U.S. Anti War Actvism

Crafting an anti-war movement from inside the belly of the beast is not easy. I’m going to talk today about how the U.S. anti-war movement is gaining momentum, despite the challenges, and I hope to convey to you all the hope that I feel, and that is expressed daily by the many millions of people in the United States who know going to war in Iraq is wrong, who know that war fundamentally is usually wrong, that it kills people — almost always innocent people.

People in the U.S. know that a war in Iraq is not so much about getting rid of weapons of mass destruction, but about creating an opportunity to use weapons of mass destruction.

We know that a war in Iraq is an opportunity for the biggest and most powerful rogue state in the world to remind people of that very fact.

We know that a war in Iraq is an effort to distract the population from domestic problems. The world’s most dangerous functions better when its people are living in a chronic state of fear, which facilitates a domestic policy that emphasize prisons over homes, weapons over healthcare, and profit over human needs.

As someone from the inside, I’m telling you that millions of N. Americans have an intimate knowledge of how twisted our national priorities are, but I’m betting from the outside, it doesn’t seem quite so obvious. From the outside, I wouldn’t be surprised if people looked at us and asked, "What are you doing? Why isn’t your mobilization capturing the spirit and energy of these millions of people who you say know the war is wrong? Why do the citizens of the most dangerous country in the world, seem so hesitant to rein in the beast as it unleashes its fury against the rest of world?"

I wouldn’t blame you for wondering.

I spend a lot of time myself wondering about the same questions. Not just wondering, but talking to people, organizing, setting up meetings, forums, and protests of all sorts and in a wide range of communities, including neighborhoods, labor unions, churches — always trying to figure out how to take the ingredients that are already there — a real savvy about how power works, decent and generous values, and desire for a better life — and to mix those ingredients with some something, I don’t know what, something that puts hopefulness in the brew — evidence that change can happen if we work to make it happen, that institutions are made by people, and people can change them. This idea that change is possible is what’s missing from the brew right now. It’s what makes the anti-war movement sometimes aim for less than it could. Too many activists in the anti-war movement are rallying people to stop a war. It is right to try to stop this war, of course, but it is essential that we build a sustainable movement along the way, that we teach people how this particular escalation is one small part of a conscious trajectory of the U.S. empire to rule the world, that we make the links between our government’s foreign and domestic policy.

I’m here today to share with you some of what I understand about the anti-war movement and the context it operates in within the United States. But more importantly, I hope to learn from all of you here — from the hundreds of thousands, millions of people in the world who labor everyday, under much more desperate circumstances, to stop wars of all sorts. And I hope to take those lessons home with me.

I was here at the WSF last year, and there were not too many N. Americans. Mostly, it was thousands and thousands of people from Latin America, Africa, Europe and various parts of Asia. People seemed a little surprised when I introduced myself and said where I was from. There would be a pause. The more polite people wouldn’t say much. The more outspoken might ask: "Oh? is there actually some sort of social change movement in the U.S.?" The even more outspoken would not bother to keep the edge out of their voice: "What are you people doing up there?"

The rest of the world needs something more from U.S. citizens.

The rest of the world needs U.S. citizens to educate themselves, build a grassroots base that is deep and broad and that mobilizes to say to the corporate leaders and the CEOs of our government: You can’t get away with it anymore. We refuse to participate in institutions that daily rob us of our dignity, that employ policies guided only by greed, that mean loss of life and liberty for so many people the world over.

The rest of the world needs U.S. citizens to stop the war in Iraq.

The rest of the world needs U.S. citizens to not only help stop the war in Iraq but then to do something about our government’s war against so many other peoples of the world. U.S. peace activists are fond of lamenting the monstrous U.S. military budget — $400 billion per year at the last count. But even if this budget were dramatically reduced or, by some miracle, wiped out all together, it would still leave an arsenal filled to the brim with weapons of mass destruction. The FTAA, Intellectual property rights agreements, economic sanctions, international financial institutions, bribery, patent laws, corporate budgets for advertising, brainwashing and cultural theft — these are all non-military tools used by the United States government and multinational corporations to force the people and governments of other countries into line with U.S. priorities.

The rest of the world needs U.S. citizens to not only put an end to foreign wars, but to do something about our government’s own domestic wars — against so many of our own people.

