Strategy, tactics and the antiwar movement

September 25, 2008

IN MID-August and early September, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) took part in demonstrations outside the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Denver, Colo., and St. Paul, Minn.

In Denver, as Democratic delegates met, IVAW members spoke before an audience of 10,000 at a Rage Against the Machine concert. From there, some 60 uniformed veterans led a march of thousands to the convention site, where there was a standoff with nervous police until the Obama campaign agreed to meet with two IVAW members.

IVAW's own convention was held in the days between the DNC and RNC, and IVAW members who participated in the Denver action brought the energy and inspiration of that event to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

About 60 IVAW members decided to march on the Republican convention site to seek an audience with the McCain campaign. The action took place in the early morning hours of the RNC's first day.

Several IVAW members--Phil Aliff, Ian LaVallee, Nate Lewis, Liam Madden, Joseph Potts and Eli Wright--sat down with Eric Ruder and Ashley Smith to discuss the tactics of those actions and what they mean for the antiwar movement. Here, we print excerpts from their conversation.

WHAT MADE Denver effective as an action?

Nate: A stress on nonviolence. Everyone was on the same page, from IVAW to every band on stage: If you're coming with us, you're marching with IVAW, and they're saying to not be violent and to respect the cops. We had a plan, and it worked.

Phil: We put Obama in a bind. We sent him a letter that forced him to either: a) take a position; or b) we would march and force our way in as veterans.

But we were bringing 10,000 people with us. Of course, the Democrats don't want a bloodbath at the front door of their convention, so they allowed two of our members to go in.

There are some important lessons there. One, we didn't have to moderate our demands in any way to meet with Democrats. We did it through protest. This experience proved to many people that protests still work.

We stressed tactical nonviolence, which put the police in a bind, too. They had to either let us through or detain a bunch of veterans in dress uniform, who were being completely nonviolent, but were also willing to risk arrest. In fact, four police requested to be relieved from their duty because they didn't want to face the situation.

Thousands of people, led by Iraq Veterans Against the War, marched to the Democratic convention site
Thousands of people, led by Iraq Veterans Against the War, marched to the Democratic convention site (Phil Weinstein | Alliance for Real Democracy)
Eli: They thought they had us screwed by channeling us into the "freedom cage" [a sealed-off area set aside by authorities for protests], but we made a perfect tactical decision to just march straight out and flank them around the other side.

It was tense there for a while, because we were just faced by an empty fence--there weren't even cops on the other side. As we marched up, they were using cranes to set up police with guns in cherry-pickers overhead.

Nate: We forced them to take their most aggressive stance, and then we demonstrated that we'd stay anyway. The tension kept increasing, we kept getting closer, and it scared the shit out of me, but I thought this is good for us...look what we're facing here. A big, black death wagon from Mad Max rolls out, and there are cops on the roof of it. If they detained or pushed us back, there was no way that it would look good for them.

Liam: Once we separated out who was willing to get arrested and who wasn't, the crowd went from thousands to hundreds.

Phil: But we had a position in front of the gates at the Pepsi Center where the delegates got in. And so there were a couple thousand people, including the press and delegates, watching this confrontation unfold.

Phil: I think the Rage Against the Machine concert is a good example of how to use political music strategically. We had 10,000 people come to a concert. From the beginning, when the performers started talking about GI resistance, there wasn't much of a response, but by the end, people were fired up and ready to go.

In walking through the crowd at the end of the march, I realized that we had thousands of young people who were unaffiliated. This was their first march and their first action with the antiwar movement, and for them to be involved in this kind of success, it was an important step in political radicalization for those who were there.

A lot of political ideas came out of the march and the discussions along the way. People were saying that Obama isn't going to end the war--he doesn't have the same principles that we do, and we need to force him to do that.

Also, at the end, once Liam got in [the convention site], you had hundreds of people chanting, "Yes we can!" This wasn't so much to associate themselves with Obama's use of the phrase, as to express the sense that many felt this as a real tangible victory they had experienced.

Eli: It gave us a lot of legitimacy.

Liam: It's the first antiwar victory of any kind. It was small, but it was a victory. I think people who are paying attention to the antiwar movement are going to ask IVAW, "What do you want us to do?" Overall, it gives people more confidence in organizing. We didn't just have a protest. We had a strategy.

WHAT DO you think were the key elements of the strategy that made it work?

Eli: Strict adherence to nonviolence.

Nate: Discipline.

