussion of pre-emptive strikes and regime change, its overtly corporate agenda on energy and oil, and its early, arrogant attempts to make war without Congress, let alone the United Nations, unleashed a flood of antiwar sentiment and activity across the country. The sheer breadth of this opposition could help to birth one of the largest antiwar movements in US history--that is, if these politically diverse antiwar eruptions can join forces as a movement at all.

So far, the strength of the opposition is certainly not its unity, but its diversity. Here, for example, is a snapshot of the New York City antiwar movement in the final days of November: Uptown, black and Latino youth activists and tenant organizers huddle in a back room, discussing how to turn out bodega owners and taxi drivers for their December 14 march in Harlem "for schools and jobs, not war"; while downtown, a collection of apron-clad activists, from such global justice outfits as Reclaim the Streets, hold a "bake sale for the military," a propaganda stunt to promote an antiwar listserv. Some 2,000 high school students walk out of their classes to protest the war, organized by one antiwar coalition, Not in Our Name, and a week later, a thousand African-American congregants pack the rafters--and basement--of the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn for an antiwar town meeting sponsored by another national coalition, International ANSWER. Meanwhile, coalition-averse artists, interior decorators, restaurateurs and go-go boys calling themselves "Glamericans" meet to plan a star-studded antiwar bash designed to reach those who get their news from MTV.

Glance around the country and one sees this diversity multiplied: People came out for peace marches and vigils even in such conservative redoubts as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Anchorage, Alaska. An estimated 100,000 turned out for a march in Washington. Such mainstays of the institutional movement as NOW, the NAACP, the National Council of Churches, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the California Labor Federation--organizations that collectively represent millions of Americans--have all issued strong antiwar resolutions, as have some thirty city councils. Dissent--or at least discomfort--has cropped up even in conservative quarters, at the libertarian Cato Institute, which has called a war "unwise"; among former military and security advisers such as Brent Scowcroft, who have pushed against unilateral action; and, most impressively, from the likes of Colin Powell and George Tenet within the Administration itself. Combined with international opposition and lukewarm support for the war in polls, this resistance has already slowed an invasion and backed the Administration into negotiations with Congress and the UN. Former SDS leader Tom Hayden sees a level of ferment that was unimaginable at a comparable stage of the Vietnam War, say in 1965--when only 7,000 turned out for a national march on Washington.

The groundswell of opposition, however, was ahead of any leadership. As Bush launched his war drive, Democratic Party leaders, urged on by impassioned constituents, could have marshaled the opposition, but declined. Peace Action, a descendant of SANE/Freeze, has 100 chapters across the country and calls itself "the nation's largest peace organization." But last fall, says Lynch, "we just didn't have the capacity" to coordinate a mass action. Networks of the other longstanding peace organizations--Pax Christi, the Quakers, the War Resisters League--have provided the infrastructure for many of the tiny vigils in Middle America, but nothing in the way of national coordination. "The historic peace organizations are always there," says Leslie Cagan, lead organizer of the 1982 antinuke rally in Central Park, "and yet they always need to be regrouped whenever a new war comes along."

While these sectors regrouped, far-left groups stepped into the breach. The International Action Center has built momentum since the 1991 Iraq war through an antisanctions campaign and was ready to roll after September 11, convening its new antiwar coalition, International ANSWER, within days. It was ANSWER that organized the surprisingly large October 26 rallies in San Francisco and Washington, with groups like Peace Action coming along for the ride. Next in line was Not in Our Name, a more populist alternative to ANSWER, whose pledge of resistance struck a chord across the country, reproduced in small-town papers like the Sierra Vista Herald, which serves an Arizona military town, and inspired a national day of actions in early October. Much has been made recently in the left and mainstream press of these coalitions' ties to the Workers World Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party, respectively, but journalists' warnings about the risks posed by these groups lag behind conversations in the streets.

