Dear American antiwar community:
As I wrote
During my time in Washington, D.C., I observed the effects of several antiwar protests. The largest of these protests were the typical Iraq war “anniversary” marches held around March 19 every year. I attended one of these marches, which was held on a Saturday. The march began at the National Mall with a variety of speakers espousing antiwar messages, after which the protesters peaceably made their way through the pre-approved parade route around the Capitol building and White House. Although I had a good time, as an antiwar activist I could not help but thinking that all we accomplished that day was to gather a bunch of people who already agreed with each other and talk about how much we all agreed. This may be great for morale and networking, but it does nothing to stop war.
As a congressional aide, however, observing the tens of thousands of people who had traveled across the country to protest in Washington, I had another thought: if a sizable percentage of the “American people” really cared enough about ending the wars or the entire U.S. empire, it would happen. As much as the entire system is broken and corrupted by money and special interests, a republic at its heart still requires the consent of the governed to function.
No matter how many protesters come to Washington, if you march on a weekend and don’t cause any trouble, no one in power will care and nothing will change. If I hadn’t attended the protest that day, I wouldn’t have had any idea that it had even taken place. Official Washington effectively shuts down over the weekend as legislators return to their home districts to raise money while staffers from all branches of government spend time with their families. If you want to be noticed, you need to make serious disruptions in the normal flow of the rulers’ lives, and you need to do it while senators, representatives, and their staffs are busy performing the work of empire. These disruptions must be targeted directly at those who have the constitutional authority to end the wars and, ultimately, the empire. As we approach yet another anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Iraq, please consider the following thoughts and advice from a former collaborator within the legislative branch on how you can make your protests more effective, and why it is time to engage in civil disobedience on a massive scale.
- Many of the government staffers and perhaps even some elected representatives already agree with you, at least in premise. Believe it or not, most of these staffers started out their careers as idealists hoping to change things for the better, and many of them came to Washington with a specific interest in foreign policy. Because of the near-universal appeal of the antiwar message (I challenge anyone to read Ivan Eland’s brilliant The Empire Has No Clothes and still support war afterward), all that these staffers are lacking is a bit of education and a strong incentive to act. I hold the same views now as I did when I worked in Congress, but because the constituents from my senator’s state were not demanding an end to the wars, I did not have the backup (or the backbone) to advocate my true views. Give these people the cover (and the push) they need, and they will support you. I personally witnessed the fear with which my senator’s chief of staff reacted to a group of five antiwar activists visiting our office; imagine if those five had been followed by 500 more, and if that pattern held in every office in the Congress. Now imagine each congressmember’s own staffers joining the protesters as history begins to change. In the face of the moral support provided by your numbers and dedication, I promise you that many congressional staffers will remember their ideals and convictions and yearn to live up to them.
- If you give your elected representatives no other choice but to listen to you, they will. If a politician, no matter how corrupt, believes that his or her support for war will prevent his or her reelection, he or she will act and vote accordingly. It is as simple as that. When I worked in Congress, my senator generally received fewer than 10 letters and calls per week from constituents on war; these tended to be split fairly evenly between pro-war and antiwar views and were generally from the same people every week (the “regulars,” as we knew them). This did not provide my senator with any reason to believe he should work to end the wars. Now imagine how that opinion might change if our office had been flooded with thousands of antiwar calls on anything resembling a regular basis. Now consider what would happen if those thousands of calls were not calls, but people—more specifically, voting members of the elected representative’s constituency. Finally, envision those people refusing to leave until the wars are over.
- Ending the wars and dismantling the empire will require real sacrifices. In December 2010, 131 veterans and other activists chose to be arrested in a symbolic act of protest in front of the White House. That is not nearly enough. Are there not 1,000 people in America who are willing to risk something as minor as arrest to stop the murder of people around the world in our names? Are there not 10,000 Americans who care enough for the security of our great nation to endure a few hours in jail? If hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and Tunisians and Libyans can face down tanks and machine-gun fire, surely there are more than a handful of Americans who have the courage and dedication to do more than march in compliance with government permits. I submit to you that the U.S. Capitol and its House and Senate office buildings have a relatively limited number of entrances and exits, and most of these are accessible to the public—in fact, there is nothing to prevent as many people as wish to from peacefully entering these buildings. If you thousands upon thousands of antiwar activists are going to visit Washington in any case, why not plan a visit to the workplaces of your elected representatives as well—all at once? It took the people of Egypt 18 days to begin a process of drastic change against what seemed to be insurmountable odds. How long do you think it would take us if only we acted as bravely?
It is not enough to march on the weekend along pre-approved parade routes. It is not enough to write a letter to your elected representative every week if you are the only one doing it. It is not enough to sit down in front of the White House to be arrested. Given that the wars still go on, none of what we have done to this point is enough. Thousands of antiwar Americans will be gathering as usual in Washington on March 19; we must do more. It is time to remind our representatives exactly who it is that they represent and how we feel about what is being done in our names.
Former associate investigator, U.S. Senate