March 28, 2010

The Anti-War Movement Seven Years After Shock & Awe

[This important piece first appeared at the website of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad. It is reposted here because Fire on the Mountain, as a blog, has the capacity to house a discussion of its content, which we are starting here by following the piece with five interesting comments which appeared on a Facebook thread.]

by Dennis O'Neil & Eric See

The war in Iraq is still on. It's already the second most expensive war in US history--only WWII cost more.

The war in Afghanistan is heating up. It's now the second longest war in US history--only Vietnam lasted longer.

So what the hell happened to the anti-war movement? Today, the movement that turned out millions around the world to try and stave off the invasion of Iraq, that created the conditions for Barack Obama's history-making electoral victory, is nearly invisible and in disarray.

How Come?

We can stipulate a few causes everybody will agree on.

* Mainstream media coverage of the wars has been criminal.

Pop quiz: How many US troops are still in Iraq? (Answer: 100,000, and that's not counting an equal number of "contractors," i.e. mercenaries and logistics people our tax dollars are paying for.)

In some cases we're better off when they don't cover it. Take the Battle of Marja in Afghanistan. After breathless news reports quoting Pentagon spokespeople about a week-long offensive against the Taliban for control of this key city of 80,000, the place turned out to be a rural crossroads with more goats than people.

* The military has become very good at holding down casualty figures among US troops. In Iraq, they are hunkered down in bases and avoid combat, while the escalation in Afghanistan is just now starting to produce a new spike in US casualties. But people in this country have an unfortunate tendency to care only about "our" deaths, even as the super-expensive remote-controlled drone aircraft blow up schools and kill non-combatants in Afghanistan. (This, we are told, is okay, because the military wasn't actually trying to kill those kids.)

* Of course there is the ongoing economic meltdown which has become the principal focus for tens of millions of ordinary people looking fruitlessly for those green shoots of growth that the politicians and TV talking heads keep promoting. Activists, too, have been scuffling for their own survival and struggling to organize their coworkers and communities to fight cutbacks.

Behind The Obvious

There is another big-picture reason for the sorry state of the anti-war movement that is not easy to come to grips with. We have to face it: the 2008 election campaign and the Obama presidency are the biggest
things that have taken the wind out of the anti-war movement's sails.

From 2003-2008, a substantial and growing mass of class forces and social movements formed an objective bloc to the left of the Bush/Cheney administration. It was a broad united front consisting of sections and strata of the people including trade union members, environmentalists, educators, civil libertarians, college students, women's groups, African Americans, immigrants, veterans, etc.

The bloc was dominated by large, reform-minded, generally liberal organizations and coalitions whose leaders realized that there was no gain in kowtowing to the Bushies to try and get their programs passed. Still, it was more than a brief alliance of convenience, and was manifested in the deep visceral loathing for Bush/Cheney among the masses.

The lead unifying issue for this united front became the war in Iraq. For one thing, none of the forces in the bloc was strong enough to impose its program on the others: the unions weren't going to mobilize around reproductive rights nor the environmentalists around card check. More important, the war was, objectively, the principal contradiction facing the people of the US (and the world) and by early 2005 or so, popular rejection of the war had made it a very prominent vulnerable spot for the administration.

In fact, it can be said that it was the anti-war movement that elected Barack Obama. His Democratic rivals, Clinton and Edwards, had not spoken out during the buildup to the Iraq invasion, while Obama had. He became, by default, the anti-war candidate. And once the primaries were over and John McCain predicted that the US occupation of Iraq might continue for 50 or even 100 years, he was toast, even before the economy went belly-up.

By mid-2008, the united front was largely incorporated into the Democratic Party campaign. With Obama's election, the main organized groupings from that bloc became part of the establishment, and they did so on terms dictated by the White House. What was once an objective bloc is now an array of interest groups, each pursuing its own agenda, and each tending to regard others as rivals for (increasingly shrinking) resources and positioning to "affect affairs of state."

None of these groups was about to put the war at the center of their agenda, especially when confronted with the catastrophic and ongoing collapse of the economic boom. Even when Obama announced two big troop escalations in Afghanistan in his first year in office and showed no sign that a rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq was in the making, there wasn't a peep. Quite the opposite, Obama was able to bring anti-war groups into the White House for closed-door meetings before making his announcement.

We ask: Is there any basis for expecting even a weaker version of a broad united front to coalesce to the left of the Obama administration any time soon, in particular one centered on opposing the wars?