Peace activists have been strategizing about the International Action Center since an earlier guise forced dual marches during the 1991 Gulf War; at issue was their refusal to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait or to support economic sanctions as a war alternative. And newcomers like youth organizer Erica Smiley, 22, weathered painful squabbles over the DC demonstrations last April--with ANSWER moving the date of its Palestine-focused march to coincide with a national student peace march, nearly eclipsing the latter's call to "stop the war at home and abroad."

But students, antiglobalization street activists and old-time peaceniks alike appreciate ANSWER's knack for mobilizing the unaffiliated and turning out the Arab-American community--the latter due in great part to the leadership of groups such as the Free Palestine Alliance in ANSWER's coalition. Tom Hayden recalls "similar divisions, and rival organizations and factions," in the 1960s antiwar movement, but says there was an "ecology" to it, in which "most of us recognized that there was a certain inevitability about the other camp." While some antiwar activists shun ANSWER altogether, most adopt this ecological view, and say they are ready to work with--or at least around--the coalition. Most also agree that a sectarian approach--even a liberal sectarianism that seeks to isolate the far left--will never build a broad antiwar movement. And they share the confidence, says David McReynolds, a longtime activist with the War Resisters League, that "ANSWER's monopoly has to be broken, and it will be."

It's already being chipped away in a variety of ways. A broad spectrum of players--traditional peace groups; student, global justice and antiracist activists; mainstream labor, environmental, civil rights and women's organizations--piggybacked onto ANSWER's big march to convene an ambitious new national coalition, United for Peace. A hundred-plus celebrities, working in conjunction with the National Council of Churches and other liberal institutions, announced their opposition to the war on December 10 through the new Win Without War coalition--joining a national day of some 150 antiwar actions called by United for Peace. Student, labor and women's coalitions are in the works. And young anticapitalists, with their distaste for authoritarianism of any stripe, are honing creative strategies for cooperating with ANSWER while maintaining autonomy. On October 26 a local coalition spearheaded by the DC Anti-Capitalist Convergence organized its own feeder march, drawing attention to the potential domestic costs of the war, which preceded ANSWER's rally. DC ACC's Zein El-Amine considers the action a great success, because "it was done not by being separatist from the larger event but by building our own coalition and preserving our own ideas."

For those behind United for Peace--such as Cagan; global justice guru Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange; and former AFL-CIO official Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum--the antiwar movement's biggest test is not what to do about ANSWER but whether it is possible to bring together the traditional peace organizations with the two most dynamic social movements in recent years: the sprawling global justice coalition that debuted in Seattle and the urban racial justice movement, with its vibrant campaigns around police brutality, racial profiling and immigrants' rights. Such a merger, they argue, would provide lasting infrastructure for an antiwar movement.

"Events are showing that these issues are interlinked," says Fletcher. "But it will be a challenge for the antiwar movement to talk about the role of empire and the dangers of domestic repression, and a challenge for organizers in communities of color, who have focused on domestic issues to the exclusion of foreign policy."

It's not an easy fit for the global justice movement, either, except perhaps for the movement's anticapitalist sector, which, says El-Amine, has "always understood that you can't have that invisible hand of the market work overseas without the fist of militarism to open up markets." Benjamin says that earlier this fall, she heard deep concern from other global justice forces, still struggling to regroup after September 11, that taking on the war might alienate labor--which was virtually unanimous in support of the invasion of Afghanistan--from its "Teamsters and turtles" alliance. But it turns out that in the view of American labor, Iraq is no Afghanistan. On Iraq, says former Teamsters organizing director Bob Muehlenkamp, "unions have begun to question their government's war policy earlier, more broadly and more seriously than ever before at such an early stage of a war threat," with giant union locals, and even two state labor federations, taking an antiwar stance [see Marc Cooper, "Antiwar Labor Pains," December 9]. In addition, says Benjamin, the massive antiwar demonstration that burst out of the European Social Forum in Florence in early November allayed American activists' concerns about taking on the war. "It sure didn't seem [the Europeans] had a problem convincing people there that saying no to war was part of the global justice movement," she says.

