Recharging the Anti-War Movement

Across the country, actions and rallies against the war in Iraq appear to have reached a peak, and membership numbers of many peace groups has hit a ceiling. The main problem is not that the U.S. public supports the war; polls show that two-thirds favor a withdrawal. It is that this antiwar majority has not been inspired to act. Even in most progressive communities, it’s almost impossible to tell that there’s a war on, even as our communities that have been hit by war-related budget cuts. The main burden of this war within the United States has been on youth who are losing their friends, and military families who are losing their loved ones. No one has to tell them that there’s a war going on, but few people on the right or left are listening to them (just as past generations of veterans were initially not listened to). Instead, simplistic “Bush-bashing” substitutes for educating and mobilizing the public against a brutal war against that has now spanned three administrations.

Most U.S. citizens understand that economic power is concentrated in corporate hands, that the two political parties have merged, that presidents bomb foreign countries to detract attention from domestic troubles. So why aren’t they joining peace and justice groups? It may be partly that the insulated middle-class progressive culture creates a political language that ordinary people cannot understand, and cedes the majority culture to the conservatives. History confirms that German progressives were making boring speeches in the 1930s, while the Nazis were forming chorale groups, hiking societies, and theater troupes. In the era of fast-paced corporate advertising, we sometimes just chant slogans and send out mass e-mails. We celebrate political folk musicians (some of whom I like a lot), without remembering that hip-hop, metal and country music reach far more people.

Many progressives understand that the Iraq War is illegal and criminal, yet feel too disempowered to act, or think they have nothing to offer. But being aware without getting involved is like seeing smoke in a theater without shouting ‘Fire!’ Just as Bush should not pass on this war to the next administration, it is our responsibility not to pass on this war to another generation. Here in Washington state, Veterans for Peace members have reached literally thousands of people this year through tabling at the state fair, marching in community parades, and leafleting high school youth on military recruitment. This kind of education may appear undramatic or even mundane, but changing public consciousness (one mind at a time) is the most important work we can be doing. The actions of this and other groups inspired me to develop ten points on possible directions in organizing and activism that the antiwar movement can be taking to expand its base in the U.S., as a contribution to a discussion that is growing across the country.

1. Reach new people

Both the antiwar and prowar movements tend to preach to their respective choirs, and view society as polarized between two binary black-and-white positions. But on any issue, there are not simply two sides, but at least four sides. Whatever your ideology, there are others who agree or disagree with your position, but not always for the same reasons. First, we tend to talk to the people that we see as taking the right position for the right reasons (in this case, opposing the war because it is an injustice to both Iraqis and Americans). Second, we avoid talking with those who are wrong for the wrong reasons (those who support the war because they want the U.S. to dominate Iraq). The antiwar movement spends far too much time talking to the first group, and complaining about the virtually unchangable second group.

But there are two other groups that are not as commonly addressed, who potentially could expand the base of the movement if they are effectively engaged. There is the third group of people who are wrong for the right reasons. For example, they backed the Afghan war in order to “liberate women,” or back the Iraq occupation in order to “prevent civil war.” They take a position that we disagree with, but have managed to convince themselves that they are serving humanity in the process. If they can be convinced that their premises are flawed, and if they truly have good hearts, they may be moved into the peace camp.

Then there is the fourth group of people who are right for the wrong reasons. For example, they oppose the occupation because they see it as a “Jewish conspiracy,” or believe that Iraqis are too “uncivilized” to rule themselves. Similar people opposed the NAFTA or the Dubai port deal only because they were bad for the U.S. Though it may be difficult to dialogue with people having such a racist perspective, a few of these people may also be moved closer to our views, since they are already open to an antiwar argument. In both the third and fourth group, we can open the door by starting where we agree (such as discussing the Pentagon’s unpopular “stop-loss” policy). We can recognize that most North Americans have a split consciousness that contains both progressive and conservative impulses, and help direct their anger toward the structures that really created their daily problems. Social change is all about people changing their minds. If we assume their views are permanently fixed, we have already given up on making change.

