“What Now For The Peace Movement?”

Polls in recent weeks show a full 59 percent of Americans are now in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But they’re not acting on this view, in part because they worry about the potential for even greater chaos following a U.S. exit.

The task for the peace movement-responsible for the huge public demonstrations against a war in Iraq in the days prior to March 19, 2003-is speaking to these concerns as it mobilizes untapped public sentiment against the occupation.

In the six months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the United States erupted in a display of citizen dissent not seen since the Vietnam War era. Now, almost two years later, the majority of the American public view Iraq as a train wreck. Yet public outrage about this war’s seemingly endless tragedy has remained largely under the radar.

To turn up the volume and power of voices calling for an end to the U.S. war and occupation, the same organizations behind the massive rallies of 2003 and 2004 are planning a fresh strategy for engaging the public in constructive action on Iraq.

With the backdrop of an escalating war that’s ravaging Iraq, destabilizing U.S. communities, and sowing seeds of resentment against the United States around the world, United for Peace and Justice-the nation’s largest peace coalition-assembled 500 delegates over President’s Day weekend in St. Louis to chart a roadmap for the next year to bolster and build the U.S. peace and justice movement. The assembly whittled dozens of proposals from member groups down to a powerful action plan to bolster the movement to end the war. A set of priorities emerged that maximizes the White House vulnerabilities generated by the Iraq War and sets a proactive agenda of alternatives to the Bush administration’s belligerent policies.

Building A Plan

First, the assembly affirmed that we must broaden and deepen our base to catalyze public sentiment for bringing the troops home to reach a tipping point. According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken after the Iraq elections, 59 percent of the public believes the United States should pull its troops out of Iraq in the next year. Yet the ranks of those actively demanding that the president produce an exit strategy from Iraq are slim. The peace movement must find fresh ways to stir untapped allies so that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, our conscience leaves us “no other choice” but to act.

Second, we must support and amplify the pressure coming from within the ranks of the military. Military families and veterans hold the moral authority to successfully communicate with the U.S. public the reality on the ground in Iraq and the disillusion soldiers are facing. Iraq War veterans and military families need help putting a human face on the 1,500 soldiers who have been sent to their graves and the thousands more who are suffering the physical and mental scars of war. It’s also crucial to expose how the war has dangerously overextended the U.S. military, the National

Guard and our Military Reserve Units

Third, we must seize on Bush’s greatest vulnerability-the war’s astronomical cost, set to surpass $200 billion in the coming weeks. Bush’s mounting deficit from reckless war spending is already squeezing out community programs that serve millions.

And fourth, we must expose the hypocrisy of Bush’s war of liberation and present viable alternatives to promote genuine democracy and economic sovereignty in Iraq.

Back To Movement Roots

Founded in 2002, UFPJ is the glue that will continue to link 1,400 organizations together around these strategies to oppose Bush’s Iraq War and its domestic consequences. Since its inception, this diverse and dynamic coalition has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people through global demonstrations like the “World Says No to War” actions on Feb. 15, 2003, national actions such as the high-profile protests during the Republican National Convention in August 2004, and hundreds of smaller-scale actions that sustained opposition to this war since 2003.

What’s ahead for the peace movement? For our part, UFPJ seeks to expand our base through a sustained education campaign set to launch March 24, the 40th anniversary of the first Vietnam teach-in. Simultaneous teach-ins will kickoff the campaign in Washington D.C., California, and at the site of the first Vietnam teach-in in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our goal is to generate momentum and infrastructure for a long-term education movement that promotes fresh models for reaching beyond the choir to engage clergy, youth, immigrants and others about the real axis of evil-racism, poverty and war-set forth by Martin Luther King in 1967.

Most importantly, the teach-in campaign will speak to the large slice of the 59 percent of the public who thinks the troops should be brought home but are paralyzed with fear about the consequences for Iraq. Our task is to illustrate the facts-the longer the United States occupies Iraq, the more deadly and costly this war will be.

