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Building an Activist Movement to End the Occupation of Iraq

Remarks at American University Teach-In on March 22, 2008
By David Swanson

Robert Dreyfuss's presentation that I now have to follow was tremendous and I learned a lot, but I disagree with his pessimism. I am fond of the saying "Let's save our pessimism for better times." It's a choice to be a pessimist, and it is a wrong one, always.

So, here we are again, a crowd dominated by old white people on a college campus in a black city. But on March 12th and 19th in this city I watched hundreds of college students and African Americans put their bodies in the way of arrest and abuse for peace. If I had to choose, I'd rather have people in the streets than in a teach-in.

Still, I think this all-too-typical turnout suggests how segregation and civic weakness in this country allows mass murder to occur in other countries. We have long term work to do assuming we live long enough to do it.

Today was billed as a dialogue on the war, and I want to speak first and if there's time have a dialogue or a multilogue, but not about a war. A war is a contest between two armies, and can be won or lost, can end in victory or defeat, and is understood as intended to have an end some day. What we have in Iraq is an occupation of a people by a single foreign military force. It can never be won or lost and is not intended to ever end. The movement we need to build cannot, I think, most easily succeed by using language that defines our success as defeat. Instead our success should be understood as getting tough on crime, as the American people reining in the abuse of power of the least popular president and vice president we have ever known.

I know you may want to tell me that certain allegedly mainstream Americans cannot possibly think of their president as a war criminal and would be more likely to support a responsible and slow redeployment of part of the occupying army to elsewhere in the empire if we don't use the word crime - except, perhaps, in blaming the Iraqis for how they've handled our genocidal charity mission to their country. But I think you would be underestimating a sufficient number of Americans to make that the wrong approach, that you should recycle your television as soon as possible, that it is their posture toward Bush more than toward Muslims that makes the Democrats look like wimps and makes Congress so unpopular, and that only a reversal of our imperialism can leave us a sustainable world, so there's no time like the present to start working on it. We don't need to win over every last American; we just need a significant minority of the majority that is already with us TO ACT.

CNN says that in a poll of 1,019 adults between March 14 and 16, 52 percent said that the United States' action in Iraq is not morally justified. That's not a bad response for a question that's rarely been polled or discussed in the media.

We're also, according to today's agenda, supposed to base our movement for withdrawal on an analysis of failed policies, but I'm not going to do that because I don't see any failed policies. The Cheney-Bush gang intended to install a permanent occupation of Iraq, enrich oil barons and arms makers and disaster capitalists, win or steal elections, eliminate civil rights at home, transfer wealth upward, and transfer power from Capitol Hill to the White House. We've just heard how ignorant they are, but they are ignorant of things they do not care about. They may have had dreams of quickly pacifying Iraq and moving on to the next victim in Iran, rather than empowering Iran as they have done, and we in the peace movement and the counter recruitment movement and the independent media can share credit with the Iraqi people for having slowed things down. But I don't see any fundamental failure. The forces against which we need to build a movement are succeeding. And that is unequivocally BAD news. Their goals are murder and theft. The last thing we should be doing is wishing them success or lamenting their "failed policies."

We succeeded over five years ago in denying our U.S. warmongers U.N. authorization of the invasion, although they now try to claim that the occupation is legal. We have succeeded in slowing recruitment, although they've responded by stop-lossing those they've already recruited. We succeeded in 2006 in turning congressional elections into a referendum on the occupation of Iraq and won the Democrats probably 50 new seats to use in bringing it to an end. But election fraud left them with only 30 new seats, and their leadership immediately decreed that they would keep the occupation going in order to run against it again in 2008. We even elected some anti-war activists, like Carol Shea Porter, to Congress who immediately signed onto the plan to keep the occupation going for two years.

We have succeeded in making the American public extremely aware of the dishonesty used in promoting the invasion of Iraq, and that awareness has helped forestall an attack on Iran. But we have been less successful in communicating the dishonesty involved in promoting the ongoing occupation and in communicating the murderous costs of the occupation. The primary reason for this is probably activists' subservience to a political party and that party's misguided fear of the absolutely nonsensical accusation of not "supporting the troops". We're also up against the corporate media's complete lack of interest in Iraqis' deaths.

And we have failed dramatically in communicating the fact that the Democrats in Congress have the power to cease funding the occupation right now, as well as the fact that the next 10 months exist, that contrary to popular belief we will not have a new president tomorrow, but rather must survive 10 more months under the reign of the Decider and the Dark Lord.

It's very hard to build an activist movement without hope of quick success, but it's impossible to build an activist movement without the belief that success is at least possible and the willingness to endure the ridicule of those wise souls who claim to support us while telling us that failure is guaranteed. We have to be willing to endure that, and we have to find ways to provide solidarity and fun and other compensations for the lack of hope.