Last fall, I was out on the streets of Boston with thousands of janitors and their supporters as they struck for better wages and health care. Most of these janitors were from Latin America. They came to the United States to escape U.S.-sponsored wars and economic policies that left them bereft, poor, and without opportunities. Whole villages from El Salvador seem to be transplanted to East Boston, where multiple families cram into dilapidated housing and work themselves to exhaustion cleaning the downtown office buildings and banks where international financial deals are signed and investments made that support building more maqiladoras in El Salvador while they further choke the family farms and turn the country into a giant factory designed to produce cheap consumer goods for the U.S. and nothing of sustenance for the Salvadorans.

The Salvadorans who have been left behind aren’t quite starving to death because now they’ve got relatives in East Boston working 3 jobs and rarely sleeping and sending home $100 per month.

This is a new element of war — one that the anti-war movement needs to be more conscious of. And that is that the war isn’t limited to the bombings, nor even the economic sanctions and the free trade agreements (which also kill and destroy), but it continues on with the waves of immigrants who come to our country out of desperation only to do our dirty work and expose themselves to yet new ways of being exploited by the empire beast of the north. Now they’re in the belly of the beast, facing racist and sexist institutions that humiliate them and use them as pawns in our own domestic race and class wars.

In Massachusetts, now, as well as many other communities in the United States, failing schools are being blamed on brown Spanish-speaking people from Latin America. It’s easy for the government and the privileged to use Latin American immigrants as scapegoats because our society and our popular culture supports the idea that you can blame what is wrong on minority communities rather than on the powerful institutions that actually orchestrate what happens. Domestic racism makes it possible for states to get rid of bilingual education, and allow urban schools to deteriorate to the point where even the army finds they cannot recruit from communities of color because the kids in those communities have not been taught how to read and write. For those people of color who can’t escape the ghetto via the military, there’s always incarceration, where no education is required. Where you simply rot inside one of the main growth industries in the United States — prisons — the destination for a hugely disproportionate number of those people of color.

We live in a world where the lucky immigrants in El Norte are the ones who are taking out the trash for those that sent down the helicopters and machine guns and financial planners tasked with systematically dismantling their homes, their native economies, their way of life.

So you see, the U.S. anti-war movement has to have fighting domestic racism on its agenda as well. Racism at home not only destroys lives inside our borders, it props up a foreign policy that needs to be able to kill brown people with impunity. Part of the reason — let’s be frank — that there isn’t more grassroots pressure against the is war is because N. Americans are so thoroughly steeped in racism that we are trained to believe that brown people’s lives are not worth as much. Even if, for some reason, U.S. institutions did not need racism to help protect power and privilege for the few, we would still need racism because it is integral to rationalizing our foreign policy. The same is true of sexism.

As I was leaving Boston a few days ago, there was an article in the paper about the ongoing defunding of the UN Family Planning Agency and Bush’s imposing of the Global Gag Rule on health clinics that receive U.S. funding. That means they’re not allowed to talk about abortion as an option for pregnant women. Does Bush really care whether women in other countries have access to abortion? No. What he cares about is having mechanisms in place that allow for the control of populations. He cares about undermining democracy and building alliances with oppressive fundamentalist regimes that have their own reasons for limiting women’s reproductive choices.

To enhance social control, Bush has to daily construct and support patriarchal and social and cultural practices at home. Why? Partly because men don’t want political participation of women domestically, and partly because they have to create the rationalizations for the alliances they are building with elites from other countries.

By the way, I just want to texture what I am saying here by adding that the women served by these agencies are poor women. It’s poor women who won’t get the abortions. George Bush doesn’t want his own daughters to have to resort to back-alley abortions. And they won’t have to because they have money and they would be able to find other means.

Racism and sexism and U.S. global wars came together rather poignantly recently. For months, in the States, the corporate media has been eagerly following the fate of Guatemalan Siamese twins who were born joined at the head. They were brought to the UCLA Mattel hospital for months of surgeries and treatments, and Mattel picked up the bill. For those of you who don’t know, Mattel is the toy company that makes dolls for little girls. There are dolls that actually drool and pee, and give little girls early lessons in the joys of cleaning up baby’s body fluids. There are Barbie dolls with impossibly huge and gravity-defying breasts that give girls early lessons in how inherently flawed they are. So while 200,000 peasants died in the 1980s in Guatemala at the hands a of U.S.-armed and trained military, many of these peasants brutally tortured and killed, and all of it very easily avoidable with a few minimum policy changes in the United States, you won’t hear too much talk about that in my country. We don’t know the first thing about Guatemalan peasants except that there are two lucky beneficiaries of the charitable Mattel.

