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New Hope for the Anti-War Movement

Francesca Fiorentini and Sasha Wright
Date Published: 
October 01, 2006
    This past June, twenty-two youth organizers convened in the historic Highlander Center in Tennessee to talk strategy on how to end the war in Iraq. The gathering was initiated by the STORY Board, a youth strategy and training group, and was developed by organizers from the War Resisters League (WRL), Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA).

We came together at a time when the traditional anti-war marches had seemingly lost much of their ability to inspire and had come under fire for lacking a more long-term strategy to build on the popular sentiment against the war. Meanwhile students, immigrants, veterans, conscientious objectors (COs), and military families have turned to grassroots work around such issues as military recruitment, immigrant justice, and GI and veterans’ rights. It was this array of anti-war actors that the STORY collaborative brought together—each with their unique and powerful experience and cultural grounding. Looking around the room, one could argue that the future of and perhaps the hope for the anti-war movement in the United States was gathered at Highlander that weekend.

When the war on Iraq began and the anti-war movement focused on reactive and short-term methods of organizing, this gathering might not have happened. Yet after three years of occupation and misery, the youth organizers at Highlander were not interested in figuring out how to have the biggest march or even the biggest direct action. Rather, they reflected on the work they had done and the work they would need to do to build an anti-war movement for the long term. From the staff members of long-standing peace organizations trying to stay relevant and connected with youth activism, to counter-recruitment organizers trying to build alternatives to militarism in their communities, to IVAW and Military Families Against the War (MFSO) challenging ideas about war within military communities themselves, the work that is capturing young anti-war activists is building a foundation for a broader and deeper movement.

Political differences

One might think that the commonalities of being under 30 and against the war would smoothly facilitate alliance-building and political agreement. What soon became clear, however, was that there were more political differences and tensions than accords, and everyone came to their anti-Iraq war work from very different experiences and assumptions.

Throughout each exercise and small group discussion, a continual point of struggle centered on opposition to the war in Iraq exclusively, the “war on terror” more broadly, or war and militarism overall. There was also friction around notions of the root causes of the war. During an exercise where we illustrated the war in all of its components and characteristics using the metaphor of a monster, there was disagreement around what should comprise the monster’s heart—what was the most central aspect of the war that continued to keep it alive? Some felt as though it was fear and patriotism, while others named capitalism and greed as the lifeblood of war.

At their core, these tensions were primarily between systemic versus more individual critiques of the Iraq invasion, and whether the war was an aberration in the US’s clean track record of intervention or another notch on the belt of its aggression. The tensions also illuminated the differences between more seasoned activists involved in political organizing for years and those who had perhaps attended their first protest only months before. The recently active folks were predominately veterans, conscientious objectors, and those from military families whose experiences of the horrors of war were raw and close to home, giving them a sense of urgency that others may have lacked. A balance had to be struck between longtime organizers equipped with the terminology and analysis who were looking toward structural solutions to militarism, and those carrying the powerful firsthand experiences of war looking toward immediate change.

Unsurprisingly, these political differences led to practical ones, as the concrete strategy discussions during the retreat brought up many similar themes. Questions arose about how to galvanize the ever-illusive “mainstream” and whether or not to lobby perceived power holders. Talk of toning down messaging and becoming less confrontational coincided with desires to employ more militant direct action tactics. Discussion of lobbying Congress swam alongside dismissals of electoral politics and the Democratic Party.

For many, particularly those doing counter-recruitment work and organizing in low-income communities of color, their organizing approach to anti-war work was grounded in linking the war abroad to domestic racism and poverty. For others, connecting oppression at home to the war on Iraq seemed to cloud the messaging and focus of the anti-war movement. It became clear that we could not assume that the white middle class should be the constituency targeted by anti-war organizers. What that meant on a practical level is that certain tactics and/or politics considered “too radical” for some communities might actually be strategic in others. For example, while some felt that connecting the fight against the Iraq war to the issue of border militarization might be too threatening for their organizations, Latino counter-recruitment organizers from the southwest asserted that they in fact draw connections between the militarization of their own communities at the border with the militarization of the Middle East as a way to reach the youth they work with.

These differences were not clear-cut along organizational or political backgrounds, and there was by no means political or strategic unanimity among the community-based organizers, staffers of anti-war organizations, veterans, and military families. A provocative series of fishbowl discussions—where each “constituency” had a discussion between themselves while others listened—revealed these internal differences and helped to break down walls between groups often perceived as homogenous. In the vets, COs, and military families discussion there was wide disagreement about how to reach out to the general public. While one IVAW member felt that conservative messaging drew in potential sympathizers, another member insisted that those against the war are in the majority, and that vets should be able to loudly express their discontent.

Crucial coalitions

In the face of some of these fundamental political differences, there were never moments of hostility or disrespectful argument. Rather, the weekend required us to take steps out of our comfort zones, exercise patience, and respect and truly listen to everyone’s story. This alliance-building meant raising concerns respectfully but not compromising one’s politics for the sake of vague agreement.

On the whole, there was a collective self-consciousness to the gathering, an understanding that if we couldn’t begin to build with one another in good faith, how were the organizations and communities we represented going to do the same? In many ways it felt as though the future of the anti-war movement hinged upon how we were able to deal with one another, come together, and learn from each other.
It became clear that we were not only at Highlander building these relationships with one another out of an obligation to do so, but out of necessity to sustain and grow our organizing efforts, which often happen in isolation from one another. A young organizer with MFSO remarked that she was at Highlander so that she could take the ideas and alliances built back to MFSO in order to convince what she felt was an insular organization to begin working with activists beyond their usual purview.

For the more veteran anti-war organizers who have seen energy for anti-war work taper in the past few years, sustaining and growing their efforts has meant shifting toward local anti-war work by making connections between the war on Iraq and domestic issues. By focusing on counter-recruitment, support for GI resisters, and immigrant rights, for example, these longtime anti-war activists have demonstrated their hunger for their work to resonate locally and include those most directly affected by the war.

It was a weekend full of give and take—walking the fine line between compromise and principle. The words of singer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon kept coming to mind: “If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition. If you feel the strain, you’re doing good work.”

Work ahead

Those who arrived at Highlander expecting to walk away with a 10-point program to end the war in Iraq left disappointed. We did, however, walk away with a few concrete plans: to build up the national Not Your Soldier campaign, a blossoming project of the Ruckus Society and War Resisters League’s Youth and Counter-militarism program, building up a database of alternatives to the military as an organizing resource, ideas for a female vets support group, and an “Out of Iraq or Out of Office” campaign focused on pressuring Congress and promoting anti-war candidates. While these are all exciting projects, there was unfortunately little synthesis between them, and the working groups that formed around each generally followed the political affinities mentioned above. Perhaps if we had had one more day, we may have found ways to integrate them. Or perhaps this would have been forced and premature, and the fleshing out of a collaborative organizing project would be best left for a future gathering.

What we did share coming out of the weekend, however, was an affirmation of the importance of relationship-building across diverse communities. If the collaborative had merely been a host of familiar faces and organizations approaching the war from the same vantage point, we could have developed a strategic campaign in a few hours and gotten to work. But we would have compromised the goals of a representative and enduring movement; we would have lost a lot.

As we enter another period of increased activity around the US-supported invasion of Lebanon, we must think even more about how these moments can help strengthen our long-term work. We must continue to assert a structural analysis of war and militarism, and bring people into the movement for the long haul. The real challenges lie ahead.