We Organize With Love in Our Hearts: building an anti-war movement
By Chris Crass
I was getting ready to leave for DC. The mass mobilization was gaining momentum as the IMF/World Bank meetings approached at the end of the month. I was excited about heading out early to do ‘Anti-Racism for Global Justice’ workshops and get involved with the organizing. I woke up like millions of other people on Sept. 11 to the news of tragic violence. Like you, I was horrified. And like you, it has weighed heavy on my mind and spirit every since. Almost one month later and the bombs are dropping in Afghanistan. The political landscape has been rocked by these recent events. While the ground is still shifting rapidly, it is clear that our hope lies with building an anti-war movement committed to anti-racist politics and the agenda of global justice. Two movements that have gained significant momentum in the last five years are those working against the prison industrial complex and corporate globalization. Organizations and activists from each of these movements are making important contributions to anti-war efforts. Like many others, I believe that collaboration between these two movements has enormous possibilities. This essay documents some of this work and explores possibilities for social change in this time period. Through alliance building, political education and developing our capacity to organize, we work in this time of crisis to end war, challenge racism and further all of our struggles for justice.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest…” – Ella’s Song, Sweet Honey in the Rock
Within hours of the tragedy on 911, work began in the Bay Area to hold a Solidarity Gathering and vigil the next night, Wed. the 12th. Over 600 people, mostly people of color, came out to collectively mourn the loss of lives, to stand with Middle Eastern, South Asian and North African communities against racist attacks and to reaffirm our commitment to work for peace and justice. The vigil was put together by organizations of color under the name 911 Solidarity Committee Against War and Racism. The gathering was organized by and for people of color to demonstrate solidarity in this time of crisis and to create space for leadership from people of color in the emerging anti-war movement. The Committee has also organized political education, a youth of color led march against war and racism that brought out over 800 people and ongoing work as the bombing of Afghanistan begins. These actions have been organized primarily by people who have played an enormous role in the growing youth of color led movement against the prison industrial complex. The state-wide racist attack on young people fueled Proposition 21, a juvenile crime ballot measure, which won in the March 2000. Prop. 21 ignited a response from youth of color that has been referred to as the beginnings of the next Civil Rights movement. And just as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 60’s helped launch the anti-war movement, young people of color today, who have been at the forefront of racial justice struggles, are leading anti-war efforts around the country. In the Bay Area, STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement) who is part of the 911 Solidarity Committee Against War and Racism released a statement that reads, “Suffering under the boot of poverty, people around the world are becoming more and more desperate. Neither police repression at home nor U.S. bombs abroad will ease this fundamental despair; instead, they will only continue this vicious cycle of frustration and violence. Ordinary people in the United States can best deter future attacks by insisting that the U.S. government abandon its oppressive role of keeping down workers and dominating poor nations around the world. Increasingly, safety at home will require justice abroad. Intensified police crackdowns at home and military savagery abroad are not the answer; the answer is justice. We must not allow the United States to respond with bombs for Third World people and continued support for repressive dictatorships and rapacious corporations. Instead, we demand that the US respond to this crisis with efforts to meet the legitimate demands of the majority of the human family.” In LA, Tafarai Bayne of Youth Organizing Communities read an anti-war statement at a recent press conference that was widely covered in Chinese, Japanese and Spanish language newspapers and ignored by the LA Times. YOC played a significant role in the fight against Prop 21 and focuses on educational justice in the enormous public school system of LA. Franchezska Zamora, an organizer with YOC, noted “our membership and constituency is mostly people of color who have experienced discrimination based on immigration status and racial profiling. We see how racism impacts our families and communities and so we have a historical responsibility to take an anti-war stand at this time.” The anti-war statement has been signed by over 40 groups in LA, which represent community, labor, service, immigrant, and youth based organizations. Meanwhile, on college campuses across the United States peace and justice activists are mourning the loss of life, standing in solidarity against racism and organizing against the war calling out “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War” and “Stop the Racist Attacks”. National student networks who have spent past years organizing against sweatshops, environmental destruction, the WTO/IMF/World Bank and corporate globalization came together to join their calls for global justice with an explicit anti-war and anti-racist stand. Actions ranged in size from a dozen to thousands. In addition to anti-war and anti-racism protests, Arab, South Asian, Muslim, North African and Middle Eastern communities, all facing racist attacks, have been organizing. In New York City, DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) is a freedom organization of and for low-income South Asians. DRUM has put together a multi-lingual hotline, and is monitoring and documenting INS abuses of immigrants in detention centers. Solidarity against racism vigils have been held across the country. An organizer in Chicago, who asked to remain anonymous, has been working to bring mostly white people out to vigils in solidarity at Mosques and she commented “As people build friendships through the vigils, I hope that it begins to click for the people who attend that there is a fundamental contradiction in saying that Muslim Americans should have the right to live in peace while their grandmothers, aunts