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Where To From Here: An Assessment of Antiwar Organizing and Activism

Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 

Win Magazine, vol 25, Spring/Summer 2008

It’s scary how easy it can be to forget that there is a war going on. Even when it’s a war many of us are paying for through our tax dollars on a daily basis, there always seems to be something there to distract us from the elephant in the room. Whether it is dealing with the increasingly high costs and stress levels of everyday life in the US – or more frivolous vices like running home to see who has made it to the final round of America’s Top Model – following events in Iraq and (increasingly) Afghanistan is not always easy.
Those of us who have been working to oppose both the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq since September of 2001, attempting to keep the issues of war and peace front and center while heading into the 2008 elections, have had varying levels of success. On one hand, the antiwar movement has played a significant, if underappreciated, role in shifting domestic public opinion from one of outright right-wing reaction in the days following September 11, to something that can best be described as a kind of passive opposition to the Bush Administration’s agenda with Iraq as its centerpiece. On the other hand, the movement has been unable to translate this sentiment, which is widespread but does not run very deep, into sustained political action.

Key questions
Enter into the discussion “Where To From Here? An Assessment of Antiwar Organizing and Activism,” published by the War Resisters’ League (WRL) as a special issue of their publication WIN Magazine. Where To seeks to interrogate – through in depth interviews with nearly 100 peace and justice organizers from all across the country – the major questions facing the antiwar movement in the current political climate. The report is organized along ten main questions including: What is lacking in the peace movement? How do we build a more multi-racial and cross-class movement? What does base-building look like in antiwar organizing? And what is the relevance of nonviolence today?

In the introduction, the editors explain that the “initial push behind this project was organizationally driven: to inform WRL’s work and outlook with the experience and knowledge of our allies.” The series of interviews that make up the report, referred to as “The Listening Process,” took the WRL over a year to complete. What comes out is a very thought provoking and useful document that organizers and activists should be able to reference for years to come. While Where To is addressing the specifics of the antiwar movement, many of the challenges and strategic questions that are brought up along the way can be applied to most social justice work. In fact, one of the aspects that makes Where To so engaging is the contributions from those interviewees whose work, though overlapping at times, is for the most part outside of the antiwar movement.

Several themes stand out while reading the report. The first is the need for a shift from what can be called “activism & mobilizing” (attending and planning protests, sending out emails and relying on virtual forms of communication) to “organizing and strategic planning” (getting more serious about trainings for local activists, campaign organizing, identifying key constituencies, and mapping out how to bring them into the movement in meaningful ways). Another is the appalling lack of resources that exist within the antiwar movement right now, especially when calculating the kind of money and power that the movement is up against. As Patrick Reinsborough from smartMeme accurately points out:

“The antiwar movement doesn’t have many staffing opportunities. What happens then is nonprofits working on other issues scoop up the best organizers and activists. That is a real consideration: training and leadership development in the antiwar movement. As people get more effective, they’ll go off and do other (great) things, but it doesn’t build the capacity of the antiwar movement.”

Digging deeper
A few of the themes that Where To tries to highlight need to be fleshed out a bit more then even the more than 30 page report has space for. One of these is what is called the “lack of popular identification with the peace movement.” This phenomenon, though certainly posing a problem for the movement, might have been more useful to the reader if connected more concretely to the overall low level of popular struggle here in the US, and thus a low level of identification of any kind with organizations challenging the status quo outside of the accepted paradigms. Another question, which I was glad to see highlighted but would have loved to have seen more depth to was the section titled “What is the relevance of nonviolence today.” There were some great quotes featured, like Xiomara Castro from the Ella Baker Center, a grassroots community based organization in West Oakland who says:

“Creating a vision of nonviolence is important because so much of our society – especially what young people get from music, movies, slang, just about everything out there – is fed by violence. Through our campaign, Silence the Violence, we are trying to create a culture where we can make music that is nonviolent, hold events that are nonviolent, etc. It is something we are building on all the time, trying to move towards building a culture of nonviolence”

Such sentiments are powerful in the sense that they show the potential of really interrogating the question as it might relate to building organic ties between the traditional antiwar movement and community-based campaigns within working-class communities of color, which, as Castro points out, are disproportionately affected by violence of various kinds. As an organization whose publication title is WIN Through Revolutionary Nonviolence, I look forward to this point being expanded upon in the future, especially how it might relate concretely to mass organizing in the current context.

Collective framework
Although most sections deal in one way or another with the challenges facing and limitations of the current antiwar movement, it is refreshing to see the report framed in an overall much more positive and collective framework than we are used to from most of the articles circulated on email lists and websites. This is partly due to the editorial team’s careful organization of the materials, but it also seems heavily influenced by the fact that everyone interviewed is an actual organizer of some kind, involved in the daily grind, rather than a commentator working off of a few choice quotes and a short word count. High on specifics and constructive insights, and low on broad generalizations and vague historical references, Where To sets a new standard for how we should be assessing our various movements in a critical yet constructive format.

Max Elbaum, from War Times, suggests in the section on “openings and opportunities today” that “It’s more difficult to get the US of out Iraq than it was to get the US out of Vietnam. And that wasn’t easy either. It was extremely difficult. The cost – Vietnamese lives, the American lives, all kinds of human and social tragedies – was immense. Due to the complicated state of world politics rights now and the role of the US on the global scene, it’s going to be harder this time around.” If he’s right, then we will have our work cut out for us. The WRL’s model for approaching this project – listening, summarizing, and sharing information in a way that is accessible and relevant for organizers on the ground – will no doubt be an important step forward.