Resisting the Iraq War: A Short History of Anti-War Organizing in Grand Rapids

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With a piece last week that looked at the history of organizing against the Afghanistan War in Grand Rapids, it seemed appropriate to look back on the organizing that has been done against the Iraq War. Especially with the change in the political climate, now seems to be a good time to look back on what has been done to oppose the Iraq War over the last six years (2002-2008). With Obama in power–and his pledges to withdraw only a portion of the US troops from Iraq–there is a need to continue organizing, but the nature of that organizing will necessarily have to change to accommodate the new political context.

An Overview of Anti-War Organizing

As someone who has been involved in anti-war organizing–both through MediaMouse.org and in various community groups–it’s hard to step back and assess what we have done over the past several years. However, I think it’s fair to say that except for in a few isolated incidents–organizing for a City Commission resolution against the war, doing counter-recruitment work, or campaigning specifically against Representative Vern Ehlers–anti-war organizing in Grand Rapids has been less about “organizing” (bringing people together to accomplish a specific goal and to build power for further victories) than it has been about ensuring that there has been a visible and public opposition to the war. Rather than building our power and capacity, we tended to focus on turning people out for largely symbolic protests. This has resulted in a fairly visible ongoing presence against the war, but relatively little in terms of successes.

As much as a I hate to mention it, it is necessary–if we’re to come to terms with and completely learn from the organizing against the Iraq War–to acknowledge that the anti-war movement in Grand Rapids was highly fractured. Often times, this happened over differences in style and tactics, but it also had to do with inter-group dynamics and–in some cases–long-running disputes between people and organizations that had little to do with organizing against the war. While I think disagreement over tactical and organizational approaches is inevitable in a diverse movement, these disagreements tended to function as a plague rather than pushing participants towards new and better approaches. When all is said and done, I think that the time spent on inter-group feuding could have been much better spent organizing against the war.

Chronicling Anti-War Organizing: A Difficult Task

How should we go about the task of chronicling anti-war organizing? A simple list of protests or events expressing opposition to the war? A timeline?

If figuring out how to chronicle anti-war organizing is a difficult task, evaluating it is even harder. Do we look at victories won? Do we count numbers of people in attendance at protest? Numbers of events held? The length of time groups have been around?

In response to these questions, I decided to breakdown the history of organizing by groups. I wrote short overviews of groups who organized against the war and heavily populated those overviews with links to articles on MediaMouse.org for more on specific events. I tried to limit editorializing and instead focused on listing primarily what groups did with limited assessments of their effectiveness. The group list follows a chronological order, there is no preference given in the ordering of groups.

I acknowledge that this may be incomplete, please feel free to add additional information to the comments below. I also acknowledge that some of the statements reflect my own opinions about what it means to organize, but any mild criticisms made throughout are done so with hope that they will inspire stronger organizing in the future. I also encourage organizations included within this history to consider writing their own histories–it will undoubtedly help us spread the lessons we have learned to future generations.

Institute for Global Education (IGE): Fall of 2002 to Fall 2008

The Institute for Global Education (IGE) was one of the first groups to oppose the Afghanistan War. Its “peace presence” vigils were extended to cover Iraq in the fall of 2002 and the vigils have continued–albeit changing locations–into the present. The weekly vigils are a common sight in downtown Grand Rapids. They have occasionally received media attention, particularly when they have commemorated the deaths of US soldiers. However, they have by and large not received much media coverage or grown beyond a few dedicated participants.

IGE also opened its doors to other groups, allowing its space to be used to plan protests for the day after the US bombing started (a meeting which was infiltrated by the Grand Rapids Police Department). In addition, IGE has done counter-recruitment work and has been closely aligned with the West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition. IGE’s public access program, “IGE Talks,” has also addressed the war in the past.

The People’s Alliance for Justice and Change: 2002 to 2003

The People’s Alliance for Justice and Change–often shortened to People’s Alliance–formed out of organizing against the Afghanistan War. It held a number of teach-ins on Iraq (the last being a sparsely attended one in the fall of 2003) and organized numerous protests.

It organized the first large protest against the Iraq War in October of 2002, an event that attracted around 400 people. Before the October protest, the group organized an extensive letter writing campaign that targeted local legislators and met with representatives of those legislators. This work would continue with a 2003 sit-in at Representative Ehlers’ office.