2. Tap into creativity

Learning from the past is critical to changing the future, but so is reinventing the present. Oftentimes, the peace movement repeats the same tactics and strategies that we have long been familiar with-such as lobbying, national demonstrations, and civil disobedience. Although all of these are necessary tactics, they have become old hat to many activists, and too predictable (or even boring) to the public. Old-style tactics reach a certain progressive audience, but does not succeed as well in reaching the uncommitted. In this wired age, we should be using text messages, sports, and catchy visuals, not just foreign policy analyses and peace doves. Experienced activists should be listened to for their knowledge of successes and pitfalls, yet they should also listen to newer activists for their knowedge of how people join the movement. Activist trainings do not need to convey organizing formulas, but can encourage activists to create their own methods appropropriate to their own generations. We should also be open to entirely new ideas or tactics, especially from younger people, instead of habitually adopting methods or slogans of the past. As a New York activist once said, “A Slogan, Exhausted, Shall Never Be Repeated!”.

But ultimately, creating change is not just about knowledge, but about action. Many people agree that the war needs to be stopped, but don’t see anyone actively doing anything to stop it. Visible actions have a way of galvanizing a response, and of bringing people out of the woodwork. Despite the strong peace sentiment in Olympia, it was difficult last year to tell that there was a war on. That changed suddenly this Spring, when Fort Lewis began to ship Stryker armored vehicles to Iraq through our port. Almost spontaneously, local students and others blocked the Strykers in downtown streets, and rallied at the port in the face of a harsh police crackdown. Instead of waiting for a national network or party to develop a strategy to end the war, the activists decided to focus on a local target, and in doing so showed the global media that not all U.S. citizens are apathetic about the war.

The Port protests were followed by the refusal of Lt. Ehren Watada to deploy to Iraq. The same protesters began to hold banners over Interstate-5 near Fort Lewis to support Watada and other military resisters. In our local area, we have an interesting and rare juxtaposition of a strongly antiwar community next to a large military base community. The purpose of actions at a military base should be not simply to express our own frustration about the war, but to support resistance in the ranks. Around the time of the court martial this winter, supporters of Lt. Watada are planning a “Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of U.S. Actions in Iraq” to put the war itself on trial. A seemingly local conflict around one base can have a national or even global impact.

3. Use both activism and organizing

The terms “activism” and “organizing” are usually used interchangeably, though they are really quite different. The terms are also not mutually exclusive. “Activism” is getting together people who are already convinced, in order to act on their conviction. It has the positive attribute of setting the agenda, and going on the offensive, instead of simply responding to crises. “Organizing” is building a movement by attracting new people, to keep it alive and kicking, and to mobilize people to join an on-going campaign on a continual basis. Organizing is the art of convincing the unconvinced, and the science of building relationships with people from different walks of life. Rather than externally exhorting people to resist, we can get information to people so they can internally reach the conclusion that they want to resist.

But what we often see today is “activism without organizing”: small groups of friends taking on enormous institutions, failing to reach out to (or even alienating) others, and risking social isolation, weakness, and burnout. A non-organizer activist will travel many miles to distant actions, but fail to build a movement at home (or use group networking and inward-looking events as a substitute for organizing.) They beat their heads against the wall, rather than getting many people to hammer at the wall, or outfox the system by finding ways around the wall. They feel they because they are morally correct, they don’t have to care as much about being effective. A parallel problem is “organizing without activism”: educating and getting many new people to join the movement, but not offering them anything effective to change the situation, except the pressure politics of “advocacy” (or begging those in office to listen). A non-activist organizer ends up jumping through the system’s political or legal “hoops,” and expresses frustration or despair once those remedies have been exhausted.

Peace groups need both “organizing” to build the movement, and “activism” to deepen its impact. A balance of organizing and activism can help avoid the obvious shortcomings of both. A balance means getting outside our usual circles of friends and reaching people who have not been reached before. It means covering a wide range of effective tactics–from letter-writing to creative direct actions-so everyone can plug in where they can risk doing so. It means not overestimating the factual knowledge that ordinary people have, but also not underestimating their intelligence and wisdom once they have the facts. Effective organizer/activists do not talk over people’s heads, or talk down to people. They have 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 (in a way they can see, hear and feel), not just dry facts.