A Hard Look Around

Looking around, the organized anti-war movement found that these developments had downsized it to its hard core: essentially peace people (religious and secular) and the anti-imperialist left.

The long uphill slog of trying to end the occupations now seemed like a task that might never end. As Obama put more troops in harm’s way than had ever been deployed under Bush/Cheney, Congresspeople who had spoken and voted against war funding before were, with a few honorable exceptions, suddenly confused and silent.

More important, hundreds of thousands of everyday people who had participated during the Bush years simply weren't there any longer. Their organizations weren't mobilizing them. Individually, some figured the job was done with Obama's election, or that he deserved a chance to get it done. The economy pulled the attention of many. Others were dismayed at how little their efforts had produced and gave up.

That all had its own suppression effect, disheartening a good part of the hard core of the anti-war movement. That core group, mainly aged forty-five to sixty-five when the war started, is not only tired but nearly a decade older.

We ask: When was the last time you turned out for an anti-war mobilization?

This highlights a final problem facing the anti-war movement. The sheer duration of these occupations has tended to normalize war—with "acceptable" casualty levels—as a regrettable but inevitable fact of life in the US. The first-year college students who were demonstrating against education cuts in California and around the country last month were in 3rd grade when Afghanistan was invaded and occupied, and in 4th when the Iraq war started. They've never really known a country not in combat in that region, since during their lifetime “we have always been at war with Eurasia."

Could the anti-war movement become the equivalent of the nuclear disarmament movement, with a handful of stalwarts still lobbying and holding vigils, still fighting the good fight three generations after it started in the early '50s?

So What Do We Do?

If there were some quick and easy way to bring into being a vibrant and growing anti-war movement, it would already be happening. We have our work cut out for us.

But we must keep on. As much as the terrain has shifted under our feet and presented us with an even steeper uphill trek, we still have a duty to oppose the crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan that our rulers are committing, with our tax money, in our name.

The folks who marched with us in 2005 and 2006 and 2007 haven’t disappeared. There’s a whole layer of folks who cut their political teeth in the anti-war movement and are now organizers against budget cutbacks and the collapse of our social safety net. We need to reconnect the dots and bring an anti-war analysis and message into the struggles that have motion on the ground now.

One of the most powerful arguments against the wars right now is the astonishing bill for them. It costs $1 million a year to keep a single soldier in Afghanistan. How much does it cost to keep that person in college? Your city has a $300 million deficit? Simple--just don’t send 300 people to Afghanistan for a year, problem solved.

We need to build activity at the local level that’s easy for people to engage in and doesn’t require signing on to a whole stew of anti-imperialist statements. We also need to bring our bodies and signs to the marches and vigils against budget cutbacks in our communities, instead of just waiting for people to show up at an anti-war rally. We need to make the connections in our messages; “Heath care Not Warfare” at the rallies on the congressional showdown. “Books Not Bombs” when folks march in defense of public education.

This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do it. Let’s get going.

Dennis O'Neil is a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad and active in the War Moratorium project.

Eric See became active during the first Gulf War, he was one of the co-founders of the War Moratorium project and currently works at Peace Action.

Initial comments on this piece

FotM has taken the liberty of borrowing these from Facebook. Kindly add your own in the comments section below.

Sigrid: i have not been able to leave town, pretty much, since last summer (think gas & brake repair). seattle is 100 miles to the south of me & is the nearest protest game around...not to mention i can't find anyone who can, who would.

Diana: There was not enough interest to have a bus from the Lehigh Valley to Washington [for the March 20 Demonstration]. Wwe drove down last weekend. There are vigils in several places on different days in the area, but since the Republicans are out of office people don't seem as outraged as they should be about the wars, the drones, the 20% unemployment, climate change...

Bruce: there's nothing wrong with the anti-war movement being a little like the nuclear disarmament [movement]--which was, after all, was incredibly effective and made up of long distance runner-type activists.

Larry: This is a very sound and very valuable article, and I hope it gets wide distribution. I do want to say though that at the beginning, it seems to buy into the emotional roller coaster so typical of the left.The statement that the anti-war movement is now "nearly invisible and in disarray" is simply not true--and in fact the rest of the article demonstrates this. There is a broad and tested base of anti-war activists in every part of the country, including rural Virginia, where I live. Yes, the highly visible actions are not happening and would not be covered if they did.

