On April 18, 2007, a protest against the war in Iraq at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison turned into an overnight occupation of Senator Herb Kohl’s office by approximately 100 citizens. Kohl is one of several Democratic Senators who claims he opposes the occupation of Iraq yet firmly supports the continued funding of that occupation and war through such mechanisms as the currently contested bill that sets a rather loose deadline for the withdrawal of some US troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008. Kohl’s office had been the target of antiwar sit-ins before, but never before had there been as many participants nor had anyone been arrested. As most readers probably know, Kohl is but one of several legislators who have seen sit-ins in their offices because of their refusal to support bills demanding immediate withdrawal of forces form Iraq. The Madison action was unique in that it was organized primarily by antiwar students at the university and will most likely go down in the history of the current antiwar movement as the first large action of its kind.
I had the opportunity to connect with some of the participants/organizers of this action. We had an informed and stimulating exchange. I reprint it here in the hopes that others will be inspired to act similarly, especially in the light of the current attempts by Congress to rewrite the aforementioned legislation so that there are no timetables or deadlines for withdrawal whatsoever, only so-called benchmarks that do nothing but blame the Green Zone government for the occupation’s failure to assume control of Iraq and its resources while simultaneously tying non-military aid to the Green Zone government’s continuing the transformation of Iraq into another neoliberal colony of Washington. The elected representatives of the people must be made to understand that we want the troops home now. As the students below make clear, only mass protest will bring this home to them.
Ron: Tell me what happened. How did this protest turn into a sit in?
Josh Brielmaier: About 100 of us crammed into Kohl’s office to make our demands. Somebody suggested staying the night and by show of hands around forty of us were willing to stay the night.
Chris Dols: The visit to Kohl’s became an overnight office occupation when Kohl refused to meet our demand for an in-person meeting. Kohl has never met publicly with antiwar constituents in Madison since the war began. Further, he has supported and funded the war since the beginning.
Zach Heise: The original intention of the protest was for it to be a sit-in. We were informed that Wednesday afternoons were a time when a regular sit-in group was in Kohl’s office, so we thought that we would bolster their group and show our support. We had hoped that we wouldn’t need to do a sit-in, at least some of us – Campus Antiwar Network’s (CAN) reasons for being there were clearly stated and taped within moments of our arrival: we wanted to meet with Kohl, or at the VERY least, arrange with him personally via phone for a time that he could meet with our group. We didn’t want any secondhand heresy from aides or notes – we wanted to hear his voice on the phone to arrange a meeting with us, and then we would have, as far as I believe was our intention, left peacefully. That was our mission.
Todd Dennis: Like Zach said, The plan from the start was to go to Herb Kohl’s office and make our demands and request a public meeting where we could get Herb Kohl’s response to our demands for the troops to come home from Iraq. Following the run-around from his staff, as the folks from The Network have been getting since they have been conducting their sit-ins, we stayed in the office while waiting on when Kohl would come back to speak with his constituents in his home state. The staff told us they would give us a teleconference in the next couple days but wouldn’t give us an exact time as they had to work out to find some open time the senator had. After “granting” the conference call, they said okay here you go, will you leave now. Of course since we wanted a public meeting in Wisconsin we said no. As previously understood by those of us who planned the event we staying in the Senators office waiting to hear he would come to Wisconsin for the public meeting. However, overnight upon the realization that we meant business we were given several demands and when they told us we couldn’t make anymore demands and also made it clear that we would get neither the conference call nor the public meeting we took back the entire office from the 10 X 20 part we were corralled in overnight. Following our taking over fo the entire office, the police were called and we had to leave the building.
Ron:What were your personal and political reasons for participating?
Bernadette Watts: I don’t see any just reasoning behind this war. Everything in my body tells me that it’s a senseless war for the profit of a small group of individuals. Kohl, the wealthiest US senator, continues to support funding for the war while saying he is against it. I believe our senator should work for us, the people he supposedly represents, and when he messes up, I believe it’s our duty to make him accountable for his actions. I recently became involved with CAN and it has been a pleasure working with such an intelligent group of individuals, all of whom continue to inspire me to use my voice.