4. Get out of the progressive ghettos

The white progressive/radical movement has long been concentrated in particular urban neighborhoods, and the “college towns” such as Madison, Berkeley, Cambridge, Olympia, etc. On one hand, we may feel comfortable walking around a neighborhood with anti-Bush bumperstickers and Tibetan prayer flags. Yet on the other hand, we may come to realize that capitalism needs these progressive ghettos. They keep radicals isolated, talking only with each other, and not influencing or learning from other people. (In these ghettos, we also think we can buy our way out of corporate control–with organic food, green energy, or bottled water–instead of organizing to change poisonous conditions for everyone.) There are countless people in these communities who are against the war for the right reasons, but who are too busy or comfortable in the progressive bubble; getting them involved may mean putting on creative/artistic or kid-friendly events.

We are far more effective when we make connections outside of these communities. Even at the height of martial law in the Philippines, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos held back his security forces from cracking down on leftist students and faculty at the University of the Philippines. He allowed them to organize protests on campus so
they could blow off steam, and so he could avoid negative global publicity. But when the students started to make links with peasants, workers, tribal peoples, and other sectors off campus, they suddenly started “disappearing.” The regime dealt harshly with those student activists who became effective organizers, and who networked with other grassroots organizers.

It is a huge mistake for urban progressives to view smaller cities or rural areas as cultural-political wastelands, and create a vacuum that cedes these areas to conservatives. We can use our more open cities and neighborhoods as a base, but support issues outside them. In particular, medium-size cities are where the battle for the heart and soul of America is taking place-cities such as LaCrosse, Wis., Yakima, Wash., or York, Pa. They are not so small that people are afraid of rocking the boat, and not so large that most people who have opinions have already expressed them. There is room for the movement to grow in these cities, but not enough outside support yet for local groups doing the slow, unglamorous work of education and organizing.

5. Organize strategically

We are often told that the path to political change winds through the halls of Congress and the halls of justice. Although legislative and legal strategies can bring about political shifts, it is almost always based on begging someone more “powerful” to support our cause. But who really has “power” in this society when it comes to questions of war and peace? The path to change may wind instead through the halls of our high schools and the halls of our military barracks, and within the consciousness of our military community and military-age youth. Some people have political “power” far out of proportion to their numbers, but most of them don’t realize it yet.

Active-duty GIs, reservists, veterans, and military families together make up the military community. Just as women are the best people to organize women, and immigrants are the best people to organize other immigrants, the best people to educate and organize GIs are members of this military community–now organized in groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, and many more. During Vietnam, peace groups set up GI coffeehouses near bases. Unlike in the Vietnam and Gulf wars, peace groups can now reach GIs directly through the Internet. In the 21st century, we can set up virtual GI “cybercafes”–websites that provide information, resources, and a place for anonymous dialogue among GIs (and their families) in a particular military base, to make links between the military community and the peace movement.

High schools have become the other 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. Much of the focus of traditional peace groups toward high school students and GIs has usually been to facilitate open, individual 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 it may be more effective to identify more low-level, discreet and collective means that they can use to slow down the war machine.

6. Don’t wait for conditions to change

It often seems that antiwar people are waiting for conditions to change-to dramatically improve or worsen-before they seriously believe that peace is possible. I often hear, for example, that a draft would equitably distribute the burden of war, and increase resistance among students and GIs. But during Vietnam there were plenty of loopholes for white, upper/middle-class youth to evade the draft, and the most active GI resisters were enlistees. Many progressives, disheartened by Bush’s two election “victories,” assume that change is only possible through a new president. One reason for the lethargy in the peace movement is that so many antiwar people put their eggs in the Kerry basket in 2004, and still can’t get over that election. Some young people (who have only known Bush as president) even idealize Democratic administrations.

