Transcribed from a speech given at Military-Industrial Complex at 50 Conference
Thanks to everyone for organizing this conference. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.
How do we win? How do we get our demands met? We need power. But what is power? How do we get it?
Simply put, power is the ability to act; the ability to end the wars, the ability to convert our economy, the ability to change the world. But how do we get that kind of power?
A lot of my mentors have said there are two kinds of power in this world: there’s organized money and there’s organized people. Which one do you think I’m here to talk about?
So how do we organize people? We can’t get that organized money, but we have the other kind of power. We have the numbers. We have the majority of people on our side.
There’s a great quote that goes something like this: we have to stop thinking that we’re going win because (1) the majority of people are on our side, (2) the facts are on our side, or (3) because we’re morally right. Our opponents have none of these things, and they are consistently winning.
How are they winning then? It’s because they have power. So how do we get that kind of power?
In my organization, Civilian-Soldier Alliance, we talk a lot about leadership. In our work, leadership and relationships are what we think actually organizes people. That’s where you get people power.
So how do you become a leader for social change? None of us are born as social change organizers. We don’t pop out ready to change the world. That’s not how it works. It is a process of transformation. It’s a transformation of an individual to become a leader, and in turn, transforming lots of individuals transforms society. We call this transformational organizing.
It’s important to note that this is a process and a process takes time. Transformation is a process for the individual and it’s a process for society. But it is one that can be very intentional.
This is as opposed to transactional organizing. Transactional organizing depends on the self-interest of those being organized. Unions often use this model. They organize workers in the work place by promising higher wages or better working conditions. This is different from transformational organizing, which asks you to organize together for the larger goal of changing society.
So where did we learn this model of organizing?
I started out as a student organizer. I organized a five-day student hunger strike on my campus. I don’t know if you noticed, but the war didn’t end. That’s in part because we didn’t have an analysis of our own power. We did a lot of mobilizing. We ultimately had hundreds of others on the campus participate in our fast. Students on twenty other campuses joined our effort. We raised thousands of dollars for UNICEF and held alternative classes about the Iraq war taught by veterans, military families, and even Iraqi civilians.
However, this did not organize the campus. This was mobilizing. This effort got lots of people involved for a short period of time. This is different from organizing, and it’s an important distinction.
In my own history, I grew up watching major mobilizations, such as the Seattle protests of 1999 against the World Trade Organization. I watched flash points like this and like Tahir Square with lots of people mobilized. I asked myself, how do we do that? I was really infatuated with these flash points and missed the years of organizing work it took to create these flash points.
However, flash points such as major mobilizations alone are not what create change. I can’t just call for a huge student strike, for instance, and expect the war to end. They are only one piece of a larger process of transformation.
I often give this example to explain my infatuation with flash points such as big protests. It’s like I was watching someone build a house. I watched them for only a few minutes, saw them hammer some nails, and thought to myself, “I want a house like that. I know, I’ll get a hammer!” I was so infatuated with the one tool that I was ignoring all of the other tools. I was ignoring the carpentry required to build the house. So organizing is like carpentry, while mobilizing is like the hammer; it’s only one tool among many in your tool box.
In order to learn about transformational models of organizing, I had to look outside of the peace movement. In the peace movement, I was organizing event after event, protest after protest, lobby visit after lobby visit. I would lobby with the same few folks with the same demands. I wasn’t actually organizing people power. This became very frustrating for me because I wasn’t making change.
Outside of the peace movement, we can take leadership from movements that are winning. In particular, leadership from poor people’s organizations, such as United Workers. United Workers uses transformational organizing, which is where my organization, Civilian-Soldier Alliance, learned the model. In turn, United Workers learned a lot from organizations such as Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA). These are very successful organizations. In the case of CIW, they’ve won every campaign they’ve ever started – a major achievement. In the case of United Workers, in three years they won a living wage for all the day laborers at Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles play.
