"Then the storm comes rumblin' in
And I can't lay me down
And the drums are drummin' again
And I can't stand the sound..."
MENOMONIE, WISCONSIN -- Jan. 18, 2003 --
Earlier today, I attended a rally opposing a new Mideast
war, held in the small Midwest community of Menomonie
(population 15,000), set amidst the rolling hills and dairy farms
of northwestern Wisconsin. Despite a blustery winter day,
with a wind chill hovering around zero, about 200 people
turned out for the rally and march on Main Street, far
exceeding the expectations of local organizers.
Marchers held signs on all four corners of the major
downtown intersection, in front of a cafe and
theater, as passing cars and pick-up trucks
honked their greetings. The rally, which was well covered
by area TV stations, was organized in only one week.
(Organizers jokingly estimated the crowd at 6,000,
so the media would report an accurate lower number.)
Enormous rallies were held today around
the world against an invasion of Iraq, including hundreds of
thousands who turned out in Washington DC and San Francisco.
While those huge rallies demonstrate the breadth
of antiwar activism in the country, the rallies
today in Menomonie and other smaller communities
show the depth of antiwar sentiment spreading around
the country. We expect large rallies in San Francisco
or in the state capital of Madison, but not in Menomonie.
As a participant in the movement opposing
the first Gulf War, it appears to me that the sentiment
is more widespread now than in 1990-91,
and can be found in pockets where it had
not previously penetrated. Some Menomonie rally participants
had wanted to travel to Washington, but were limited
by funds and family or work obligations. They instead
decided to remain in their own area, to convey
their feelings to local residents and media, to begin
a difficult and rewarding process of social change
Menomonie is a nice little town. Residents still greet
each other on Main Street. The town still has barber shops
where retired men sit and talk for hours. It has
bathroom hot air dispensers with instructions
that do not have letters scratched out to spell
nasty words. In short, it is the quintessential
polite Midwestern town, where one would least
expect to find traces of antiwar activism.
Menomonie is also home to the
University of Wisconsin-Stout, but the semester
does not begin until next week. Everyone at the rally
agreed that many more would have attended had the
college students had been on campus. Many
grandparents, parents, and small children attended
the rally, lending it an intergenerational legitimacy
not felt at many campus demonstrations.
It is through patient community organizing that area peace
groups attracted 200 people to the protest on Main Street today.
Much of the emphasis of the peace movement has in past years
been on activism--mobilizing and activating the people
who already have progressive political impulses to attend rallies
or other actions.
Organizing and activism
A growing emphasis on community organizing is
giving the new peace movement a needed boost.
Peace groups need both "organizing" to build the movement,
and "activism" to deepen its impact. A balance of organizing
and activism can help avoid both social isolation and
and the political/legal "hoops" we are always made to jump
through. Activism is a way to set our own agenda, instead
of simply responding to crises.Organizing is about attracting new people
into the movement to keep it alive and kicking.
Organizing does not mean just putting on events or
benefits that "preach to the choir." It does not mean looking
inward to our own groups or networking with other groups. Organizing
is the art of convincing the unconvinced, and building relationships with
people from different walks of life. It means getting outside our usual
circles and reaching people who have not been reached before.
Organizing is about changing minds, and recognizing that most people
already have a split consciousness that contains both progressive
and conservative impulses. Organizing means not writing off someone
because they sound like an angry "redneck," but working with the
progressive half of their mind--finding out the conditions that make
them angry, and help direct their anger toward the corporate or government
structures that really created the conditions.
Organizing means not overestimating the factual knowledge that people have,
but also not underestimating their intelligence and wisdom once they have the facts.
It means not talking over people's heads, or talking down to
people. It means having faith in the ability of people to understand and change.
Above all, effective grassroots organizing in this era of corporate
advertising means making some real link to people's everyday lives.
No matter what the issue we are addressing, we have to make some
simple and relevant connection to people's past experiences,
the places they live today, or alternative ways of doing things in the future.