Todd: I have a couple reasons why I participated. One, as a veteran who was on active duty in the US Navy when the disinformation war to start the occupation of Iraq began, I have been opposed to the occupation from the start. While in the military, partly out of fear of retributions and partly because I was unaware of my GI rights to protest off-base and out of uniform, I didn’t participate in the anti-war rallies and demonstrations prior to the start of the occupation. I did however contact all of my representatives stating my displeasure with the proposed Iraq war vote. Kohl like normal didn’t respond to my emails. This was very disrespectful to me and my brothers and sisters whose lives he is personally responsible. Since I have become a peace and justice advocate with first, Veterans for Peace and now along with Iraq Veterans Against the War, I have been disappointed in the representatives of this countries response to the war and public sentiment to it. While I can do nothing about my earlier inaction, I can when any opportunity arises take action showing my displeasure with the continued occupation of Iraq where our military has virtually no mission but to stay alive.
Some in our group until we did this action felt that Kohl was an honest and sinsere politician. I had lost faith in the Democrats long ago and felt that Kohl who claims to be against the war and yet keeps funding it was a good target to show everyone how he really doesn’t stand with us in our demand that Iraqis get self-determination. To show them and the rest of the country how our purported representatives respond to our simple requests I participated in the occupation of Herb Kohl’s office.
Chris: My French grandfather fought against occupation of his country by the Nazis. Had my grandfather been a German, I like to think he would have done the same, but I can’t know where he would have stood. All I know is that my country is now occupying others and if the memory of my Grandfather means anything to me, it directs me to stand with those my government attempts to conquer. It is the responsibility of progressives in the heart of the empire to stand in solidarity with the victims of those empires. Kohl stands for conquest, I stand against him. We conquered his office for one, long night. A taste of things to come. I slept soundly on his plush office carpet knowing while my squirrelly little Senator stands on one side of history, I stand on the other.
Zach: I originally joined the antiwar effort due to what I view as a horrendous economic waste. Besides being illegal and founded on what have been proven to be Western expansion reasons as opposed to “democracy” this war is costing over $3000 dollars every second – every second, that much money is spent on this war. There’s a great site, www.costofwar.com that allows you to see how much your exact area has estimated spending on the war. Well, Wisconsin’s spending on the war could have purchased 12,000 full-ride scholarships to UW-Madison. Simply ridiculous. Maybe if this was a just and well-reasoned war, that could be justified. But as it is now, I find it simply appalling.
Josh: I think if we’re serious about bringing an end to this war then its obvious traditional protest alone is going to be insufficient. It serves a purpose, but puts no real pressure on our elected representatives to do their job. As a newcomer to the antiwar movement I felt inspired by the energy and momentum of my comrades and the general sense that we were doing something different. We’re no longer politely asking those in power to put and end to the war in Iraq; we’re demanding it.
Ron: In the statement you all released, you wrote that Kohl expressed support for your position. If this is so, then why did you occupy his office?
Zach: We occupied his office because his “support” for our position seems to be completely ceremonial. He pays lip service to being opposed to the war, but yet he continues to fund a war. For me, that’s the biggest reason: if you’re supporting the war, be honest; if you’re opposed to the war, let your voting record show that you’re opposed to the war. It’s all well and good for him to “support our position” – now show us that you’re willing to vote with us.
Todd: He has no idea what our position is and his “support” of our position is not the support that we need to see to have it proven that he truly does stand with us. He continues to vote for the occupation and recently voted for the funding and “timetable” to continue the occupation for an indefinite amount of time. In further showing his lack of standing with us he failed to address our six demands. This showed he was not with us but with his own train of thought. Since we had no public meeting we were not willing to meet with Kohl. We requested this and it was ignored by him and his staff.
Bernadette: In Kohl’s patronizing response email, he let us know that he was happy we came to show our discontent and he agrees with us but that he couldn’t really do anything about the war in Iraq, as it lies in George W’s hands. We occupied his office to make a statement. A statement telling Kohl that we refuse to be continually misrepresented in Washington, as he says he’s against the war, yet continues to support funding for the war.
Chris: Kohl wrote that he stands with us in our opposition to Bush’s failed war policy. But we were not in his office because of anything that Bush did. We were there because Senator Herb Kohl cuts the checks or Bush’s wars and military occupations. Had Kohl read our demands, then, perhaps he would have responded to the content. These were our demands,
1.) Immediate withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq
2.) Iraq for Iraqis
3.) Fully fund veterans’ benefits and health care, including mental health care
4.) Reparations to the Iraqi people, no strings attached
5.) Ban the use of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq
6.) Money for Jobs & Education, not for War and Occupation
Kohl’s attempts to lessen our expectations of him (specifically, opposition to war should mean not funding it) are emblematic of the new Congress’ game plan, more generally. Raised expectations can either be met or diminished. Ever since November’s election raised the country’s expectations for the war to end, Kohl and his colleagues have set out to diminish our expectations (we want peace and they give us timetables for withdrawal). Heaven knows they won’t actually meet our expectations and let the Iraqis run their own affairs. That’s for us – and the Iraqis – to push him to do.