These organizations win because they focus on leadership development. In the case of United Workers, they ultimately won by doing a hunger strike, but they did not start with a hunger strike. It would be inappropriate to look at the example of the United Workers and think, “I know, I’ll do a hunger strike and then I’ll win a living wage.” The hunger strike was the flash point. It took years of organizing to reach that point. It took years of going to Camden Yards and doing outreach to the workers, and undergoing leadership development with those workers.
In the end, there were about 30 individuals fasting in the hunger strike. Many of them no longer worked at the stadium. A living wage for stadium workers was no longer in their self-interest. They were participating because they had been transformed, they wanted to see Baltimore transformed, and they wanted poverty to end. That’s the ultimate goal of the United Workers.
United Workers used a focus campaign to develop the leadership of an affected community to win victories. If the name of the game is leadership development, campaigns are the vehicle by which we develop leaders.
The United Workers ultimately won a living wage, benefits, and a union for the workers at Camden Yards. Workers went from earning less than minimum wage to over $12 an hour. But this wasn’t the United Workers victory per se – the ultimate victory was there were now 30 new leaders. Thirty new leaders to go on and continue organizing. They are now actively organizing another campaign declaring the Inner Harbor a “Human Rights Zone.” They’re hosting a conference on Fair Development to explore development of Baltimore city through a human rights framework.
We learned from these folks and from folks like Coalition of Immokalee Workers, tomato growers in Immokalee, FL that are organizing as well. They’ve teamed up with students in Student/Farmworker Alliance to boycott companies that purchase their tomatoes at unfair prices. Students are using their power on their campuses in solidarity with workers in Immokalee who are also organizing.
In looking to the peace movement for these examples, I’m very excited lately, particularly with what’s going on with Bring the War Dollars Home, and with the Move the Money campaign. This is a big part of my work at Peace Action.
One example I’m sure you’re familiar with is the Fund Our Communities, Bring the War Dollars Home coalition in Maryland. This is a coalition initiated by members of Peace Action Montgomery who started out 2 years ago by setting their sights on military recruiters in schools. They went to the state legislature and tried to lobby to protect student’s rights. They identified clearly as the peace movement and anti-recruitment. This didn’t get them anywhere. The next year, they went back to the State legislature but this time formed a coalition of groups, including right-wing, left-wing, and no-wing, under the banner of “Protect Student Privacy.” Recruiters consistently violate the privacy of students, but we can get into that later. They ultimately won legislation that has ostensibly banned the ASVAB test (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) in public schools.
They won in part because they got smart. They didn’t identify as an anti-recruitment or peace organization. They recognized that they needed a broad cross-section of Maryland in order to win this legislation, so they went out and did it. Now, many of those relationships are what’s behind the Fund Our Communities, Bring the War Dollars Home coalition.
I went to their first meeting and the President of the local United Food and Commercial Workers union stood up and said, “we’ll put $10,000 up for this right now. Who’s with us?” This was a union jumping on board with this. Peace Action Montgomery and others are leading the way in building a new cross-section coalition of Maryland.
This is an example of coalition building. This is going to organized sectors of a community and working together around issues that affect everyone. They’re going to church groups, unions, high schools, etc. They’re hosting a Town Hall on September 20, they have members of the government speaking, and they’re even having break out groups and doing some organizing. This is very exciting to me. But that’s an example of coalition building within the peace movement. This is organizing organized people.
I’d like to give another example which is our work with Civilian-Soldier Alliance on Operation Recovery. This is a campaign in which we are using transformational organizing to develop the leadership of active-duty service members and veterans, as well as civilian allies.
Operation Recovery is a base-building campaign. This is different from a coalition-building campaign, which organizes organized sectors. While the military is highly organized, we can’t simply go to an active-duty unit and ask for their endorsement on an antiwar campaign. That’s obviously not going to work, so we have to go to individuals within the military community – individual active-duty service members and individual veterans. This is called base building. We’re going into a community and trying to build up a base of leaders. This doesn’t mean we go in and say, “hey aren’t you against the war as much as we are? I know you just got back” – this does not work.