and cousins in Afghanistan should be killed.” In addition to vigils, organizing efforts have been initiated to provide physical solidarity. Requests have come in to groups doing escort work to accompany children to and from school, to go with elders who simply want to go for a walk or buy groceries. This current solidarity effort brings challenges. Chantel, an organizer who works in Middle Eastern communities has been documenting and recording racist abuse and harassment. When asked about pitfalls and possibilities for doing this kind of anti-racism work, she responded with a list, which included, “Understand that Islamic/Muslim communities are not all the same. Realize that people from the Middle East have been fighting terrorists and their own governments for years. Understand white privilege right now, I can’t do the same type of activism right now that a white person can because I have much more to lose. Educate yourself about Middle Eastern culture and don’t assume that everyone is Arab or Muslim. It seems like most activists only know about the struggle of women in Afghanistan and a few issues in Iraq, but there is so much that we need to educate ourselves about in Yemen, Iran, Saudi, Bahrain, Pakistan, etc. Please realize that the terrorists are not freedom fighters, they are not anti-capitalists or revolutionaries, but rather they are fundamentalists who use the word Islam and Muslim to further their own greedy political agendas. Ask people what they would like and how you can be useful rather than assuming you know what’s best for other people. Support the rights of immigrants who might be facing deportation with the new laws being passed. Recognize that you have a responsibility to act in solidarity with communities under racist attack. Also recognize that you are a voice right now for so many people who can’t speak (under threat of violence) and that means being responsible.”
We who believe in freedom must ORGANIZE
“What possibilities and pitfalls do you see for organizing in the current political situation”, I asked. Stephanie Guilloud, an organizer and educator in Olympia, Washington who played a major role in the mass mobilization against the WTO in Seattle, responded, “I believe that the 911 events have fundamentally changed our organizing work. The stakes have been changed and we (who are white radicals) can no longer afford to pick and choose issues as we find it convenient. The challenge of the current political climate is to develop a movement that is not only focused on preventing and stopping a war but also committed to a sustained struggle for justice on all fronts. I think we have to slow down and strategize a long-term campaign for true justice that incorporates an attack on all the oppressive forces that led to this crisis.” She continued, “As white radicals who think we already know about racism and how it works, I believe we must take anti-oppression work seriously. If we want to organize and mobilize people beyond our insular radical communities we need to challenge each other and find language and analysis that is accessible and movement-building. We need to develop long-term strategy and sustainable tactics which includes positioning anti-racism work at the core of our efforts.” The same question was posed to Van Jones, the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Both he and the Ella Baker Center have been heavily involved in work against the prison industrial complex. He replied “The top priority for grassroots activists is this: unite the existing economic justice, environmental justice and criminal justice movements against racism and war. Now is no time for us to run and hide in shame, or start waving war flags around. Now is the time for the global, grassroots movement for social justice to move up to the next level. Now – more than ever – is the time for us to stand up and fight for a vibrant, multi-racial, bottom-up democracy that can protect and preserve the web of life. Safety at home requires economic and social justice here and abroad. “Therefore, we must categorically reject Bin Laden’s tactics of terror via underground cells. And we must also reject Bush’s tactics of terror via overhead bombers. We must be willing to oppose the Bush agenda of global corporate domination. And we must reject the Bin Laden agenda of global religious domination. All together, our movements offer a third way out. If we stay true to our transformative agenda, the hope unleashed in Seattle and Durban will ultimately prevail over the fear unleashed in Manhattan and D.C.” The days immediately following 911, I was scared (still am). I needed to do something small to push myself, as well as begin to express an alternative politics. I wore a T-shirt to work that reads “US Sanctions in Iraq Kill Children”. I was nervous at first, nervous that a customer at the video store I work at might go off on me, or worse.” Someone read the front and then asked to read the back “Stop Genocide, Peace With Iraq”. I couldn’t tell at first what she thought of it, then with sadness in her voice, she said “That’s why they hate us”. She told me about the nightmares she was having, planes exploding and buildings crashing down around her, night after night. I didn’t respond with more information about US foreign policy, I just listened. I’ve been trying to listen a lot to people, trying to really understand the multiple reasons that people are hanging flags and singing ‘God Bless America’. Listening is central to good organizing and it’s something that I often forget. Popular opposition and movements for justice are not made by rousing speeches and large marches alone. As organizers we must also commit ourselves to the day-to-day work of developing a sustained struggle for justice on all fronts that is committed to anti-oppression work, as Guilloud highlights. We must practice respect and come to understand the subtleties of solidarity as we work to “unite the existing economic justice, environmental justice and criminal justice movements against racism and war” as Jones suggests. We must remain grounded and take care of each other in the process of confronting this crisis so that we can “stay true to our transformative agenda” and build upon the “hope unleashed in Seattle and Durban”. So how do we organize? Three strategies come to mind when thinking about building an anti-war movement committed to anti-racist politics and guided by an agenda and vision of global justice:
- Develop and nurture alliances between movements, organizations and individuals who have already been working for justice.
