A Post-Mortem on the Peace Movement?

Today a Village Voice reporter called to interview me for a story he is writing. His assignment? To do a post-mortem on the peace movement.

“But wait,” I say. “A post-mortem is what you do when something’s dead.”

“Right,” he agrees.

“Who says the peace movement is dead?” I ask, trying to suppress a rising anxiety.

Had it somehow been killed off in the last couple of hours when I had my attention elsewhere? After all, just this morning someone from the nearby town of Natick had called me. She’s trying to get a local peace and justice group off the ground, and wanted advice. A couple of weeks ago, I was out in Newton meeting with a group that is launching its own local effort.

All over the city, in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Revere, East Boston, Allston-Brighton, Roslindale — grassroots groups are mobilizing. The same is true in the outlying towns of Somerville, Malden, Taunton, Waltham, Belmont, Cambridge, Lexington, and others.

Only yesterday, there was a meeting of the United for Justice with Peace (UJP) community outreach subcommittee — a group that is helping to coordinate all these grassroots efforts, provide mailing lists, send speakers, develop strategy, and generally lend support.

Meanwhile, the pre-9/11 peace and justice groups and community-based groups have added a new dimension to their work. Now, along with whatever they were doing before (tenant organizing, immigrant rights, etc.), they have integrated into that agenda the work of contesting the new domestic repression and international aggression.

And students all over the country are mobilizing on campuses. The students, faculty and staff of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, voted overwhelmingly recently to condemn the “war on terrorism.” Their resounding rejection of the U.S. war abroad, and its attendant domestic repression ends with a promise to “commit the full resources and energies of our community” to ending hunger, war and economic injustice.

Turns out, this reporter read about the death of the peace movement in the mainstream press, not a medium which is exactly known for its in-depth reporting on social change struggles. He also went to a peace rally at Rockefeller Center in New York, attended by only about 250 people.

I can’t speak for New York, but I know what’s happening around Boston. We would probably have a similar outcome if we held a city-wide demonstration at this particular time. But that doesn’t mean there is no movement. If large demonstrations have faded, and people have focused their attention on their communities, that is entirely proper.

The New York Times won’t cover it, but going to our neighbors, to our co-workers, and to our communities, is the only way to build something that might cause the New York Times — and more importantly our government — to actually sit up and take notice.

And it’s the only way to create a political home for — to channel the energy of — those newly aroused to social change work by Bush’s war. And there are currently many of those. I hear from them by email every day, and I talk to them out in my own neighborhood.

“Please help me.”

“I need direction.”

“I feel so hopeless.”

“This war is making me sick to my stomach.”

These are some of the most common refrains. Many came in by email recently in response to my ZNET commentary “A Veil on the Truth,” which detailed the U.S.’s blocking of peacekeepers being sent to Afghanistan, where they are desperately needed to secure the aid routes in a country full of starving people.

No matter how you feel about the U.S. “war on terrorism” or about the need for a military strike against al Qaeda, there is no justification for the crime against humanity currently unfolding in Afghanistan, for which the United States, and by extension, U.S. citizens, can be held directly responsible.

This is not a difficult moral judgement to make. Yet if you make it — if you choose to absorb this awareness — then you have to live with that sick feeling in your stomach. Not only that. You have to take responsibility for it. Neither choosing to understand nor taking responsibility are easy, but they are not the hardest thing you have to do once you head down this path.

The hardest thing is holding the following two seemingly completely divergent facts in your mind: 1) The situation is desperately urgent; and 2) The only possible response is the painstaking work of educating people, changing people’s minds, and creating channels for social change.

In my local peace and justice group, we have been organizing since the beginning of October.

We are out tabling twice a week; we have persuaded cafes, beauty salons, and CD shops to display our “alternative information binders”; we hosted a teach-in, which hundreds attended; we are building local/global bridges by connecting with other neighborhood organizations; we are rallying neighbors to do congressional visits. We are a steady, dedicated, and growing group.

Yet “steady,” “dedicated,” and “growing,” has a way of seeming screamingly insufficient next to the untold human loss caused by the U.S. war. Organizing for social change means walking the fault line of extant human rights catastrophes on one side and tedious efforts leading to incremental — often defensive — change on the other.

At one of our meetings, someone reminds us of the terrible toll starvation will take on the Afghan people. “We have to do something,” she says.

“This is what we’re doing,” somebody replies, indicating the work of our small group. Indeed. Urgency is correct, as well as the desire to do something, but we have to give expression to those feelings in the day-to-day work of movement building — much of it tedious and seemingly no match for the emergency at hand. Yet movement building is the only match for the emergency at hand.

It’s here, in this disconnect between horrific conditions all around us, and the slow plodding work of changing those conditions, that we lose so many potential activists. The hardest conversations I have with people when I’m tabling don’t have to do with whether the war is just or not, but whether there’s any point in doing anything about it.

As activists, we must not just berate people with all that’s wrong, all that hurts, but offer viable strategies for taking a stand against the pain, and a vision of what could lay on the other side.

Furthermore, we must nurture connections between local and global struggles — giving peace and justice activists who came together around this new war in Afghanistan a chance to hear directly from peace and justice activists who have been fighting battles on the local scene for decades.

Tenant organizers, anti-death penalty activists, and welfare rights groups bring a wealth of experience and fortitude to their political work. They know how long change takes. They have created political “homes” for people that make it possible for them to stay engaged for the long-term.

The events of September 11 and Bush’s “war on terrorism,” have aroused questioning minds and potential activism. For many, it is not too much of a leap to understand and oppose the inhumane consequences of U.S. foreign policy.

What is harder is the subsequent challenge of straddling the gap between the urgency of those consequences and the slow, careful work of organizing. We don’t get much help for this difficult work. The mainstream media plies us with the Pentagon’s spin on the war, all the while treating us as agents only insofar as we consume their advertising.

We hear over and over again about the intricacies of shopping online; NBA trades, game strategies, and team trivia; the minutia of market fluctuations; as well as detailed accounts of the interior decorating decisions of the rich and famous.

But there are no articles about citizenship, democratic participation, and the processes by which we might make our voices heard. At a time of acknowledged national and international crisis, the media would have us think there is no role for public citizens other than waving the flag and buying red, white and blue Christmas sweaters.

So it’s not surprising we feel helpless, hopeless and sick to the stomach. We understand what’s wrong; we understand we must take responsibility; but no action on our part seems adequate.

When we forge ahead anyway, merging our individual effort with the efforts of others to educate, agitate, and make our dissent known — even when we are doing it energetically with a great deal of forward momentum — we discover the Village Voice has sent a reporter to cover our demise.

I did my best to convince the reporter that his post-mortem was premature. But in the end, he’s not really the one I need to be talking to. I’d rather spend my time responding to the ones who feel lost right now — the ones who understand the criminality of the U.S. war and who see to whom the benefits of domestic repression accrue, but who don’t know what to do about it.

To them, I say: Start an organization in your town; link it to organizations in other towns; create forums for people to learn from each other and relate; help shape the agendas of already existing organizations to respond effectively to changing circumstances; build bridges between local and global efforts;

lobby congress; write letters to the media; stand out on the street corner with alternative information; collect contact information for those who want to get involved; share articles by email; reach out to like-minded souls; build a supportive community around you that will help you do the work for the long-term. And, most importantly, don’t give up.

The war-makers and the corporate suits don’t give up. They devote all their resoures to advancing their agenda. And they’re so worried about people like us devoting our resources to an alternative that they try to kill us off in our infancy.

Cynthia Peters (cppk@email.msn.com) is a political activist, writer and editor.

Leave a comment