Step two

With congressional Democrats backpedaling fast, local antiwar activists seem ill-equipped for the next stage of ending the Iraq war

Local opposition to the war in Iraq seems to be mostly public protests like this September demonstration in Reno, not nuts-and-bolts political organizing.

Local opposition to the war in Iraq seems to be mostly public protests like this September demonstration in Reno, not nuts-and-bolts political organizing.

Photo By David Robert

At a Reno observance of the 3,000th U.S. death in Iraq on Jan. 1, activists were given two later actions they could engage in to try to create pressure for the end of the war.

Steve Gifford announced plans for a group of local citizens to meet with newly seated U.S. Rep. Dean Heller’s staff to “tell them of our feelings.”

John Hadder announced the next meeting to make paper “peace cranes” to send to members of Congress.

The two activities represent two sides of “petition[ing] the government for a redress of grievances,” as the U.S Constitution puts it.

Protests and symbolism like the folding of origami cranes are certainly present in Reno’s antiwar movement. But nuts-and-bolts techniques like Gifford’s have been rare in the Reno effort to stop the war in Iraq.

The antiwar movement during Vietnam staged protests and symbolic efforts. But it also used political organizing techniques like lobbying, letter-writing drives, teach-ins, door-to-door leafleting and coalition building with community groups.

There is little of that kind of thing in the campaign against the Iraq war, at least in Reno. In part that’s because the Reno campaign is very church-based—"This event seems to be very religious,” said one state official who attended the Jan. 1 observance—and churches are often reticent about getting into raw politics. Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace is an important component of the local antiwar movement.

Under a section of the Reno Antiwar Coalition’s Web site labeled “Take Action Now!” are items like “Food Not Bombs Sundays … Free Vegan Meals - Serving times and location: Every Sunday, Noon at Fisherman’s Park I, Galetti Way at Kietzke, and 3 p.m. at Bicentennial Park (First and Ralston) by the water.” Also listed are a weekly peace vigil, “Poetry, Peace and Music first and third Fridays of each month,” and the Saturday sessions of origami crane-making. What these all have in common is that they involve preaching to the already convinced, peace people talking to peace people. Drawing other community groups into the effort is not addressed.

The need for the antiwar movement to move beyond simply protesting the war has become a topic in peace circles since the November Democratic election gains. Democratic leaders quickly began backpedaling from doing anything substantial about Iraq, and it is unclear whether the antiwar movement is equipped to hold their feet to the fire. Some Democrats have even supported a proposal to increase troop levels in Iraq. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada was one of them, but he backed off after being bitten by a sharp reaction from the Democratic base.

The Democrats’ avoidance of Iraq has started drawing criticism in mainstream forums as well as in liberal online blogs. Scripps News columnist Philip Gailey wrote on Jan. 8 that the party is going after issues that “are low-hanging fruit, poll-tested and politically popular. But in case Democrats haven’t noticed, there is an elephant in the room. … I don’t mean to be a party pooper, but the country is waiting to hear what Democrats plan to do about the Iraq war. They led voters to believe that if they were given control of Congress, they would force President Bush to change course and begin withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq.”

Democratic operative Susan Estrich has criticized her own party for not including Iraq in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “100 hours” marathon of legislation. “One-hundred-hour bursts for popular pieces of legislation are all well and good, but 3,000 dead is the number to focus on,” Estrich argues. “A burst of minor bills is no substitute for a concerted effort to take on the president on the war.”

A few activists like Gifford are seeking to keep pressure on congressmembers of both parties with more than protests. However, Gifford ran into an unexpected problem when his group tried to meet with Heller’s staff on Jan. 4.

“We had five or six of us that showed up there, and then they also brought letters from maybe a dozen other people,” Gifford said.

“We just wanted to let our representative know that the war is very much on our minds, and we want him to do something about it,” he added.

As it turned out, there was no one in Heller’s office, and they were told that he will not have his Reno office on line for “a couple of months.”

Hadder says there have been efforts to reach out to community groups like labor unions. “Should it have already been in place? A lot of things probably should have been in place,” Hadder conceded. But he said the origami sessions have also been used for letter-writing to members of Congress.

“I think you’ll see more of that,” he said. “In fact, we have been talking about getting together people in the peace community to do some strategizing on this upcoming year.” But he said no date has been set.

One area where local antiwar leaders have shown strength is in their media savvy, as when this week they had spokespeople available at a Sparks military recruiting office to provide local comments to journalists after George Bush’s Iraq speech.

Hadder said one reason little political organizing was done before now was that the Bush administration and the former Republican majority in Congress essentially declared themselves immovable on Iraq.

“Quite frankly, prior to this year, I think a lot of people had felt somewhat discouraged because there didn’t seem to be an audience for our point of view in D.C., as well as the White House. And it seems pretty clear that there is an audience now, and we need to make as much use of that as possible.”

Sometimes the failure to widen the base of the local antiwar movement is not a failing of the local organizers. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a coalition of many organizations, is restricting its limited resources to immigration, water and economic issues. (Limited resources is, of course, also a problem for the antiwar leaders.)

Laborers Union Local 169 in Reno was contacted by one antiwar activist, but it did not lead to a major effort by the union.

“We did some stuff and helped her out, but we told her, ‘Some members are for it, and some members are against it,'” said the local’s business manager Richard Daly.

“We weren’t sure the union wanted to be involved on a high-profile level and be accused of being anti-patriotic.”

But representatives of other community groups, such as service clubs, say they’ve never been approached by antiwar organizers.