By Mike Edera of Scappoose, Oregon. Mike is a landscaper and an activist with the Rural Organizing Project.
"Strategy-free activism" is a term coined by the late-great activist Judy Bari. The worst example of strategy-free activism I have ever seen was provided by a band of mask-wearing 'revolutionaries' carrying an 'F the Troops' banner in a big Portland peace march.
By contrast, the best recent example of strategic activism was Cindy Sheehan's protest outside of Bush's Crawford dude-ranch. Before a national press corps stuck covering the President's summer vacation, she contrasted her condition as the grieving mother of a soldier-son killed in Iraq with Bush's feckless month-long West Texas siesta. Her example galvanized peace vigils across the country, re-launched the anti-war movement, linking it to the suffering of soldiers and their families.
The wave of peace vigils and local anti-war activities inspired by Cindy Sheehan has rolled on for over 80 weeks, though you'd never know about it from the mainstream media. The Rural Organizing Project compiled a list of over forty vigils happening regularly in rural Oregon alone - who knows what the number is nationally?
A year ago Rural Organizing Project activists began thinking about how to leverage the local peace work happening in small towns across the state. How could these individual actions combine to create a bigger effect, and what was the most appropriate target for activism? Out of many discussions came the ROP's Cost of War campaign.
We decided to include a common demand in our local activities: that our Congress people and Senators give an accounting of the real costs of the Iraq occupation. We reasoned that elected federal officials had the means and a duty to make sure all their constituents understood how much the war has cost, and what services were sacrificed to pay for it. As part of the Cost of War campaign we called on our Congress people to hold Iraq Town Halls in their districts. We made this demand via petition, and also in person whenever we could attend a meeting with a Representative or Senator.
We soon noticed that, while none of the Congressional delegation agreed to hold special Iraq Town Halls, they did became more vocal on the occupation and began to include the term 'cost of war' in their public statements.
However, by August of '06 we were tired of waiting for the politicians to act. The ROP staff formally invited the Congressional delegation to Iraq Town Halls that we would organize ourselves in each Congressional District. In December, after elections that brought Democrats to power in DC on a wave of anti-war sentiment, we set Town Hall dates for the February Congressional recess, anticipating the upcoming vote on a massive $240 billion appropriation to continue the Iraq occupation. No Representative or Senator agreed to attend, but Reps David Wu, Darlene Hooley, and Peter DeFazio committed to send staff.
Town Halls happened in four of five Congressional districts between February 16 and 24:
In Redmond (Rep Greg Walden, District 2), 175 people crowded into the Redmond Community Center. In Lincoln City (Rep Darlene Hooley, District 5) 125 people attended. In Roseburg, 125 people turned out (Peter DeFazio, District 4). At all the meetings, military families and returning vets spoke, including the mother of Suzanne Swift, who refused orders to return to Iraq.
I attended the Forest Grove Town Hall (Rep David Wu, District 1), where 200 people filled Taylor Auditorium on the Pacific University campus. Former Air Force photographer Tina Bean, recently returned from Iraq and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome addressed the crowd:
"I haven't seen a single one of my friends since I've been home, because I don't want them to see me like this," she said, fighting tears. "I can't look at myself in the mirror without feeling disgusted. I feel like I'm broken into a million pieces. I'll never be the person I was."
By organizing these assemblies we achieved the first goal of the campaign: to bring local anti-war groups together in coalitions centered in Congressional Districts and focused on community outreach as a means to pressure elected officials.
Each Town Hall was organized by the local ROP Human Dignity Groups and allies. Testimonies were solicited from within the communities where we live. This met our second goal: to expand the outreach of local groups and highlight the cost of war for our neighbors, bringing in new people.
Did we meet our third goal of influencing our Congress people and Senators to vote against the Iraq appropriation, and to take the lead in explaining the cost of war to their constituents? None of them attended. Some held their own pre-screened events to coincide with our grassroots assemblies.
On the other hand, all Representatives and Senators are now aware that anti-war activists are creating coalitions in each Congressional District, that we are including into our protests the type of targeted political action that has historically succeeded in re-shaping the political landscape, whether to the left or the right.
We are in for a long struggle to get Congress people and Senators to vote down funding for the occupation - a vote that will effectively end the war. We will need to be imaginative. The goal should be to create a relentless, non-violent political force capable of rewarding friends and punishing enemies.
As someone explained to me during the Town Hall in Rep Wu's District: 'We need to push hard - even on those who agree with us - to make sure they keep coming our way.'
For more information, or to get involved, visit the Rural Organizing Project.