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Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities


Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities

The War Resisters League 90th Anniversary Conference

August 1-4, 2013 in Washington, DC.

I flew down to the conference after work on Thursday just in time for the first event and stayed through the last song on Sunday. 

During the course of the weekend, some 200 people came and went, while about 80 hard-core conference attendees stayed for the entire event.

The best part to me was that everyone was a friend, if you didn’t know a person, but they were wearing a peace t-shirt or carrying the WRL 90th anniversary bag on their shoulder, with all the info we needed, we could just ask them where they were from and what peace work they were doing. 

At the airport so suddenly after Emma’s Revolution closed out the 4 days, I found myself almost in tears.  I thought: why can’t we have our own country? 

Then I thought, no, we have to be engaged in the struggle we are waging, because no one else in our culture will do this work. 

Bringing down the militarism, transforming swords into plowshares, is the great task of this moment in history. 

The conference took a broad approach, from grounding us in the past with a multi-generational conversation that included Vietnam-era draft resister, Randy Kehler, and Julie Finch, the great niece of WRL founder Jessie Wallace Hughan, the first night.  

Plenary sessions with David McReynolds (WRL), Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Winona LaDuke (VP Candidate, Green Party), Rosa Moiwend (West Papua civil resistance movement), Barbara Ehrenreich (writer), Mandy Carter (WRL), Phyllis Bennis (Institute for Policy Studies) and Bruce Gagnon (Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space) covered everything from the environmental crisis facing us, global hot spots, non-violence and strategic thinking, the ever-present issues of race, class and gender in movements, to the ills of global capitalism.  Participants listened, learned, asked good questions and added illuminating comments.  (Apologies to all speakers I have not mentioned.)

Link to plenaries:

In a mini-plenary on the Federal Budget: Reflection of Nation’s Priorities, Offering Another Vision, I gave a comprehensive report on the Budget for All resolution that many of us worked to place on the 2012 ballot, in 91 cities and towns in Massachusetts.  (My text at the end of this report.)   

Workshops on topics ranging from the arts of protest to political prisoners in the U.S. to countering military recruitment in schools or building communities of resistance explored concerns in more depth.  It was hard to choose which workshop to attend when there were 6 or 7 scheduled at the same time. 

To see the list of plenary speakers and workshops, the conference link is still posted:

Much of the conference focused on sharing information that assessed and defined current historical conditions – global militarism and its mirror the global poverty set amid the crisis of global climate change.   

Ongoing struggles from a number of places were shared, in addition to the civil resistance in W. Papua to Indonesian rule, there is a protracted peoples struggle going on in Jeju, South Korea against a military base that is part of the U.S. Asia Pivot and in Bahrain where the Arab Spring uprising led to severe repression. 

Peace activists are mobilizing against drone warfare, led by Code Pink and Veterans For Peace. 

Letters and postcards in support of the Disarm Now Plowshares (Greg Boertje-Obed, Michael Walli and Sr. Megan Rice who entered Oak Ridge in a nonviolent protest of nuclear weapons) can be sent to the judge and to support them prior to sentencing.” Information and talking points are at the link:   Sentencing will be at the end of September.

Highlights from my notes (spanning plenaries and workshops):

Goal – what do you hope to achieve with your action?

Protest at the point of consumption, this is a strategic point to organize large numbers of people, think strategically

Importance of WRL to keeping anti-Vietnam War movement nonviolent

Enemy is institution not people

See each person’s humanity

Strive for absolute honesty, material non-attachment, compassion 

Advanced capitalism – creates “survival” economies, surplus populations, encaged in neighborhoods and prisons

Predator economy:  if you have something they want, they will take it and you will be living under militarization forever

War predates capitalism as an autonomous force in history, teaches us to be obedient women as well as men, no such thing as female moral superiority regarding violence

Reaching point where war may not need humans

Women are half the population who do two thirds of the work and have one tenth of the wealth

Bring our remarkable resources to bear on problems

Military is becoming the welfare state

There is a difference between RISKING suffering or ASKING for suffering in nonviolent action 

WRL was asked by Egyptian activists to do something about the tear gas marked made in the US that was being used in Tahrir square during the Arab Spring protests and the WRL Tear Gas Campaign came out of that request.

