The most powerful antiwar actions of the spring are not likely to occur in Washington. National antiwar groups will mount marches, lobbying days and other traditional initiatives. But it would take a monumental push to change the thinking of Republican majorities in the House and Senate, which are not yet ready to break with the Bush Administration on Iraq issues, or to convince an overly cautious Democratic opposition to press for withdrawal. And divisions over strategy and focus will continue to make it hard for a national antiwar movement that has struggled to communicate the depth and breadth of frustration with the war to do so in the brief period before the capital city becomes fully obsessed with this fall’s Congressional elections.
But politics do not begin and end in Washington. So it is that the antiwar messages most likely to be heard and acted upon by Congressional Democrats and wavering Republicans trying to figure out how the war will play at the polls in November will come from their hometowns. It is there, at the grassroots, that a growing number of activists are organizing with an eye toward communicating to Congress that, as Wisconsinite Keith Schmitz says, “It’s OK to oppose the war.” Schmitz helped qualify an antiwar referendum for the ballot in Shorewood, a Milwaukee suburb that is one of thirty Wisconsin communities voting this spring on whether to leave Iraq. The referendum campaign, which organizers hope will serve as a model for similar efforts in more states, coincides with a renewed push by antiwar campaigners to get city councils to call for an end to the war. Coordinated by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, this “Cities for Peace” push has picked up steam in recent months, with seventy-six local governments, including those of Chicago, Philadelphia and Sacramento, urging, in the words of a resolution passed unanimously by the Baltimore City Council, “President Bush and the United States Congress to commence a humane, orderly, immediate and comprehensive withdrawal of United States military personnel and bases from Iraq.”
Activists are also trying to communicate to members of Congress through home-state political parties, labor unions and places of worship. Progressive Democrats of America has successfully lobbied seven state Democratic parties to endorse withdrawal. US Labor Against the War and individual unions convinced last year’s AFL-CIO convention to call for the “rapid” withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and state federations, labor councils and local unions have stepped up efforts to deliver that message across the country. Almost three dozen mainstream Christian denominations signed a February letter that signaled a more aggressive antiwar line, stating, “We have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to deter our leaders from this path of preemptive war.” That move followed a call from the Union of Reform Judaism for an exit strategy and, perhaps most important, for congregations around the country to promote a deeper dialogue about the war and how to end it.
Such efforts are not a replacement for national actions. Marches still matter, as do campaigns like the joint effort by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and MediaChannel.org to protest jingoistic coverage of the war by major media outlets and the “Women Say No to War” petition drive organized by Code Pink. Even with polls suggesting that the majority of Americans think the Iraq mission has gone badly awry, war foes in many regions still feel isolated, and high-profile national initiatives signal there is an antiwar movement that citizens can and should join.
It’s no secret, however, that some leading antiwar groups have clashed over tactics and policies. Before a joint antiwar demonstration in Washington this past September, the UFPJ and the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) coalitions had to agree not to attack each other. This spring, while both groups are calling for a mass demonstration April 29 in New York, it remains unclear exactly how they will work together. Groups like MoveOn.org, Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats for America are all looking for ways to make the war more of a political issue and to get Democrats to offer a coherent opposition. But PDA is taking an aggressive stance in favor of a quick withdrawal and an exploration of the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, while the other groups have put more energy into broad criticism of the mishandling of the war as part of a wider critique of GOP rule at home and abroad. A new group, Voters for Peace, will make a push for unity with a new education campaign aimed straight at progressive voters, asking them to sign an election-year pledge (inspired, organizers say, by a Nation editorial) that says, “I will not vote for or support any candidate for national office who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign.”
Divisions at the national level do have parallels in local antiwar movements. But those differences tend to be subsumed in targeted local campaigns that seek to achieve tangible goals, particularly if those campaigns have the potential to influence individual members of Congress. In Wisconsin, for instance, the referendum drive has benefited from an unprecedented level of unity among Greens, Democrats and even a few Republicans. Borrowing a tactic often used by conservatives seeking to stir up debates about tax policy or same-sex marriage, antiwar activists gathered the thousands of petition signatures required to force referendum votes in cities, suburbs and rural areas on resolutions that, while worded differently from town to town, essentially say: Bring the troops home. The Wisconsin campaigners don’t expect the White House to announce an exit strategy based on a few dozen referendum results, but they do expect home-state Representatives to take notice. The referendums will be held April 4, in conjunction with local elections. If the Wisconsin initiative proves to be as successful as a similar effort last year in Vermont–where fifty of fifty-four town meetings that voted on antiwar resolutions adopted them, prompting even the state’s Republican governor to acknowledge concerns about the deployment of Vermont National Guard units to Iraq–activists with the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice hope to influence moderate Democratic Senator Herb Kohl to join Senator Russ Feingold in backing withdrawal. They also talk of influencing Representative Tom Petri, a GOP moderate who’s broken with the Administration on some military spending issues, to join the expanding bloc of GOP war critics.
Even as they focus on the upcoming votes, the Wisconsin activists are consulting with antiwar campaigners in other states, hoping that the referendum model will be broadly emulated. “This is really about bringing the debate about the war home,” says Ann Hippensteel, a Green who helped qualify referendums in four villages and one city in traditionally Republican Door County. “The more communities say no, the more members of Congress should start wondering whether they should keep listening to the White House or start listening to the people they’re supposed to represent.”