This past Saturday, the West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition, the Institute for Global Education (IGE), and Calvin College’s Department of History co-sponsored a teach-in to debate the future of the Iraq War.
The teach-in, attended by around 30 people, focused both on the history of the region and the future of the Iraq War. In the first session, four panelists from local universities gave lectures on topics relating to the history of Iraq including the relationship between Iraq and Turkey, between Iraq and Iran, Saddam Hussein’s pan-Arabic rhetoric, and the history of Baghdad as a city of peace. While some of the panelists provided some interesting facts, much of the history presented did not directly relate to the Iraq War and had little relevance to organizing efforts against the war. Amazingly, the United States’ role in the region was almost completely ignored. There was some mention of the United States’ role in the war between Iran and Iraq but despite covering the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds in Northern Iraq and southern Turkey, there was no mention of the United States arming Turkey. Following the panel, the film Arlington West was shown, an hour-long film that covers the construction of a memorial to fallen US soldiers and featuring 83 interviews with soldiers either returning from or en route to Iraq.
The second panel featured four local activists—Terrance Payne, Glenn Freeman, Faith Regis, and Jeff Smith—all of whom discussed what can be done to stop the war and presented the most valuable insights of the day. The first panelist, Terrance Payne, a local student, described the war as racist and explained how the African-American community is used to this as the government has repeatedly lied to his community. Payne advocated an immediate withdrawal from Iraq premised on the fact that the United States has no legal right to be in Iraq and challenged opponents of the immediate withdrawal as basing their argument on the racist notion that the Iraq people “are animals that will kill each other if the US isn’t there to prevent it.” Glenn Freeman, a participant in the weekly Peace Presence and local organizer of various MoveOn events, agreed with Payne’s analysis and described the teach-in as “worthless” arguing that instead of talking to people that already are opposed to the war that the antiwar movement needs to reach out to those that support the war. Similarly, Jeff Smith, an antiwar organizer and director of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, also advocated an immediate withdrawal and pointed out that the war is not simply a mistake but is a matter of policy and that until the antiwar movement realizes this it will be unable to effectively oppose it. Smith also described how the local media’s coverage of Iraq has primarily consisted of stories eulogizing local soldiers that are killed in Iraq, repeating the positions of the US government, and showing the most recent insurgent attacks with no contextual information. The last panelist, Faith Regis, an antiwar organizer from the east coast who recently moved to Muskegon, described how she participated in recent non-violent civil disobedience at the Pentagon and the White House during September’s national antiwar mobilization and discussed the potential for such actions to challenge the government in light of the fact that her small group of 40 people was able to shutdown the Pentagon for over two hours.
Despite the panelists unanimous support for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and a suggestion from the panel that the teach-in discuss ways to more effectively organize local opposition to the war, following the panel the moderators led the crowd into small group discussions on withdrawal plans. While a debate on the various positions would have been a useful part of the earlier panel, asking participants to forgo a discussion of how to organize against the war and instead split into groups to discuss immediate withdrawal, withdrawal in six months, or remaining in Iraq indefinitely, seemed like an ineffective use of time following a panel in which activists talked about a need for greater organizing against the war. Earlier in the day, there was some talk about crafting a “withdrawal plan” and sending out a press release detailing how the gathered activists planned to end the war, but whether or not this was done is unknown.
While public support for the war has fallen dramatically in the past year and calls for the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq have increased, the antiwar movement has largely remained stagnant. Despite the fact that the majority of the country is now opposed to the war and a slightly narrower margin believing that the Bush administration lied about the war, there has not been a similar growth in organized opposition to the war. Locally, while events such as the March 19 “end the occupation” march and last May’s protest against President Bush when he visited Calvin College, have been well-attended, most organizations working to stop the war have seen their membership remain static and continue to be dominated by the same people that opposed the war before it started. A lot of this no doubt has to do with how antiwar groups in Grand Rapids organize and how they define “organizing,” but the fact remains that a movement that captured considerable interest before the war, with teach-ins being attended by a few hundred people, frequent protests, and more direct forms of outreach and protest, has largely failed to take advantage of the growing public opposition to the war. Nationally, the trend is the similar, with some of the more common views of why the movement has not grown arguing that the antiwar movement is being held back by politicians seeking phased withdrawals, that it continues to put its hope into electoral campaigns, that there is a failure to acknowledge opposition to the war coming from the Right, and that the movement has been unable to understand the role of the Iraqi resistance.