It is critical, as the article suggests, that anti-war activists move into alliances, esp. around the budget, and otherwise respond effectively to current conditions. But it is also critical that we convey a historical or at least transgenerational awareness of our task. Of course the antiwar movement shrank after Obama's election. Of course it shrank after the national turn against the Iraq war (almost entirely due to the antiwar movement). and of course imperialism didn't go away because either of these events. These are the conditions we work with. They do not contradict the reality that the anti-imperialist movement has grown in numbers, sophistication, and geographical and racial and age diversity over the last 40 years. It will never be easy in the belly of the beast, but let's not confuse predictable short-term changes with deficiencies in the movement building for the long term.

Laurel: If you want to feel better, Dennis, check out [which] spotlights 20 of 150 organized events organized around the 7th anniversary of the war.

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March 25, 2010

Dondi Drops Some Science!

click for larger image

A bit of proletarian wisdom from Dondi, a daily comic strip which ran from 1955 to 1986. This early '70s story line involved Dondi (an adopted war orphan) and a homeless woman being used as mules for a diamond smuggling operation.

I think.

It was forty years ago, give or take a few.

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March 6, 2010

Three More From March 4

On Friday I asked some 'rades and friends for quickie first-hand reports on what has probably been the most significant national mass protest of the Obama era to date, the March 4 mobilization to protect public education from cutbacks and privatization. One Associated Press report said, "Millions of students, teachers and parents rallied in schools and college campuses across California and many other states to protest deep spending cuts to schools and universities."

Yesterday Rahim on the Docks and I posted reports on Newark, NJ and Berkeley, CA respectively. Ovenight, some more folks kicked in short reports: Mirk from the other side of San Francisco Bay, Anne from Austin, TX and Roadsigns contributer Napolitana Piemontese, who works in the NYC school system.

One thing these reports make clear is that while the nature and focus of the actions and the main group participating varied from place to place, there was, and is, a solid foundation of anger and determination not to pay for a crisis the rich created which promises more and better in months to come.

SF: No Ifs, Ands Or Buts!

The early morning in SF saw little kids (kindergarteners on up) marching up and down 24th Street and Mission Street as Buena Vista Elementary and Bryant Elementary went out en masse.

In the afternoon: The gathering in San Francisco was really fantastic. Estimates of up to 20,000 people (at least).

One of the biggest was from 24th and Mission to the Civic Center. I marched with San Francisco Community School--3rd to 8th graders--which led the march from 24th and Mission. 9 and 10-year-olds holding mini-bullhorns led the chants:
What Does SOS Mean? Save Our Schools!
Money For Education Not For War, Tax The Rich Not The Poor!
and (perfect for elementary and middle school kids)
No Ifs, Ands Or Buts--Stop All The Budget Cuts!
300 kids and teachers from Mission went out despite the threats from the school district. So did kids from Monroe Elementary, Marshall Elementary, Balboa High School, June Jordan, John O'Connell High School.

Hundreds came from City College, same from SF State which brought huge puppets. 10 buses came from De Anza College. Teachers were there from every school.

The marchers filled the streets from one side to another over at least 15 blocks.

Perhaps one of the starkest moments came when we marched past a private Friends School. On one side of the heavy wired fence, locked in, were those kids. On our side--an entire community.

And it was an entire community, demanding their right to education. And it was kids who had never been in a demonstration before feeling the power of being out in the streets.

A side note--organic urban farmers who had been given what they believed to be good fertilizer from the city (and then learned that it was toxic) went to City Hall in Hazmat suits and dumped tons of the stuff all over the place.

We'll see what happens.

[Some great photos from SF , including one of Mirk, here.]

Austin: Cuts For Staff, Hikes For Students...
And a $2 Mill Raise For The Coach!

We had more than 200 students, staff, and instructional workers turn out on campus at University of Texas--Austin. We gathered for a march, rally, and speak-out organized by the Stop the Cuts Coalition which includes: the Texas State Employees Union, Anthropology Graduate Student Association, Student Friends of the Cactus Café, University Democrats, MEChA, International Socialist Organization, ¡ella pelea!, UT Student Prison Caucus, Amnesty International--UT Chapter, and Join the Impact--Longhorn chapter.

We're seeing major cuts to staff, lecturers, grad student admissions, community and student services, plus larger class sizes, fewer classes, and rising tuitions BUT this is opportunistic. The administration at UT-Austin decided to grab jobs, cut programs, and freeze staff salaries in order to have money to spend on a raises for a few (a $2 million raise for the football coach), highly speculative research hires which they think will increase their prestige, and new facilities. UT is running a full-page ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the headline "Texas Wants to Take You Higher." (We don't think this is what Sly had in mind.)