Phil: We were very focused on what the next step was, we decided democratically as a group what we needed to do, and we made the right decisions.

Liam: Well, it wasn't that democratic. We had to appoint people to make decisions on the spot.

Phil: But we had a lot of debate and discussion about what to do. That's all I mean. And I think people learned in practice the true principles behind the Democratic Party. And people learned that if we're willing to fight back and make demands, however small or large, if we are strategic and tactical, we can win.

Liam: I think you have to be more specific about audience when it comes to learning about the Democratic Party. I don't think people around the country who followed the action are thinking, "Oh look, the Democratic Party is fucked up." Our audience is people who are already paying attention to the antiwar movement, and they already know that the Democratic Party is fucked up. So I don't think we are changing anyone's minds about that.

I think the key element was the double bind. We put ourselves in a position where we win no matter what. We would have won if the Democratic Party ignored us and let us get arrested. That wouldn't have been an ideal situation, but it wouldn't have looked good for them.

We made them respond one way or another. And responding meant acknowledging us. And when they responded without the crackdown, then we won that way.

HOW DO you compare the actions in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul in terms of organizing?

Phil: What stood out for me is that the march we did in Minneapolis was very early in the morning--there weren't a lot of people around to even see what we were doing, except for the police.

In Denver, one of the things that really helped was having 10,000 people behind us. When we're thinking about how to do this in the future, we have to think about being as inclusive as possible of people who march with us so we can effectively muster large numbers.

I agree with what you said earlier, Liam, about who our audience is--namely, people paying attention to the antiwar movement. But if you look at the antiwar movement right now, a lot of people are moderating their demands in the hope that this will insure that the Democrats win and that McCain loses. One of the main formations in the antiwar movement, United for Peace and Justice, is oriented on electoral politics.

We have to be clear with people where our principles are and what our demands are. We need to struggle even through the election period, and the Democrats are part of the problem. Obama himself has talked about withdrawing combat forces, which could leave up to 80,000 troops in Iraq, and escalating the war in Afghanistan.

Nate: Withdrawal of combat forces? If they're going to leave any forces, they have to have combat forces there. They aren't just going to leave Joe Cook there.

Phil: And Obama hasn't ruled out using Blackwater to supplement U.S. forces there.

Liam: He hasn't even ruled out using nuclear weapons!

Phil: We got a lot of press coverage [in Denver], but I think that's mostly due to how many people we brought with us and the tactics of the march. That coverage didn't come because we were specifically focused on media attention. It was more that we were focused on how can we be in a position of strength.

Liam: And what media coverage we did get in Minneapolis was the result not of the merits of the action here, but the merits of what we did in Denver.

WHEN YOU think of future actions that IVAW initiates and organizes, what kinds of things would you guys want to do coming out of the experience of both Denver and Minneapolis?

Ian: Being disciplined and marching in formation is really important. Showing that we're not just a gaggle--not only as IVAW, but also as the left and the antiwar movement--is good.

Like Malcolm X, when one of their guys was beaten down, and they went out and stood there in formation, and there was a riot behind them that they were in control of, and it scared the shit out of the cops [so they got] their guy some medical attention. That worked. When I read that, it blew my mind. I think we need to utilize that kind of power.

OBVIOUSLY, YOU'RE not going to have a Rage Against the Machine concert before every demonstration, like you had in Denver. How can you mobilize numbers for demonstrations?

Liam: We need to utilize the fact that we've already done something that is a small victory, to mobilize and galvanize people to come protest the presidential debate in New York and be part of something. Instead of going to the campuses that we're going to be at anyway and say to be involved in the antiwar movement, we can say come be involved in this--it's exciting.

The real numbers, though, aren't in the antiwar movement, but in left-leaning institutions like unions and churches that haven't been asked to do anything yet. The civil rights movement activated churches, and they started putting church resources and numbers into it. We have to reach out to institutions that are not in the antiwar movement, because the antiwar movement only has a tiny, tiny base.

Phil: We have to use every opportunity afforded us to build our base. When we call for a demonstration like this we should be fliering on every campus, we should be on active-duty bases, we should be in the VA, we should be talking to people and using it to grow our chapters and our organizations.

One thing that I took away from Denver is the relationship between the civilian movement and the veteran movement. It's hard to build a GI resistance movement or a GI revolt within the military if you don't have a civilian movement behind it to give it confidence. IVAW has its own area where it concentrates, but sometimes you can lose perspective that we actually are part of a bigger machine, and we have to play our part, but we are all related in some way.

