A Coalition’s Progress: Monterey’s Anti-Afghan War Demonstration

by , November 30, 2009

Introduction

My local chapter of Libertarians for Peace, co-founded by local libertarian activist Lawrence Samuels and me in 2005, joined the Peace Coalition of Monterey County (PCMC) about three years ago. I think we are the only non-Left group in the 20-plus member coalition. The PCMC includes two religious organizations (Unitarians and Quakers), a labor union organization, the Monterey County Democratic Central Committee, the Progressive Democrats of America, the Green Party, and various other organizations whose members believe in peace. Back in July, at our bimonthly meeting of the Peace Coalition’s Steering Committee, I proposed that we have an antiwar demonstration in the fall to oppose the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and to oppose going to war against Iran. My goal in doing so was twofold: (1) Because the antiwar movement had been relatively quiescent since George W. Bush had left office, I thought it important to make a statement that the wars, including the expanded wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are still a bad idea; and (2) closely related to (1), Lawrence and I wanted to test the coalition: Was it really pro-peace, or had it gone soft because many of the members liked Obama on other grounds?

I’ll save you the suspense. The Peace Coalition of Monterey County passed the test. We had the demonstration, but we focused it against the war in Afghanistan. The demonstration was a success. Many of the participants were from left-wing organizations that are part of the PCMC. And we got a lot of young people involved. The ratio of thumbs up and friendly honks to middle fingers from drivers who passed by was about 9 to 1. Various people bonded. We made signs that one doesn’t normally see at antiwar demonstrations, and people whom one might not expect to carry them did so. All of the signs were about the topic at hand – the war – and not about unrelated issues. We had some good discussions, especially with the younger people at the demonstration.

Why did the demonstration focus on the Afghan war? When I proposed the demonstration at the Coalition’s July meeting, someone said that it shouldn’t be directed against all the wars, but should be focused instead. I disagreed, but everyone who spoke up leaned the other way and the particular war they wanted to go after was the war in Afghanistan. That surprised me because Afghanistan was the one war that candidate Obama, and later President Obama, favored expanding. Thus, we had achieved goal (2) even before the demonstration occurred.

Who Will Bell the Cat?

Along with the classic blunder mentioned by Vizzini in The Princess Bride – "Never get involved in a land war in Asia" – another classic blunder is to propose an activity when few of the group’s members are present. If the organization says "yes," the natural next step is to assume that the person who proposed it will also organize it. We had an unusually small turnout that July, and it was clear to me that if I didn’t volunteer to organize the demonstration, it wouldn’t happen.

So I volunteered. How hard could it be? Well, it turns out, not that hard. The major tasks were to get a permit from the police to use the Windows on the Bay Park, put out a generic press release to the local media, make signs, and talk up the demonstration with others, mainly via e-mail. The most time-consuming task was making the signs – getting the marker pens, buying out Target’s stock of poster board at its two local outlets, lining up some volunteers and a place, and actually getting together on a Saturday afternoon to do it. But that was fun, especially the three 50-something men with graying hair kneeling on the floor writing out pithy slogans as if we were idealistic young college students instead of what we really are: idealistic middle-aged men.

The hardest part psychologically was going to the police station and filling out the form to get a permit to have the demonstration. Part of why that was hard is that I’m a libertarian and I hate asking permission to exercise my freedom of speech. If you need permission, it’s not quite freedom of speech. The other part, if truth be told, is that I still have issues with authority, issues that I have had since a very early age. But the police officer who mailed me the signed approval form, Lt. Leslie Sonne of the Monterey Police Department, seemed like a consummate professional. Moreover, when, on the morning of the demonstration, I looked around for the form she had sent and couldn’t find it, I e-mailed her and asked if I could pick up a duplicate. I had it in my hand an hour later.

In organizing the demonstration, my first, I called my friend, managing editor of Antiwar.com Eric Garris, early in the game to get his thoughts. The main thing I learned from him is that if you want to get across a consistent message, make signs with your message and hand them out. To save on costs, I took some existing signs that were on message and that were stored at the Monterey Peace and Justice Center. We made up, in addition, about 20 signs. They had slogans such as:

8 Years is Enough. (This was the theme for the press releases.)

Support the Troops: Bring them Home.

Fire General McChrystal.

Honk if You Want Peace.

And my favorite, partly because of my economics training and partly because this has never been emphasized but is absolutely true:

War Destroys Wealth.

In an interview I did with Scott Horton shortly before the demonstration, I told Scott about my "War Destroys Wealth" idea. Scott saw it as a way to appeal to the Right on his assumption that people on the Right don’t care about human lives but do care about property. Indeed, in his write-up on the link above, Scott writes about my winning over conservatives by showing the economic consequences of war. But that’s not how I saw it at all. I don’t know anyone, left-wing, right-wing, or middle of the bird, who thinks that purposely destroying wealth is a good idea. The slogan is also suitably general: War destroys the wealth of the taxpayers, current and future, who pay for it, and it also destroys the wealth of those who are attacked. My instinct was right. Two people whom no one would think of as right-wing picked up the signs and carried them at the demonstration.

