Stop Knocking the Peace Movement!

It’s alive and growing—and poorly reported

by , May 12, 2011

You might never guess, but across the United States, there are literally hundreds of grassroots peace organizations that have been mobilizing opposition to the wars for years. These groups have a local, regional, or sometimes statewide character, with names like the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, Lincoln Park Neighbors for Peace, Cape Codders for Peace and Justice, Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, Community Alliance of Lane County, and Brooklyn for Peace, to cite just a few.

Such entities have participated in a wide range of activities—local vigils, petition campaigns, call-in days, visits to congressional offices, civil disobedience, letters to local newspapers, veterans’ testimony, street theater, and countless educational forums. Some are affiliated with vigorous national organizations, among them Peace Action, U.S. Labor Against War, CODEPINK, Military Families Speak Out, Progressive Democrats for America, and the American Friends Service Committee, while others are freestanding. Since 2003, most have stayed connected through United for Peace and Justice, which remains the largest peace-activist network in the country.

To people who remember the vast antiwar mobilizations of the Vietnam period, present efforts may seem puny. Yet it is worth considering that at the point when those protests were drawing huge crowds, there were half a million American troops fighting in Vietnam, and by 1968-69, 400 U.S. soldiers were dying every week. And while that antiwar movement eventually prevailed, 58,000 Americans and perhaps 2 million Asians perished before the war ended.

Such complexities notwithstanding, it has become the conventional wisdom that the current peace movement is not merely puny, but also ineffective. Yet this overlooks the contribution of antiwar activists to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and to the growing pressure on President Obama to reduce the American military presence in Afghanistan.

In an immediate sense, the American troop reduction in Iraq is the product of a status of forces agreement (SOFA) pressed by the Iraqi government in the waning days of the Bush administration. However, the inability of the White House to challenge the al-Maliki government on the provisions of that agreement was the consequence of domestic dissent, as expressed in Congress and in polls. This dissent did not come about through spontaneous combustion, but was the result of many factors, including intense organizing within congressional districts and the wide-ranging educational and protest activities generated by peace groups around the country.

The same holds true for Afghanistan. As he plunges ahead, President Obama must reckon with a strong and growing antiwar bloc in the U.S. Congress and negative poll numbers, which indicate that the American public wants the war wrapped up quickly. Here, too, the peace movement has played a vital, albeit unheralded, role. If there are now more than 100 members of Congress speaking out against the American military presence in Afghanistan, this reflects years of antiwar work among constituents.

Oddly, the polls are sometimes cited to prove the ineptitude of the peace movement. With so many Americans against the war in Afghanistan, why isn’t the peace movement stronger? A fair question, yet one that omits the possibility that the efforts of local peace groups have contributed to that public skepticism.

If the continued existence of the peace movement is unrecognized, how can this be explained? One is the complete freeze-out by the mainstream media. Since 2003, there have been no fewer than four national demonstrations attended by more than 100,000 people, yet the only one to receive coverage was the huge New York City gathering in the run-up to the Iraq War. The others were so many trees falling in the forest, which nobody could hear or see unless they were personally marching.

But while the silence in the mainstream media is perhaps predictable, more surprising and less excusable has been the failure of progressive news outlets to provide positive attention to peace organizations. Since 2001, these alternative outlets have done an extraordinary job of reporting American actions abroad and providing sophisticated analysis of international events that are elsewhere ignored. Barely mentioned have been the mass antiwar mobilizations of the past eight years, the ongoing campaigns to move the Congress, or the steady, creative work of antiwar activists in towns and cities across the United States. The demoralizing result is a constant imbalance between the depressing news about U.S. foreign policy and the apparent lack of resistance here. Individuals who are not already part of the existing peace networks often conclude there is nothing useful to be done and focus elsewhere.

In recent weeks, the silence has been broken by a handful of articles lamenting the absence of a peace movement and attributing its collapse to a misplaced enthusiasm for President Obama and the Democratic Party. In this narrative, the antiwar movement is characterized as nothing more than a partisan club to beat George W. Bush over the head with. Therefore, the story goes, once this particular “evildoer” had retired to Texas, the peace activists simply folded up their tents and abandoned the field. But this description takes no account of the thousands of people across the country who have organized protests for the past decade out of the conviction that the wars are wrong.

There is no denying the fact that after 2008 many local and national groups became strapped for cash, were forced to lay off staff, and saw their membership decline. As a coalition, United for Peace and Justice was especially vulnerable to these developments and had to eliminate its paid positions. Such difficulties were in turn the consequence of the economic recession as well as a decreased willingness by some large individual donors and funding agencies to keep peace as a priority. While some of the latter may have hoped that President Obama would reverse the pattern of U.S. militarism and intervention, there was never a point at which peace organizations decided to step aside and rely on the White House to make wise decisions.

Although largely unreported in both mainstream and alternative media, the work for peace has continued. As one result, this past summer 114 members of Congress (most of them Democrats) voted against the president’s funding request for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, peace groups, including United for Peace and Justice, have not only revived, they have broadened their work to address both the astronomical military budget, which this year totaled $687 billion (52 percent of all discretionary spending), and the wholesale assault on vitally needed domestic programs. One encouraging manifestation of this trend has been the formation of a New Priorities Network, which is rapidly forging links between the peace and social justice communities.

With bin Laden dead, the Petraeus surge in Afghanistan a fiasco, and mounting concern over the federal deficit, we have the best opportunity ever to challenge American militarism. And to be effective, we surely need more people to participate. This will not occur, however, if alternative media fails to provide fair coverage of the exciting work that peace activists do every day.

Read more by Carolyn Eisenberg