I’m a sucker for fledgling political movements. There is something about sitting in a room with hundreds of activists who fervently believe they can change the world that sucks the usual irony right out of my keyboard (no matter how many times they sing “This Little Light of Mine” or “Sister” and “Brother” each other). The voyeur in me keeps one eye on the group dynamics and the other on the issues and secretly roots for the right agenda to be attached to the powerful personalities who will advance it. I am captivated by the tensions, the tempers, the battles, the reconciliations–the drama of it all. It is always fascinating but, once in a blue moon, it is something more.
Every once in a while, such gatherings instill hope.
Other reporters can have the massive demonstrations, the clever zaps, the public hearings-me, I like the back-story. And in the middle of the country, in the middle of February on the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis, Missouri, a truly interesting back-story unfolded last weekend.
At an antiwar summit called by United for Peace and Justice, 400 leaders from progressive organizations across the country gathered to hash out a plan to end the war in Iraq. UFPJ is a two-year-old coalition made up of more than 1,000 organizations across the country. The umbrella group organized the February 2003 march against the war in New York City, which drew more than 500,000 people, and spearheaded the battle for the Central Park lawn during the Republican National Convention last year. Recognizing that it had mobilized hundreds of thousands over the past two years, UFPJ’s 1,000 membership organizations were determined not to let the momentum die. The second annual assembly reflected the acknowledgment that the group had evolved from a loose coalition into a growing movement; leaders were determined that its evolution would not happen haphazardly. It would be planned and, given UFPJ’s limited financial resources, focused on an achievable progression of goals. The assembly drew leaders from organizations ranging from the American Friends Service Committee to Black Voices for Peace to Code Pink, and there was a promising mix of personalities. More than a third of activists came out of the 1960s antiwar/civil rights/feminist movements-including a few big names like Danny Glover, Tom Hayden and Angela Davis, who addressed the group at one point. A quarter of those attending were young, mostly students with a few young veterans of the Iraq War. And while people of color were slightly underrepresented among the attendees, they constituted more than 50 percent of the group’s leadership body, a steering committee of forty elected representatives. Queers made up 12 percent of this same body.
Given the diversity of the groups in the coalition, from unions to gay rights organizations, there were remarkably few battles over direction or strategy. By deftly and repeatedly linking the war in Iraq to the economic, social and political forces that create wars like this, the coalition was able to create a sense that everyone present was pulling in the same direction.
But pull they must. All agreed that one of the biggest challenges facing the peace movement was drawing in those who may kvetch about Bush’s war agenda in the supermarket line but never make it to a protest march. “There are also some very serious questions that people have, and until they are comfortable with the answers, they aren’t ready to move into activism,” says UFPJ’s national coordinator, Leslie Cagan, who’d like to draw back those Americans who originally opposed the invasion but now feel the United States has made a mess of Iraq and needs to clean it up. “One of our jobs is to provide some answers and ways to think about this,” says Cagan. “We can say, ‘Yes, we have made a mess. Yes, we have a responsibility to help Iraq now. But part of the biggest problem is the continued presence of US troops there. We need to get the troops out because that is what is making the situation there so volatile.'”
The President’s insistence that a US military presence in Iraq is the only thing staving off chaos is simply wrongheaded, Cagan insists. The task ahead, for peace activists, is to get Americans to see that “we have a responsibility to help get the country back on its feet but we need to do that by putting money into Iraqi institutions and companies-not just US firms,” she says, explaining that there is an array of solutions out there beyond the simplistic, Bush-provided paradigm. “We need to make it clear we are not advocating a cut-and-run policy, but at the same time, insist that the first step is to take out of the equation the most problematic thing: the US military presence.”
The other big obstacle antiwar activists face is that time-honored American trait: apathy. Cagan and indeed most of the organizers who came together in St. Louis firmly believe that most Americans have serious reservations about the US presence in Iraq. But most succumb to the notion that you can’t fight city hall. “People think, ‘Who am I to change things? Why would my voice make any difference? Who am I to have an opinion on a foreign policy issue?'” Cagan says. “We absolutely have to address that.” That’s where UFPJ’s educational agenda comes to the fore. Detailed plans for teach-ins, documentaries, visits to college campuses and even the visible presence of groups like Historians Against the War are seen as potentially powerful antidotes to this. “Our job is to affirm that yes, standing on a street corner alone speaking against the war probably will not make a difference. But we can counter with history, citing examples of social movements making an impact, of people working in groups to force change.”
Here, the sizable presence of fiftysomethings in the contemporary peace movement might prove fortuitous. As veterans of earlier movements, they are both a reminder of the possibilities and a walking compendium of lessons learned. Vietnam War protest leader Tom Hayden pushed the peace delegates to adopt the same multipronged attack that ended that conflict. “The US lost that war because it couldn’t defeat the Vietnamese resistance. It couldn’t handle it economically, and it couldn’t handle the peace movement–which grew quickly, but not as quickly as this peace movement,” Hayden told the UFPJ assembly delegates, speculating that today’s antiwar activists will have similar success if they keep the pressure on over the next five years. “Congress is frozen, and only the grassroots will unfreeze them,” he insisted.
To his mind, progressives need to knock down four pillars. First, they need to work with the troops to project a realistic picture of the war and to support the soldiers and families that are already dissenting and questioning the US occupation. (For more on this campaign, see The Nation‘s upcoming article in the March 28 issue.) Second, they need to work with other countries, especially peace movements in Britain, Italy and Germany, to chip away at Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” Third, they need to keep up direct action against and Congressional pressure on the Halliburtons and ChevronTexaco’s of the world, which are getting rich off the occupation. And finally, they need to force Congress to defund the war.
Interestingly, this last proposal was one of the few that sparked controversy. While many in attendance thought a combination of direct action, street heat and legislative pressure was required, many of the young people bristled at what they considered the mainstreaming of UFPJ’s grassroots base by playing with legislative politics. As a plan for UFPJ’s upcoming legislative strategy was introduced, tempers rose. In a time-honored debate over whether to work from inside the system or attack from the outside, proponents seemed to break down neatly–and predictably–by age: The older folks believed it was essential to play the game in the courts, in the voting booth and with local resolutions and referendums; the college students recognized that they’d have an easier time organizing their friends to block a recruiter from coming on campus than persuading them to e-mail their Congresswoman. (Where’s the fun in that?) In the end, the old folks won, garnering 68 percent of the vote.
Still, there was something almost comforting about the fact that the greatest schism at the conference turned out to be between the young and the old-compared with, say, the deeper schisms of race, gender and sexual orientation that have haunted so many of this movement’s predecessors. After all, most of the older generation looked upon the younger one’s angry demands for speedy action fondly: That was them some forty years ago. And the college students were doing what young people do best-providing an energetic and contrapuntal radical voice.