Over a year after Democrats won Congress on a still un-fulfilled anti-war pledge, Chicago-based Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) was one of the many anti-war groups still calling for a transformation of U.S. foreign policy. Buttressed by mass opposition to the war, the Chicago group went to Iowa for caucus week to launch a civil disobedience campaign called Seasons of Discontent: A Presidential Occupation Project (SoDA POP).
Throughout the primary season, the SoDA POP members will be in campaign offices making demands that no major candidate will likely agree to. In Des Moines, they asked candidates to support a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan within 100 days after they take office, as well as an end to military plans and sanctions on Iran and a commitment to fully fund the reconstruction of Iraq. They refused to leave offices until they received these assurances. Fifteen were arrested in Iowa, and in the process they revealed the discomfort, even among “anti-war” candidates, with the anti-war movement.
These acts of civil disobedience express hope and despair. The transgression rejects an unresponsive corporate “democracy,” but appeals to its leaders for support. Jeff Leys reconciles this tension: “We have to use every non-violent lever at our disposal. We need to do this extra-legal work as an extension of the necessary work of participation.” Leys spent the week in Des Moines campaign offices and at the precinct.
After arrests at Guliani headquarters, another wave of protests hit the Clinton campaign, which literally shut the door on debate. Four protesters risked arrest and tried to enter, but ended up protesting outside the locked office until it closed for the day. On New Year’s Eve, cameras crowded the doors of Huckabee headquarters where three more protestors inquired of the reverend: “Who would Jesus Bomb?”
Kathy Kelly, Mona Shaw, and Robert Braam before their arrests at Huckabee’s Des Moines campaign headquarter—photo from Des Moines Catholic Worker
One of these women was Kathy Kelly, a tireless veteran of the peace movement. The day after her arrest at Huckabee headquarters, she appeared on C-SPAN from Des Moines where the anchorperson went through her lengthy bio. She has been to Iraq dozens of times and was in Baghdad during the 2003 shock and awe bombings. “I was with children (in Iraq) who were so terrified they began to grind their teeth, morning, noon, and night,” she said. A hostile Iraq war veteran called in to inquire as to whether she was from this planet, where we face Islamic radicalism. Kelly pointed out, “When you hear children crying in pain, you have a different experience of the effect of bombs being dropped from 30,000 feet in the air.”
For months members of the Chicago community have asked Senator Obama to take this risk, not just to end the war, but to change priorities. Says Kelly: “There’s such an opportunity for leadership among the Democrats to educate Americans about the consequences of this war and about what could be done with the money that would be voted to fund ongoing wars.” They met up again with the campaign in Des Moines to ask for Obama’s support. The response from the office of a candidate running on his anti-war credentials revealed not just hostility, but a coordinated attempt to marginalize the anti-war message.
About a dozen protesters entered, carrying banners and pictures of Iraqis they’d met in their travels. Obama’s people swiftly removed members of the press, claiming that space had to be made for visitors at the front entrance, which was then promptly locked. A sign was posted, directing visitors to the back entrance away from the protest.
With the red, white, and blue Obama “O” as his backdrop, John Tuzcu, a member of Des Moines Catholic Worker, read from the Illinois candidate’s plan to leave tens of thousands of troops in Iraq through his first term. The campaign staff quietly evacuated the main room in protest of the protesters. Brian Terrell, 51, read from MLK’s April 1967 speech on Vietnam; “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” Obama’s people whispered to each other, then had police usher the protest out the side door.
Kelly and others are giving equal scrutiny to the liberal field. Leys is concerned; “The biggest danger is that Democrats are normalizing the idea of partial withdrawal, and disarming the anti-war movement to the idea of residual troop levels.” The SoDA POP organizers are pushing for withdrawal, not just from Iraq, but also from a failed strategy that diverts public funds for a highly militarized global presence.
The VCNV project is about reclamation of the political process, and reclamation of funds better used for the common good. Leys sees the drain of the war effort on public services in Chicago: “The state government is on doomsday number three for mass transit funding. Fares might be doubled in the next few weeks, and the suburbs are already cutting their routes and services to the city.”
As the war brings its effects home, it has sparked a rise in civil resistance actions nationwide in the last year. Each arrest makes it clear that Americans don’t accept these realities willingly. Leys hopes that more voices will join to create a more forceful culture of protest: “We need to acknowledge that we haven’t done enough yet to build up anti-war sentiment in Congress.”
Robert Braam, one of the people arrested in Des Moines, called the discontented to action: “Only thing we did wrong? Stayed in the wilderness too long. Only thing we did right? The day we stood up to fight.”
Paul Abowd is a freelance writer who’s work has appeared in local Michigan University student newspapers and in Labor Notes.