Dispatch From The Heartland

Menomonie, Wisconsin, Jan. 18, 2003 — Earlier today, I attended a rally opposing a new Mideast war, held in the small Midwest community of Menomonie (population 15,000), set amidst the rolling hills and dairy farms of northwestern Wisconsin. Despite a blustery winter day, with a wind chill hovering around zero, about 200 people turned out for the rally and march on Main Street, far exceeding the expectations of local organizers.

Marchers held signs on all four corners of the major downtown intersection, in front of a cafe and theater, as passing cars and pick-up trucks honked their greetings. The rally, which was well covered by area TV stations, was organized in only one week. (Organizers jokingly estimated the crowd at 6,000, so the media would report an accurate lower number.)

Enormous rallies were held today around the world against an invasion of Iraq, including hundreds of thousands who turned out in Washington DC and San Francisco. While those huge rallies demonstrate the breadth of antiwar activism in the country, the rallies today in Menomonie and other smaller communities show the depth of antiwar sentiment spreading around the country. We expect large rallies in San Francisco or in the state capital of Madison, but not in Menomonie.

As a participant in the movement opposing the first Gulf War, it appears to me that the sentiment is more widespread now than in 1990-91, and can be found in pockets where it had not previously penetrated. Some Menomonie rally participants had wanted to travel to Washington, but were limited by funds and family or work obligations. They instead decided to remain in their own area, to convey their feelings to local residents and media, to begin a difficult and rewarding process of social change at home.

Menomonie is a nice little town. Residents still greet each other on Main Street. The town still has barber shops where retired men sit and talk for hours. It has bathroom hot air dispensers with instructions that do not have letters scratched out to spell nasty words. In short, it is the quintessential polite Midwestern town, where one would least expect to find traces of antiwar activism.

Menomonie is also home to the University of Wisconsin-Stout, but the semester does not begin until next week. Everyone at the rally agreed that many more would have attended had the college students had been on campus. Many grandparents, parents, and small children attended the rally, lending it an intergenerational legitimacy not felt at many campus demonstrations.

It is through patient community organizing that area peace groups attracted 200 people to the protest on Main Street today. Much of the emphasis of the peace movement has in past years been on activism–mobilizing and activating the people who already have progressive political impulses to attend rallies or other actions.

Organizing and activism

A growing emphasis on community organizing is giving the new peace movement a needed boost. Peace groups need both “organizing” to build the movement, and “activism” to deepen its impact. A balance of organizing and activism can help avoid both social isolation and and the political/legal “hoops” we are always made to jump through. Activism is a way to set our own agenda, instead of simply responding to crises.Organizing is about attracting new people into the movement to keep it alive and kicking.

Organizing does not mean just putting on events or benefits that “preach to the choir.” It does not mean looking inward to our own groups or networking with other groups. Organizing is the art of convincing the unconvinced, and building relationships with people from different walks of life. It means getting outside our usual circles and reaching people who have not been reached before.

Organizing is about changing minds, and recognizing that most people already have a split consciousness that contains both progressive and conservative impulses. Organizing means not writing off someone because they sound like an angry “redneck,” but working with the progressive half of their mind–finding out the conditions that make them angry, and help direct their anger toward the corporate or government structures that really created the conditions.

Organizing means not overestimating the factual knowledge that people have, but also not underestimating their intelligence and wisdom once they have the facts. It means not talking over people’s heads, or talking down to people. It means having faith in the ability of people to understand and change.

Above all, effective grassroots organizing in this era of corporate advertising means making some real link to people’s everyday lives. No matter what the issue we are addressing, we have to make some simple and relevant connection to people’s past experiences, the places they live today, or alternative ways of doing things in the future.

We often talk about what appear to be high-level abstractions to most people–free trade agreements, foreign policy conspiracies, Washington scandals–without showing how they affect human beings in a way they can see, hear and feel. We often talk about the negative violations of human rights at home and abroad, but forget that many people are drawn to political groups also for their positive visions of a better future.

Some progressive activists attack “mainstream” people as nothing but consumers and TV watchers, without recognizing that people are passive because they feel powerless, and feel they have limited choices in their lives. The Native American poet John Trudell has said that “white people feel they are not oppressed, but they feel powerless. Indian people know they are oppressed, but don’t feel powerless.” We forget that certain sectors of society possess enormous power when it comes to issues of war and peace, even if they do not yet realize it.

Key constituencies

At the Menomonie rally today, I stood with two local high school students who were thrilled to see a march stretched along two blocks of Main Street, and a Vietnam veteran from Eau Claire, whose father had fought in World War II and his grandfather in World War I. They represented two out of the three constituencies with an influence in matters of war and peace that far outweigh their numbers: high school students, military personnel, and military workers.

High schools have become a battleground for the hearts and minds of American youth. Military recruiters have poured enormous resources into the high schools to convince students to join the armed forces. By the time they leave high school, students have decided whether or not to enlist, or (in the case of 18-year-old males) whether to register for the draft. Yet the peace movement has focused much of its energies on university campuses, where important and creative organizing is being done, but too late for many military-age youth.

Military personnel, past and present, also have a central role in the new peace movement. Many veterans spoke at the rallies today around the country. In the first Gulf War, hundreds of military resisters refused to be deployed to the Gulf, and some communities offered themselves as “sanctuaries” that would not turn in the resisters. We can expect to see similar incidents during the current deployment, but just as important is the information and insights that active-duty and reservist personnel can provide the peace movement. Yet peace groups are often reticent about working with GIs, partly out of fear of a negative reaction or of getting the troops into legal trouble.

