Peace movement anyone?

Strong social movements are hard to start and end all too easily.  It’s just about exactly the opposite of wars.

President Obama’s speech last night (September 10) was emphatic about a couple of things:

his determination to use American military force to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, aka ISIL–Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant); and

his determination to let allies, rather than Americans, do the fighting on the ground.

Even if it’s not quite the same as sending a hundred thousand troops into the field, the plan absolutely means American air power dropping bombs and killing people (mostly bystanders, not soldiers), and the United States spending more money on armaments for newly allied forces.  According to President Obama, it also means sending more advisers to Iraq to help train those newly allied forces.

At  the moment, it’s an enhanced, but still guarded, American commitment to war.

So, where’s the peace movement?

United for Peace and Justice, the largest coalition mobilizing opposition to the invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, trumpets its support for a People’s Climate March at the end of next week.  It’s about peace and social justice too.

Win without War, an antiwar coalition of major, mostly mainstream, organizations, posted statements of many of the member groups who, unexpectedly, oppose the escalation.  The reasons are predictable: there isn’t a military solution to these problems; Congress should be involved in  authorizing the use of force; the UN should be involved; there should be a national debate; war stinks.  Etc.  (Not that any of this is wrong.)  But you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find an actual event.  Massachusetts Peace Action is sponsoring a demonstration in Boston this weekend.

International Answer opposes the war too, but right now it’s also supporting the climate change march, and promises to organize demonstrations in the future.

So, with a military escalation on the horizon, the committed activists are still committed, but haven’t quite developed a strategy to mobilize and reach a broader public.  Putting together a national presence remotely comparable to the massive efforts that preceded the invasion of Iraq is going to be extremely difficult.  It’s worthwhile to figure out why:

1.  The American public IS wary (and weary) of war, but President Obama has promised to make sure that all virtually all of us are going to have to do is pay for it.  The advisers, pilots, and bombardiers are all volunteers.  By emphasizing a proximate threat and a very distant response, the president is loading the political dice in his favor.  And thus far, a majority seems to support the plan.

2.  ISIS has helped in painting itself as an unambiguous bad guy in this, calling out the United States, posting video of its brutal executions of opponents–and American journalists.  While segments in earlier rounds of peace movements have found sympathy for those America opposed, that’s unlikely to happen here.

3.  The mainstream of the American left votes for Democrats, and is willing to cut a Democratic president far more slack than a Republican.   In a book due to come out early next year, Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas show that the peace movement stalled after Barack Obama’s election, as many Democrats stopped going to demonstrations, preferring to trust their guy in office–or at least try to work influence through more conventional channels.

4.  Republicans are ill-positioned to support an antiwar movement, even as they harbor no sympathy for this president.  The foreign policy graybeards in the party, notably Senators Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and John McCain (Arizona), have been attacking Obama for years for not doing more, and not being more aggressive in using the military.

Preparing to run Congressional and Presidential campaigns painting the president as soft, their opposition to bombing is likely to focus less on “no” and more on “not enough.”   It’s always hard for an elected official to stand up to the president on war issues, and these days it’s even harder for the Republican Party.

Even Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky), who has a real record of opposing the use of American troops abroad, has been reluctant to challenge President Obama on the merits of his plan, focusing instead on the need for Obama to go to Congress.

Eying the Republican primary electorate, Senator Paul is also surely aware of the political risks of seeming soft on the use of force.

The Tea Party surely contained an isolationist strain, but it was mixed with a lot else, and the keep America home contingent is not nearly enough to win even primary elections.

Growth for the movement means reaching beyond the committed to engage people who don’t think about peace and international injustice on a daily basis, and who may not always oppose the military.  It’s going to be difficult to get them out in the streets.

And this is especially true in an election season.  As the midterm election campaign heats up, some large stream of money and effort that might go to an antiwar movement is going to get sucked up in Congressional races and local politics.  It’s hard to see candidates in tight races (Michelle Nunn in Georgia???) finding advantage in standing up against a military effort to destroy ISIS, particularly one that is portrayed as cheap, limited, and distant.

