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.'”