We’ve Got a Movement, Now What?
The day after the strike I awakened to the sound of birds and the heat of the sun. I stepped outside and felt the rays of light pouring down on my face and the heat reminded me of that highway where we all sat down in defiance, anger and hope that some sort of new politics and power can be built here and now and that our resistance can be more than symbolic. The heat and sunlight reminded me of all those terrific speeches and chants that are still ringing in my ears. The day after the strike felt to me like the first day of Spring. I’m told that this day is actually March 21st, but remain convinced that for Santa Barbara our springtime has come. Four times a year I feel the change of season. It usually hits me suddenly in one day. In the autumn the days get darker and colder and then one day it’s just dark and cold – Winter. The day after the strike the air was different and the sun was brighter. I felt this literally and I think it’s also figuratively true for antiwar politics on this campus. The days have been getting brighter, and now it’s time to bloom.
There can be no doubt about it; something is afoot here at UCSB. On the 15th we converged for a rally, march and act of disruptive affirmation that was heard far and wide. We have an antiwar movement. We have a community of people who are willing to mobilize and even put their bodies on the line not only to speak truth to power, but to meet the antidemocratic power or the US State and transnational corporations with the power of the people. We have a community willing to do what it can to disobey the regime and the system and to withdraw our complicity. We did just such a thing by nonviolently striking against the perverse “business as usual” that makes this war and so many other forms of exploitation and oppression that infuse daily life possible.
But what now?
Our energy and commitment has attracted considerable attention from many local and national antiwar organizers, organizations and political parties. Our call to strike – to actually withdraw material support and obedience from the political authorities and economic interests that make war and exploitation possible – has attracted much attention because it is precisely what it will take to stop the war. It is an electrifying concept to many because it is democracy in action. It allows all of us to be agents of change. It transformed many of us in ways too difficult to describe. There is a deep and profound desire toward this type of politics and we can help to build it by acting here and now.
In order to build upon this and spread the kind of grassroots action we’ve sparked it’s important that we stay true to what we’ve tapped into. I feel that the strike was powerful because it was an action founded upon principled beliefs, shaped by many diverse standpoints, open and anti-elitist, and rooted in the knowledge, desire and needs of our locality. It also succeeded because we all made it happen collectively. It wasn’t the outcome of a few smart organizers or a couple brilliant speakers. Rather, it was the outcome of repressed emotion and irresistible knowledge possessed by everyone who helped us take that road. It’s an understanding that history is made when we actually do something collectively!
I point these things out because our strike was quite unlike much of the antiwar organizing happening in our nation right now. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Much of the antiwar movement is orchestrated by organizers and groups that look upward at the powers that be in Congress, and that purposefully shape their messaging to appeal to some abstract notion of the “mainstream,” or to the corporate mass media. Indeed, the obsession with what the corporate media will say about us is a dysfunction approaching self-destructive pathology amongst activists. Much antiwar organizing attempts to periodically draw protestors to huge rallies in centralized locations on days that are coordinated across the country – usually on the weekends so as not to disrupt business and guarantee larger attendance. Much of it puts celebrities or “experts” forward as the best spokespersons for the movement. Much of it assumes that the most important thing is to critique the crimes and lies of the Bush administration inside out. Very little of it foregrounds the work of antiracist, immigrants’ rights, social justice, environmental, queer, and womens’ rights movements as not just “allies,” but as the radical inspiration, the heart and soul of the struggle against oppression in all its forms from which the antiwar movement is nourished. When the antiwar movement eclipses these other movements and fails to be fundamentally shaped and constituted by them, it can only submit a cosmetic fix to an ill-identified problem, and it can accomplish nothing of the structural and systematic social change that the mass of humanity desperately wants.
As I see it, the success of our strike was due to the fact that so far we have been creatively spontaneous, anti-elitist, practical and localized, disruptive, and critically self-reflexive.
In truth the creative spontaneity of our strike was the outcome of a dissatisfaction many of us have had with the typical antiwar rally. Usually people are urged to gather so that they can then listen to a number of big name speakers tell them at length about the issues. Speakers typically dwell on abstract problems and political issues that are not concretely connected to the everyday lives of those listening. Sometimes the speakers dwell entirely on the problem, offering few solutions other than signing a postcard or giving money to the organization that put the rally together. People come and leave, and they are not left with a sense of participation that amounts to much more than having been a body in a crowd that will invariably be undercounted by the corporate media, if it is reported on at all.
Our strike rally allowed anyone to approach the mic and talk about the war in any terms they wanted. That most of them spoke of their personal experiences, their friends and relatives serving in Iraq, their own reasons for opposition, and how other things they care about (the environment, Darfur, educational policy) are connected to the war was no coincidence. That the crowd connected with them with such passion is due entirely to this personal-political resonance. Our creativity also allowed us to take the freeway. Had we over-planned we could probably not have acted in unison like that. We resisted that urge to play chess master and instead allowed every “pawn” to jump from the board and make its own move. All of this is related to our anti-elitism. By resisting the urge to allow experts and celebrities to tell us what’s important and what to do we created an atmosphere where learning and transforming was much more about participation and cooperation, not passive listening. Doing so helps us understand that we can make change and that we don’t necessarily need to look upon leaders (both movement leaders but also political leaders) to make it for us.