Josh: (The way I see it is) Kohl says he is antiwar. But his voting record contradicts it. The senator also has never held a public meeting in the state of Wisconsin which he represents. To us this is inexcusable. Our modest request was that our elected representative meet with his constituency publicly
Ron:What do you think he meant when he said that as a senator he had no power to end the war?
Josh: I really couldn’t tell you. Not only is he a US senator, he is the wealthiest US senator in Congress. Does he mean to say he is incapable of using any of that influence to help end the war?
Zach: That was such a laughable statement. Of course he as one individual senator, acting all by himself, could not end the war. But what I at least view his duty to us, his constituents, as being is that he should be willing to fight for us with his colleagues. We, the antiwar network, cajole and try to educate our friends and family every day as to why this war is wrong and needs to be stopped, NOW rather than later – I want to know that Kohl is out there, speaking with his colleagues, using educated, well-rounded responses that aren’t canned statements and doing all that he can to end this massacre.
Bernadette: I think Kohl meant that as a senator who became senator by buying the popular vote, he lacks the principle dignifying qualities it takes to speak out on behalf of the common people, like supporting an end to the war. I think Kohl means that his incentives of releasing himself of the power to end the war are far too great to give up. I think he means that he lacks the sympathy for the common citizens of Wisconsin, as well as solidarity for the American troops and the Iraqi citizens, needed to end the war.
Chris: Senator Kohl has the” honor” of being the richest Senator – which is like being the tallest New York Knick. If he really wanted an end to this war, he could give some of his money and political backing to Iraq Veterans Against the War and accelerate the deepening and organization of our movement. Kohl doesn’t have the power to end the war for one very simple reason: he’s for it. That’s why he funds it.
Todd: He meant that he has no courage to stand up against the injustices of the occupation and demand an end to it. He also showed his lack of desire to stand with his constituents and the country in calling for an immediate withdrawal of occupying forces.
Ron:Who called the protest and occupation? Which student groups are active against the war in Madison? What kind of support do you get from other students and the community?
Zach: The Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) arranged for the protest itself to happen, as well as the student walk-out of class. As for the occupation of the office, I don’t know. As for student groups, I believe that we are the only ones taking a strong stance against the war, although I don’t know this for sure. We’ve tried to approach the College Democrats to see if they’ll support us, but those who have tried have been shouted down or asked to not bring up this “radical” agenda. Thankfully though, there are several community groups, most notably the Wisconsin Area Peace Coalition, that are firmly on our side.
Todd: Iraq Vets Against the War (IVAW), Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC), International Socialist Organization (ISO), al Awda, WNPJ, Madison Area Peace Coalition (MAPC) and other student and community groups supported our call to protest the occupation of Iraq by walking out of class to a rally and then by occupying Kohl’s office with our request of a public meeting. A number of community members came to the rally and a few spent the night locked in our small confines waiting for our public meeting.
Chris: In general, students and the community are very supportive of the antiwar movement.
Ron: As you no doubt know, Madison was a hotbed of antiwar activity during the Vietnam war. In fact one of its most famous protests was the action against Dow recruiters portrayed in the film The War at Home. Another was the bombing of the Math Research Center that killed a grad student. Is the university still involved in war industry research? How?
Todd: You bet the university is still involved in war industry research. While I have no particular research the Madison Infoshop has a file folder full of military research contracts which vaguely describe the research being conducted for the military. In addition to the military research, this university is in bed with major war profiteers and welcomes them without even a second thought for career fairs and other events where they attempt to get UW students to join their unethical companies.
Josh: John Peck from the Infoshop here in Madison has done some research on the subject. A Freedom of Information Act revealed millions of dollars in active Pentagon contracts at UW. Areas of research include surveillance systems, quantum computers, and hypernetic computers to be used for the Star Wars program.
Ron: In terms of the protest movement against the war, do you think it has been effective? If so, how? If not, why?
Bernadette: Yes, I think we’ve been effective. Movements don’t happen over night. They take a while to grow and the campus anti war network is doing just that. The walkout demonstrated the power of numbers standing up in community. It offered hope for people that change is possible, if not over night.