Besides high school students and military personnel, a third key group is military workers, who manufacture the weapons and often have troubled consciences about doing so. They could play an invaluable role in steering their unions and businesses toward emphasizing civilian-sector contracts. Most military workers have little or no awareness of where the howitzers or chemical munitions are heading, or what foreign militaries are purchasing them for use against civilians. The peace movement could provide them that information.

Much of the focus of traditional peace groups toward high school students, military personnel, and military workers has usually been to facilitate open resistance, such as Conscientious Objection among draft-age youth or GIs. COs have played a heroic role in the peace movement for many decades, but the young person who openly resists for ideological or religious reasons is relatively rare. It may be more effective to identify more low-level, discreet means that high school students, GIs and military workers can use to slow down the war machine.

Thousands of young men who quietly delay registering for the draft until just before their 26th birthday (when federal restrictions on loans and jobs become permanent), or fail to report their address changes, are doing far more to frustrate the Selective Service System than a solitary CO.

Veterans who speak with high school students offer a more realistic view of war than that offered by military recruiters. Many GIs who quietly talk or organize among themselves can be more effective than a single public resister.

As for workers in military plants, anyone who has worked in a dead-end job knows that there are ways to slow down operations, without going public or violating any laws. Peace activists or organizers can further our efforts by working respectfully with people directly involved in the “military-industrial complex,” and with people from all different walks of life.

Movement culture

The public and media image of the peace movement, dating from the 1960s, is of campus intellectuals, countercultural activists, and fuzzy-headed “naive” pacifists. To some extent, there is a kernel of truth in this image. Since the 1960s, the movement has been largely centered in an white, urban upper middle-class culture, with some important historical exceptions.

Some rural people have not seen a place for themselves in the urban-based movement. Many younger people are alienated by older peace activists who do not respect their creativity and self-organization. Many people of color and women are put off white male leadership of the movement, much as they were in the 1960s through the 1990s.

The culture of the peace movement is changing, however, as it broadens and deepens. Whereas earlier rallies would only have folk musicians, the new peace movement is beginning to see the value of rap and punk artists. We will need to reach out to country and metal artists if we want to seriously reach rural Americans. And we need to respect the autonomy of people who want to organize their own social group or community without guidance from others.

Finally, a purely pacifist message is not necessarily always effective, particularly in military counterrecruitment. While many youths join the military for economic reasons, some actually do join the “Army of One” for the “adventure.” Vietnam Veterans Against the War have encouraged some of these young people to instead go into martial arts to (more peacefully) gain a sense of confidence and self-worth. Other job fields, such as firefighting or political activism, can also fill the needs of energetic youth. They do not always need to adopt our peaceful values or images in order to act in the interest of peace.

Building a bridge to Iraqis

Besides, the problem is not simply that the U.S. is commiting violence in Iraq. It is also strangling Iraq’s civilian economy, and weakening the ability of the Iraqi people to militantly oust their own dictator. Iraqis had successfully overthrown their monarchy in 1958. The U.S. backed Saddam’s dictatorship during his war with Iran in the 1980s. After the 1991 Gulf War, it had a chance to back a popular uprising against Saddam, but let him crush the revolt, partly because a truly democratic government may have kept out Western oil companies. Washington instead preferred to work with exiled generals, bankers, and armed opposition factions that hate each other more than they hate Saddam. Independent Iraqi civilians are generally left out of the Pentagon’s postwar schemes.

The peace movement can undermine this U.S. strategy not only by preventing an invasion of Iraq, but by morally supporting Iraqi civilians or soldiers if they again try to topple Saddam from below. Last year, Iraqi mothers protested for an accounting of their “disappeared” sons and daughters, after Saddam released some of his opponents from prison.

This kind of Iraqi grassroots opposition, largely ignored by a Bush Administration hell-bent on a war, can be supported by the peace movement. In so doing, we can begin to build a bridge between our civilians and Iraqi civilians, against an escalation of the bombing and sanctions, as well as against the lack of self-determination inherent in both Saddam’s brutal regime and the planned U.S. military administration of Iraq and its oil fields.

The movement’s potential

The U.S. peace movement often underestimates its own potential. The movement (and GI resisters) helped to shorten the Vietnam War, by recognizing that our military could not defeat the Vietnamese. It prevented a full-scale invasion of Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s, as it helped to end apartheid in South Africa. Although it failed to prevent wars against Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, questions around the bombing of civilians (from home and abroad) may have ratcheted down the scale and duration of those wars, or prevented their escalation.

With millions marching around the world against a new Iraq War, joined by hundreds of thousands in the U.S., the global peace movement has a real chance to head off a full-scale invasion. Unlike before the first Gulf War, when its central message was to prevent U.S. military casualties, the new peace movement is more realistically focused on the effect of war and sanctions on Iraqi civilians.

Many Americans also understand that war will only increase their sense of insecurity (would you feel safer or less safe flying in an airplane in the weeks and months after an Iraq invasion?). The challenge will be to sustain the current opposition if the bombs begin to fall on Baghdad, and TV images of “surgical strikes” again lull the public into a sanitary view of war, as they did in 1991.

But seeing the long march on Menomonie’s Main Street gave me a sense of hope today, just as great as seeing the huge DC crowds on CNN. If local organizers can attract a following in a small Midwestern community, and let their neighbors know what invasion would mean for people in the Mideast, they will have made an amazing and important contribution to peace. Change always begins at home.

Zoltan Grossman is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, and a longtime peace, environmental, and anti-racist organizer. His peace writings can be seen at www.uwec.edu/grossmzc/peace.html   and he can be reached at zoltan@igc.org  

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