 

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Reviving Labor from the bottom

Even organized labor mostly skipped this year’s Labor Day, which has never really been about the American worker.  Later in the week, however, activists made another play at reviving the fortunes of organized labor–and the American worker–from the bottom up.

Fast Food Forward, a campaign funded by the Service Employees Employees International Union (SEIU), staged actions at McDonald’s restaurants across the country, as well as at the company’s national headquarters outside Chicago.  Activists staged pickets, protests, and sit-ins in 150 cities, generating nearly 500 arrests, including at least one member of Congress, Rep. Gwen Moore (Democrat, Wisconsin).

Now let’s put this in context: I’ve been reading about the revitalization of labor mostly since I started reading, and academics frequently write evaluations pointing to successful new strategies for rebuilding unions in America.  You can accept the arguments, but the numbers nationally just don’t support any of them.  Every year the story is one of record lows of union membership nationally.

 

Organized labor worked to organize and create a middle class over the years, and numerous economic, political, and judicial decisions have made doing so tougher and tougher.  Recent campaigns against teachers in particular, and public sector workers generally, have made that landscape look even more bleak.

SEIU’s effort is to start at the bottom, focusing on the lowest paid workers, ones that Americans see routinely, fetching fries and punching up totals on cash registers.  It’s a two-prong (at least) strategy: organizing the unorganized, and demanding government action for all workers, pressing for a minimum wage hiked to $15 an hour.

It’s not really quite as outrageous as it may look.  The value of the minimum wage has eroded fairly steadily, in concert with the strength of organized labor.

Nationally, we hit the current $7.25 minimum wage in 2009, and even though Democrats like to campaign for an increase, they realize it’s not going to happen in the current political climate.  State and city governments have sometimes been more responsive, generally over the opposition of restauranteurs and retailers, who respond with predictable economic analyses.  A higher minimum wage means that they will have to juggle to maintain profits through prices (raise them) and/or personnel (cut jobs through reorganization or automation).  Presumably, they are already paying as little as they possibly can for their products (especially the food).

The organizers like to tell the story of workers leaving their griddles and registers to join the protesters–and the movement, but that’s not mostly what’s happening.  Few workers are willing to risk their jobs, even for a day, to make political claims.

McDonald’s–and the other low wage employers–see that it’s critical for them to keep the organizers and unions apart from the people who are actually behind the counter.  Paradoxically, one way to do this is to raise the wages.

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Scoring the Tea Party at the polls

Almost from the outset, the Tea Party movement committed to an electoral strategy to get what its adherents wanted–or at least some of what they wanted.  By 2010, the movement had largely moved from the town halls and streets to the polls, raising and spending tons of money to take out insufficiently conservative Republicans, and nominate stalwarts (who would sometimes lose winnable races) for visible offices.

But keeping score is tough.  First: Democrats don’t lose in races for the Congressional seat in my district because they’re too liberal or too conservative or silly or intellectual or lazy.  They lose because the district is overwhelmingly Republican.   Most Congressional districts nationwide are just like mine, skewed to one party or the other.  More liberal candidates usually win in safer Democratic districts, and more conservative candidates win in safer Republican districts.

Second, the Tea Party is hardly a unified bloc.  Conservative groups endorsed competing candidates in many races.  In Georgia’s Republican Senate primary, two very conservative candidates reached the run-off ahead of two even more conservative candidates.  All had received support from conservative causes and activists, but only the losers were identified as Tea Partiers.

Third, politicians can change their views, rhetoric, or approaches.  Mostly, Republican incumbents who “fended off” Tea Party challengers adapted and moved right to make it easier to do so.  Tea Partiers may not have gotten their preferred candidate in South Carolina, let’s say, but incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham was certainly more responsive, and less inclined to criticize them.