Chris: Our goal is to build a movement that can stop the war. We haven’t done that yet, obviously. But we have expanded the core of organizers significantly. (four months ago our CAN meetings were attended by 4 of us. Today it’s over 20 regularly) Further, activists are learning from experience. The struggle itself is our greatest class room. The classes are getting bigger and the discussions are ahead, politically, of where they were several years ago. For example, racism against Arabs and Muslims is discussed as regularly as “What would happen if the US left Iraq today?” and the America’s broader goals in the Middle East, etc. These discussions are not only welcomed in the movement, but necessary for our growth. Our goal – and we’ve begun to achieve this – is to make antiwar activism more educational and fulfilling than school. Given the misery of schoolwork and the terrible job market for graduates, we’re operating on fertile ground.
Todd: A large part of the current antiwar movement are Democrats. This fact makes the numbers in the movement fluctuate as they work to get Democrats elected instead of focusing on ending the occupation. The movement however has been growing rapidly both here in Madison and nationally. We had a handful of members in CAN last semester but the lack of support for prowar Democrats has led to an increase in our membership and we have found a number of dedicated people to help us out. Another positive indication that the movement is growing is IVAW getting about 10 new member applications per week in its office, along with our first chapter on an active duty military base.
Zach: I think that the more press coverage that we can get showing us involved in peaceful, organized, well-coordinated action, the more effective we’ll be able to be. Unfortunately, we’re still very small. After watching the well-known documentary The War At Home, I have been fighting as hard as I can to get people interested in joining the antiwar movement. When we have 6000 people flooding the streets of Madison, sitting on the steps of the capitol building, then we can truly be effective. However, I do think that currently, we aren’t being noticed enough by those in power to be truly effective. As mentioned though; our classmates and friends are taking notice of our actions, and, like Chris said, the size of CAN has quintupled in number. They started with 4 before I joined in January, and I’m proud to be with them.
Todd: We have been effective in that we have caused the majority of media to now refer to Operation Iraqi Freedom as an occupation instead of a war. We have also helped along with the lack of any progress on the non-mission in shifting public opinion towards a withdrawal with many calling for immediate withdrawal.
Josh: There’s a lot to take into consideration. I don’t think lobbying can have much impact in such biased and undemocratic institutions either. I think the focus really needs to be on organizing and networking with other groups. That’s how you build political capital. Direct action is all well and good – it chips away at the machine. But it’s a big machine and its going to take a big movement to take it down.
Ron: What do you think would make it more effective? More direct action? A different focus? Personally, I get very frustrated with the idea put forth by some national elements that we must focus on Congress–you know, pressuring them and lobbying them only to see them come up with bills that talk against the war but do nothing to end it. However, I’m not sure how to buck this trend. Any thoughts from you all?
Zach: In my opinion, the more organized we are, the more credible we’ll appear the masses, and then the more likely we are to be noticed and paid attention. A rabble has power, but people only move out of its way when it sweeps through; they don’t stop and listen. I hope that as the CAN contingent here in Madison ages over the months (and we’ll be active in the summer; you’d better believe it!) We’ll learn new ways to better control and focus large groups. As for our focus, I hope that we continue to try to influence powerful people in the government. We have to show them (as our numbers increase) that a large movement support removal of the troops from the Middle East NOW, not later. We also hope to educate people about war resisters and how to support them in any way possible.
Chris: The main idea that stands in between the domestic antiwar movement today and the successful movement that will end this war is that “protest doesn’t matter.” Or some variant of that argument. As I’m fond of saying here in North America’s only city built on an Isthmus, had you made this argument in 1965, you would have been laughed into one of the lakes. The Civil Rights Movement had just crushed Jim Crow and the movements were growing, commanding more and more attention with each passing year. That’s not to say that it was “up–up-and-away” but rather that victory inspires. Since the 1970s few inspirational victories weigh heavily on the memory. That’s why we look to other movements – such as the Immigrant Rights movement which successfully defeated the Sensenbrenner bill last year. Further, we look to the other movements against this war. Specifically, the soldier’s movement to end the occupation and the Iraqis’ movement to boot the occupiers.
Todd: Yes, more direct action is needed. The representatives of this country including the now majority Democrats have shown a blatant disregard when it comes to ending the occupation. Having large groups come in to their offices and make simple requests like ours are crucial in getting them to see that the people are against the occupation. While I don’t like lobbying Congress they have to be reminded who they represent.