We often talk about what appear to be high-level abstractions to most
people--free trade agreements, foreign policy conspiracies, Washington
scandals--without showing how they affect human beings in a way they
can see, hear and feel. We often talk about the negative violations
of human rights at home and abroad, but forget that many people are
drawn to political groups also for their positive visions of a better future.
Some progressive activists attack "mainstream" people as nothing but
consumers and TV watchers, without recognizing that people are
passive because they feel powerless, and feel they have limited choices
in their lives. The Native American poet John Trudell has said that
"white people feel they are not oppressed, but they feel powerless.
Indian people know they are oppressed, but don't feel powerless."
We forget that certain sectors of society possess enormous
power when it comes to issues of war and peace, even if they do
not yet realize it.
At the Menomonie rally today, I stood with two local high school
students who were thrilled to see a march stretched
along two blocks of Main Street, and a Vietnam veteran
from Eau Claire, whose father had fought in World
War II and his grandfather in World War I. They
represented two out of the three constituencies with an influence
in matters of war and peace that far outweigh
their numbers: high school students, military personnel,
and military workers.
High schools have become a battleground
for the hearts and minds of American youth.
Military recruiters have poured enormous
resources into the high schools to convince students to
join the armed forces. By the time they leave high school,
students have decided whether or not to enlist, or
(in the case of 18-year-old males) whether to register for
the draft. Yet the peace movement has focused much
of its energies on university campuses, where important
and creative organizing is being done, but too late for many
Military personnel, past and present, also have a
central role in the new peace movement. Many
veterans spoke at the rallies today around the country.
In the first Gulf War, hundreds of military resisters refused
to be deployed to the Gulf, and some communities
offered themselves as "sanctuaries" that would not
turn in the resisters. We can expect to see similar
incidents during the current deployment, but just
as important is the information and insights that
active-duty and reservist personnel can provide
the peace movement. Yet peace
groups are often reticent about working with GIs,
partly out of fear of a negative reaction or of getting
the troops into legal trouble.
Besides high school students and military personnel,
a third key group is military workers, who manufacture
the weapons and often have troubled consciences
about doing so. They could play an invaluable role in
steering their unions and businesses toward
emphasizing civilian-sector contracts. Most military
workers have little or no awareness of where the
howitzers or chemical munitions are heading, or
what foreign militaries are purchasing them for
use against civilians. The peace movement could provide
them that information.
Much of the focus of traditional peace groups toward
high school students, military personnel, and
military workers has usually been to facilitate open resistance,
such as Conscientious Objection among draft-age youth or
GIs. COs have played a heroic role in the peace movement
for many decades, but the young person who openly
resists for ideological or religious reasons is relatively rare.
It may be more effective to identify more low-level, discreet
means that high school students, GIs and military workers can
use to slow down the war machine.
Thousands of young men who quietly delay registering
for the draft until just before their 26th birthday
(when federal restrictions on loans and jobs
become permanent), or fail to report their address
changes, are doing far more to frustrate the Selective
Service System than a solitary CO.
Veterans who speak with high school students
offer a more realistic view of
war than that offered by military recruiters.
Many GIs who quietly talk or organize
among themselves can be more effective than a single public
As for workers in military plants, anyone who
has worked in a dead-end job knows that there are ways
to slow down operations, without going public or
violating any laws. Peace activists or organizers can
further our efforts by working respectfully with
people directly involved in the "military-industrial
complex," and with people from all different walks
The public and media image of the peace movement, dating from
the 1960s, is of campus intellectuals, countercultural
activists, and fuzzy-headed "naive" pacifists. To some extent,
there is a kernel of truth in this image. Since the 1960s,
the movement has been largely centered in an white, urban
upper middle-class culture, with some important
Some rural people have not
seen a place for themselves in the urban-based movement.
Many younger people are alienated by older peace
activists who do not respect their creativity and self-organization.
Many people of color and women are put off
white male leadership of the movement, much as they
were in the 1960s through the 1990s.
