ress reports nationwide proclaimed the most recent U.S. elections a “referendum”
on the war in Iraq and on the president’s performance and policies, but
mostly without noting the hundreds of actual referendum votes on these
very issues in towns and counties from California to Massachusetts. Adding
legitimacy to voter-driven municipal resolutions passed by almost 300 local
governments across the U.S. in the last 3 years, activists in at least
4 states gathered signatures and jumped through other hoops to put forth
ballot measures calling for “immediate” or “orderly and rapid” withdrawal
of all U.S. troops from Iraq.
The results surprised even organizers. “We hoped to win significantly,”
said Paul Shannon of the United for Justice with Peace Coalition (UJP)
in Massachusetts, “but we didn’t expect this.”
In three dozen Massachusetts legislative districts, encompassing over 130
townships, every single “troops home” referendum passed, most of them by
two-to-one margins in favor of withdrawal. Overall in ten Wisconsin municipalities
the vote was two-to-one in favor. Milwaukee voted 72 percent for “rapid
withdrawal.” Eight towns and two counties in Illinois also approved “troops
home” initiatives, 71 percent overall in the state, with voters in Chicago
approving their withdrawal referendum by 80 percent.
Republican strongholds like former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s home
turf in Whiteside County, Illinois voted “yes” to bring U.S. troops home
by significant margins. Rock Island, Dixon, and Sterling, Illinois, usually
“in the red column,” voted 57 percent yes. Communities such as Draper in
Sawyer County, Wisconsin that voted strongly for Bush in 2004 voted 65
percent for troop withdrawal this November.
“The value of a referendum like this,” says Steve Burns of Wisconsin Network
for Peace and Justice, “is that you make the war stand on its own.” Candidates,
he says, represent a “package of issues,” but clear language specifically
addressing an issue like troop withdrawal directly is a better gauge of
“The significance of results like this,” Burns says, “is that now we know
the public is not the problem.” National pundits, he says, like to claim
that people are unhappy with the war but they don’t know or can’t agree
on what to do about it. “Here they are endorsing a plan.”
Several anti-war organizers expressed the same sort of surprise as Paul
Shannon, not just at the referendum votes, but also at the much-touted
Democratic sweep. After all, it was only two years ago that Republicans
dashed Democratic hopes in nationwide elections. Anti-war organizers, as
skeptical as they typically are of Democrats’ talk of “change,” had still
hoped for a rejection of the Bush agenda in 2004 and didn’t get it. Clearly
something happened in the last two years.
The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has continued going badly, of course, with
higher numbers of U.S. deaths, many more Iraqi deaths, and more opposition.
Resentment has also begun to set in among military families who had thought
the war would be over by now. Republicans have faced scandals and failures
on other fronts as well. But anti-war organizers who keep track of opinion
polls say problems with the war reached a critical mass.
“What accounts for the difference is the war,” says Paul Shannon. “Primarily
the war, and secondarily Katrina. I think Katrina was a turning point for
some people in terms of the competence of the Republicans. Of course, there
were other things—Foley, Abramoff, and gas prices—but the war was the
overriding issue that played out in every state, number one, two, or three
Anti-war organizers have also been looking for new ways to express opposition
to the war. Steve Burns says many Americans had stopped attending anti-war
demonstrations after massive turnouts failed to prevent the U.S. invasion.
But, Shannon says, “the ballot is right in front of them.”
A number of Wisconsin towns had voted in April 2006 on resolutions calling
for troop withdrawal, including some traditionally Republican towns in
the state. At that time 24 out of 32 of the measures passed.
The idea was catching. By summer 2006 dozens of communities in other states
had referendum efforts underway; some already knew their referendum would
appear on the ballot while others would not know for sure until September
or October 2006. As it turned out, it is not that easy for Americans to
get what they want on their ballots.
The Massachusetts referenda probably represent some of the hardest-earned
grassroots votes in the nation. Activists with United for Peace and Justice-coordinated
groups had to gather hundreds of signatures in each legislative district—including
extras in case of challenges—and hand them in to each town hall for verification
by the secretary of state and then the state attorney general had to agree
to the language. The entire process took from January to September.
Referendum advocates elsewhere gathered hundreds of signatures, as in Chicago
and its suburbs. “We have tens of thousands of signatures,” says Carl Davidson
of Chicagoans Against War and Injustice, “and a map. There are clusters
of people who signed. We plan to contact them and try to start up to 50
new neighborhood groups in the Chicago area.”
A few communities in Illinois also failed to get their referendum on the
ballot due to technicalities or challenges from local officials.
The easiest win may have been in twin cities Champaign and Urbana, Illinois.