Bumps in the Road

At the September bimonthly meeting of the PCMC Steering Committee, when I reported on how the organizing for the demonstration was going, one member stated that she strongly objected to anything that identified the Afghan war as "Obama’s war." I reassured her that none of the signs I anticipated would do that and that I thought it more effective to leave out the names of the war-makers in order to focus on the issue. One of the other people present said, "But it is Obama’s war." I told him that I agreed but that I was willing to go along with the apparent consensus.

As we got closer to the date, I did get some flack from the person who wanted it not to be identified as Obama’s war. She objected to the following statement in the press release: "Peace Coalition spokesman David Henderson stated, ‘Eight years is enough: in fact, it’s too much. The war should have ended on President Bush’s watch. Now it’s up to President Obama to correct Bush’s mistake.’"

But because that statement did not violate any agreement I had made, I kept it in.

The Event

On Friday, Oct. 5, we held the demonstration from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We chose those hours to catch the traffic on busy Del Monte Avenue. We had no speakers. People rarely listen to speakers anyway, and, in my experience, few speakers respect their audiences enough to give coherent, thoughtful speeches. When I got there, at about 4:45 p.m., 10 or so people were already there with their own signs. I handed out signs to comers and by about 5:15 p.m., we had a group of about 40 to 50 people lining the street carrying their and our signs. Four positives about the event stand out.

First, the reaction from people driving by was almost entirely positive: People honked their horns and then waved or gave thumbs up. I got suckered by one young driver who smiled at me and pointed to his military sticker on the driver’s side of his car. I smiled back and then, when he had my attention, he gave me the middle finger. But it was funny and so I laughed. The reason it was funny brings me to my second positive: I was having a good time because there was a lot of bonding and camaraderie. Holding the signs and standing beside others who probably shared very few of my political views felt fulfilling. It reminded me that we could build bridges across political divides. The third positive was the number of young people there, about 10 or so from California State University at Monterey Bay. I talked to a number of them, and then Lawrence and I were invited to go with them for pizza afterward. It’s fun to bond.

There’s one fourth positive. A week earlier, when I was hauling the signs into the downtown office I rent, a woman who runs a small business in the same building saw me with the signs and said, "Oh, you’re one of those." "Yes," I said proudly, "I’m one of those." Later I heard her talking to her two business partners about it and they came up and asked me about it. After I told them about the upcoming event, they told me they would like to come and asked me to remind them as the date got closer. I have become so used to people saying they will show up and then not show up, but I’m fond of these women and I kept my word to remind them that same day. Sure enough, they showed up. And at the end, they asked to be told about future events.

The Press

This was a small positive. The only publication that covered us was the local left-wing Monterey County Weekly. Although their reporter Robin Urevich interviewed many people at the demonstration and, as far as I can tell, reported accurately, she gave prominence in her story to a Naval Postgraduate School colleague of mine named Thomas Johnson. Johnson is an adviser to Stanley McChrystal who wants to use taxpayers’ funds to rebuild Afghanistan. Fresh from interviewing Johnson, Urevich quoted to me what he had said and asked if I thought "we" owed it to the Afghans to help rebuild their country. I answered: "No, ‘we’ don’t. If somehow you could legally attach George W. Bush’s wealth, then I think it would be legitimate to turn it over to individual Afghans. But you didn’t attack Afghanistan and neither did I. So we shouldn’t be forced to support them."

Urevich asked, "But isn’t this like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe?"

I answered: "It is like the Marshall Plan, and the Marshall Plan was a failure. Trivia question: Which country received the most aid under the Marshall Plan?"

She said she didn’t know.

I replied: "England. And they had a fairly unsuccessful economy all through the Marshall Plan era. Tyler Cowen has written [.pdf] about this. The country in Europe that thrived was West Germany, and that was because they removed Hitler’s price controls that the Allies had taken over enforcing. If you want to read more, I wrote about it in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics."

When I started telling her about Germany’s experience, Urevich actually rolled her eyes. You might think this is just good reporter skepticism. But she doesn’t bring skepticism to some other topics. In a piece she did for NPR on the "living wage," she measured its success by how it improved the lives of people who got the higher wage, with nary a mention of the unseen: the people who lost their jobs because the "living wage" priced them out of a job. Moreover, Urevich then said, "I don’t have the time to read up on the Marshall Plan. It’s generally accepted that it was successful."

I replied: "I don’t think that’s good reporting, just to go with what’s generally accepted when someone has cited specific evidence that you can check."

Thus ended the interview. And of course she reported none of my responses to Thomas Johnson’s utopian proposal.

It’s possible that we would have gotten better coverage if I hadn’t been at a meeting with Urevich and the editorial staff at the Monterey County Weekly a few days earlier in which the staff made clear its displeasure at an ally’s and my opposition to a property tax increase in Pacific Grove. But we’ll probably never know.

Coda

Although the least successful part of the demonstration was the press coverage, everything succeeded. We bonded, we got out a good message, and we connected with young and non-young people. You might wonder at the lighthearted tone of this article and of me at the demonstration. After all, we were talking about issues of life and death. But would we have been more successful with scowls on our faces? I doubt it. One of the first rules of volunteer activity, whatever the activity, is to make it fun for the people involved. After all, no one is paying us. Did we end the war? Of course not. But we got a good read on how much antiwar feeling there is in our area, learned how to run a successful demonstration, and strengthened the coalition. And there will be more demonstrations, because, by the way, it is Obama’s war.

Copyright © 2009 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

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