Following the October 2002 protest, the People’s Alliance organized frequent protests both before and after the war started. In January of 2003, it organized a protest in response to President Bush’s visit to Grand Rapids that was attended by over 1,000 people, some of whom participated in an unpermitted march that resulted in several arrests. It was later learned that this event would provide the catalyst for the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) to begin an extensive campaign of surveillance and intimidation directed at anti-war protestors. This campaign included infiltrating meetings.

In 2003, the group organized rallies before the war and three in the immediate aftermath of the war, including one at the Federal Building and two that consisted of marches that ended at the Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Center where hundreds of leaflets about the war were given to people attending the events. Following those events, public and organization interest waned and additional events including a May 2003 “Occupation is not Liberation” rally and a protest against a fundraiser featuring Dick Cheney had limited attendance.

The group held a retreat during the summer of 2003 and started work on a campaign focusing on corporate power that included actions aimed at highlighting Coca-Cola’s anti-union campaigns in Colombia. However, there was not the sustained involvement to keep the campaign going. Similarly, a teach-in in the fall of 2003 on the Iraq War was sparsely attended, despite the fact that teach-ins before the war would routinely have 100+ people in attendance.

Throughout its existence, the People’s Alliance had a particular success in generating media coverage and engaging the media. While the content of the stories often left something to be desired, the group regularly got coverage and dealt well with reporters using designated press spokespeople. This probably had a lot to do with the group’s close ties with the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID).

The People’s Alliance also innovated two other things–a mailing list that provided the genesis for the MediaMouse.org events mailing list and The People’s Alliance Bulletin, an early blog hosted on MediaMouse.org that provided daily news updates on Iraq.

The Religious Community: Fall of 2002 to the Present

The religious community in Grand Rapids has also done extensive organizing against the war. Churches have repeatedly opened their doors for antiwar events ranging from forums to prayer services, as well doing their own organizing work. Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ launched a visible “WAGE PEACE” campaign in which they distributed hundreds of yard signs across Grand Rapids. The Michigan Pax Christi conference was held in Grand Rapids in 2007. In the fall of 2008, the Grand Rapids Dominicans hosted the Arlington Midwest display.

Student Organizing Against the War: Fall of 2002 to Winter of 2003

Aquinas College

Students and faculty at Aquinas College were involved in anti-war organizing in the pre-invasion period. They helped host several teach-ins and also organizing a march during the winter of 2003 from Aquinas College to the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building in downtown Grand Rapids to bring antiwar voices off-campus.

During the winter of 2008 there was a teach-in held on the anniversary of the war.

Calvin College

In the months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Calvin College had an active group of students organizing against the war. Students campaigned for and successfully passed a resolution opposing military action against Iraq via Calvin’s Student Senate. Anti-war students also organized to disrupt a speech by a pro-war speaker in January of 2003.

Grand Valley State University (GVSU)

In the fall of 2002, GVSU had an active group of students and professors organizing against the war. The group held a multi-day teach-in against the war on the Allendale campus, organized an on-campus march against the war, and participated in the fall 2002 protest in downtown Grand Rapids. However, there was little sustained activity on campus and short of a small march to a larger antiwar rally in Grand Rapids and a funeral service for dead Iraqis, there was relatively little reaction to the war.

Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID): Fall 2002 to Fall 2007

While not doing organizing work per-se, GRIID released several reports that looked at media coverage of both the Iraq War and protests against the war. The reports found that the media relied overwhelmingly on government perspectives and presented a pro-war view of the Iraq War.

MediaMouse.org: Fall of 2002 to the Present

While not explicitly doing organizing work, MediaMouse.org has had a central role in anti-war activism in Grand Rapids. From early work collecting information about the protests to ongoing news coverage, MediaMouse.org has often been viewed as an online hub for folks looking to get involved.

MediaMouse.org also pioneered several efforts around military recruiting and West Michigan companies making weapons. However, while these efforts were designed to inspire more strategic anti-war organizing, relatively little organizing was done as a result of these efforts. MediaMouse.org has also done a lot of news reporting criticizing local legislators–Representative Vern Ehlers and Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow–for their support of the war. During the 2008 election, it provided frequent criticism of the Democratic presidential candidates’ positions on Iraq, including Barack Obama.