Fourth, incumbents almost always win renomination.  Just as Tea Partiers couldn’t take out incumbents, so-called Establishment Republicans couldn’t take out Tea Partiers.  (The defeats of Representatives Kerry Bentivolio [Michigan] and Eric Cantor [Virginia], for example, are far better explained by candidate idiosyncrasies and local conditions than any national political wave; they were defeated by candidates espousing pretty much the same policies.)  Michigan’s Justin Amash, a committed Tea Partier ostensibly targeted by the House Republican leadership and the Chamber of Commerce, won renomination easily.

So, be wary of people who have a stake in claiming the Establishment triumphed in saving the Republicans from the Tea Party, or Tea Partiers who enthusiastically trumpet their victories and general resilience.  Not all that much changed either way.

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Ice bucket challenged

A creative campaign to raise attention and money for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has circulated across the web and through virtually every social media channel.  You’ve seen a friend or a celebrity post a video of themselves dumping ice water on his own head, announcing a donation to research on ALS, and challenging others–by name–to do the same.  It’s generated an enormous amount of money for research on ALS, by one estimate $42 million, more than twenty times the money raised over the same time period last year.

Wow!

ALS is a terrible disease.  There’s no cure, limited understanding, limited treatments, and not enough research, and a terrible decline for those diagnosed which doesn’t last very long before death.  Because the population affected is so small–relative to other health conditions–there’s just not much private sector interest in investing in research.  But the ice bucket provides an odd marketing redress.  Is it just wonderful that a viral marketing campaign took off and produced a windfall?

Absolutely, but not really.  Research on ALS is drastically underfunded, but that’s true for just about every disease or condition you can imagine.  Government funded scientific research has stagnated since the George W. Bush administration, and ongoing battles about taxes and the deficit have kept federal investment in science very low.  Effective political advocacy slices bigger shares of this limited pool of funds to selected conditions like AIDS and breast cancer.  Biotech and drug companies invest in research to develop products they think they can sell profitably–ideally to large markets.  As the rate of diabetes increases in America, it becomes a more attractive research and development area for the drug industry.  (Treatable but incurable?  That’s maybe fifty years of drug purchases per patient!)

Non-profits raise and spend money to fill in where government and industry falter, and they dedicate a great deal of money and effort to keep the dollars flowing.  This viral ice bucket twist has been incredibly successful–for now–but it’s hard to imagine it morphing into an organized annual event–like an AIDS Walk, MDA (once muscular dystrophy) telethon, or Breast Cancer Run for a Cure.

The fundraising calendar gets crowded, and you really can’t imagine racing and fundraising for every worthy cause.  Causes of all sorts, including nonprofits concerned with diseases, have to innovate and find some new way to break the clutter of fundraising appeals and regularize and stabilize their income.  Even then, funding is cyclical, as people and foundations are more flush and more generous when the economy and the stock market are stronger.

Research on ALS is critical and funding it completely worthwhile.  But I don’t have a way to compare the value of funding ALS with funding research on AIDS, Breast Cancer, Celiac Disease, Depression, Ebola….all the way through the alphabet.  Should funding be based on the state of the science?, the number of people affected?, the likely development of knowledge that helps with other diseases?  And what about funding scientific research on disease at the expense of action on education or poverty? I don’t know the answers on this stuff, and would distrust any flip opinion.

I am sure, however, that I don’t trust the wisdom of the charity market on these matters.  Nonprofits hire fundraisers who build careers moving across charitable causes.  The quality of the campaign is, I fear, more important than the worthiness of the cause.

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Days of quiet rage

Generating turnout at a movement event is hard work.  Grievances and injustice don’t make protest happen; rather, grievances allow an activist effort to resonate.

When Anonymous called for nationwide demonstrations on the Ferguson events, they were depending upon local networks to turn out the people.  This happened in some places, to be sure, but not on the posted schedule and not with the numbers and coordination that a national Days of Rage campaign promised.

