Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

Friday, March 24, 2006

CAN'T TURN YOUR BACK ON THE WAR


Yesterday I went north to the University of Maine - Orono to be part of a peace witness during a speech by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). The senator was invited to talk about “The Ethics of Conscience: Continuing the Legacy of Margaret Chase Smith” by the school and 60 peace activists, dressed in black, sat in the auditorium wearing the number 2,319 on their backs - the numbers of dead GI's killed in Iraq so far. The auditorium seats 515 and was nearly full.

The senator made a mundane speech talking about her support for lobbyist reform, her dissatisfaction with former FEMA director Michael Brown and his poor handling of the Katrina hurricane and her great respect for Margaret Chase Smith, the much acclaimed former senator from Maine during the 1950's who publicly challenged the red-baiting tactics of then right-wing Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Sen. Collins is considered a moderate but keeps voting with the Bush administration on all the big issues. The question and answer period was highly regulated with the university staff taking written questions before the event began. A graduate student then read about 4-5 of them to Sen. Collins. The first one was "When can we leave Iraq?" Sen. Collins responded that we don't want to stay any longer than necessary, it will all depend on how quickly the U.S. can train a new Iraqi police force. The basic Bush line if you will.

When it was announced that there would only be one more question the 60 peace people in the audience, spread out throughout the hall, stood up and Robert Shetterly began to raise a question to the senator. Someone yelled out "Sit down" then someone else quickly yelled out, "No...let him speak". There was a pregnant pause and Robert kept going by asking Sen. Collins how she could support this Bush war policy. I could not hear it all from where I was sitting but the scene was more important than the question anyway. As he concluded his question, an applause broke out in the hall, not just coming from the people dressed in black. People whistled as well and the applause was a long one... the senator stood there glaring at Robert but she said nothing.

Finally, after what seemed like a longer applause than she got when she was introduced, Sen. Collins said to the university student handling the questions, "Next question." And before we knew it the whole thing was finished. Our 60 folks in black quickly made their way out into the lobby and opened banners that said things like "What are the ethics of Guantanamo?" and "What are the ethics of tax cuts for the rich?" and so on. The media came out and interviewed some of the protest leaders and one alternative radio station, WERU, did live interviews with several folks over the phone.

Sen. Collins has been refusing to hold a town hall meeting on Iraq for the past year. A town hall meeting on the war has now been set for Friday, April 21 at USM in Portland and we are inviting the entire Maine Congressional delegation to come and listen to the people about the war.

The senator was not going to talk about Iraq yesterday. The war, now shown in the polls as the number one concern of the American people, was going to be ignored by the senator. But as much as they would like to ignore the topic the peace movement in Maine is forcing the political elite to have to respond to it.

After the event the senator told the Bangor Daily News that she meets with peace groups all the time. That is a lie and especially troubling from one who claims the mantle of ethics and the legacy of Margaret Chase Smith.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

PROTEST AT THE PENTAGON


On Sunday, March 19 I attended an anti-war protest in downtown Portland that drew a good crowd. From there I went to the airport and flew to Washington DC. I was invited to speak at Monday's march on the Pentagon called From Mourning to Resistance: 3 Years Too Many - Stop the War! The event was organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance which is led by Gordon Clark and Max Obuszewski.

When I arrived in Washington I went directly to the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House where my old friend Art Laffin lives. Art is a long time war resister and I've stayed at the Catholic Worker house many times over the years when in DC. Art has been a loyal supporter of our resistance efforts to keep the arms race from moving into space. He, and others from the Catholic Worker community, each year organize protests at the White House and/or NASA headquarters when the Global Network puts out a call for actions during Keep Space for Peace Week or at other times.

Art woke me up before 6:00 am on Monday, March 20 and we made our way to an entrance that has been designated a "protest zone" at the Pentagon. We were joined by 20 others for an hour long vigil as Pentagon employees arrived. Holding my simple sign, "Stop the war," I was amazed at the sheer numbers of people entering the Pentagon. Art told me 20,000 work there and each Monday he and others hold their vigil at the same spot. Art has been arrested more times than he can count at the various entrances of the Pentagon over the last 20 years.

Few of the military or civilian Pentagon employees made eye contact as they passed us. I counted positive responses from about 1 out of every 50. One woman, an Air Force officer, gave me a courageous "thumps-up" as she passed by. Another woman in civilian dress said, "You people are making progress" as she hurried by. I was struck by the large numbers of black and Hispanic civilian employees entering but most of them too would not make contact. I thought it sad that so many people must work inside this "shrine of domination" to feed their families. It made the conversion message resonant even more for me.

