David Swanson: Man of Peace

This is the second in a series of profiles and interviews Antiwar.com is conducting this summer with activists who have made it their life’s work to challenge the mighty bulwarks of the U.S. national security state.

If you haven’t seen David Swanson, chances are you’ve read his blogs and articles — invariably with headlines like “Pepper Sprayed for Peace” and declaring things like “Freedom Plaza is now ours — and we’re never giving it back.” You’ve listened to his radio show, and see his comments in various antiwar forums and in your mind, willingly or not, picture a stereotype: a wild-eyed hippie, long hair, tattoos. Maybe an earring or two. A beard.

Darn those caricatures. Turns out Swanson’s looks have more in common with Alex P. Keaton of the old Family Ties fame (really, that is a compliment), than with say, this guy. Or even this guy. No, Swanson is disarmingly “clean cut” and looks, well, earnest and bright. Hopeful in a way that many peace activists after years of banging their heads against a wall and getting arrested do not.

Swanson, 42, has gotten arrested and as the aforementioned blog post suggests, was indeed pepper sprayed during a peaceful protest outside the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum in Washington (turns out a right-wing guerrilla trying to be James O’Keefe had started the fracas).

He takes most seriously the “act” in “activist” and has, despite the sneers from the mainstream, the setbacks of the movement and more recently, the seeming fade of Occupy (at least the literal occupation part), Swanson keeps working the antiwar angle like a machine. For this, he is like Alex P. Keaton, but instead of working for Wall Street, he’s working doggedly against it, and for peace.

Quick bio: Swanson grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in 2000 cut his teeth in activism when he went to work as the media coordinator for ACORN (Association for Community Organizations Reform Now), long before it was decimated, in part, by the aforementioned O’Keefe. In 2003, he left to do media operations for liberal Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who ran for president in 2004. Of course, Swanson noted, “that involved a good deal of discussion over our opposition to war and the promotion peace,” and that had been important to Swanson since the days he protested the first Gulf War nearly 15 years previous.

Kucinich lost and Swanson went to work for a branch of the AFL-CIO before falling in full time with the peace movement, where he happily resides today. In the intervening years, there was another presidential election, several major antiwar protests and the Occupy movement. He fell into that after planning the “October 11” rallies, which were scheduled a year before Occupy sprang to life, but ended up coinciding with Occupy’s arrival to D.C. last fall. Swanson became a regular at Freedom Plaza until the encampment was dismantled and the final vestiges swept away, last month.

Swanson has been busy writing of course, publishing several books since 2009, including Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union (2009), War Is A Lie (2010), When the World Outlawed War (2011), and The Military Industrial Complex at 50 (2012). He speaks at various events, blogs at WarIsACrime.org and his own website, works for Veterans for Peace and RootsAction.org, and is the host of Talk Nation Radio on the Pacifica News Network.

Thankfully, Swanson stood still long enough for an interview in June:

Antiwar: You were instrumental in circulating and drawing attention to the infamous Downing Street memo in 2005. I interviewed a few media pundits at the time, one who said the opportunity to bring down the war’s architects had passed: Bush had been re-elected in 2004, and we “were kind of stuck” with the consequences. Do you feel that we are “stuck” with this failing war in Afghanistan (and beyond) today?

Swanson: We started a website called AfterDowningStreet.org. The website is still there, I just call it “War Is a Crime” now because I got tired of explaining to people what the first name meant.

(As for Downing), we actually managed to get awareness of the Downing Street Memo and associated evidence of intentional lying to get the country into a war. (The peace movement) turned that into broad consciousness in the country, we got most people in the U.S. well aware that the war had been based on lies. If you watch the polls of this awareness, that the war was based on lies, you see opposition to the war rise in a similar angle alongside that.

I’m thinking we played a big part of growing opposition to the war.

And then you combine it with the fact that those of us who actually oppose war, aligned and working in opposition with those who opposed Republican wars — who actually gave a damn at the time — you had a major peace movement …

There was a huge need for Congress to step up as an institution and care for its responsibility as a Congress and … to impeach those deserving of impeachment and throw them out of office. It didn’t happen.