Look around at all of the people in this room. Now imagine a few thousand of these rooms, all with the same number of people. Now imagine all of those people dying. That is the result that will come from Congress handing Bush another $100 billion in the coming weeks. Over the next 10 months, Iraqis will die because of the occupation, and people around the world will die for lack of the resources we are pouring into the corporations profiting from the occupation. And many who do not die will consider the dead the lucky ones. When anyone tells you that they want to end the occupation but can't do it until 2009 because they're too smart and know better, question their wisdom. And especially do so if they work for the corporate media. Write letters. Call talk shows. When you read that the Democrats are helpless as babies because they don't have 67 senators, do not let that lie spread unchallenged. Let every producer and editor know that we know that it takes 41 senators to block a funding bill, or a simple majority of House members, or simply the leadership of the so-called leadership. Pelosi has successfully badgered progressive Democrats to vote for funding in the past and badgered rightwing Democrats to oppose telecom immunity. She could cut off the money right now and spare all of those lives. She and Harry Reid prefer to portray themselves as critics of an occupation for which they are responsible.

A number of very well funded peace organizations that have tended to put Democratic partisanship ahead of peace have finally just launched a new effort to urge Congress to stop funding the occupation. You can find it at Stand Up Congress dot org. I find this highly encouraging. However, these organizations, some of which are dumping tens of millions of dollars into partisan election ads in the corporate media, are not investing a dime in this new campaign. The campaign involves no on-the-ground organizing, no events, no advertising, just a website to collect our Email addresses. (Unless the answers that Tom Andrews gave to me and Ray McGovern in this room earlier today were honest and some money is put behind this.) But that doesn't mean we shouldn't overwhelm it with success. It costs us nothing to sign on and to urge real action and serious funding. We have to lobby our potential allies among the grassroots and astroturf organizations as well as lobbying Congress directly.

If we are going to change the public discourse and apply the necessary pressure to force an end to the funding, it will take a fair amount of energy and focus from a great many people. We cannot waste time on other things. That starts by making the area around you an election-free zone. We have an election DAY, and on that day you can vote for the least bad candidate. We don't need an election eternity. So, when people start talking to you about whether it's sexist to consider a female candidate's male supporters' statements racist always or only if those supporters are Latino, tell them to get you a candidate who will filibuster the occupation funding and a nonpartisan public hand counting of your paper ballots, but tell them that in the meantime you have important work to do.

Elections may be the heart and soul of a republic, and we may have a handful of examples where election challenges, like Donna Edwards' challenge of Al Wynn, have reformed incumbent congress members. And Cynthis Papermaster's challenge led Pete Stark to sign onto impeachment, and now she's running against Zoe Lofgren, hoping for the same result. But elections in this country now serve primarily to dissuade activist organizations and individuals from lobbying elected officials. If we hadn't had any elections since 2003, we might have mobilized the public pressure to shut down this city and compel our government to end the occupation of Iraq. If no member of Congress belonged to any political party, we might have long since persuaded enough of them to listen to their constituents. One thing you can do is send checks to the campaigns of elected officials and challengers who get it right, and send photocopies of those checks to other key congress members, noting why they won't be receiving the same.

A serious movement to stop funding the occupation would include a filibuster strategy for the Senate and would think ahead to the next step following a refusal to fund by either the Senate or House. Almost certainly Bush would misappropriate funds to continue the occupation with a new level of illegality added. Congress would then have to impeach or whimper away with its tail between its legs. Taking the peace and impeachment movements in the opposite order might make more sense, however. Impeachment hearings might embolden congress members to end the funding, and Congress would be free to impeach for its top choice from the long list of Cheney's and Bush's impeachable offenses. There are nine Judiciary Committee members and dozens of other congress members urging John Conyers to hold hearings. Every one of you should phone John Conyers every morning to ask the same.

It only makes sense, of course, that an occupation we want to end involves actions we consider impeachable offenses. So we should be pushing for an end to the funding and a commencement of impeachment hearings. It is far from too late for either project. Impeachments and impeachment movements that accomplish worthy goals without reaching impeachment tend to happen late and to not take much time. The movements to impeach Truman and Hoover happened significantly later in their terms than where we are now with Bush and Cheney. Andrew Johnson fired Edwin Stanton on February 21, 1868. On March 2nd, ten days later, the House voted to impeach him for that action. No lengthy process is necessary.

Internet organizing, which is the only real organizing I do, is most effective if it inspires real world groups on the ground to take collective action and facilitates that action. Useful actions can be taken at any time, but can also gain strength through national coordination. One possibility that has been tossed around is to turn May First into a national strike day for peace, impeachment, and human rights. What if some funded organizations invested in that instead of in ads to fund the corporate media and make sure the last four people in the country know that John McCain likes wars?