Who would have guessed that they are really beneficiaries of the Vietnamese peasants who have been herded into free trade zone factories where their incredibly low wages make it possible for Mattel to make gargantuan profits, turn donated medical care into a highly orchestrated PR campaign that is part freak show, and still leave the U.S. consumer feeling like they’re getting a deal in the $19.99 plaything complete with outfit and matching accessories.

And who knows, maybe someday the little girls brought up on Barbie will turn to the Mattel hospital for cosmetic surgery to correct for the ways they don’t match the Barbie look, and they’ll benefit from the expertise of the Mattel surgeons, whose skills have been refined on poor Guatemalan babies — unwitting poster children for the charitable mission of a multi-million dollar toy company.

Are people aware that we have hospitals in the U.S. named after toy companies?

It’s getting kind of scary up in my country because corporate sponsorship means just about everything is named after a corporation these days. The subway stops aren’t named after the neighborhood or the street that they are close to, but some bank or some mortgage company. All the big sports stadiums and concert halls are named after banks, telephone companies, and office supply stores. If we ever get to the point where we have Noam Chomsky speaking in stadiums in the U.S., rather than the usual lecture hall, the flyer will look awfully funny. Noam Chomsky at the Fleet Center!

Fleet Bank must be a bit better known down here in Brazil since Lula appointed Henrique Meirelles, formerly of Fleet Bank. I’ll let you in on a little known fact, just between you and me. Fleet is also the brand name of a popular enema.

People from the south of my country, where they have the Fleet enema factories, drive by our big Fleet Stadium and ask, "Why’d they name your main sports arena after an enema company?"

I’m saying a little about brand names and corporate recognition because I can’t emphasize enough how insidiously we are saturated with the idea that all of life is mediated through products, that corporations are societies’ benefactors, and that individual expression and participation can only be channeled through consumer choices.

It is through this thick haze of propaganda that the U.S. anti-war movement has to try to reach people and touch them — not just with more information and analysis about all that is wrong, but with some sort of corrective to the deep deep cynicism that people feel. As an organizer, I talk to all sorts of people, and I hear the same thing over and over again. "I agree with you, but I just don’t think there’s any point in trying to do anything about it."

There is a relentless corporate campaign in the U.S. to make us feel powerless in the face of government policy and the institutions that govern everyday life. We are meant to feel powerful only when it comes to shopping. This was never more obvious than in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, when citizens were instructed not to meet with each other, participate in debate and discussion about how to respond to events, etc. but rather to simply go shopping. Literally. That’s what we were asked to do by our president, our mayors, governors, and major media.

You might not believe me, but the instructions are really very specific. There are very concrete dos and don’t for Americans in the midst of a political crisis. Do go to the mall as soon as possible. Do buy an American flag. Don’t think too hard or question what you read or engage with others about what is happening.

In a parenting column that came out right after 9-11, the advice to moms and dads was to get down on the floor and pretend you were a turtle pulling its head up under its shell. This was supposed to make your children feel safer. They even specifically suggested that you use a blanket as the pretend shell, and spelled out the exact words you could use: "Look. I am a turtle. When I hide my head, I am safe."

I don’t know about other families, but my kids would think I had gone positively berserk if they saw me acting like a turtle on the floor. I think it would scare them half to death. Much less scary for children would be seeing their parents and the other adults around them acting like real live grown-ups who, in an emergency, figure out something reasonable to do. They talk to each other and debate very hard questions; they disagree and argue and participate in public forums that take seriously the idea that citizens should decide the fate of the country. Probably the scariest most irrational thing you can do to your poor kid — and the thing that has the absolute worst repercussions for worldwide victims of U.S. policy — is to crawl under a blanket, venturing out only to shop.

"The whole world has gone mad," your children will think. "The whole country is in crisis and in mourning, and my mom is under a blanket on the floor. She’s saying she is a turtle!"


What does all this have to do with anti-war activism? I said at the beginning that organizing from inside the belly of the beast is not easy. And this is partly why. We are bombarded all the time by messages and actual directives that tell us we are inept, hopeless and out of control. Just take for example, the recent fixation on how fat Americans are.

