People Power: It's Time To Stop The War Ourselves

We need a strategy to end the occupation of Iraq and stop the next invasion, in Iran or elsewhere. One reason it's been hard to mobilize people since the invasion of Iraq is the absence of a clear logic as to where our efforts are headed.What will another march, continued lobbying, or even a nonviolent direct action add up to? How will we actually stop this war and prevent the next one?

As we approach another presidential election, we have to look soberly at the history of candidates who mobilized anti-war sentiment only to reverse course once elected. Woodrow Wilson was elected on his promise to keep the United States out of World War I and Richard Nixon was elected on his promise to bring troops home from the Vietnam War. Most members of Congress who were elected in 2006 on promises to bring the troops home have done little or worse.

The solution is written in the mountain-road blockades and mass mobilizations in Bolivia that have driven out transnational corporations like Bechtel and Suez, and even the country's president in 2003. It is written in the farm-worker-led Taco Bell boycott victory of 2005, and in the immigration-rights boycotts, walkouts, and mobilizations. It's in our own history of workers' and women's rights, environmental, and civil rights struggles. It's called people power.

It can be seen in the Pittsburgh Organizing Group's "Troops Home Fast," a month-long, around-the-clock vigil held in September 2007 outside Pittsburgh's Recruitment Center, to call for immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq and an end to military recruitment in Pittsburgh. The counter-recruiting actions have met with attacks by police dogs, electric cattle prods, "tasers," and pepper spray, but their organizing has become contagious. Counter-recruitment is the fastest growing and most hopeful strategy of resistance to war in Iraq.

This strategy can also be seen in last summer's gutsy Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) bus caravan, during which veterans traveled to military bases across the country-at times facing arrest on base-to talk with the active-duty soldiers who will fight (or resist) the war in Iraq. One of the first active-duty IVAW chapters formed at Fort Mead, Maryland, in the wake of the caravan.

Kelly Dougherty, director of IVAW, explained their strategy at a recent workshop: "The U.S. war in Iraq is this unstable upside-down triangle. It's supported by a lot of pillars like the military, public opinion, war profiteers, the school system, media, Congress, the president, and the oil industry. If we can weaken those pillars, that will weaken the war as a whole."

For the vets and active-duty soldiers of IVAW, this strategy has translated into their "Truth in Recruiting" and "GI Resistance" campaigns. IVAW members have been challenging military recruiting, supporting GI resisters, and organizing recent vets and active-duty soldiers.

If we ... identify the pillars that support the war, and choose thoughtful campaigns with creative tactics to remove them, then we will have a viable anti-war strategy.

Pillars of War

A group of people in a college classroom are participating in a workshop on "people-power strategy to end the war." They are asked to name "the pillars of support that the U.S. war in Iraq depends on" which, if removed, would "prevent the war and occupation from continuing."

"Troops!" someone shouts out.

That person is asked to step forward and become that pillar by holding up part of a mattress with the words "War and Occupation of Iraq" taped to it.

Another person says, "Corporations, like Halliburton." That person becomes the second pillar holding up the "War and Occupation" mattress.

"Media that persuades people to support the war and misinforms them." The person steps forward, and the mattress has three pillars.

The workshop facilitator asks, "What are some ways we can weaken or remove these pillars of support? Let's start with troops."

"Counter-recruiting, so they can't get enough soldiers."

"Supporting soldiers who refuse," someone else offers.

"Resisting a draft that they might turn to if we are successful at counter-recruiting."

"If we do all these things, will that weaken or remove the pillar of troops?" People agree that it could, and so that pillar is removed and the mattress lurches, held up by just two pillars.

The same exercise is done with the "corporate " and "media" pillars. The "War and Occupation" mattress collapses.

People Power

People power can assert the democratic will of communities and movements to change the things that matter when the established, so-called democratic channels turn out be little more than public relations for elite rule.

Every successful movement in the United States-from the workers' and civil rights movement to victories in anti-corporate campaigns today-and every successful effort to topple a dictator in recent history has relied on people-power methods.

The term was popularized by the 1986 Philippine uprising against the U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos; military resistance and mass direct action mobilizations were central to his ouster.

If we, as a movement of movements, adopt a people-power strategic framework, identify the pillars that support the war, and choose thoughtful campaigns with creative tactics to remove them, then we will have a viable anti-war strategy.

It's clear that we are not all going to agree on any one (or two or three) campaigns, but it is possible for us to consciously adopt and promote a people-power strategy that makes our various efforts complementary and cumulative. We think of it as a massive umbrella under which we can-whether we are a national organization, a local group or a decentralized network-make our efforts add up.

The Battle of the Story

A final key ingredient for a successful strategy is our ability to frame our own struggles, or to tell our own story. If we act defensively within the framework of the United States government and their "war on terror" story, we will always be on the defensive. If we allow them to define reality, we will always lose. If we limit ourselves to defensively arguing that there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq, or that there are none in Iran, for example, without challenging the legitimacy and cost of the United States being an empire, then we are operating in a reality defined by those in power. We have to be able to understand, fight, and win the "battle of the story."

The courage of young people in the military, on the campuses and in the streets is showing us how to assert our people power. It's clear that more and more folks in the United States and around the world have the courage to resist. Can we find what lies at the root of the word courage-le coeur, or heart-to assert our power as communities, as movements, and as people to reverse the policies of empire and build a better world?

David Solnit and Aimee Allison wrote this article for YES! Magazine's Winter 2008 issue Liberate Your Space. David, anti-war, global justice, and arts organizer, was a key organizer in the WTO shutdown in Seattle in 1999 and in the shutdown of San Francisco the day after Iraq was invaded in 2003. He is the editor of Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World.

Aimee is an Army veteran and conscientious objector. She leads counter-recruitment activities and actively supports veterans who are healing from their war experiences. She is a contributor to 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military.

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.