Next we moved to the assembly point for the 9:00 am rally and march to the Pentagon. Located near the Vietnam war memorial, over 200 people and tons of media from all over the world gathered. It was here that I stood on a plastic milk crate and made my speech. I talked about how in Maine, the day before, anti-war protests were held on bridges all over our state. I shared how we have for the past year been organizing occupations of Congressional offices in our state and how we must cut funding for the war if we hope to ever end it. I also said that we must prevent the next round of the arms race from moving into space if we hoped to have social progress in America. We can't afford guns and butter. We must, I concluded, develop and promote a transformative vision that calls for production of sustainable technologies with our tax dollars or we will never end our nation's addiction to war.

Following all the speakers, including Cindy Sheehan and Michael Berg (whose son was also killed in Iraq), we marched the final steps to the Pentagon where we were met by a large continent of police. Most of the cops were African-American and they stood on the other side of a closed gate blocking our entrance onto Pentagon grounds. Art Laffin led us in singing protest songs like We Shall Overcome as 51 people slowly climbed their way over the fence into the waiting arms of the police. The large contingent of media filmed the entire exciting scene. I knew that sadly few of these images would broadcast on the TV news in the U.S. though.

It was a very long walk back to the center of DC. I made my way to the White House where I wanted to stop and say hello to a woman who has held here vigil there since 1981. Day and night for 20 years, Concepcion Picciotto has occupied a small slab of pavement across from the White House, braving the wind, rain, and police harassment. Connie has been keeping an around-the-clock vigil for world peace and nuclear disarmament since Ronald Reagan first entered the White House as president. She says that many people stop and talk but she wonders when the American people will rise up to resist our current move toward fascism.

Every time I go to a big city I always wonder how our seemly small efforts for peace can reach the millions of people who rush around their city leading their busy lives. On the flight home I sat next to a man returning from a winter vacation in Florida. I asked him how he feels about the war. I discovered he works at Bath Iron Works in Maine where the Navy's Aegis destroyer is built. The Aegis is now being used by the U.S. to surround China with Theater Missile Defense (TMD) systems on-board. I talked to him a long time about the need for conversion of the military industrial complex. He listened intently and when he discovered that I am an organizer of protests in our local community he laughed and shook my hand. At one point he said, "People like me need to get more involved or nothing will change." I took that as a good sign.

Maybe people are listening more than we know. Maybe as the woman said at the Pentagon, "You people are making progress." We just need to keep believing in ourselves and our message for peace....and conversion of the military industrial complex.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

CONVERT THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX


I went north yesterday to Farmington, Maine to attend an event called "Sustainable Maine Conference: Turning Toward Peace Through Jobs and a Clean Environment." It was organized by Peace Action Maine and the Global Network was a co-sponsor. I facilitated a workshop called "Corporate Takeover & Military Transformation."

It was held at the University of Maine at Farmington and my good friend Doug Rawlings, president of Maine Veterans for Peace, who teaches there was the host. He turned out a great number of students for the event...and peace and environmental activists came from all over the state.

The whole idea of the conference was to introduce the idea that we need to convert the military industrial complex to peaceful production. Why can't we build mass transit systems or windmills at Bath Iron Works here in Maine instead of Aegis destroyers that will be used to surround and provoke China?

I notice that when you ask that question, some folks who would otherwise agree, just roll their eyes. They say, "Well, the politicians will never agree to that." I tend to respond, "Well, if we don't make a political demand on them they never will." I thought that was our job as activists, to create an alternative vision and then go out and organize support for it. How else can we ever stop this endless war cycle unless we demand an alternative? Of course it is going to be hard - but what meaningful change has ever come easy? How long did it take to end slavery? Imagine when abolitionists started saying, "You know we should end slavery." And the response was, "Yeah sure, the entire country's economy is hostage to the institution to slavery and you want to change that. Can't we work on something easier?" But in the end the moral outrage won out and slavery was ended. It was a long bitter struggle though that ended with civil war.

So today our country’s economy is hostage to the institution called military production and endless war. The more wars we have the more weapons we need. The more weapons we need the more jobs we have in local communities producing them. And please, don't close our bases and military production facilities, our local leaders say!!!!!!

So our job today is to make a political demand. We want our tax dollars used for peaceful production of sustainable technologies that give our children a future on this Earth. We know that building solar, windmills, mass transit systems and the like will provide more jobs than military production does - because the military industrial complex is capital intensive. That means that per million dollars we get less jobs building weapons than we would by spending the same amount of money on any other kind of production.

Our job in the peace movement is to advance an alternative vision that unites the peace movement, the environmental movement and the labor movement. Think of the good jobs that could be created by converting the military industrial complex. Think what happens when weapons are no longer the number one industrial export of our nation. We could be proud of our country again. We can reduce the need for oil. We can slow global warming. Let's make this change, now, before it is too late.