These are going to be tough times for the anti-war movement. With a popular Democrat in the White House and depression economics on the front pages, it is going to be hard to turn out people for anti-war demonstrations. Most people’s attention is going to be on their pocket books and their sympathy for Obama is going to mean they are unlikely to demonstrate against a war that he is making attempts to “carefully” end. For these reasons the anti-war movement cannot afford to be easily distracted. Unfortunately, San Diego’s largest anti-war organization, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice (SDCPJ), has done just that: a promising demonstration that it planned for March 20th has lost its focus.
The SDCPJ is a group of dedicated and experienced peace activists. Over the years they have put on scores of anti-war (both Iraq and Afghanistan) demonstrations that have shown both principle and intelligence. Evidence of the latter is a plan they recently developed for a demonstration linking the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the economic crisis (especially the lack of money for healthcare). Originally planned for October of 2007, it had been called off because of the fires that ravaged San Diego County that fall. After the demonstration was cancelled, SDCPJ members promised to return to this issue at a more appropriate time (it was thought the fires would make San Diegans hostile to an anti-war demonstration). A couple of months ago the SDCPJ fulfilled their promise and returned to planning this demonstration, timed to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war (in late March).
Under the slogan, “Money for Healthcare and Education not for War and Occupation” the demonstration was to call for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to use the money for healthcare and other social needs. One of the creative things about this demonstration was the attempt to make linkages with groups concerned about social needs, and particularly healthcare. Their participation was to not merely be as endorsers, but as co-organizers of the demonstration. The SDCPJ had gotten endorsement by the SD Labor Council for the cancelled demonstration in 2007, and it was hoped that this support could be secured again. This endorsement would then aid in gaining more active participation of healthcare unions (Nurses, SEIU, etc.), anti-poverty groups, and community organizations in the demonstration. Both because this kind of endorsement was unusual and because the Labor Council is fairly bureaucratic, the process was begun over a month ago.
With the recent events in Gaza, however, the focus of the demonstration was changed. Outraged by the brutality of the Israeli attack on Palestinians, members of the SDCPJ decided to add a demand for the end of U.S. support for Israel’s invasion to the demonstration and to widen it’s focus to include a condemnation of U.S. policies in the Middle East. This obviously moved the focus of the demonstration away from the social needs/warfare connection, but also undermined the efforts to reach out to trade unions and other progressive organizations. There are three reasons that this was a mistake.
First, this change in focus does neither of these causes (Palestine or the U.S. wars) justice. Solidarity with the Palestinian people demands more than a footnote scrawled at the end of a leaflet. To do this issue justice a separate set of activities should have been undertaken (a separate demonstration over this issue planned, out-reach made to Arab and Muslim groups, etc.). This makes the commitment to Palestinians look like an after thought, and is designed to encourage their resentment. I know the re-centering of the demonstration was made with admirable intentions, but the Palestinian people deserve more time and effort than this.
More to the point here, this change of focus demonstrates a distractibility that undermines the work of the SDCPJ. This is the second time the SDCPJ has started to organize this demonstration and then been distracted away. It is important to do one thing at a time and do it well. Jumping from one issue to another, saying one thing today and a different thing tomorrow, looking for support for one kind of demonstration and then changing it half way through makes the SDCPJ look unstable and lacking in seriousness.
This consistency of focus is all the more important in a demonstration that tries to make the connection between the wars and the crisis in the economy. Ironically, making this connection is made more difficult with Bush’s disappearance from the White House. A hated and arrogant President who created these wars makes the connections with a declining economy easier to make. With him gone our job only becomes more difficult. If a demonstration like this is going to work, it must have both an ideological and organizational singularity of focus. The connection between money sent to Iraq and money unavailable for healthcare or welfare must be driven home in slogans, location of demonstration, publicity leading up to the event, and, most importantly, in the out-reach made to organizations that goes on before the demonstration.
This change in focus is particularly destructive to this out-reach to other organizations. The goal in these efforts was to have been to educate groups concerned about government services like healthcare about the connection with the wars and to draw them into participation in this and future efforts. This is a form of community organizing and involves going out to trade unions, community groups, and religious organizations with a coherent message that drives home the connection between war and the economic crisis. Presenting these organizations with a laundry list of demands and issues undermines the coherence of this message, and undercuts the SDCPJ’s ability to work in coalition.
Finally, this distractibility demonstrates a wider lack of understanding of the present political context. The most important political event in the next period is going to be the economic crisis. Our country has already been subjected to the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and this situation will only get worse over the next year. This will be a time of historic suffering for the American people, but a time of equally historic opportunity for progressives. Americans will be forced to examine their way of life and ideology in a way not seen since the 1930’s, and the Peace Movement needs to take advantage of this. We cannot fritter away the chance to make connections between the trillions spent in Iraq and Afghanistan and the trillions unavailable for welfare, unemployment insurance, and healthcare.
The SDCPJ should re-examine the changes made to the focus of its demonstration, and return to a concentration on the connection between the war and the economy. They should take the time to do this demonstration right, and then do the same thing with the Palestine/Israel issue. I don’t want to sound paternalistic, but as my mother used to say, “When you are a jack-of-all-trades, you are a master of none.”