Organizers swing and miss all the time, so what happens now?

In the immediate aftermath, the most visible coverage of the Days of Rage is at conservative sites, where the emphasis is on the fizzle out, with a little reframing of the real problem: crime not cops, they say.

In Ferguson, meanwhile, the story is of channeling and processing dissent.  The demonstrations last night were apparently civil, including elected officials, with attention turned to the management of the legal case against the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

In this way, a cause turns back into a case.  Justice for Michael Brown might entail prosecution and punishment of the shooter, and a civil judgment or city settlement with Brown’s family.  But even putting the cop in jail and cutting a check to Brown’s family doesn’t come close to balancing out the loss of a young life.

Alas, big cities pay wrongful death settlements all the time, and it seems like these millions haven’t reliably led to better and more civil policing, much less anything approaching racial justice.

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Days of Rage: Is Ferguson spreading out or dissipating?

Inspired by the ongoing events in Ferguson, Anonymous has called for Days of Rage protests across the nation:

 

At least one part of the story here is the reasonably sophisticated use of social media, including Youtube above.  The description on Youtube includes a link to a list of events planned in more than 30 cities, so far.  Facebook is another site to find local information.

Poor policing, profiling, racism, and brutality are hardly problems limited to Ferguson, and some in Anonymous see the opportunity to fill the spotlight and press the issues.

Meanwhile, police in most of those cities are better trained, even better armed, and better prepared than those in Ferguson.  They are certainly monitoring the same social media sites as the activists.  Staging these events on such short notice will be the work of locals, not any kind of professionalized national group; expect the events–and the policing–to vary a lot.

There’s a question about whether diffusion, spreading the call around the country, or focus is the best strategy for this moment.  Multiplying fronts in the emerging battle runs the risk of losing control of the message and dissipating the efforts.  Until now, the focus on Ferguson has riveted media and popular attention on events across a few blocks.  For more than a week, it’s been clear that some large number of those in the streets–including the police–are not from Ferguson.  This has meant a willingness to trade peace in that tiny city for a vision of justice for Michael Brown and attention to larger issues.  This has meant a concentration of forces in a very small area.

The focus approach, mobilizing immense efforts in a limited site, has worked in the past.  Racism was also a nationwide problem in 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee focused its summer project on Mississippi, and its efforts promoted a national response.  The old Days of Rage protests sponsored by the Weather Underground focused on Chicago in 1969, and a few hundred activists generated national attention–if not any policy victories.  Diffusion can also work, as we saw with Occupy.

The question for this round of Days of Rage is whether the protests, starting tonight, end up multiplying forces without diluting focus.

 

 

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Nurse-in in Beverly Hills

Protest, when it works, makes it hard to ignore something that was previously ignorable.  Yesterday, women held a nurse-in at the Anthropologie store in Beverly Hills.  The flash meal was a response to an incident earlier in the week, when a store manager hustled a nursing mother off to a bathroom.  The mother, Ingrid Wiese-Hesson, took to Facebook and Instagram to recount the incident, her embarrassment and anger, and the fact that the store manager broke the law.  California law allows women to nurse anywhere they and their babies are allowed to be.

Although brick and mortar stores will do almost anything to increase their street traffic, the assembly of babies doing lunch probably wasn’t a super great retail opportunity.  But it certainly made a point.  Antropologie quickly issued an apologie, and affirmed its commitment to the customer experience and better training for its employees.  Beyond the store and the chain, the protest increased the visibility of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, which had otherwise escaped at least my attention.

The nurse-in tactic was new to me, but it didn’t start this week in Beverly Hills.  Nearly two years ago, activists targeted Target with mass action, and earlier this year nursing mothers appeared at Facebook’s shareholders’ meeting to protest the site’s policy of censoring pictures it deems too revealing.  Instagram has a similar policy, and has engendered similar opposition.

It’s interesting that that the social media sites were so useful in organizing a protest that wasn’t targeted at them.

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