- Political education work with a focus on international economics, US foreign policy and the power of social change movement to make history.
- Engage new people into social change work while also building our overall organizing capacity and visions for liberation.
- The first requires coalition work and developing relationships between organizations and individuals. It requires working from a basis of respect. It’s useful to learn about the groups that are already organizing, what they have been involved with, who they work with and how. Majority white organizations need to pay particular attention to showing respect for the leadership of radicals of color when working with organizations mostly of color. The long history of white activists undermining social change work and disregarding and/or disrespecting organizations of color did not change after 911.
Hence, Guilloud’s emphasis on anti-oppression work cannot be overlooked, particularly in times of crisis when emergency coalitions bring groups together who don’t traditionally collaborate. The more white activists prioritize challenging white privilege and educating themselves about racism and anti-racism, the more the movement as a whole grows stronger. Remember that working together doesn’t just mean speaking at the same rally. Ask other people what they think, what possibilities they see for organizing. Get coffee and learn more about each other and the groups you’re involved with. Organizing isn’t just getting lots of people to a rally, it’s about building relationships which in turn build our collective power. The second requires doing enormous work which has been happening all over the country: teach-ins, study groups, discussion groups, forums, workshops, lectures, and more. Mike Prokosch, an organizer and popular economics educator in Boston who works with United for a Fair Economy, points out that “the events of 911 have left an entire nation asking ‘why?’ It is the responsibility of social justice activists to develop curriculum, put on events and create opportunities for people to explore that question. We need to give people the information and context of international politics and encourage critical thinking. If we can help people develop their own understanding of the world and give people a sense of their own power then we will be contributing enormously to long-term social change efforts.” As organizers we work to connect the issues and build movement. As radical educators we connect the issues and develop analysis and vision. We should think of our rallies and marches as, at once, mobilizing people who are already engaged and as political education for new people. In a time of crisis lots of folks are looking for information and in times of war lots of folks get active for the first time. We need to nurture the choir while also engaging the congregation. The third requires that we get ourselves organized. When new folks come to meetings we need to be able to find easy ways to plug them in. Folks are coming out because they are confused, enraged or sad. We need to be able to channel that energy into handing out leaflets, putting up posters, making phone calls, going to political education events to deepen their/our knowledge and going to actions. We also need to be welcoming and friendly. Surveillance and infiltration by the state is a reality. Our greatest protection is also our strength, building popular movements for social change. As new folks are coming in we need to be giving people skills to participate. Workshops on media, direct action, anti-racism, strategic campaign design, grassroots organizing help to build the coalition or group. Trainings are good for people who have already been around as well. In a time of crisis, an organizing dynamic can manifest in which the most experienced activists go into overdrive mode and everyone else tries to keep up. It is in these times of crisis when it is even more important for people to conceptualize organizing as encouraging others to act, to help others build confidence in their abilities to act and to provide training and education to help others act effectively. Even as we try to bring out lots of folks to rallies and teach-ins, we should also be committed to developing other people’s leadership and building organizations that allow people to practice political work. As we challenge injustice, we also need to challenge ourselves and each other to grow and become more effective in our work for justice. We are in difficult times, but if we listen carefully, think strategically, and persevere, then we can work for a world inwhich the tragic events of 911 will not ever be repeated anywhere.
Chris Crass is a white anti-racist organizer with the Challenging White Supremacy Collective. A collection of his essays entitled Collective Liberation on my mind was published by Kersplebedeb in 2001 – for more information click here . Chris can be reached at email@example.com