State of the movement

Pub date May 19, 2009
WriterBen Terrall

As local antiwar activists continue to oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they are struggling to mobilize popular support under a presidential administration that is less overtly bellicose than the Bush regime.

Antonia Juhasz, author of The Bush Agenda (William Morrow, 2006) and last year’s The Tyranny of Oil (William Morrow), has worked with a number of Bay Area antiwar groups. Over coffee in the Mission District, she said much has changed since President Barack Obama took office.

"It’s an amazing victory for the antiwar movement that we pushed people to elect a president who pledged to end the Iraq war. Now our job is to make that pledge a reality," she said, visibly tired from long work on a report about Chevron Corp.’s profiteering in Iraq and even at home in Richmond, where it’s sued the city to block a voter-approved tax increase.

Juhasz argues that all U.S. troops and contractors should leave Iraq immediately and that all bases be closed. But Obama’s plan includes a slower withdrawal timeline and for some U.S. forces to be left there indefinitely.

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CodePink and Global Exchange, told the Guardian that Obama supporters need to realize that it’s fine to disagree with our first African American president on some policies. She described, the prominent liberal organization that was a key player in Obama’s campaign, as "very top down," and focused on pro-Obama talking points. "It’s very hard because a lot of groups have become appendages to the administration."

Juhasz feels the antiwar movement needs to better communicate that "the organizing isn’t over when the campaign is over. Even if the leader agrees with you, they still need activists to push them."

But she acknowledges the difficulty of the task. "We want to keep from telling people they’re wrong. They won, which is great. But we need to say ‘You have the responsibility to keep organizing for the issues, not just the individual.’ It’s critically important to see beyond the leader, so it doesn’t become a cult of personality," she said, recalling that "under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if there wasn’t a mass movement for revolutionary change, there wouldn’t have been a New Deal."

That kind of pressure is clearly not being exerted on Obama. Tom Gallagher, a San Francisco resident active with the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, told us during a March 21 San Francisco demonstration commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, "If McCain had been elected there would be many more people here protesting. Obama is using the schedule Bush agreed to on pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq."

Gallagher grew more irked as he said, "Obama has sent 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He’s getting a pass on it, and McCain wouldn’t."

ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) has continued to agitate against war and for social justice. Richard Becker, ANSWER’s Western Regional Coordinator, told us the relatively low turnout on March 21 was not surprising.

Becker said he sees Obama’s popularity as "elation" over Bush’s exit. But no matter how bad the past or good the intentions of a candidate, once the candidate is elected U.S. president, he said, "the job description is CEO of the Empire." Becker cautioned that it will take time for postelection euphoria to wear off and for people to realize that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are dragging on under Obama.

Local activist David Solnit, a mainstay of Direct Action to Stop the War, works with Courage to Resist, which supports military war resisters. The group also helps recruits fight "stop-loss," which sends soldiers back to Iraq for additional tours of duty without their consent. "Obama said he’s going to change it eventually, but we’re worried about right now," he said.

Courage to Resist organizer Sarah Lazare agrees with Solnit that peace activists should oppose U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Lazare says it’s important to communicate that "Afghanistan is not a good war" and that "terrorism is a tactic" that cannot be destroyed militarily.

"Measuring the number of people at a demonstration is not the only way to measure what’s going on," she said. Among her examples of ongoing, dynamic organizing is the work of Courage to Resist and Iraq Vets Against the War.

IVAW is directly organizing active-duty members of the military to engage in dissent. SF Bay Area chapter member Peter Schlange told us that their ranks are growing as the Iraq war continues.

IVAW is also challenging the Afghanistan buildup. In a recently passed resolution, the antiwar veterans group "calls for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupying forces in Afghanistan and reparations for the Afghan people, and supports all troops and veterans working towards those ends."

Paul Kawika Martin, organizing and policy director for Peace Action, says his group wants all troops out of Iraq by 2010, with no "residual forces" or contractors left behind. Martin also says it’s important for activists to march and to lobby Congress. He stressed that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi lobbied for reform, and U.S. peace activists also need to do so.

Martin feels the peace movement will have an important impact on the new administration. "I don’t think he fears being too liberal," Marin told me. "But he wants to get things done, and like any politician he will be more pragmatic than we want him to be."

Martin said the troop escalation in Afghanistan was a concern for Peace Action. Martin is working with a group of 70 activists, think tanks, and aid workers who make up the Afghanistan Policy Working Group. He points to Reps. Raul Grijalva (now the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus), Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee, and Maxine Waters as key allies of antiwar activists in Congress. "We need to support them," he told me.

The antiwar movement itself also needs support, given that many of its top activists have been arrested repeatedly in the last six years.

Organizer Stephanie Tang with the World Can’t Wait dismisses hope for Democrats as a trap. She pointed to Nancy Pelosi’s early knowledge of torture and Obama’s recent announcement that the administration would block release of torture photos in the courts. In March 2008, Tang was arrested for allegedly obstructing police at a Berkeley demonstration opposing a military recruiting center.

Walter Riley, Tang’s lawyer, told the Guardian: "It’s my contention they identified Stephanie as a leader and are vioutf8g her constitutional rights to protest an illegal war."

Berkeley police referred inquiries to the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, which had not returned our call at press time. Riley said a Berkeley policeman "blind-sided her," and, holding his club horizontally, slammed Tang off her feet.

Police later attempted to get a statement from Tang while she was receiving medical treatment for injuries sustained during the incident. Berkeley police only later charged her with obstructing police at the march. Tang faces one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.