I think that our protests while they are very good for the movement are often not as effective as possible. One there are too many issues being addressed to clearly get our message across to the public who doesn’t come. We need more actions which are coordinated across the country and need to better utilize the media to get our message effectively across to the general public.
One thing we have done in IVAW is Operation First Casualty. (Guerrilla theatre that is attempting to bring the reality of the war home. -Ron) The first one of these occurred right after the March 17th demonstrations. Through working with the media to get our message out there, our story was featured in the Washington Post. We have help who have worked with us to get in contact with the proper media contacts to get the story properly represented in the media.
Chris: The movement is growing, but unless it is unlike every movement in the history of movements, it will suffer setbacks ahead. I don’t know what the impacts of the 2008 elections will be, but things like presidential campaigns can tend to have a dampening effect on movements. That said, disappointed expectations may prove to be explosive. I have at times felt that what we were doing was “going nowhere” as you put it. But a good boxer learns more from losses than from victories. A growing number of us are in the ring to stay.
Ron: Speaking of frustration, do you sometimes feel like your work on campus is going nowhere? Or do you feel like the movement in Madison (especially among folks around your age) is growing?
Bernadette: I am frustrated with our government’s policies, and with the willfully ignorant, not with the production of the campus anti war network. Like I said, I am new to CAN, and so far I haven’t been disappointed, I’ve been impressed and encouraged, by a lot of brilliant students. Also, since I’ve been involved, the past couple months or so, I’ve seen an increase of interests and numbers at our meetings. It’s rather exciting.
Zach: (We are) Most definitely growing! I believe my other statements answer this question quite nicely. I’m very pleased with CAN in this respect, and we’re certainly not done yet!
Todd: No! I don’t feel frustrated. I believe the movement is growing.
Josh: I guess I haven’t been a part of the movement for long enough to start becoming cynical. Pretty much everyone I talk to seems receptive to our message and I’ve been impressed and surprised by the the enthusiasm for our cause expressed by many people.
Ron: There are now at least two or three national youth and student groups involved in protesting the war–SDS, Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) and the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition. Is there coordination among these groups? Are there major differences? If so, can you elucidate?
Chris: CAN’s emphasis is on working with all student organizations – and non-student organizations, for that matter – who are organizing against the war. And we have organized jointly with SDS and NYSPC. We look forward to future collaboration.
Todd: No, there needs to be coordination between the groups since the youth are obviously against the war in larger numbers. I am not that familiar with NYSPC but from what I know about SDS and CAN they are democratic and seem to be doing pretty much the same things.
Zach: I know that several members of our group are in communication with SDS, and we do try to plan national events with the national branches of Campus Antiwar Network, which in turn communicates with SDS for coordination. However, I don’t know about NYSPC – they’re a relative unknown to me.
Ron: Well, summer is coming up and school will be out for the year. What are your political plans for the summer?
Zach: I will be around after June 7th, and I plan to continue meeting with my colleagues in CAN. As for our plans for the summer, I’m not sure myself. I hope that we’ll continue to do sit-ins and protests at the capitol building, as well as increasing our knowledge of the issues since we won’t have classes to worry about.
Chris: Most of our CAN chapter is going to be in Madison for the summer. We are hoping to spend the summer preparing for CAN’s national conference which may well be held in Madison this Fall (a decision will be made shortly). We also hope to launch fund-raising efforts over the summer to strengthen our hand financially going into the fall. Further, a good number of us are attending the Socialism 2007 conference in Chicago where we hope to learn more about struggles (today’s and yesterdays, successes and failures) and we will network with other antiwar activists and build the student movement there.
Todd: I will be traveling to NYC for an Operation First Casualty action with IVAW and then will be studying abroad in France for a few months. I plan on relaxing and catching up on some reading during this time. When I get back i will be going to the Veterans For Peace National Convention.
Josh: Socialism 2007 in Chicago and whatever else might be going on in Madison when I’m around…I’m going to Kerouac it across the country so hopefully I’ll be able to make some meaningful connections with fellow freaks, revolutionaries, and other fellow travelers.
Bernadette: I will be in Madison over the summer, along with most of CAN. So hopefully we’ll all have more time and energy. The plan is just to continue doing continue to organize, fundraise, and educate ourselves. I too will be attending Socialism 2007 and I’m looking forward to a productive summer!!
Ron: Anything else?
Chris: Thank you for asking us what we think. As a student-activist, it’s much nicer to be posed these questions, than the one I heard most often from 2004-2006: “When will the students do their part?” Well, here we are.
Zach: Thank you for interviewing us!
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com