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10 Years Later: Resisting US War on Iraq

On this 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, folks in my Facebook feed are reflecting on the inspiring actions they participated in to resist war.

Former BPF staffer, Maia Duerr, participated in nonviolent civil disobedience to shut down Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, MA. She reflects on the liberation available in laying aside our ego in the service of a larger cause:

By the time we got to the entrance gate of the base, the gravity of what we were about to do began to sink in.

We had once last chance to make a decision about how far we wanted to engage in this action.  Ultimately 54 of us committed to actually sitting on the road, blocking the way in to the base. Our commitment to each other was to stay there, practicing nonviolence, no matter what.

At first, I could feel my heart fluttering with fear and I felt tentative about taking part in this action. But as we sat down next to each other, a song started to well up… “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” All 54 of us began to sing and we were joined by our 2,000 friends on the sidelines who stood in support of us. Courage began to grow.

After a while, the police captain picked up his megaphone and gave us the obligatory warning – if we did not move in 5 minutes, we would be subject to arrest. Our singing only grew louder. Someone had a ball of thread and began passing it around the group, and we created a web of connection between each other.

Fear started to be replaced by something else… a feeling I don’t think I’ve ever had before or since.

When I say it was a feeling of liberation, I don’t use that word lightly. Something huge broke open in me as we all continued to sit there on the pavement and sing together, no matter what the consequences.

Maia Duerr, under arrest, March 2003 (photo by Charlie Jenks)

David Solnit shares his reflections on the mass antiwar demonstration that happened in the San Francisco Financial District 10 years ago. While I don’t know David personally, I’ve met others who were involved in organizing with Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War. Even years later, they speak almost in astonishment at the power of this action – turning out 20,000 people before 7am on a day that could not be planned in advance, under a common goal but with decentralized actions.

I am remembering all the fierce, smart, bold friends and people of our region ten years ago today preparing to shut down and occupy the SF Financial District the day after the war started (march 20, 2003). We did it. San Francisco police officer Drew Cohen was quoted as saying, “They succeeded this morning—they shut the city down. They’re highly organized but they are totally spontaneous. The protesters are always one step ahead of us. Let’s remember it and draw the lessons for the future. Here are two reflection/analysis pieces by Patrick Reinsborough and myself.

Anatomy of an Uprising; San Francisco Self-Organizes to Implode Empire
America’s latest war of conquest has been met with massive resistance in the United States and around the world. In particular the response in San Francisco was inspiring – 20,000 people engaged in mass non-violent direct action to shut down the financial district. Over the course of the four business days after the war began on March 20th nearly 2600 were arrested for engaging in acts of protest and resistance, and the momentum continues! article continues at this link:

People-Power Strategy to End War and Build a Better World
–excerpt from a longer essay in Army of None: How to Counter Military Recruitment, End War and Build a Better World By Aimee Allison and David Solnit

In the lead up to the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq, as the world protested and pressured the U.S. Government to stop, some parts of the antiwar movements began to turn toward a people-power approach. In Ireland a campaign of protest and direct action at Shannon Air Force Base successfully stopped it from being used as a major refueling stop for U.S. troop and supply flights on their way to Iraq. In Britain dockworkers refused to load supplies for the U.S. war. In Italy activists blocked trains moving supplies for the war. In Turkey mass protest forced the government to refuse to let the nation be used as a staging base for the invasion, which U.S. war planners had taken for granted.

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War called for a next-day shutdown of the city’s financial district if the United States invaded Iraq. The well-publicized goals of the shutdown said in part, “We will impose real economic, social and political costs and stop business as usual until the war stops with the express intention of deterring a war in Iraq and future wars.” A diverse San Francisco Bay Area antiwar movement united around this common framework. On March 19, 2003, the United States began its invasion. The next day the San Francisco Chronicle quoted San Francisco police officer Drew Cohen as saying, “They succeeded this morning—they shut the city down. They’re highly organized but they are totally spontaneous. The protesters are always one step ahead of us. ” It worked because everyone understood and was operating within a common-strategy framework that made sense and had logic to it.

A Common-Strategy Framework
A common strategy framework is a shared sense of purpose that allows everyone to work together while doing what they can individually, complementary of one anothers’ efforts.

It’s clear that we are not all going to agree on any one (or two or three) campaigns, but it is possible for us to consciously adopt and promote a people power strategy that makes our various efforts complementary and cumulative. I think of it as a massive umbrella under which we can—whether we are a national organization, a local group or a decentralized network—make our efforts add up.

Here are a few key elements that made the short-term people power actions in San Francisco at the start of the Iraq war successful:

  •  Clear What-and-Why Logic: Shut down the Financial District in order to impose a cost on war.
  •  Broadly Publicized: Repeated lead-up actions and press conferences, street art, tens of thousands of fliers, a widely utilized Web site and broad community mobilizing made sure a huge portion of the Bay Area knew what was planned and why.
  •  Mass Training and Mass Organization: A few thousand people received civil-disobedience trainings at schools, churches, and rallies, and well over a thousand people were directly involved in the organizing via affinity groups, working groups, and public meetings.
  • Decentralization: Many allied groups who had minimal contact with the initiating organization understood and supported the strategy, and participated in the action without coming to an organizing meeting or bothering to identify as part of the organizing nucleus, “Direct Action to Stop the War.”

What if we, locally, nationally, or internationally, had agreed on a long-term people-power strategy before the war started in Iraq? What if we were not just trying to have our voices heard in order to influence those in power, but were actually asserting our own power and withdrawing the pillars of support for war and empire-building policies. What if we do it now?

I’m curious what other BPFers were doing 10 years ago to resist US war on Iraq? What campaigns do you remember as particularly effective – in raising public awareness, motivating people to engage in direct action, or imposing economic costs of war? How do you think a “Common-Strategy Framework” applies to a network of socially engaged Buddhists like BPF – where we care about so many different issues that we may do better with complementary and cumulative strategies, rather than 1 or 2 common campaigns?


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