But the fault line that runs between these three movements--and could easily capsize them as they combine--is what Fletcher calls "the tripwire of US politics": race. While the traditional peace movement--especially its religious wing, mobilized by early, strong leadership from the National Council of Churches--has conferred a moral legitimacy on antiwar sentiment and has reached deeply into Middle America, its organizations are mostly white and middle class. That pattern has plagued the anti-corporate globalization movement, too. This whiteness shapes everything from outreach strategies to meeting style to which messages are considered to have "broad appeal." So it will take some profound rumblings for this movement to tap the deep pockets of antiwar sentiment among African-Americans, Muslims and Latinos. (A recent poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that African-American support for the war was at a low 19 percent.)

This is why one of the most talked-about developments among antiwar activists is a new coalition, Racial Justice 9-11, formed specifically to build antiwar resistance among communities of color. The coalition's founding conference last February drew forty community-based groups from across the country that have traditionally worked only on home-front agendas, such as criminal justice reform. Coordinator Hany Khalil says that between "the shift of public money to a permanent war abroad" and the possibility "that our own home countries might be targeted down the road," RJ9-11 aims to frame the issues in a way that will break a "routinization" of priorities and focus community attention on the war. Indeed, twenty more groups have joined the coalition in recent months.

As these movements come together, serious differences of opinion are inevitable. While some at the founding meeting of United for Peace urged that a narrow message, "Stop the war on Iraq," would appeal most to Middle America, Khalil and others argue that separating the war abroad from the war at home--from immigrant roundups to stateside structural readjustment--will do little to activate people of color. (The Joint Center's poll showed that while most African-Americans oppose a war, only 6 percent rank it as the top concern.)

Likewise, some urge avoiding the third rail of Palestine, not so much because it would likely alienate Jewish institutions, which have exhibited little inclination to oppose this war anyway, but because the issue has to be carefully formulated to avoid alienating important liberal institutions as well. NOW vice president Olga Vives, for example, mentioned "balance" on the Israel-Palestine conflict as crucial to her group's involvement in a broader peace movement. But given that the Palestinian cause has galvanized the student left and will be deeply affected by any war in the region, Khalil predicts that the antiwar movement will have to take up the question.

The winning formula, Fletcher says, is to insist that "the front needs to include anyone who is in opposition to this war," to respect political differences within the movement as it expands and to work toward "a broader, anti-imperialist political analysis" that can prepare the movement to challenge future American military adventures and their domestic repercussions.

Even as it weathers political growing pains, the movement needs resources. What that means is not necessarily money, says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing Washington think tank, "but a broad range of organizations to decide this is a priority and shift their own resources to it."

There are signs this has begun, among both individuals and institutions. Bob Wing, for example, a lifelong racial justice activist in California, says he began rethinking his priorities "one second after I learned about the crash into the World Trade Center" and has become a full-time antiwar pamphleteer, launching the bilingual tabloid War Times--which now has a circulation of 120,000. The Rev. Peter Laarman, who had focused in recent years on building labor solidarity within his congregation at New York City's historic Judson Memorial Church, has turned his attentions to organizing clergy against the war, orchestrating their mass arrest at a December sit-in at the UN. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) has redirected half of its staff to Iraq work; Peace Action is raising funds to hire regional antiwar organizers across the country; and Global Exchange has devoted staff time to building United for Peace. Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, meanwhile, helped to launch Code Pink, which uses a gendered spin on militarism and unilateralism, as well as a daily White House vigil, to attract feminist troops to the antiwar movement.