At a statewide conference of the Illinois Coalition for Peace and Justice
in Champaign in March, local activists with the Anti-War Anti-Racism Effort
(AWARE) learned of an annual town meeting, prescribed by state law, where
a majority of those who show up can add a referendum to the November ballot.
The township meeting was in two weeks.
AWARE activists hit the ground running. They faced no opposition in Urbana,
but in Champaign the conservative mayor, former cop Jerry Schweighart,
attempted to turn out local veterans’ groups to block the referendum, to
little avail. In the end voters crammed the town meetings in both cities
and added a “troops home” referendum to the local ballot in each town (by
one vote in Champaign).
In November the “troops out” referendum passed in Urbana by 65 percent,
in Champaign by 58 percent. Champaign-Urbana also joined San Francisco
and Berkeley, California, as well as a handful of smaller cities in Wisconsin
and elsewhere, in calling on Congress to begin the process of impeachment
for both the president and vice president for “misleading our nation to
war with Iraq, for permitting the illegal use of torture, and for conducting
domestic spying on U.S. citizens.”
Mayor Schweighart told the press, “I can’t understand it.” Central Illinois’s
conservative Republican Congressperson Timothy V. Johnson, a war supporter,
was forced to admit in his victory speech on election night that Iraq was
a “quagmire” and that “the American people will not tolerate another two
years” of war. Referendum results by election district showed that even
Johnson’s supporters had voted for withdrawal. All told, organizers say,
referendum results showed that opposition to the war in Iraq cuts across
party and other ideologocal divides.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had promised to “drain the swamp” if the
Democrats took over, was very clear as soon as the election results were
in: impeachment is “off the table.” Pelosi and others in the Democratic
leadership, when asked about the details of their alleged “new direction”
for U.S. policy in Iraq, hedged. Asked about the possibility of cutting
off funding for the war, as in the Harkin Resolution (SR 93), Democratic
leaders were pretty clear about what their “new direction” was not
93 provided that after December 31, 2006, there would be no further money
for military activities in Iraq except those related to withdrawal. “We
can’t cut off money to troops in the field,” Pelosi said, borrowing the
“We have to make the Democrats listen to us,” says Laurel Lambert Schmidt
of Near West Citizens for Peace and Justice in Illinois. “They’re going
to do nothing if we don’t pressure them.” Antiwar organizers elsewhere
offered the same warning.
“The Democrats and the Republicans are both completely supportive of the
goal of U.S. domination in the Middle East,” says Paul Shannon.
On the other hand, organizers see the election as having created a much-needed
opportunity for leverage. “The peace movement has earned some political
capital,” says Schmidt. “We have to spend it. We can’t just put the Democrats
in office and trust that they’ll do the right thing, because they won’t.”
Still, she says, “The election gives us hope and a lot of possibilities.”
“What’s been debilitating for the peace movement,” says Steve Burns, “and
what’s kept a lot of people away from demonstrations, is not apathy. It’s
that nobody in Washington has been listening for six years. Now at least
there is some hope that we can make some difference.”
Several national peace groups are promoting a “Mandate for Peace” petition
as a follow-up to the election, which as an organizing tool could have
value. National demonstrations in Washington, originally delayed until
March, have also been added for January to greet the new Democrat-controlled
Congress with anti-war demands. And local grassroots activists are busy.
Carl Davidson’s plan, with Chicagoans Against War and Injustice, to springboard
new neighborhood peace groups is indicative of efforts around the country
to build on the success at the polls. “Organizing,” Davidson says, is how
you keep the pressure on, plus a healthy dose of “street heat.” Elsewhere
activists are starting new postcard or letter-writing campaigns and Congressional
visits to remind representatives of the recent votes and to press the anti-war
agenda, even state resolutions in favor of withdrawal.
In 1968, Shannon notes, with opposition to the Vietnam War growing, the
Nixon administration developed a “new direction,” after which thousands
more Americans and Vietnamese were killed. There is already talk in Washington
about “new directions” that do not involve keeping U.S. hands off Iraq.
Exhausted as activists are, Shannon says, the next few months may be the
most critical in the anti-war effort. “We have to focus on undermining
the negotiations that are now taking place within the Democratic Party
and the Republican Party and between the Republicans and Democrats over
a new strategy in Iraq. Once that consensus happens, there will be a falling
off of opposition as people decide to give them a chance, but it will not
be what the public wants.”
The anti-war vote was a landslide, says Davidson, “Now the question is
what do we do with it.”
Ricky Baldwin is a long-time community organizer and writer.
have appeared in
Dollars & Sense
In These Times