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The Day After October 2: Grassroots, Long-Term and Big Tent
By Christine Ahn
What happened the day after The One Nation Working Together rally on October 2? The rally’s organizers had their own – sometimes divergent – goals, from re-establishing a progressive pole in U.S. politics to mobilizing votes for the midterm elections. Although the ONWT organizers sought to keep the rally’s message squarely on jobs, another message also emerged: the solution to our economic crisis lies in drastically reducing our military budget. The day after the march, peace and economic justice groups met to discuss how to coordinate national efforts to move the money from war spending to community needs. For me, these glimpses of a broader movement uniting economic justice and peace were the most hopeful aspect of the weekend.
Peace Messages Abounded
According to unofficial accounts, all but a few of the speakers included an anti-war message in their speeches. Harry Belafonte, hands down delivered the most inspirational speech, recalling Martin Luther King’s hope that one day “All of America will soon come to the realization that the wars we wage today in faraway lands are immoral, unconscionable, and unwinnable.” To thunderous applause, Belafonte drew a clear link between the U.S. government’s obscene military spending and the economic crisis at home. “The President’s decision to escalate the war in that region alone costs the nation $33 billion dollars. That sum of money could not only create 600,000 jobs here in America, but would even leave us a few billion to start rebuilding our schools, our roads, our hospitals and affordable housing. It could also help to rebuild the lives of the thousands of our returning, wounded veterans.” (You can view the video of Harry Belafonte’s speech here.)
But it wasn’t only the rally’s speakers who were calling to divert military spending towards investments in domestic needs. As I walked through the crowds, I saw hundreds of people carrying signs with the theme, “Fund Jobs, Not Wars.” While many of these were produced by the seasoned organizers who put together the Peace Table, other groups brought their own. SEIU members carried signs that read, “Fund Healthcare, Not Warfare,” and those carried by the National Education Association’s members bore a demand to “Fund Education, Not War.” It is significant that two of the country’s largest unions are carrying this message to bring the war dollars home.
Important Political Moment
Clearly the political moment called for strengthening the connection in the public’s mind between the economic crisis and war. The challenge will be whether a long-term movement can be built to do this. To help foster this direction, the day after the ONWT rally, 31 peace and economic justice organizations met in Washington, D.C. to see if that work could be coordinated nationwide. The meeting brought together grassroots organizers, policy analysts, researchers and lobbyists to discuss how to coordinate efforts to move the money from war to community needs.
The Sunday meeting was organized by a number of groups including US Labor Against the War, Peace Action, Mayors for Peace/Western States Legal Foundation, the 25% Campaign (Fund Our Communities - Cut Military Spending 25%), US Action, and the Institute for Policy Studies.
Several of these groups are already organizing broad coalitions uniting economic justice and peace groups to cut the defense budget and use the savings for services and jobs. The Maine Campaign to Bring Our War Dollars Home is passing town resolutions and connecting Pentagon spending with the budget cuts that are closing schools across the state. The mayors of Massachusetts’s largest cities have urged the President and Congress to redirect 25% of military spending, and the Boston 25% Coalition is rallying for jobs funded by war spending cuts. Peace Action of Montgomery County, Maryland, following Code Pink’s lead in Washington, D.C., defeated a tax cut for war contractor Lockheed Martin while the county is furloughing fire fighters, cutting library hours, and increasing the class sizes in the county’s schools. Similar organizing is now sprouting up in cities across the country, including Chicago, Chico, St. Louis and the San Francisco Bay Area. And US Labor Against the War is proposing a campaign of “fund us, not war” resolutions to be passed by city councils, school boards, unions, congregations, and grassroots organizations.
“What brings us together is a failed system,” said Michael Eisenscher, a member of US Labor Against the War and one of the organizers of the Sunday meeting. To the failed economic, foreign, military and political policies that created the crisis, Eisenscher added failed movement strategies. “We can no longer operate in our movement silos,” he said, especially in a political moment that is “pregnant with opportunity and possibility.”
The group explored ways to shift public discourse and debate, and to introduce alternative models, by building effective cross-movement and community alliances that might offer hope to working and poor people in the U.S. and around the world.
Grassroots, Long-Term, Big Tent
An analysis of the economic and political moment concluded that we face a triple crisis of economy, ecology and empire. The Pentagon is sucking up resources badly needed to resolve the economic and environmental crises. Everyone broadly recognized that neither the peace nor the economic justice movements alone can resolve these crises, and that our efforts must be grounded in grassroots organizing and reach a broad cross-section of people, especially those not involved in the anti-war movement.
While we recognized the need for regional and national collaboration, we concluded that any successful effort also requires building a grassroots base. “If we stay focused on enabling and empowering grassroots organizing,” said Judith Le Blanc of Peace Action, “this meeting will be a success and the collaborations will not only have short-term impact but long term, sustainable impact on the way things are going in the country.”
“In grassroots communities, the connection between militarism and the crisis that people are feeling in their day-to-day lives has never been a challenge we’ve had to make,” said Steve Williams of POWER in San Francisco. “People are able to connect the ecological crisis with the increasing criminalization that is happening in their communities, with the wars.” The challenge, he asserted, is to develop a tactical plan so people can act on that analysis.
Aaron Hughes of the Iraq Veterans Against the War added a critique of the existing peace movement. “The peace movement is not about base-building; It’s about messaging. There is a difference.” Hughes reflected that when he looked at organizations that have succeeded, “They won because they identified who had the power and organized the base that was able to overcome that power.” He suggested that the peace movement hasn’t been able to capitalize on the fact that 76 percent of the American people are against the Iraq War, because it doesn’t have the ground “troops” and mobilization networks necessary to force a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
An important tactical question arose: Should the national effort focus solely on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan? After all, the war in Afghanistan is in the news and is an increasingly unpopular war. Many people argued, however, that the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars only account for 22% of the military budget. We need deeper cuts than that in military spending. Furthermore, our efforts must extend beyond opposition to a particular war; we must take on the military industrial complex itself, including the 1000 military bases around the world.
This suggestion raised a corresponding concern that an emphasis on larger cuts in military spending threatens the real livelihoods of thousands of workers in this country. Others saw this as an opportunity to begin a genuine transition from weapons production to green jobs. One former machinist who had spent ten years working on military equipment for General Electric believed this was possible. She said we might begin by simply talking with industrial workers about the possibility of conversion, of turning their skills towards building infrastructure for the country.
One Movement, Many Campaigns
Those attending chose not to focus on creating a single national campaign, but on supporting the many local and state campaigns sprouting up across the country. Four working groups were established to further the work, taking advantage of the diverse movements, skills, and capacities represented in the room. Michael Leon Guerrero of Grassroots Global Justice summed it up this way: “We’ve agreed that we want to build towards a broader effort; we have some ideas and there still are some challenges, but at least we have identified a structure and process moving forward. It feels like the commitment is there to make it work.”
We agreed that this is the right political moment to make the link between America’s endless wars and the economic crisis. At the same time, it was clear that we must pay full attention to the real pain that the economic crisis is causing in people’s lives right now. Organized efforts to fight foreclosures and pink slips are vital local struggles, but we are also in a position to offer a national solution: the money we need to solve our problems is right in front of us -- in the military budget. It was clear that to succeed in moving that money, we would need to break out of our competitive and single-issue silos and instead share resources in a time of scarcity and work towards a vision of a peace economy that is, indeed, possible.
For groups that want to get involved with the national effort, contact Mike Prokosch at mikeprokosch at verizon dot net or 617-282-3783.