Joe: If we keep the 100 percent nonviolence policy, we'll get our message across. If Obama is elected in November, it will be easy to work with him. I'm not going to say it's going to be a 100 percent, flat-out, done deal, because everyone knows how that works. We have to keep protesting--at the debates and then after the election no matter who gets elected.

Next year, our national convention with Vets for Peace is in Washington, D.C. So we have a very unique opportunity, no matter who's president, to do something there, too.

A SIGNIFICANT number of IVAW members first met the organization at demonstrations. What do you think the relationship between recruiting to IVAW and actions like the one today?

Liam: I'm not sure if that's true.

Eli: That's where I met IVAW.

Ian: In Denver, we signed 15 people up at the action, we met people at other places during the week, and we met people during the march.

Liam: I don't want to give too much credit to protests as a giant recruitment tool. I can't think of too many active members who joined at a protest.

WHAT WERE the reasons or grievances that led all those vets and GIs to join IVAW at the Denver action, and what do you see as important for IVAW and the antiwar movement in the coming year?

Joe: I joined at the DNC march. What really touched me was the fact that I didn't know about this organization before the DNC. Once I saw what IVAW did in a peaceful manner, and how they got across the DNC security boundary, that really just hit home for me. That's the reason I joined.

The only way we're going to get our message across is not to destroy cop cars and get pepper-sprayed like the activists in St. Paul. The only way we are going to get our message across to Obama or McCain is to not have violence. Even though today we didn't get what we wanted, we still went about it in a peaceful manner. We made McCain and his staff look like idiots.

Phil: We have to translate this experience into a six-year anniversary march. There's a lot of discussion and debate about why there wasn't an anniversary march last year. This year, we've learned a lot of lessons, and we should make a statement next March 20 that the movement is not going away because of Obama's election.

Ian: They want to paint us as disorganized rabble. We need to stick with being really disciplined and those things that we learned in our military training to accomplish our goals. Even though not all of us are pacifists, and we have a diversity of political views, which is a really great strength, now it's a matter of strategy and tactics as tools to accomplish the job.

Right now, the job is for the antiwar movement to put pressure on our government. We need to make the government fear the people, instead of people fearing the government.

Phil: I think it's an interesting dynamic with Obama. We already went over what his real policies are, but his rhetoric is raising expectations. He's really populist in what he says. People are going to have to learn through practice the reality of the Democratic Party's policies.

Consciousness is shifting underneath our feet. People want change, even though Obama won't end the war, and people electing him as president is a sign of changed consciousness. A lot people are voting for the first time, they're taking that first step toward changing society in some way.

Ian: They don't know exactly how to do it. They're doing what they've been taught. When their frustrations grow after expecting change, they realize that change is not going to happen through the system.

Joe: When I was growing up in the '90s, I had a sense of pride in being an American. We were at peace with the majority of the world. We had the strongest economy in years. Ever since Bush took over, everything we held dear just vanished.

I wasn't originally against the war, to be honest with you. It took me time while in the military to learn stuff that turned me against the war. All I know is that Obama promises to end the war. McCain has been quoted as supporting the 100-year plan.

Our organization has shown that it can work with Obama as we found out in Denver. We found out here that McCain doesn't even want to talk with us. But if Obama is elected, I say we can march on his Inauguration Day, and we show him that we're still here. Remember Denver?

Phil: Both presidential candidates are saying they're going to expand the global war on terror. People internationally are looking to the U.S. antiwar movement to take up these demands and really fight to end the war in Iraq and end the war in Afghanistan, because the U.S. government is not going to stop in this agenda that it has.

We've seen it in Iraq. It had a decade of sanctions before the war, and [Democratic Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright said that it was okay that those sanctions killed over half a million Iraqi children. That's the message that the U.S. government has been sending to the people of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East for years.

ONE OF the challenges facing the antiwar movement is the question of Afghanistan. Obama is saying we have to end the war in Iraq and shift the focus to Afghanistan. IVAW had a big debate over the weekend, and Vets for Peace passed a resolution against the war in Afghanistan. What do you think IVAW should do?

Joe: Personally--I can't speak for these other guys--when we were in that room for hours at our convention discussing a resolution on Afghanistan, everyone and their mom had a different opinion. I've got to do some research now. I served in Iraq so I know what's going on there. I wasn't in Afghanistan. I have to talk to my fellow veterans who were in Afghanistan.

