Some who work for peace make appointments with the powerful. Others keep a weekly appointment to be in the streets. A third set shows up uninvited to shut down local outposts of the military, if only for a day.
Their goals are the same, but their efforts — with pen in hand, “Peace” flag on shoulder, or bike lock around neck — are separate, demonstrating three distinct antiwar approaches.
Demonstrating and taking direct action are age-old strategies for reform, but Minnesota’s organized effort at lobbying as a unified front of peace groups is new.
Rebecca Abbas helped launch a new lobbying coalition, Minnesota Peace Project, this year, at the suggestion of an aide to former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad. For years, the Republican congressman’s office had sometimes been confounded by antiwar activist groups approaching peace issues from multiple angles.
Now Minnesota Peace Project brings together three groups — Veterans for Peace, Women Against Military Madness and the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers — in a unified, focused approach to lobbying the state’s congressional delegation not seen before from antiwar forces.
Each of Minnesota’s eight Congressional districts has a team dedicated to keeping up a conversation with its representative in Washington, D.C., seeking “a mutual understanding of each other’s perspective.”
The group has met with Reps. Keith Ellison, Erik Paulsen and Betty McCollum or their staffs at least once each. Meetings with others, including Rep. John Kline, are in the works.
“We’re not planning on doing any public protesting,” Abbas says. “There are many groups that do protests, demonstrations and marches. There are very few who do really effective lobbying.”
Abbas is ready with a description of ineffective lobbying: A congressman talks at the visiting peace activists, they talk at him, “and each side is kind of zoning out while the other talks.”
Elected officials base their decisions on ideology, information and politics, Abbas said. Her group aims to arm Minnesota’s representatives in Washington with information on issues ranging from foreign policy to weapons sales and military budgeting.
That last issue got emphasis at a Minnesota Peace Project kickoff event and training session last month from Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, professor of peace studies at the University of St. Thomas and an occasional candidate for elective office.
“We have to take on the military budget,” Nelson-Pallmeyer said. “We have to be raising the issues of militarization, the impact of it in terms of the budget, the impact of it in terms of unmet needs. And making the case again that the U.S. has to adopt a different position in the world.”
Talking to a staffer instead of directly to a congressperson can in some cases be more effective, Abbas says.
“A staff person will generally listen more,” she says. If the elected official has a public position, aides sometimes have authority to make commitments. Otherwise they promise to pass concerns on their bosses.
The reception the group gets varies widely. The best are the offices at which the group’s information is greeted with copious note-taking and vows to follow up are kept.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staff is particularly responsive in that way, Abbas says.
Weekly in the streets
If Abbas and her group make a point of not doing protests, protesting is the point for the dozens who gather every Wednesday on a bridge over the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Some are affiliated with one or more of the member groups in the Minnesota Peace Project, but for them Wednesday protesting is a separate effort, a distinct method of lobbying the general public.
The weekly demonstrations on the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge date back more than a decade, when the goal was getting the United States to lift sanctions on Iraq. Attention has largely stayed on Iraq through six years of war there.
But last month, with President Obama vowing to withdraw from Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan, the Wednesday evening rush-hour demonstration began concentrating on the Afghan conflict.
It’s just another military occupation to Steve Clemens, a regular at the Wednesday rallies since their inception. But he concedes that many Americans consider the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan as a “good war” compared to the one in Iraq.
“We need to find a different way of resolving these problems,” Clemens says over the sounds of passing traffic. “And so we feel we need to give a push to President Obama to have him rethink the policy.”
Clemens held a huge rainbow “Peace” flag that billowed into the bike lane on the upriver side of the bridge. He’s adamant that taking the message of peace to the streets is an effective way to reach decision-makers as high as Obama.
“He can always change. I mean, we’re hoping that with a learning curve, ultimately he’ll come to his senses,” Clemens says. “We need to push him in that direction.”
But no matter who hears them, Clemens and friends — including a fair number of elderly activists — will be there each week, in the dark days of winter and under blazing summer suns.
“It’s important to keep your voice out to create the political space so our politicians can do the right thing. I think a lot of times we assume that they politicians know what’s going on. But they really need people out in the streets to create the need for them to rethink their policies.”
Putting bodies in the way
The bridge’s stalwarts embrace a predictability you won’t find in the actions of Leigh York and other young adults who locked themselves to the doors of military recruitment offices across the Twin Cities last month. It was yet another effort at steering United States policies in a more peaceful direction, but for this breed of antiwar activist practices a separate form of protest distinct from lobbying inside paneled government rooms or standing with signs on a bridge.
On a day they dubbed “Zero Recruitment Day,” activists affiliated with the Anti-War Committee put their bodies in the way of the work that normally takes place within recruitment offices. Some offices stayed shut for the day while at others police cut locks and arrested protesters, including York.
She was back at it the next day, however, supporting an ad hoc protest at the side-by-side recruiting offices for the U.S. Army and Navy on Washington Avenue SE in Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota campus. Five Macalester College students chained themselves to both doors and to each other.
York termed it an act of “public civil disobedience” as well as “direct action shutting down a specific aspect” of the military’s work — although she acknowledged that recruiters can do a lot of their work out of the office, by phone or via school and home visits.
A recruiter at the suburban office where she’d been arrested the previous day allowed in a newspaper interview that she had the right to protest his work but not to prevent him from doing it.
York says she has a different perspective: “Our goal is to stop him from going to work.”
The joint action by the Macalester Peace and Justice Committee and Students for a Democratic Society was fairly low-key. Recruiters and police made appearances but there wasn’t much interaction, York said. Last year, a lockdown that coincided with a protest on the anniversary of the war in Iraq drew large crowds to the same location.
The protesters ended the lockdown of their own accord after their day’s work was done in the late afternoon.
Macalester peace activists also participate in “Funk the War” marches with music, York said. Several faculty members advise the group but don’t work on planning their protests.
York acknowledges that direct action protests carry “a little bit of a risk” of arrest or of other consequences or discomforts, but it’s for a cause she believes in.
Communicating with those in power, either directly, through lobbying, or indirectly, through demonstrating, is not enough. York says she’s not satisfied to “trust these kinds of tasks to our elected representatives.”
It’s an approach to antiwar activism that’s not foreign to Clemens.
“There are times, there are opportunities when I think we need to be out on the street and be a little more confrontational. So it may take again actions of civil disobedience,” he says. “Just the fact that we have a different president doesn’t mean that the policies change significantly.
“I might not feel called right now to try to do civil disobedience. But it’s certainly in the back of my mind … trying to be creative in creating public pressure for the policy to change.”
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