Students and workers are joining together to fight against an administration that sets priorities based on privilege, private money, and exclusivity. The action on March 4 is just a start towards mobilizing and organizing our campus.

NYC: P.O'd And Ready To Fight

I attended a rally outside a board meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NYC. Folks had marched there from a rally at the Governor's Midtown office but I missed that part.

The main focuses were the threats to make high school students pay for their own metrocards (generally thought to be a shadow play between the City/Mayor and the MTA) and the probably more real plan to lay off station agents in dozens of subway stations. So it wasn't strictly a public ed focus but a broader "defend public services/jobs" focus. I'm not sure who put that all together but the Transport Workers Union was out in force with placards and union jackets; they even had people collecting the placards as the rally petered out.

One very unusual feature was a rousing speech by the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the police union, pointing out the centrality of station agents to police work and public safety, and noting that (I paraphrase) "our members may be on the other side of the barricades here, but in out hearts, we're with you."

The crowd of a thousand or so (I'm told it was much bigger for the march) ranged from teenagers to seniors, majority people of color, with high school and college students, transit workers and a few teachers. We were, of course, in metal pens on the sidewalk and part of the street outside the FIT building, with one side open for exit and entrance. As the hearing was about to start, and we were chanting (slogans didn't seem very thought out), and it wasn't clear what else we could do, some young white anarchists tried to agitate people to bum-rush the hearing. They then marched around to a back entrance, whereupon the cops closed off that route by placing pens on the one open side.

This effectively trapped the rest of us, which of course is an unlawful detention prohibited by the US Constitution, as many of us informed the police rather vociferously. After about 10 minutes of us chanting "Let us go," and some shoving of barriers and tussling with the police, a white guy in a suit (some thought it was the PBA president but I wasn't sure) told the cops to open that pen and let us out.

A friend who is TWU Local 100 and I agreed that, given the relative lack of publicity within union circles, the size and spirit of the turnout showed that people are p.o.'d and ready to fight.

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March 5, 2010

March 4: The Tide Is Rising--A First-Hand Report

Perhaps the most important single protest of the Obama era so far took place yesterday--the national day of action in defense of public education. Despite the huge differences in specifics from pre-K to grad school and from state to state, there were hundreds of protests around the country in response to an initial call, from Cali, the epicenter of the current wave of struggle.

These battles are the most widespread organized resistance to tuition hikes, savage cutbacks and privatization initiatives, all fueled by the economic meltdown. Somehow the "green shoots" the administration and media so like to talk about appear to be unable to push up through the mountainous state and local budget deficits and education is one of the first targets.

Although there's a lot of day after reportage, the build-up took place largely under the media's radar, despite endorsements from the likes of the national AFL-CIO. One noteworthy occurrence suggests real concern and divisions in the ruling clas--that's the feature article published March 3, the day before the protest, in the NY Times, on rebarbative "education reform expert" Diane Ravitch, who is now recanting the pro-privatization, pro-charter school, pro-standardized testing views she had spent decades pushing. Clearly some realize that a total collapse of the US educational system is not in the interests of the ruling class.

Anyhow, I want to get to cases. Here is a inspiring and moving summation of some of what happened in Berkeley, just sent me by Liz, a 'rade of mine who is in grad school there.

It Looked Like Movement To Me!

What I saw yesterday at UC Berkeley looked like "movement" because so many different kinds of people were moving in sync: anarchists who want to shut it down and occupy; students who want to lobby in Sacramento; laid off high-school teachers who want to teach; Asian and Pacific Island students demanding the right to education for immigrants; custodians who want to send their own kids college; 10 year-olds chanting "We want P.E." Black, brown, Asian, and white. Students, parents, teachers, and workers. Movement is when one student who prefers to march and chant, has friends who are shutting down the highway.

The organizing was broad and deep, connecting radical students with identity groups, with unions with faculty and staff, and community groups. It was highly coordinated - centrally democratic and drawing on institutions of student organization and unions. It was also spontaneous and decentralized. Many groups organized their own actions behind their own banners, in their own style, in their own language, choosing their own targets.