The culture of the peace movement is changing,
however, as it broadens and deepens. Whereas earlier
rallies would only have folk musicians, the new
peace movement is beginning to see the value of
rap and punk artists. We will need to reach out to
country and metal artists if we want to seriously
reach rural Americans. And we need to respect the
autonomy of people who want to organize their
own social group or community without guidance
Finally, a purely pacifist message is not necessarily always
effective, particularly in military counterrecruitment.
While many youths join the military for economic reasons,
some actually do join the "Army of One" for the "adventure."
Vietnam Veterans Against the War have encouraged
some of these young people to instead go into
martial arts to (more peacefully) gain a sense
of confidence and self-worth. Other job fields,
such as firefighting or political activism, can
also fill the needs of energetic youth. They do not always
need to adopt our peaceful values or images in order to act
in the interest of peace.
Building a bridge to Iraqis
Besides, the problem is not simply that the U.S. is commiting
violence in Iraq. It is also strangling Iraq's civilian economy,
and weakening the ability of the Iraqi people to militantly oust
their own dictator. Iraqis had successfully overthrown
their monarchy in 1958. The U.S. backed Saddam's dictatorship during
his war with Iran in the 1980s. After the 1991 Gulf War,
it had a chance to back a popular uprising against Saddam,
but let him crush the revolt, partly because a truly democratic
government may have kept out Western oil companies.
Washington instead preferred to work with exiled generals,
bankers, and armed opposition factions that hate each other
more than they hate Saddam. Independent Iraqi civilians
are generally left out of the Pentagon's postwar schemes.
The peace movement can undermine
this U.S. strategy not only by preventing an invasion of
Iraq, but by morally supporting Iraqi civilians
or soldiers if they again try to topple Saddam
from below. Last year, Iraqi mothers protested for
an accounting of their "disappeared" sons and
daughters, after Saddam released some of his
opponents from prison.
This kind of Iraqi grassroots opposition,
largely ignored by a Bush Administration hell-bent on
a war, can be supported by the peace movement. In so doing,
we can begin to build a bridge between our civilians and Iraqi
civilians, against an escalation of the bombing and sanctions,
as well as against the lack of self-determination
inherent in both Saddam's brutal regime and the planned U.S.
military administration of Iraq and its oil fields.
The movement's potential
The U.S. peace movement often underestimates its
own potential. The movement (and GI resisters)
helped to shorten the Vietnam War, by recognizing
that our military could not defeat the Vietnamese.
It prevented a full-scale invasion of Nicaragua and El Salvador
in the 1980s, as it helped to end apartheid in South
Africa. Although it failed to prevent wars against Iraq,
Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, questions around the
bombing of civilians (from home and abroad)
may have ratcheted down the scale and duration of
those wars, or prevented their escalation.
With millions marching around the world
against a new Iraq War, joined by hundreds of thousands
in the U.S., the global peace movement has a real chance
to head off a full-scale invasion. Unlike before the first Gulf
War, when its central message was to prevent U.S. military casualties,
the new peace movement is more realistically focused on the
effect of war and sanctions on Iraqi civilians.
Many Americans also understand that war will only increase
their sense of insecurity (would you feel safer or
less safe flying in an airplane in the weeks and months after
an Iraq invasion?). The challenge will be to sustain the
current opposition if the bombs begin to fall on Baghdad,
and TV images of "surgical strikes" again lull the public
into a sanitary view of war, as they did in 1991.
But seeing the long march on Menomonie's Main Street
gave me a sense of hope today, just as great as seeing the
huge DC crowds on CNN. If local organizers can attract
a following in a small Midwestern community, and let
their neighbors know what invasion would mean
for people in the Mideast, they will have made an
amazing and important contribution to peace. Change
always begins at home.
Zoltan Grossman is an Assistant Professor
of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-
Eau Claire, and a longtime peace, environmental,
and anti-racist organizer. His peace writings can
be seen at www.uwec.edu/grossmzc/peace.html and he can be reached at email@example.com