The West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition: Spring 2003 to the Present

The West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition is one of the longest running groups organizing against the Iraq War. Formed in 2003 to “help plan, coordinate, and support actions for justice and peace.” The Coalition is supposed function as a coordinating body for member groups but it has by-and-large become its own organizing entity that works out of the IGE space where it meets monthly.

Its first action was an “Occupation Not Liberation” rally organized in May of 2003. In 2004, it organized a protest on the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq that inaugurated a series of annual protests on that day. The Coalition would again co-sponsor the anniversary protest in 2005, but after that it would not be directly involved in protests on the anniversary. In 2006, the group organized a teach-in (it organized another in December of 2005) following the anniversary protest. The group has held at least two “Coalition Conventions” that have brought together a diverse array of groups to present on their organizing efforts.

One of its last public protests was a protest held in response to President Bush’s 2007 visit to East Grand Rapids to promote the Iraq War. The protest was notable for the fact that it was held miles from the site of the speech at the same time as another larger–and much better promoted protest–took place in East Grand Rapids. In 2008, the group worked to bring the Arlington Midwest display to Grand Rapids.

Early on, the group formed a listserv designed to facilitate discussion and organizing around justice and peace issues. It has often functioned as a forum for debate and event announcements.

The Republicrat (un)Welcoming Committee: Summer 2004 to Fall of 2004

The Republicrat (un)Welcoming Committee was a short-lived group that came together on an ad-hoc basis in 2004 to organize protests in response to Grand Rapids’ visits by major party presidential candidates. It organized a July 2004 protest outside of President Bush’s speech at Grand Rapids Community College (the largest since Bush’s 2003 appearance in Grand Rapids), an event that challenged supporters of Democratic candidate John Kerry to “demand more” from the candidate, and an October 2004 protest outside of a Bush speech. The group also spearheaded an effort to disrupt a speech by former Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer.

The group obtained significant media attention for its bigger actions–such as the Bush protest at GRCC–but largely failed to do any actual organizing work beyond asking people to come out to protests. It used an organizing model that consisted of “planning meetings” before events to sort out the nature of what each event would look like and attempted to solicit input from the general public on what they would like to see at the protests.

Confronting Empire: Winter of 2005

Confronting Empire was a group that formed in early 2005. The majority of its membership was younger folks that were involved in the local punk rock scene mixed with some who had been organizing for a lot longer. Much of the group’s membership was heavily involved in a Food Not Bombs chapter that existed during the first half of 2005.

The group organized two main actions–a protest on the 2nd anniversary of the Iraq War that was organized in cooperation with the West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition and a protest of President Bush’s speech at Calvin College.

The Iraq War protest received no media and largely followed the standard template for protests in downtown Grand Rapids. It was considerably smaller than the previous year’s protest. It featured a large number of participants identifying as “anarchists” (with red and black flags, covering their faces, anti-capitalist banners, etc). Following the downtown protest, a good number of participants went to Woodland Mall and staged a protest march through the mall while chanting “Stop The War, Consume No More.”

The group’s protest of President George W. Bush’s appearance at Calvin College attracted several hundred people. The group largely turned down media requests–including some from national media–and instead issued a simple statement. The Confronting Empire protest at Calvin was accompanied by an effort by Calvin students, faculty, and alumni that resulted in an advertisement critical of Bush appearing in The Grand Rapids Press.

The group eventually stopped meeting following the Bush protest. Throughout its history, attempts were made to expand the group’s focus onto other issues such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and other trade issues, but those efforts had no success.

March 18th Committee: Winter 2006

The March 18th Committee was an ad-hoc group formed at the behest of the Grand Rapids branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to organize protests on the third anniversary of the war. Their march and rally was one of the most diverse held against the war and was endorsed by over 75 different organizations in Grand Rapids and beyond. The Committee did not do any organizing after the protest

Pressuring the City Commission to Pass an Antiwar Resolution: 2003, 2006, and 2007

Over the years, there were various efforts to urge the Grand Rapids City Commission to pass a resolution opposing the Iraq War. An early effort spearheaded by the People’s Alliance in 2003 failed as did an effort in 2006 when communication between activists and commissioners never took place. In 2007, this tactic was taken up again by the Green Party of Kent County and after a series of broken promises and a public forum, the City Commission finally passed a resolution in the Fall of 2007.