Phil: Before the war, the U.S. was negotiating with the Taliban because [Afghanistan] is a key pipeline corridor. It goes back to the war in Iraq. They're interconnected. It's an incredibly strong message to send to your rivals that you have to go through the U.S. military to get to the oil reserves in the region.

Last year was the bloodiest year for Afghanistan. This year is going to be another record. We've had consecutive months where the war in Afghanistan is bloodier than the war in Iraq, and we have the Taliban regrouping and gaining strength. I think it was the Toronto Star that did a poll of the Taliban and found that something like 80 percent didn't have any real allegiance to the leadership of the Taliban. The reason they joined was to resist U.S. occupation. So the resistance in Afghanistan is gaining strength.

Eli: And the escalation into Pakistan is getting a lot worse.

Phil: My personal opinion is that no matter who gets elected, they're going to escalate the war in Afghanistan. We are going to have hundreds of thousands of veterans coming back from Afghanistan who are going to be looking for an organization that can take up their demands. And we're going to have a country that's going to be seeing the war in Afghanistan much more--watching as it degenerates and demanding an end to it.

We did a straw poll, and a healthy majority of the room was in favor of calling for out now in Afghanistan. But a lot of people that I talked to said, "I don't know if we can get people to that."

I think the basis for winning people is being able to articulate a political principle or argument for why we're against it. It's obviously bad that people in Afghanistan are dying. But we can go further than that. We need to explain the real reasons that the U.S. went to war, this is why it's wrong, and this is why we need to end it.

Ashley: Earlier, you guys were talking about how IVAW can show practical, on-the-ground leadership within the antiwar movement in terms of organizing. The question of Afghanistan seems to present an opportunity for exercising political leadership of the antiwar movement.

Joe: I'm only into day four of my participation in IVAW. And all weekend, I was asking myself: "Am I here for the right reason?" During the protest this morning outside the RNC, Kris told his story, and I hadn't heard it before. And his story told me why I should be a part of this organization.

I'm all for supporting my fellow veterans who come back from Afghanistan. I want them as part of this organization. I believe every soldier, airman, marine and sailor that served in Afghanistan deserves to be a part of this organization. So my stance is that we need to take a position on the question of Afghanistan, but how we go about it is what I'm trying to figure out right now.

Phil: When I was organizing the active-duty chapter at Fort Drum, which is home to the most deployed unit to Afghanistan within the U.S. military, we had quite a few veterans say to us something like, "I'm in agreement, the war in Iraq is going horribly, but I'm an Afghanistan veteran, and I don't see where the space is for me to speak out about my experiences."

Abstractly, there is that space. We did it at Winter Soldier. But the antiwar movement should be able to say with clarity that we support any soldiers who are organizing against the war in Afghanistan.

Eric: I think it's easy for many people to see that the various justifications for the war in Iraq--weapons of mass destruction, link to al-Qaeda and so on--are garbage. But a lot of people still accept the pretext for the war in Afghanistan--that it's about Osama bin Laden and 9/11.

But the U.S. always has a stated reason that it intervenes to build political support among the U.S. public, and then it has its real reasons for the war. People are going to have to take on some of the history and context behind the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The Great Game, as it's been called, to dominate central Asia stretches back more than a century.

Afghanistan is obviously a crucial leverage point for the U.S. The U.S. backed the mujahadeen there in the 1980s to create chaos on the Soviet Union's southern flank, and all those same interests remain today--trying to contain Russia and China and get a grasp of the oil and gas reserves in the region. And if the U.S. tries to be the occupying force there, it's going to come up against the same Afghan resistance that drove the Soviet military out.

Phil: If we look back at the U.S. justification for going in to Afghanistan, our own government said that 17 of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and none were from Afghanistan. If the U.S. was interested in getting back at a country that was a part of 9/11, why wouldn't they go after Saudi Arabia? But Saudi Arabia is an ally, an economic partner and it serves as a wing of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.

Joe: The reason we protect Saudi Arabia is because: 1) we have oil interests there; and 2) we have American civilians on the ground there.

Ashley: The U.S. got basing rights there during the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, al-Qaeda developed in opposition to the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia that began in that period.

Ian: We need to talk about Afghanistan to educate each other about it so it does become a widespread point of discussion in our organization. We need to share the insights that we've found or the experiences that we've had there.

To me, it's the same war. It's about the same things. The excuses that they're using are as unjustified in Afghanistan as in Iraq.

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