I mean, look, I’m not saying obesity isn’t a health issue. I’m sure it is, but just as the empire is gearing up to escalate its already massive onslaught on the rest of the world, what is the sustained message to Americans? YOU ARE FAT. You are fat. You are fat. You are fat.

And in case we haven’t made ourselves clear, here’s another study revealing just how fat you are.

And, by the way, your children are fat too.

I don’t care how overweight we are in America, being FAT is not our biggest problem right now. It’s not our diets we have to get under control, it’s our government, which really can only be controlled by us, its citizens, who, they want us to think, are too fat and too worthless to get up off the couch.

Unless it’s to get down on the floor to pretend being turtles.

I went to the movies the other day and got a coupon for a dollar off the super-size coke and popcorn. The drink comes in this thing that looks like a bucket. You couldn’t possibly drink it all, but the promotion says you get free refills!

I didn’t want all that so I ordered the small popcorn. The girl working behind the counter shook open the small bag and then shook open the medium bag, which was much bigger. "For 50 cents more, you can get twice as much."

For 50 cents more I could make myself sick, in other words.

They’ve clearly trained all the workers at these places to push more and more food on you. At Wendy’s, you can order a burger and fries, and the cheery voice comes back at you: "Would you like to super-size that?" — Meaning, I guess, that they’ll double your quantities for only a little bit more money.

In the United States of America, we like to super-size things. And it’s gross, I know. But let’s be clear about one thing: The problem is not the overweight kids eating Big Whoppers from Burger King.

The problem is the U.S. empire, and the fact that it’s been super-sized beyond belief.

This is where anti-war activism comes in. And the first, most obvious problem, is that to say you are anti-war is a pathetic understatement. Maybe the anti-war movement needs to super-size itself. There are so many wars going on. And we should be anti-all of them.

Maybe we should call ourselves anti-wars activists.

The anti-wars movement would understand very well that cluster bombs dropped onto innocent people from anonymous planes two miles high are not the main nor even the most destructive weapons of our rogue state. The FTAA won’t drop out of a plane and land on the ground in a concussive explosion. But it’s smarter than any smart bomb. It will find its targets more exactly and operate on them in a more sustained fashion. Who are the targets? The same targets as any war: people — usually poor people, vulnerable people, people with little influence over the CEOs and the generals that determine what their lives will be like.

The anti-wars movement would further understand that domestic policy supports and enriches foreign policy and vice-versa. The anti-wars movement would build alliances with anti-racist groups partly because racism is simply wrong, but also because our goals naturally mesh, and we could be strategic together, support each other’s efforts, and forward each other’s agendas.

I want to pause here for a moment and explain how, as much as I support mobilizing around all the different ways the U.S. empire hurts people, it’s the very thoroughness and banality of U.S. atrocities that create the biggest obstacle to organizing. Think about it. You’re try to talk to your co-workers about how the bosses are screwing them, they are victims of racism, sexism, and all sorts of other isms, the new tax laws are screwing them, the company’s union-busting tactics are screwing them, the corporations are working hand in glove with the government to ensure corporate dominance over all the world’s people and resources, and not only that, we’re preparing our smart bombs to go massacre tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

What is this person supposed to do with this information? Why isn’t it completely rational for him to go home and watch TV? Yeah, clearly all the bad stuff is interconnected. It’s so interconnected that it’s impenetrable, and the only reasonable choice is to maximize my own enjoyment here on earth.

That’s one response.

The other is simply denial. Anti-war activists are asking masses of people to believe that their government is not only willing, but feels justified and even moral, about destroying innocent lives, creating carnage all over the world. It’s not hard to grasp the potentially genocidal consequences of current U.S. policy. But it is a bit harder to integrate that understanding into your daily life, and let it affect your actions. How will this knowledge change you? What will it make you question about how you spend your time, what you do with your money, whether you are doing everything in your power to reduce the horror. Maybe before, when you sheltered yourself from this knowledge, you never wondered if it was okay to spend time watching the Superbowl. Now you are wondering.

There is good news, however. And that is that despite all this, the anti-war movement in the United States is looking more and more like an anti-wars movement.