The gathering was beautiful, complete with emotional moments for longtime pacifists and for Rosa Moiwend when describing the terrible names she and her people, indigenous islanders, are called by the Indonesian powers that control West Papua.  I heard the silence in that air-conditioned auditorium until she could go on with her words and am grateful to Winona LaDuke for the comfort she provided to Rosa in that painful moment. 

One morning at breakfast, I sat with Naomi, a Jewish Quaker from New York who told too few of us about an eight-year weekly vigil in Queens she organized outside a recruiting office and the time a recruiter emerged and stood with the peace vigil. 

Future conferences might build the ongoing work of attendees into the schedule.  Many of us were from interesting parts of the country, engaged in peace work, with valuable stories to share about how we do our work.  We know (more or less) where we need to get to, it is the how to get there that proves to be so elusive, and each of us with our life of struggle contains some of that how and we need to share it with each other. 

There is so much more to say, but there is much more to do in the coming days, months and years. 

As Charlie King and Karen Brandow sang,  “…just like a tree that’s standing by the water, we shall not be moved…” 


Presented on August 3, 2013 Federal Budget: Reflection of Nation’s Priorities, Offering Another Vision mini-plenary with Leslie Cagan.

I’m Thea Paneth, from Arlington United for Justice with Peace, a community based peace group in Massachusetts, and I’m here to tell you about the Budget for All campaign.

We live in a time when getting a letter to the editor on peace issues into the newspaper is a big victory, so it’s a real pleasure to have the opportunity to tell you about the B4A campaign which placed a nonbinding ballot resolution before about a million voters in November of 2012.  (In Massachusetts we have the ability to place both binding and nonbinding referendums on the ballot, which not all states have.) 

Basic History

After the 2008 election, peace activists, mainly from Massachusetts but also Leslie, and others, met in Arlington, for a discussion about what next steps to take.

We knew that the status of forces agreement would take place in Iraq in 2010, forcing withdrawal of US troops so we needed to reorient our thinking and continue anti-war work. 

The idea to cut US military spending was resurrected.  As we all know the US military budget is totally out of control topping a trillion dollars a year, while our communities suffer from the insane and criminal policies that result in constant budget cuts to essential services. 

A statewide network developed out of this idea called Fund our Communities Not War and the Budget for All campaign came out of this network in late 2011.

The campaign brought together different social change groups from across the state to work on a project aimed at challenging the assumptions and policies represented by the deficit reduction (previously and concurrently the lower taxes) mentality that we’ve been living under for decades.  

Deep Background

Ballot campaigns have deep and illustrious roots in New England.  The Nuclear Freeze Campaign from the early 1980’s placed local ballot and town meeting resolutions before the public to “take the nuclear issue to the village square.”  People voted to end the nuclear arms race at a time when the US and USSR had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.  We protested in huge numbers – remember a million people in Central Park in 1982 during the UN Second Special Session on Disarmament – we were all there?!  The pressure brought about some policy changes.

In 2006, peace groups in Massachusetts put a question on the ballot in 139 cities and towns calling for an end to end the war in Iraq, which passed by a 2-1 margin in all but six communities. (About half million voters.)

The Resolution

The Budget for All resolution calls for: 

  • preventing cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Benefits, to housing, food and unemployment assistance;
  • for creating and protecting jobs by investing in manufacturing, schools, housing, renewable energy, transportation and other public services;
  • for taxing incomes over $250,000/year and closing loopholes to reduce the federal deficit;
  • and to redirect military spending to domestic needs by reducing the military budget, ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing US troops home safely now.    

It asks the Massachusetts Legislature to send a strong message to Congress and the President on the four points of the resolution.  It gives us a good purpose to focus on at the State House.

The Process

This wording was developed and negotiated by groups working on the campaign.  These included the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants (they did a lot of work gathering signatures in Boston), a union local (AFGE - American Federation of Government Employees), American Friends Service Committee and Peace Action.  A long time AFSC staff person was involved in crafting the wording, as were some of the Dorchester People for Peace activists.  It was a big job to negotiate; it took several months, and a lot of patience and persistence went into it to come out with anti-war wording still part of it.

The wording had to be approved at the state level by the Attorney General’s office.  Then the petition forms were printed up by the state and we local folks went out to our communities to gather the signatures.