Coupled with the education campaign is a strategy to highlight the domestic consequence of war in our organizing. Missouri taxpayers, who hosted the UFPJ conference, for example, are on the verge of paying $1.1 billion more to fund the Iraq War once Congress passes Bush’s requested $82 billion emergency Iraq supplemental funding package. Missouri’s share of the impending budget bill could be directed, instead, to provide health care to more than 485,000 children in the state. With statistics like this in mind, the assembly backed a plan to partner with allies such as poverty groups, education advocates and health care coalitions who are leading fights to save vital programs that are getting burned by Bush’s skyrocketing deficits and budget cuts. This initiative will link the mushrooming number of local fights to save essential public services and the $1.5 billion-a-week sinkhole of Iraq War funding.

Work On The Ground

UFPJ has set in motion a strategy to hold lawmakers’ feet to the fire for their inertia on this failing war. The coalition is both asking Congress to cut the purse strings for military operations in Iraq and developing a nationally coordinated strategy to pressure Congress and other elected officials to bring the troops home immediately. This multi-year Congressional pressure strategy-which will draw lessons from the Vietnam-era campaign around the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment-seeks to expedite the war’s end. The campaign is drawing its strength from grassroots organizing and will link street actions with other types of pressure, like direct advocacy, to make ending the war a practical priority for elected officials. With more than 1,400 local member groups from across the country representing hundreds of thousands of people, UFPJ is an untapped political powerhouse.
This muscle will also be channeled into a state-by-state campaign to halt the use and abuse of the U.S. National Guard in Iraq. Just one week after the conference, on March 1, a total of 49 Vermont towns led the charge by passing resolutions asking their state legislators and congressional delegation to investigate the use of the Vermont National Guard in Iraq. The town hall resolutions also called on the president and Congress to “take steps to withdraw American troops from Iraq.” The campaign, spearheaded by Military Families Speak Out, will build on the Cities for Peace resolution model that led to 165 “No War” resolutions by the March 2003 invasion.

This amazing victory in Vermont, which had been in the works for months, will inspire hearings in other state legislatures and city councils toward building the political will to pass resolutions to halt the use of National Guard in Iraq. While the short-term goal is to educate local lawmakers and the public about the unfair treatment of the National Guard, the campaign will also expose the overextension of military personnel and the de facto backdoor draft that funnels low-income youth to serve in disproportionately high numbers.

In the short term, UFPJ will continue to build on what it does best: mobilize. The coalition is supporting a mass protest rally near Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., on March 19 to coincide with the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion. Military families and veterans’ groups are leading the effort to organize a powerful action that honors the memories of more than 50 soldiers from that base who have been killed, while demanding that the president stop sending soldiers and civilians to their graves.

On the anniversary, dozens of groups, under the leadership of the Iraq Pledge of Resistance, will urge the American public to join a campaign of “civil resistance” to ratchet up the significance and types of actions undertaken to end the war-particularly nonviolent civil disobedience.

No Choice But Action

A challenge that remains for the peace movement includes finding new ways to deepen ties with our global peace and human rights counterparts, who are key to eroding the tepid international support for the U.S. occupation. More importantly, we need to build better links with emerging civil society leaders in Iraq and the region. Through these alliances the U.S. peace movement can better reflect Iraqi-designed alternatives to the U.S. occupation.

One hopeful sign that the movement is committed to addressing both hurdles was our decision in St. Louis to join dozens of other countries for the World Day of Mobilization Against War. UFPJ will organize a rally at the United Nations in New York City on Sept. 10, to coincide with a meeting of heads of 191 countries on the United Nation’s 60th Anniversary. This anniversary provides an opportunity to engage our communities in support of building global institutions that have the power and moral authority to reject unilateral war and to promote fundamental human rights.

At Riverside Church in 1967, Martin Luther King opened his famous speech that linked poverty, racism and the Vietnam War with, “I come to this house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” The ultimate challenge the peace movement faces is to stir that same spirit in the American public on Iraq.