More mainstream organizations also appear to be extending their antiwar commitments. NOW adopted a fairly radical-sounding resolution in June, condemning "the opportunistic use of fighting terrorism as an excuse for massive imperial expansion," and the group has asked its 500 chapters to turn out women for the Code Pink vigil each week until March. Greenpeace USA head John Passacantando, who wrote an open letter to George Bush opposing the war, says his group plans to build an antiwar message into its new international campaign targeting ExxonMobil, "considered," he says, "to be in the front position to benefit from regime change in Iraq." The NAACP followed up its October antiwar resolution by calling on all its campus chapters to host town hall meetings about the war. An AFL-CIO official says he's trying to get antiwar locals and labor councils together for a national meeting. And the victory of antiwar sectors of the Democratic Party in the contest for minority leadership of the House has reopened the possibility that the party will take to the bully pulpit.

Student activism is picking up steam, as several proven networks expand their mission to join forces against the war. The Student Environmental Action Coalition launched a Militarism and the Environment campaign in August; United Students Against Sweatshops is in discussion about targeting weapons manufacturers; and each is a member of the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC), which already has the capacity to reach some 200,000 students and is planning a national student walkout for next spring. And this is not your father's student antiwar movement. Erica Smiley, the Washington, DC, youth leader, who is in the Black Radical Congress and on the NYSPC steering committee, says the coalition has "all kinds of historically underrepresented youth at the table"; this is reflected in its focus on "the war at home," meaning the lack of jobs and affordable education that is forcing many kids to consider joining the military. NYSPC also plans to develop a web chat room where young soldiers can anonymously express dissent.

The religious mobilization has been the deepest and broadest to date. Despite near silence in the organized Jewish community and a feeling of Patriot-era vulnerability among Muslim congregations, courageous clergy members issued an interfaith call in November for fasting and reflection on the dangers of this war, published simultaneously in Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim papers. The United Methodists sent out an antiwar educational packet to its congregations across the country. And the National Council of Churches is in the midst of "A Season for Peacemaking," which included the civil disobedience Laarman coordinated at the UN, an action built around the inviting concept of "common humanity." "We don't think the moderate middle really accepts the premise of pre-emptive war, but they're being herded along," says Laarman. "Our role as religious leaders is to unherd them."

Cavanagh, who is a United for Peace co-initiator, sees a three-pronged strategy ahead. First, he says, "what came through in September and October is that there are millions of Americans who have a ton of questions. So this is a time when education has a lot of traction." Second, it's critical to be visible, "to keep the peace movement on the front pages" as the Administration attempts to discredit the weapons-inspection process. And third, the movement needs to promote the voices of unlikely dissenters, such as the many former intelligence officers who are raising red flags, which will "raise the nervousness quotient" among the American public. He argues that even postelection, public opinion still looms large for a White House fixed on 2004.

But some of the most decisive factors are out of the activists' hands. "Most of the opposition is to a unilateral, pre-emptive war," says Cavanagh. "If there's a clear-cut provocation by Iraq and strong international backing, all of that evaporates." The more likely scenario, according to IPS experts, is a feeble excuse for war, trumped up by the Administration, and lukewarm international backing, with a couple of abstentions or even no votes on the UN Security Council. That result would provide a real challenge for the antiwar movement: to quickly educate against what Wing calls "the big-time propaganda machine that will fall into place" and win the public debate about what constitutes a legitimate war. But the movement would likely be aided by broad popular opposition in Europe and the Muslim world.

It would be a moment fraught with danger--of escalating anti-American terrorism, especially--but also opportunity. "There is a hope of this war being disrupted as it goes along," says expatriate journalist Mike Marqusee, who helped to organize London's 400,000-strong antiwar demonstration in September, "and we in the European peace movement want to do whatever we can to strengthen American voices of dissent." Medea Benjamin predicts that January's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, attended by some 50,000 last year, will forge a large-scale, international merger of the antiwar and global justice movements--and give a shot in the arm to the US movement. "There's a real wave of ferment in the world," says Tom Hayden. "And it seems directly in response to the cresting of the conservative movement in America. There was an unexplainable worldwide social movement in 1968 as well, and it's back, like a second earthquake, on exactly the same fault line. Stay tuned."

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