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Commentary :: War and Militarism
Anatomy of a Successful Antiwar Movement
24 Jun 2008
This summer there will be a National Assembly to End the Iraq War and Occupation in Cleveland, Ohio ( One of the main goals of the assembly will be to lay the groundwork for mass action against the war. At first glance, 2008 seems like an unlikely year to jump start a sluggish antiwar movement. With the elections this fall, the political pressure to line up behind the Democratic Party’s slate of candidates is already peeling away our fair weather friends from those of us who are serious about building an independent antiwar movement.

[If interested in going to Cleveland from Boston, visit:]
Some believe we should not embarrass the Democrats on issues they don’t have answers for in an election year. They reason that we should operate within the boundaries of ruling class politics in order to win near-term victories. Within our movement, a debate is already brewing about whether we should be organizing for massive bi-coastal demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan before the elections this fall.

Trade unions, liberal lobby PACs, and nonprofit organizations are lining up behind either Barak Obama or Hillary Clinton. Many highlight Senator McCain’s comment that we could be in Iraq for the next hundred years. Of course even if McCain is elected, he will have little say over the next hundred years of US foreign policy. It would be a positive step however for the antiwar movement to start thinking about that time frame, because the solutions to US imperialism and global capitalism will not be made in one election cycle. The question we must ask ourselves is “what have we gained over the last one hundred years by tying our agenda to the electoral ambitions of the Democratic Party?” The answer should make any serious activist reconsider that strategy.

Supporters of the Democratic Party and others made a critical error in the winter of 2003 when mass protests were organized calling upon us to “Stop the War Before it Starts”. The “Iraq War Resolution” was passed by both houses of Congress on October 11, 2002 authorizing the mobilization of troops to the Middle East and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. The war was inevitable at that point. The failure of these massive protests to prevent the ground invasion of Iraq led to the unnecessary demoralization of the movement in 2003. Criticism of the war’s bipartisan support was suppressed in 2004 to give a free pass to John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Now, more than a year after the 2006 electoral victories of the Democratic Party in the House and Senate, they have failed to make any progress in our direction. Once again the Democrats are lining up for $178 billion in funding for the war (enough to carry operations well into the spring of 2009).

Advocates of the “hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil” strategy are beginning to lose ground in open debate. Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton have not given us anything to be hopeful for. They both clammer to prove they are strong leaders by praising militarism and the use of US military power around the world. Their only caveat is that George Bush has failed to be effective. Neither Clinton nor Obama would promise to withdraw all troops from Iraq by 2013 ("The Democratic Presidential Debate on MSNBC", New York Times 9/26/07). In addition, both have offered differing versions of expanding military operations into Iran and Pakistan. When Barak Obama denounces his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, for suggesting that September 11th was a consequence of US intervention around the world, there can be no doubt he shares Bush’s view of the world, not ours. The degree to which they want to pull back US troops from combat operations in Iraq is measured by their desire to save US imperialism from another “fall of Saigon” political and military defeat. Their equivocations need to be met with a firm message: “Troops Home Now!”

The fact that Cindy Sheehan is running as an independent against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may foreshadow a watershed moment for moderate elements of the peace movement to finally break from the Democratic Party. Other independents, such as Ralph Nader, Brian Moore, and Cynthia McKinney have the potential to impact the presidential race.

There are essentially three major political lessons which we must take into our antiwar movement building efforts in order to be successful. The first is that the movement must be unified. The largest demonstrations against the war to date have been the product of collaboration between all elements of the movement. The level of participation in these protests has shown that unity multiplies turnout beyond the sum of what individual groups can mobilize on their own. Long term unity can only be achieved through a policy of non-exclusion.

The strongest unity will come from a decision making structure that nurtures grassroots democratic participation from all activists. When organizers are invested in the decision making, they will be committed to carrying out the projects of the movement. If the directors and staff of incorporated nonprofit organizations are allowed to dominate the process, the interests of the movement will be compromised by narrower institutional interests. It is healthy for our movement to encompass many political differences, but if our differences are never debated at the grassroots level, the necessary collaboration and trust does not develop, and unity for action is diminished or never reached, and we remain weak.

The next two points demonstrate what a mass movement must do to be successful. Simply mobilizing large numbers of people in the street is not enough. In addition, our movement must begin to orient towards taking actions that disrupt the economic interests of the war makers. On May 1st, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down all 29 ports on the West Coast of the United States for eight hours to demand an end to the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the first time ever that an American union has struck against a U.S. war. Dock workers accepted considerable personal risk by walking off the job in defiance of both their employers and labor law arbitrators. They created a real economic cost and the specter of greater costs to come.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country in Burlington, Vermont, ten activists locked themselves together inside the lobby of the weapons manufacturer, General Dynamics. They demanded a halt to weapons manufacturing as well as breaking the chains of corporate welfare and lobbying money that keep the US government addicted to war. While their actions don’t carry the same economic power as an industrial work stoppage, it does show how a small group can put the spotlight on local war profiteers, making them pay a political price. These actions must be expanded to target local elected representatives, mainstream newspapers, and universities. If we want to hold Congress, the President, and the big war profiteers accountable, we must first build our strength by forcing smaller, local institutions and individuals to cut their relationships with the military industrial complex and take a stand against war and occupation.

This second example already leads us to our final point. The antiwar movement must have clear political content. Our demands must speak honestly to the complex challenges the world faces, and prepare people for the struggle that real change requires. The war in Iraq is not an isolated policy. It was not a mistake, but rather the centerpiece for the broader imperialist project that existed well before the Bush Administration ever came to power. This imperialist project employs a broad range of tools - martial, political, and economic - to protect US corporate interests around the world. It is not reasonable to assume that we can end the occupation of Iraq - or prevent future invasions in Iran or Latin America - without confronting this entire imperialist agenda. While particular protest actions may have targeted demands, our movement must include a variety of forces to challenge the war from every angle. A myriad of activists struggle around the issues of civil liberties, workers rights, immigrant rights, torture, racism, global warming, US intervention in other parts of the world, and the dominance of the twin corporate parties over our electoral system. These all relate to the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and the so-called War on Terror.

Many of the organizers for the National Assembly this summer understand the anatomy of a successful antiwar movement. The open invitation to the assembly calls for the united and politically independent mobilization of antiwar forces. Conference organizers are making a concerted effort to involve all major antiwar groups. There are already over four hundred endorsers from around the country. There will be great workshops and inspiring keynote speakers. The most exciting part, however, will be when we convene to vote on actions. The process will be as democratic and transparent as possible. Every individual will get a vote. No organization will have undue influence beyond their ability to mobilize people to attend. Debates about how to build an effective antiwar movement will be played out with real consequences. The Greater Boston Stop the Wars Coalition ( is organizing bus transportation for all who want to attend. If several hundred activists participate, and can come out with a unifying agenda, we may set a bold new course for our movement. I hope to see you there.
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