To place a non-binding question on the ballot by state representative district you need to get 200 validated signatures of registered voters – it’s a doable effort with mainly volunteers.  Some organizations were able to commit staff time to the effort and one of the unions gave money to pay signature gatherers in some cities.

A good rule of thumb is to gather 20 signatures an hour, so you go where people are – parks, community events that draw a lot of people, libraries, supermarkets.  You go to your neighbors, you know who is registered to vote and you chase them down and get their signature.  (We want their signatures, but we also want their vote.)

Getting these signatures opens up the discussion with our neighbors about the issues.  We found most people were thrilled at the opportunity to sign something like this, some thought it was too broad or just disagreed.  My own rule when collecting signatures is: never argue with a particular individual, just politely thank them and move on to find the next person who will sign.  When I was petitioning, I always took my PERSUADER with me.    SHOW PERSUADER.  (AFSC small fold out flyer with military spending in red)

Signatures have to be certified by city and town election offices and then are turned into the campaign office for submission to the state.  You can’t mix towns/districts on petition pages, or get any marks or creases on the page or cross out any names - anything like that and the whole page gets tossed out, so you have to protect your petition pages with great care!  You have to meet all the state-set deadlines. 

In all, 24,000 signatures were gathered across the state.

Once we knew the question was going to be on the ballot for November 6th, people worked to recruit institutional support.  This included getting elected officials to sign onto the goals of the resolution. 

We got a number of State Senators and Representatives, some members of Congress (Michael Capuano, Barney Frank, Ed Markey, Jim McGovern), and a number of local officials, including Boston City Councilors.   It’s good to do this – both in terms of finding a way to hold politicians accountable to us on our issues, and in getting the word out about the campaign.

We were reasonably successful in getting local press.  Letters to the editor and op-eds are usually accepted verbatim by weekly newspapers and, if you have them.  Not too much, but some coverage was in the corporate daily – The Boston Globe, some radio, some local TV news covered the various vigils and rallies that promoted the resolution.  It all adds up.  Never discount the value of letters to the editor, they are the most read part of newspapers because people want to know what other people think. 

We had yard signs and we stood out at the polls on election day.  I had a number of people tell me they were going to vote for all the “good stuff,” while pointing at my sign when I was on my shifts. 

We Won!

We won the campaign by a 3-1 margin in every city and town:  623,128 Yes to 209,725 No

Follow Up

The campaign has translated into a resolution in the Massachusetts State House with similar wording submitted by a State Rep and a State Senator who supported us.  There was a hearing on July 10th at the State House, with advocates and legislators testifying before the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.  The next step is for this committee to report out:  favorably, unfavorably or send to study (which kills it).  At this point delegations need to visit the committee members. 

80 groups are now part of the Budget for All Campaign 

On Wednesday – just a couple of days ago, there was an op-ed in the Globe citing Budget for All.  (I brought copies with me.)

When I asked one of the lead organizers what needed to be said here, his response was that we need to create Moral Mondays in Massachusetts, the way folks have been doing in North Carolina, where there has been a unifying around a big range of issues, getting away from the single-issue focus that fragments the movement for social justice, so perhaps that is something for people to think about.

Lessons Learned

The most important aspects of this kind of campaign are:

We showed quantitatively what the majority of people really want.  It often seems to me that we only unify around the waging of wars, so I have to say it felt really good to be able to show that people wanted the wars to end along with social programs, benefits, and green jobs. 

We had that sense and we proved it with the hard numbers – 3 to one margin is a big victory.  I work at MIT so I know how important having the hard numbers is.  Need the numbers to prove the points. 

Puts us into our communities raising the issues so that we can to counter the broad acquiescence to the military industrial complex that is so damaging to the country and the planet. 

We can’t submerge the peace struggle to other struggles.  It was great to be able prove to the voices amongst the activist world that side-step peace issues/concerns for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or job losses, that the anti-war part of the question did not hurt the ballot question.  In fact, I think it helped – it was direct and straightforward. 

We are able to use the existing systems to show a way forward and we are working to change the nature of the debate.  

It’s up to us to find these opportunities within the challenges we face.  The monster burden of a military-corporate-surveillance state needs to be set down gently.  Through the uncertainties and the disasters that lie ahead we need to find the ways to use creative energy and love for humanity to wage joyous struggles.  We need a basic standard of living for everyone on planet earth, and to live in a better balance with nature and there lies the path to peace and freedom.


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