Yet it was Jimmy Carter who declared an “energy war,” established the Central Command in the Middle East, accelerated the nuclear arms race, and revived draft registration. It was Bill Clinton who repeatedly bombed Iraq, enforced draconian sanctions on the Iraqi people, and bombed Serbia and a few other countries. The new crop of candidates include many familiar faces-Hillary, Kerry, Clark-who backed those wars, or who voted for the Iraq War. While we may think in terms of “red” vs. blue” counties, many people view the dichotomy as between “elitist” and “populist” candidates of both parties. We should support populist candidates who support a withdrawal, but even then should exercise caution. There is no “quick fix.”

As we approach the 2008 races, some activists are deciding whether to join electoral campaigns. It is the kiss of death for any movement to drop issue-based organizing for sake of a temporary fix in the next election. Staying involved in peace organizing keeps the heat on Bush-and whomever replaces him-more effectively. If we keep the Iraq War as a central issue in our society (such as through local referenda), we will have built a movement that will last even if an peace candidate loses. If our preferred candidates win, a stronger movement will be able hold their feet to the fire. The time to build a movement is not after Bush stumbles or is replaced. The time is now.

7. Watch TV

I am baffled every time I talk with a peace activist about a TV news interview or a critical program, and the activist stops me to proudly proclaim that “we don’t have a TV.” This is a sure-fire sign of an activist who has no interest in being an organizer. How in the world can we educate or organize people around an issue if we don’t know what bogus “facts” and myths that the people are already receiving? How can we talk with them if we don’t have an understanding of mass culture as a common language? Joking about a TV drama or comedy is often a frame of reference that can open a conversation, and shows that we don’t see ourselves as superior.

I understand if progressives are protecting their kids, but the kids eventually go to bed. I also understand if they don’t want to sacrifice their souls, and turn their brains into mush with overly large doses of TV. But thousands of people have gone to jail (or even died) to fight war and injustice in this country’s history. Why can’t we make the sacrifice of laughing at an episode of Barbershop on Showtime? Not every program is like Survivor or Deal or No Deal; some programs actually try to critique society, and are probably safe to consume in small doses.

Many 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. Television is a critical part of shaping collective consciousness in the U.S. Just as the Latin American rebel has to know the rainforest, and the Middle Eastern rebel has to know the deserts or mountains, the North American rebel has to know television. It is our wilderness-our jungle-that we ignore at our peril. It may make us uncomfortable, but we must not become so isolated that we can only talk with others who don’t have a TV.

8. Don’t get overwhelmed by the odds

The occupation of Iraq has been going on for more than three long years, run by a president who has prevailed in two elections. Civil liberties have been limited, and with each terrorism scare, state repression and media hysteria grow more intense. In the face of these seemingly unshakeable realities, many progressives either throw up their hands in despair, become obsessed with the backlash they face when they speak out, or assume that a greater amount of repression will generate a greater amount of public resistance.

Yet elsewhere in the world (and in other periods of U.S. history), political organizers faced far greater obstacles and far greater repression, yet persevered by not letting it limit their resistance. In the Philippines, for example, dissenters during martial law faced media censorship, torture, disappearances, and a rubberstamp parliament-the Patriot Act pales in comparison. Yet by creatively organizing at the grassroots, and focusing not just on ending repression but on more positive, inspiring visions of the future, they formed powerful issue-based movements. I saw activists repeatedly winning victories against the dictatorship-stopping nuclear plants and hydro dams, and eventually closing huge U.S. military bases. It is not the level of resistance or repression that determines a movement’s success, but the level of empowerment and powerlessness.

Any successful movement should expect repression, and defend everyone’s civil liberties. The worst mistake to focus only on the repression of one part of society, such as academics. It is elitist to assume that academics have an “escape clause” that other activists do not have, or that white activists should be protected from government abuses that have long targeted activists of color. As the Native American poet John Trudell once summed up the situation: “When I go around in America and I see the bulk of the white people, they do not feel oppressed; they feel powerless. When I go amongst my people, we do not feel powerless; we feel oppressed.”