We marched in a group of 30 law students through our law school, through the library and the main lecture hall screaming "Whose University? Our University!" and "Join us! Join us!" When we passed our building's custodian in the hallway, she yelled "Si se puede" for us. The librarians chanted quietly. We "took the street" outside the law school, shutting it down for about 10 minutes, and marched to the main campus protest with our banner "Berkeley Law: We Object." It was not radical, but it was a crack in the wall of business class solidarity that holds up conservative law school culture. Chanting in the law library felt a little bit like movement.

The mobilizations at the law school in the fall attracted mostly white students with labor organizing backgrounds, targeting the law school Dean and protesting the law school fee hikes (we're going to pay $8,000 more next year to the education loan industrial complex). This semester women of color leaders organized in advance, taking care to build strong relationships among students, with radical staff at the law school, and with leaders on the undergrad campus. Women of color at the helm focused the message on "We are public education" - what it means to be a school for low-income students, for students of color, and immigrants. Many of the students who joined the mobilizations yesterday were newly politicized, new leaders, and students of color.

The march from UC Berkeley to Oakland was an exodus of students pouring off campus into the city. We were joined along the way by groups of kids and parents. The faces were Black, brown Asian and white. The sight of downtown Oakland filled with the masses was beautiful to all of us. I wasn't there for the protests around Oscar Grant (young black man murdered by police last winter) but people were saying they felt connected to that protests.

Two of the best movement moments of my day happened on the train on my way back to Berkeley. A groups of kids in braces, Asian and white, looking a little bit punk and a little bit like chubby children saw my sign and said "Yeah, money for schools not for war!" They told me they staged a walk-out at their school and they were kind of bummed that only 7 kids walked out. I told them 7 kids was more than ever walked out of my middle school. They agreed that next time there would be more.

On my way out of the train, the operator paused before pulling out of the track to talk to me. She was an older African American woman and she wanted to know how the protest went. She wanted to make sure I knew that slave owners denied education to slaves. She wanted to tell everyone on the train platform that government divests from education in order to suppress political dissent, so that the masses will be poor and helpless and too uneducated to do anything about it. She said we have to fight back, and then moved the train to the next station.

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March 4: Young teachers lead the fight in Newark, NJ…

"Who are the high school students and who're teachers?!", one old-head was heard asking another, while joining the afternoon picket-line of nearly 100 young activists at Military Park in Newark on March 4, 2010.
The fight against funding cuts to public schools (which began over a year ago with students hitting the streets, taking over buildings and seizing campuses at state and city colleges in California) turned national on March 4. The influx of very young warriors that this represents is the most exciting development that these aging activists of the People's Organization for Progress has seen in many years.
A new organization, Teachers as Leaders in Newark (TaLiN), had called the demonstration on short notice, asking POP's endorsement merely days before. The organization was so new at that point that Leah Owens, the founder of TaLiN, told POP members that demands for demonstration had not been formulated yet. This seeming lack of organization is why some grumpier, older activists were shocked to see how well attended and expertly organized the Newark picket-line, march and rally were in the end.
This was truly a young people's demonstration, with students, young and recently hired teachers and even very young candidates to the Newark Board of Education making up the bulk of participants. The young activist teachers of TaLiN pulled together a coalition including student groups like the East Side High School Debate Team and the American History debate team along with more established groups like POP and NOW. The demands TaLiN's members united around indicated their political depth as well as their dedication to struggle:
  • Flat Tuition
  • No Educational Cuts
  • No Layoffs of Staff
  • Jobs and Education, Not War and Occupation!
As TaLiN's leaflet explained:
Governor Christie has just announced a freeze of a half billion in education funding and $62 million in state college funding. Newark Public Schools is losing close to $102 million.
The cuts well set off a round of public layoffs, cuts to education services at the K-12 level and hikes in tuition and fees as well as cuts at the state college level.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is not allowing bail outs for state budgets and has frozen service funding increases for every thing but war spending. The US is spending $57,000 per minute on the war in Afghanistan, as of December 2009, and that cost has gone up considerably since.
These young teachers and their student allies are the new leaders of these struggles with slogans like: "We need Jobs and Education, Not War and Militarization!" Leading an extremely broad and very multi-ethnic new movement, these young comrades have a lot to teach the People's Organization for Progress and our traditional allies. Compared with the hundreds of demonstration across the US yesterday, in the context of the hundreds of thousands of people activated in this fight, our experiences in Newark, NJ may appear to be insignificant. But what we learned yesterday in this small, aging, former industrial hub of New Jersey has far-ranging lessons for the future of activism here and everywhere…

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