It currently includes a wide range of people working together and in coalition to stop not just the war in Iraq, but to build a movement that stops all the wars. Scores of union locals have passed anti-war resolutions. Dozens of cities in all parts of the country have done the same. Church groups, mosques, synagogues, women’s groups, gay and lesbian activists, housing organizers, and immigrant rights groups have all brought tremendous energy and diverse politics and agendas into the movement.

There are beginning to be more links between the anti-corporate globalization activists and the anti-war activists. On each side there is an understanding that the generals and the international financial planners use each other to forward their mandates. They use each other to threaten and bribe less powerful countries to bend to the will of the United States. Militarism is the stick used to enforce oppressive economic policies worldwide. Step out of line and we’ll drum up an excuse to kill you. You’re either with us or against us.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that the capitalists and the militarists are smarter about how they use each other. They understand how their missions are intertwined. On the left, however, we have not been so smart about joining forces to further our mission. We try. We work at it. But we have a long way to go. There is a huge segment of the anti-war in Iraq movement, for example, that wants to stop this particular war, yes, but in a way that doesn’t put whatever scraps of privilege they have at risk. Thus, you have the majority of the anti-Iraq war activists being from white middle class backgrounds. They don’t mind trying to stop the killing and the atrocities happening over there — far away. But they’d rather not think about how class and race privilege in the U.S. undermines democracy and preserves the institutions that they benefit from.

This is something we need to work on — strategy. The Right does it. We do it less.

Labor activists are saying that unions are more open to mobilizing against this war than they have ever been in any previous war. U.S. workers are aware that there has been a systematic war against them for the past 30 years — unions are on the decline, real wages have decreased, everyone has to work more hours to make ends meet, jobs have moved offshore, corporations are considered people by law and have more protections than individual workers. While workers suffer endless hours at meaningless de-skilled tasks, the super-rich get even richer by doing nothing. They see Bush’s plan to discipline and control the world with wars and economic punishment of various sorts as in the same vein as Bush’s efforts to discipline working people at home.

We have to be careful, though. Unions from the postal workers to the hospital workers have passed resolutions against the war, but not all of these resolutions are a result of democratic participation from the rank and file. In fact, one of the most progressive unions, SEIU, did a poll of its workers and found that a sizeable majority felt that they didn’t want the union taking a stand on the war. If you read the poll carefully, what you find is that the workers were saying they didn’t want the union telling them what to think. They further expressed they didn’t want to be told who to vote for either. And that’s a really big thing in the U.S. — for unions to endorse a candidate and tell the rank and file which lever to pull on election day. But what the workers did say they wanted was more information and more forums for discussion so that they could make up their own minds. And this is exactly as it should be.

We have to work on this, too — building democracy. We have to create a movement that doesn’t issue mandates from above (no matter how politically correct they might be) but allows for grassroots voices to be heard. We have to create a movement based on participation and empowerment, one that is truly massive enough to pressure the government to be a channel of our will not a tool of the corporations to increase their profits.

Sometimes I am afraid the anti-war movement is too willing to settle on allowing the veteran activists to lead the way, the academics to write the analysis, and the repeat demonstrators to keep showing up again and again at the same federal buildings. The moment we settle for this, we lose. Sure, we’ve created a niche for ourselves to do good work and do the right thing. Sure, it’s important and better than nothing. But if we stay like this, we haven’t taken on the real work — and that is: becoming something that the empire beast cannot ignore — becoming the only thing that can ever put a stop to the empire beast of the north — becoming a mass movements.

Maybe the U.S. anti-war movement isn’t really sure it can do this, and that’s why we don’t properly aim for it. An integral part of aiming for winning is having some sense of what winning would mean.

This is another thing we have to work on — believing we can win, and taking the time to consider what the world might look like when we do win. These Life After Capitalism panels have brought us together to move that point a little more front and center of our organizing. Perhaps with the work we do here, we can go back home and be more than anti-wars activists. We can be convincing when we say another world is possible because we’ve actually thought about what this world might look like. We would move from being anti-war to pro-something. Pro-justice. Pro-peace. Pro-solidarity. Pro-diversity. Pro-autonomy. Pro-democracy.

I’m excited about all the work being done here at the World Social Forum and in these Life After Capitalism panels. Thank you all for participating, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to learn some of the lessons circulating here from so many movements, organizations and individuals. I hope to bring them home and use them to help build a stronger and stronger anti-wars movement in the U.S.


Leave a comment