By practical and localized I mean to say that we acted in a way that had an effect on the war, and that this was appropriate to our locality. The student strike makes sense to students as a means of protest and disruption of business as usual. UCSB is a reasonable target for our efforts because it is the largest institution that students are all directly connected to that provides material and intellectual support to those prolonging this war of aggression. The flaws with trying to organize in the opposite direction, e.g. following calls from centralized organizations to carry out generic actions across the nation is that they are often insensitive to the needs and realities of what’s happening within a particular community. Mass actions coordinated across places are possible and important, but by no means the default sort of activism we should work toward. We should be especially critical of calls put out in a vertical manner, from centralized organizations in D.C. or San Francisco and sent down the food chain of activism to the grassroots. Coordinated actions must be carried our laterally from peer-to-peer if they are to be of any real consequence.
By disruptive I mean that we did something that instrumentally had an impact on UCSB’s material/intellectual contribution to the war, and also that we disrupted the business as usual which allows students and others to go about their daily lives without ever having to think about the war and their connection to it. In terms of measuring the impact of our strike I would estimate that the legitimacy lost to those who rule over our university and country was tiny, and that the actual impact our road occupation had on UCSB’s material/intellectual contribution to the war was very, very small. But it was a very, very small step in the right direction toward collective action that channels our anger and opposition in ways that chip away at the highly complex social division of labor, a chain of work, consumption and obedience that is the war effort. Its smallness was by no means an indication of its futility, but rather its powerful truth because the truth is that we can only contribute what we can based upon our social position. We can only oppose the war through our position’s specific links and what is needed of us to keep the war going. For students this means keep going to class, be a good consumer, don’t ask questions, let the UC take in military research contracts, ignore the nuclear weapons labs, let the armed forces recruit on our campus, and don’t forget to smile. There is no national or global position we can leap into by disembodying ourselves. Believing that there is has led many to waste considerable time and resources on traveling to Washington D.C. or some capitol city on a weekend to take part in a rally that beyond its symbolic significance is pretty ineffective. If latched onto by localities across the nation the strike model could result in the sort of localized movement necessary to stop the war through mobilizations that withdraw real support and challenge authority. Localizing the effort also builds long-term capacity to keep moving forward and changing society for the better.
We’ve also been critically self-reflexive. We’ve been willing to criticize ourselves and others in a positive way. We’ve tried to understand the concerns of our friends and fellow organizers and to shape our plans accordingly. We are, however, just now entering the phase of this reflection (this letter itself being a reflection) and so we have much to learn about ourselves and each other in the coming months.
From here on I feel that we should try to stay true to all of this. A big mistake we could make would be to untether our activity from the local institutions and structures that we actually have the power to intervene in and change. Long time antiwar organizer and social movement theorist Andrew Lichterman has written recently that:
“Issues like imperial wars, the U.S. military budget, or a global economy that increasingly forces development choices on cities and entire countries that benefit only a fraction of their population would seem to require work focused at the national and international level. The foundation for our work, however– the construction of the social power that allows anything more than superficial, ephemeral victories at that scale– still must be built from the bottom. The hard conversations, the difficult process of building trust and working alliances that last, most often take place around concrete struggles over whether and why we should reject a new military base or factory and the high-paying jobs that come with it, over whether a city or region should try to swim against a tide that will raise high the boats of those fortunate few who work for or sell to global corporations, while casting the rest of us adrift.”
What this means for UCSB students and our friends in the greater Santa Barbara community is impossible to spell out before we take action, but we’ll never know unless the actions we take are informed by our locality’s position in the militaristic and imperial order of things beyond our immediate reach and vision. Our action must be informed by our particular relation to this larger chain of oppression and exploitation in order for it to be effective. And it’s got to be more than symbolic. It will have to costs each of us something, but in the process we will gain more than we could ever know.
Students at UCSB who want to build a powerful campus antiwar movement must look first and foremost at the university they attend when addressing the war. As the largest military industrial contractor in the region with a “military sciences” department, and a pair of nuclear weapons labs UCSB plays no small part in the killing. With a missile factory just a mile north of campus and a cluster of military-industrial corporations in and around Goleta and Santa Barbara students must start asking hard questions about this sort of economic base: what are these missiles made for? Who benefits from weapons research and manufacturing in our community? Is it ethical to build weapons that go toward illegal and immoral wars of aggression? Is all of this really for “defense”? What is Vandenberg Air Force Base? In a region dominated by a dysfunctional car culture that just voted down measure D (a bill that would have allocated funding to public transport and green transport infrastructure) students and others should ask hard questions about our community’s oil consumption, something that no one doubts is connected to the war. How can Santa Barbara be more than a pretty place, but also a sustainable place that does not rely on environmental devastation and war in other parts of the world to fuel its highways? Why is there a branch office of the corporation that manufactures depleted uranium ammunition for the US military on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara? And in very general terms, why is Santa Barbara so terribly wealthy? Why is it such a bubble of privilege and pleasure for many of its residents and the students who move here? Why at the same time is there poverty and inequity in our backyard? How can we change this?