ACTIVATE: Spring 2006 to Fall 2008

After the West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition and the Institute for Global Education (IGE), ACTIVATE was one of the longest running groups organizing against the Iraq War. Consisting primarily of “youth,” the group had a considerably more radical outlook than previous antiwar groups–both in its political views (it would eventually declare itself an “anarchist/anti-authoritarian group”) and its organizational philosophy. The group organized horizontally using consensus and placed an emphasis on learning from the past mistakes of anti-war organizing and trying out new approaches.

From the start, ACTIVATE undertook new organizing efforts. It organized a series of protests against military recruiters in Grand Rapids in the summer of 2006 and leafleted at high school football games against military recruiting in the fall of 2006.

The group also organized a series of anti-war protests, many of which differed from the usual script–not only in terms of what was done–but also in terms of message. ACTIVATE protests always had clear demands, typically calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US troops from Iraq (the group eventually released a document outlining its position on the war). The first of these protests was against Vice President Dick Cheney at an East Grand Rapids home of a prominent Republican donor.

In the Winter of 2007, the group launched a “Days of Resistance” campaign that included protests at recruiting stations, efforts to pressure the local media to improve their coverage of the war, and film showings. The actions hit their highpoint when the group led a march of several hundred people to the home of Representative Vern Ehlers to demand that he immediately cease voting to fund the Iraq War. The protest forced Ehlers to publicly respond to antiwar protestors for the first time in several years. The group would keep a focus on Ehlers, disrupting a town hall meeting and confronting him in the Summer of 2007 for his support of the war.

ACTIVATE organized additional rallies against the war in the Fall of 2007 and a protest on the fifth anniversary of the war in downtown Grand Rapids. It also used bike rides to highlight the relationship between Middle Eastern wars and global warming. In the Spring of 2007, it also organized a 1,000 person protest against President Bush’s appearance in East Grand Rapids.

In early 2008, the group released a highly critical assessment of elections and electoral action that would serve as an introduction to the group’s organizing for the year. In 2008, ACTIVATE worked primarily on critiquing the electoral process and advancing direct action as a way of achieving political victories. The group was highly involved in organizing against the Republican National Convention (RNC) and issued a nationally circulated call to disrupt the RNC and did numerous presentations explaining protest plans and outlining the lessons learned from the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s. The group also worked to share the skills it had learned over the years, producing a series of “how to” guides aimed at spurring further organizing and hosting an “activist boot camp” to share organizing skills.

During the fall of 2008, the group held its last action–a protest against the Iraq War held outside Republican candidate John McCain’s “town hall meeting” at GRCC.

More than other groups, ACTIVATE attracted the participation of younger people–often high school age. ACTIVATE also made extensive use of so-called “new media” tools such as MySpace and Facebook to organize.

Iraq Summer: Summer of 2007

In the summer of 2007, a group called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq–a coalition made up of groups including MoveOn.org that largely acted as a front group for the Democratic Party–launched an effort aimed at targeting specific Republicans for their support of the Iraq War. Grand Rapids’ Vern Ehlers was one of those targeted.

Consequently, two paid organizers were sent to Grand Rapids to organize against Ehlers. However, these organizers were hampered by the fact that they were not from the local community and were in some cases pursuing goals that were at odds with what local anti-war groups were pursuing. Back in 2007, MediaMouse.org wrote a critical history of the Iraq Summer campaign that is worth reading and functions as a worthy substitute for further discussion here.

MoveOn.Org: 2004 to 2008

Throughout the duration of antiwar organizing, MoveOn.org has also had a somewhat visible presence in Grand Rapids. Their organizing has primarily consisted organizing actions targeting Representative Vern Ehlers at the behest of the national group. It has also hosted vigils–some of which were very well-attended–when MoveOn.org has put out calls for national vigils.

Bodies Against the War: Spring 2008

Bodies Against the War was a one-time protest that consisted of a die-ins at Calder Plaza and Rosa Parks Circle. Despite a different and unique approach, the protest got little media attention. It was notable for being organized by a group of people outside of the normal circle of antiwar protestors.

In Conclusion

The history of organizing against the Iraq War is varied and many different lessons can be drawn from it. Hopefully, this will be just one of many attempts to look back on what worked and what didn’t work. Collectively, we should learn from our successes and our failures and share what we learned with others. With the ongoing occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a need for continued organizing, while a look back at US history shows us it is only a matter of time until the next war starts.

Finally, please add to this in the comments section. I’m sure there are things that have been neglected or interpretations that differ from what others might think.

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Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org