9. Look at the positive

George W. Bush is crashing and burning. Not only are his poll numbers at the lowest ever, but 73 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq told the Zogby Poll that they want a complete withdrawal within one year. The Iraqi Shi’ites (Saddam’s foremost enemies) are increasingly turning against the occupation, which may begin to collapse not gradually but catastrophically–like a house of cards. The so-called “War on Terror” does not elicit the same U.S. public reaction as the so-called “Cold War” did for four decades. Bush has to lie so much about the Iraq War precisely because he understands that the U.S. public would oppose the war if it knew the truth. We may often see the public as naïve and gullible, but the right-wing understands it has to spend billions of dollars to keep it that way-which actually says something good about our people.

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. The peace movement prevented a full-scale invasion of Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s, as it helped to end apartheid in South Africa. It mobilized the largest peace protests ever before the Iraq War, and now is regrouping on a global scale to demand an end to the occupation. Why are the grassroots movements such a challenge to the empire? Because they talk about democracy not simply as an exercise in voting, but as increasing our direct control over our economy, our culture, our land, our daily lives. Because instead of simply begging political officials to change their minds, they initiate change themselves at the base of society, within culture and consciousness. Political leadership does not create this change; it is generally the last to be affected by it. The movement starts the snowball rolling in order to create the avalanche, and then politicians and judges take credit for the very avalanche they are buried in. Political party programs mean very little; President Nixon spent more on social programs than President Carter, not because he intended to, but because there were marches in the streets creating fear within the elite. The fear of social instability is what causes the elites to shift their thinking, not petitions from a tamed, loyal opposition.

It is becoming clear that although the U.S. is the undisputed military superpower, it is declining relative to the growth of the European Union and East Asian economic blocs.

Its onetime puppet governments in Latin America are being replaced one-by-one with elected left-leaning governments, or toppled by indigenous revolts. This process has become nearly as dramatic as the Soviet Union losing its Eastern European satellite states in a “domino effect” in 1989. Just as the Roman Empire became militarily overextended, the American Empire is winning its battles but losing its war to dominate the world economic and political system. It may not collapse as dramatically as the Soviet Union, but may end up looking more like Britain-a former imperial lion now licking its wounds. It is up to us to decide if the collapse of our empire will continue to be much more violent than the collapse of the British or Russian empires.

10. Make changing society part of our lives

Any American working for peace or social change (against great odds) is invariably asked the same questions: “How do you keep going, despite discouragements? How do you keep your spirit and emotions up? Isn’t it too much of a sacrifice to get involved?” Personally, I usually have the same response: I see activism and organizing as a gift that has greatly enriched my life, and provided an incredible learning experience that I did not get in school or on the job. I’ve met fascinating and kind people, visited beautiful places I would not have otherwise seen, and been welcomed (and fed!) by communities I would not have otherwise known.

Working for peace and social change is not so much a sacrifice, as a commitment of time and energy that can have great returns-but only if it is done right. Doing it right means making social change a part of our lives–not apart from our lives, or dominating our lives. It means building a sense of community (respectfully introducing ourselves and getting to know others), rather than separating ourselves from our communities. Though it may mean sacrificing our own well-being, it should not mean sacrificing our families or loved ones–as I have had to be reminded.

Integrating social change into our lives means working with other of different ideological factions, rather than trashing people or expecting them to fit into Marxist or anarchist or Gandhian pegholes. There is a place in our movement for different ideas, and most people don’t care as much about ideologies as they do about stopping the war. Instead of battling over tactics, we should constantly be thinking of the society we want to create, and prefiguring it in our actions. Even the progressive notion of “justice” implies that someone else holds the power, and we want him or her to decide matters in a just way. We should start thinking rather about other people gaining the power to make those decisions. Grassroots organizations can begin to think of themselves less as pressure groups to influence government, and more like parallel institutions that function as the real representatives of our communities. That is the real meaning of “people power.” At the same time as we “tear it down,” we can also begin to build a different community and a better world.

ZOLTAN GROSSMAN is a faculty member in Geography and Native American Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and a longtime peace and justice organizer. His website is at or contact




Zoltán Grossman is a Member of the Faculty in Geography and Native American and Indigenous Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He earned his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin in 2002. He is a longtime community organizer, and was a co-founder of the Midwest Treaty Network alliance for tribal sovereignty. He was author of Unlikely Alliances: Native and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands (University of Washington Press, 2017), and co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012). His faculty website is at