We spent years thinking about an outreach strategy that would work. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Iraq Veterans Against the War, who initiated Operation Recovery. They began as a speakers bureau of veterans willing to speak out about their experiences. They highlighted stories of war resistance, of service members refusing orders, this kind of thing. This is still ongoing and important work.
These veterans, together with allies from Civilian-Soldier Alliance and others, developed a campaign over a long, four-day process of consensus. What we landed on was Operation Recovery. Operation Recovery seeks to stop the deployment of service members diagnosed with trauma such as Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as a result of their service.
How is this an antiwar campaign?
Currently, 20-50% of all service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan right now suffer from PTSD. A large number of these troops are also on psychotropic drugs. While in combat, there is no reporting on how these drugs are prescribed or taken. Military medics for instance are not required to write scripts, they simply hand out the drugs. In effect, we are arming traumatized troops, dosing them up and sending them back in.
Our campaign is focused in Killeen, Texas right now in partnership with a coffeehouse down there called Under the Hood. We also work with another coffeehouse just outside Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord called Coffee Strong. In the case of Under the Hood, we actually go on base to Fort Hood and talk to soldiers. We invite them to come out to the coffee shop. We don’t ask them if they are against the war. We have a campaign based on the experiences of service members and veterans because it was service members and veterans that said we needed to do something about this trauma.
This becomes an antiwar campaign because without 20-50% of the fighting force, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan become untenable. You can’t keep a war going without soldiers to fight it. In some cases, the military is violating many of their own policies by deploying troops diagnosed with trauma.
In Fort Hood, for example, there were 22 suicides last year alone. In Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord, there were 4 suicides on post last month alone. This is an epidemic that the military is refusing to deal with.
We are organizing active-duty service members and veterans to fight. We have a long-term campaign, which is the vehicle by which we develop the leadership of these service members and veterans. We’re not asking them to protest with us immediately. We’re asking them to do things like come to the coffee shop on Thursday nights for “Ribs and Rights” to learn about G.I. rights and have free barbeque. We ask them to come to Women’s Night on Mondays and these kind of things. At Coffee Strong, they offer free coffee to anyone with an enlisted ID. They like to say that officers have to pay double.
The whole idea here is that Operation Recovery develops the leadership of those directly impacted by the wars. We are withdrawing consent from the wars. When a service member withdraws his/her consent from the war and refuses to participate, this ultimately depletes the power of the military to maintain these wars.
This is, as you might imagine, a long haul campaign. This is not us planning a protest in 3 months and hoping the war will end. We make our plans in multi-year timelines. We learned much of this from United Workers, including how to phase campaigns, set goals, and develop tactics to achieve that goal. This is what works and this is where we’re seeing victories.
It’s also important to uplift the role of civilians whose experience is not in the military, who have not been to Afghanistan and seen this first hand, who maybe arrive at an antiwar or peace politic as a result of their own analysis and not their direct experience. For others, it is indeed from a direct experience. We have a member whose brother served in Iraq, and this largely influences her perspective.
It’s important to have a role for allies in order to uplift our experience as well. This is where groups like Civilian-Soldier Alliance come from. We are civilian allies to service members and veterans. Student/Farmworker Alliance is the same thing; they are students using their power on their campuses to stop buying tomatoes grown under poverty conditions in Immokalee. Simultaneously, the farm workers are organizing in the fields. These kinds of connections create victories.
In conclusion, the title of my talk is “What Needs Changing.” I think aside from our economy, perhaps the peace movement itself needs changing. We need to be building leadership. We need to not only do coalition building, in which we go after the low-hanging fruit by trying to get all of the peace organizations together to form a coalition, but we actually need to be doing base building as well. According to polls, the majority of people are on our side, yet we never talk to them. I went on post and spoke with service members in uniform in Fort Hood about Operation Recovery and it was not difficult to get signatures on a pledge about that. The hard part is developing their leadership and creating pathways for involvement. The sentiments are there, and we need to be doing base building, we need to do campaign organizing, and most importantly, we need to take leadership from movements that are winning, in particular poor people’s movements. Thank you.