They were more interested in self-preservation as an institution. In the Bush era Democrats in Congress who gave a damn at the time asked the Justice Department to issue citations … Now you have the Democrats happy to bestow absolute power on the presidency because Obama is there at the moment and you have Republicans caring all of a sudden about Congress as an institution and it’s all bullsh**. No one gives a damn about enforcing the rule of law against the powerful. They agree on giving the president absolute power…

… We said then if we don’t impeach Bush, the next president will not be accountable for the same crimes, or worse. That’s what we have now.

Antiwar: Someone asked for your thoughts on the peace movement recently. One of your main points really struck me: We played a role in ending the war. But it was a larger role than we are aware of, so people don’t take enough encouragement from it. What did you mean by this?

Swanson: You can’t minimize the importance of the Iraqi resistance to their occupation — they pushed back violently and non-violently, but there was a major peace movement in the United States and abroad, an international alliance that had been built and it was a powerful force in terms of shaping popular opinion in the United States in ’05 and ’06 and in terms of its influence around the ’06 and ’08 elections.

To a certain extent you had Republicans under pressure … Republicans pushing in secret to pull back (from war) because of all the pressure. This is what discouraged activists, that the politicians pretended they weren’t influenced, they pretend that nothing gets to them and they pretend that shifts in public opinion driven by activists don’t sway them, but meanwhile behind closed doors they say, “Mr. President, let’s get out of there.” This has gone on for years behind closed doors.

(Activists) saw the changes in policy, moving somewhat in the direction they wanted, by they didn’t see the extent their role played in the White House… People should live off this encouragement and the small successes and see it as grounds for optimism and so forth and because it is important they understand that they had had a impact…

When they came in ’06 and ’07 for major push for war in Iran, they couldn’t get popular support beyond 9 percent… people said, “hell no,” the support just wasn’t there. You have to give some credit to the peace movement for pushing back and making the connections. People did get it. People’s memories are fading now, people tend to think the war in Iraq was the exception. We aren’t a complete success but we have had some success.

Antiwar: You have some real regrets about the peace movement, one being that it should have been “stronger” — particularly among post-Bush Democrats. Can you identify any turning point in the early Obama administration where the antiwar Democrats were at a crossroads and could have made a difference, but didn’t?

Swanson: The anti-Republican half of the peace movement disappeared by January 2007. Many went — the funders and the organization and Democratic Party institutions, the think tanks like Center for American Progress and Take Back America’s Future. All these organizations were gone by ’07 and ’08 and by early ’08 most of the big antiwar groups were defunded and demobilized, not because Obama had been elected, but because he wanted to be elected…

The groups who worked with United for Peace and Justice saw their funding disappear. By ’07, ’08, it wasn’t as if we had the same peace movement as we had in 2005. It was scaled back dramatically, and by January 2009 it was all gone. You had Veterans for Peace and the core of Code Pink. You still had the hard core antiwar activists in all the local and national groups — you still had the bare framework for United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER — but a lot people were done, and they had shifted their energies to election campaigns and getting Obama elected.

You know, there is this completely rational argument that if you only have two choices and one is slightly worse then you must chose the slightly better one. The problem is you take all this energy and money and resources and turn away from all this important work and put it all into this election operation that is much less in value, and once you have elected the guy who you have deluded yourself into thinking is significantly better than the other, you just don’t want to then push too hard or make him look bad because they might get you disinvited from the White House and put at risk what makes you feel important.

Ordinary people become corrupted by this “lesser evilism,” not just in the voting booth, but day to day, throughout the year.

But what we seen since ’09 is its not entirely fading away, but coming back … as it becomes clear to more and more and more people that Obama hasn’t done the things he’s promised to do … We saw a bigger movement in Chicago this month than we’d seen since Jan. 2009, because in January 2009 you were required to sit on your hands with tape on your mouth. However, it might not continue to grow, or grow at a glacial pace now, because there is another election.

Antiwar: what do you view as the single biggest mistake of the peace movement since the Long War began in 2001?

Swanson: I don’t want to lay blame on the peace movement because I love the peace movement, because it does so many things.