As an individual, we can all take actions every day, including outreach to potential activists. Memorize (202) 224-3121 and phone your congress member and senators every day. Contact the corporate media and support honest independent media in some way every day. Work with local peace and justice groups in your area to plan fun and creative events to bring more people into the movement. Advertise your views on your clothing, start conversations, hand out flyers. Recruit people into local and national groups. Send them to or or any of a thousand websites where they can get connected to a movement.

Plan local events and activities that apply pressure to your congress member and senators. Do what it takes to disrupt and attract attention, but have a good-cop on your team as well. Talk to your elected officials, but be aware that most of their excuses are simply excuses. Refuting them will just be an annoyance. What you need to communicate is the electoral advantage of doing what you ask.

If the Democratic leadership believed, as I do, that there was more electoral risk in not ending the funding than in ending it, the funding would stop. If they believed failure to impeach to be a greater risk for them at the polls than impeaching, impeachment hearings would be happening. There is no reason we cannot change their thinking quickly in both regards. The Republicans won after impeaching Johnson and trying to impeach Truman. The Democrats won after trying to impeach Nixon, but lost after failing to pursue Reagan. The Republicans, against the public will, impeached Clinton for a private non-offense and still took both houses of Congress and the White House. For an impeachment movement to succeed in restoring justice and succeed electorally, it need never reach impeachment. Impeachment hearings now on torture, detentions, spying, rewriting laws, lying to the public and Congress, etc., would compel John McCain to defend each offense even while campaigning against it. Impeachment would be a gold mine for a political party capable of thinking offense rather than only defense.

If enough of us choose to act in very easy ways, we can change the US approach to the world over the next 10 months. But what if we don't? Then would we be better off to have worked on the elections? I don't think so. I think the best way to help Obama and other Democrats get elected is to push them toward stronger clearer positions for peace and justice. Were Obama to lead the way with a filibuster of the funding of the occupation, he would look stronger and more decisive, and his supporters would be energized. And the best way to put ourselves in a position to accomplish our goals in 2009, no matter who ends up in the White House and Congress, is to try to accomplish our goals in 2008. If we educate the American public now on the fact that Congress can end the funding of the occupation of Iraq, we will be in a better position to make that happen in 2009 should we not succeed this year. And succeeding this year is entirely possible. New scandals we don't know about will emerge to assist us. New wars not yet launched will enrage those not yet taking action. And awareness will begin to penetrate the Democratic Party that the failure to act is a liability. Important victories never look likely until they happen, but they do happen. Let's keep our republic. Thank you.


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Well put. Sadly, although the internet has enhanced how we communicate and share our distress at the actions of our is also an invisible action. When we do try to be visible, our marches are under-reported by the media.

Our anti-war/peace movement seems to involve a lot of signing-up to sites, buying merchandise and buying into a whole array of ideas, perhaps beyond that which we are focused on individually.

As an individual who is against the war in Iraq, I don't believe this is a political stance - it is a moral and sane one. A stance based on the fact that we went to war with lies as intelligence and we know this - so why are we still there? What can justify this continued act that is clearly illegal?

We are splintered by issues unrelated to the reason for our need for activism. Whatever our political allegiance, our religious belief, our colour or our status - we are humans, outraged by inhumane actions.

Becoming 'active' is something we as individuals have to consider when faced with acts by our governments - in our names - that we are against. Acts that we fund with our taxes and allow with our in-activism.

In our individual human hearts we have to know that the invasion of Iraq was wrong and continues to be wrong. We have been lied to and robbed, both of our public money and our reputations as rational human beings.

But 'activism' is not natural to us and it gets bad press! It seems to involve dressing bad and shouting a lot - spending money buying merchandise and taking time off to travel to marches.

It doesn't have to be hard to be active, it doesn't have to cost or take time - I am hoping that after reading this that you will consider individual, daily activism that is free, instant and non-political at Arms Against War (

It offers the opportunity for individuals to empower themselves with a simple act of activism that costs nothing, not even time - just a simple, home-made, white fabric armband is all it takes.

This visible symbol is representative of the wearer's agreement with the statement "I want an end to the war in Iraq" - nothing more, nothing less. Please consider this show of independent voice & unity for all the reasons that David Swanson so eloquently highlights.

Let's get VISIBLE and at least, as individuals, each take one step in the direction in which we want others to follow.

Tina Louise
Two thousand years ago, a Roman Senator suggested that all slaves
wear white armbands to better identify them. 

"No," said a wiser Senator. 

"If they see how many of them there are, they may revolt."

Thank you, Tina Louise, for an easy way to show solidarity.
Thanks to David, for sharing more or your activism that gives courage to others to be more active to end the madness, and for now, especially the election madness. Do you know if goes on hiatus for now or can people still add events, such as "honk to impeach" etc? Some folks slowly coming to impeachment need realization want a place to go. Of course, this place is my first recommendation.
Thank you all.
Of course, I do remember that all should join their (or start their)local Congressional District Impeachment Committees. See US map in right column here on ADS.

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