No one seems to understand how influential it was in ’05 and ’06 and how successful it has been in holding off a war in Iran. … But I think yeah, one of the biggest mistakes has been is to oppose Republican wars instead of all wars and to divert too much energy unto elections and be corrupted in that process. In theory you can work on elections without being corrupted, without censoring your voice or scaling back your activism on behalf of the people as a whole, but that doesn’t happen much. People do tend to be corrupted.

An important area is there has been too much focus on U.S. casualties to the exclusion of 95 percent of the casualties of these wars. When you make it all about the U.S. deaths and then you make it about the money — and I understand there are very good reasons for both of those and I want to very much want to build a coalition around the money issue — but when you make it about the U.S. casualties and about the money they then they figure out how to do war without the money and the casualties then what do you have? You ought to be against war because it’s murder, because we are destroying homes and countries. We should not ignore the harm to U.S. troops, but if it it’s going to be all about troops and not their victims then we have a problem, we have a problem morally.

Antiwar: How would you describe the peace movement today?

Swanson: It’s kind of a mixed bag, we have far greater opposition to violence in our society and in western culture than in past decades, and countries have far more opposition at this point against ground wars than we had had in the while… but we have essentially a war economy, we have an understanding of the war machine as a jobs engine. We have an understanding of militarism as normal … we have seen military spending grow in the last decade higher than it has ever been in real terms, as a percent of the rest of the world and its spending (on defense). We have bases in more nations than ever before … and when it comes to scaling back military spending just a teeny tiny bit of a fraction, it is denounced as dangerous ‘additional cuts,’ as if there had been any cuts yet. …

We need to be able to say, as a broad coalition, to the government and the media, that we have to move the money from the military to other kinds of jobs. That there is nothing wrong with creating jobs that don’t kill people, that in fact it is better to create jobs that don’t kill people than to create jobs that do.

Antiwar: Speaking of which, what do you think of a right-left coalition against the military industrial complex? I know we’re been doing a lot of writing about that here at Antiwar.com.

Swanson: I think it has value … .we ought to be able to come together on what we agree on. We oppose military spending, we oppose wars and if would come up with a deal that says we want some of the money to go into a tax cuts for working people and some of the money to do into useful spending, then it ought to be possible to work together on that issue without disagreement. We’ve seen it in the past, successful social movements that have included large social organizations and movements that don’t necessarily agree on other things.

There are plenty of people who are doing nothing who we ought to mobilize. There are libertarians on the right and progressives on the left who ought to work together, there is no question, like on the issue of drones.

Antiwar: I saw you at the Drone conference in April. Where do you think this issue is going?

Swanson: Clearly there is going to be across the political spectrum outrage over surveillance drones in the United States, to extent there comes anticipation of police forces using weaponized drones over surveillance, there should be opposition to that. The question is, whether we can use that to draw opposition to drones killing people everywhere … even if you don’t give a damn about 95 percent of humanity. You have to understand the danger you are creating by spreading the use of drones across the world … and establishing that it is acceptable policy to use drones anywhere to kill anybody, you are placing yourself and those people you do care about at risk.

Antiwar: Finally, How did you see the peace movement fitting in with the Occupy protests? Did it fit in enough?

Swanson: What we started in Freedom Plaza on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan — October2011.org — always made the connection between wars and military spending and all the other interlocking crises we’re up against. We always chanted — this was during the Super Congress charade — ‘How do we fix the deficit? End the Wars! Tax the Rich!’ Of course we didn’t care about the deficit, and the base military spending dwarfs the war spending. But it was a good chant. Other occupiers around the country were to various degrees antiwar.

At one extreme are those who view the monster that is sucking down over half of federal discretionary spending as some minor pet issue of peculiar peace activists who don’t really care about human beings. This absurdity is fed in part by the notion that the government makes wars, and the government is meaningless puppets distracting us from the True Enemies, who are the bankers in New York.

Naturally, we’ve been pointing out for months, with some progress, that the weapons profiteers are one percent of the one percent, that the Military Industrial Complex is the top opponent of all that is good and just, and that if you let the puppets off the hook you won’t get very far targeting the puppeteers.

Antiwar: Thank you, David, I appreciate your time.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.