State of the movement

Antiwar activists struggle to maintain pressure for peace

As local antiwar activists continue to oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they are struggling to mobilize popular support under a presidential administration that is less overtly bellicose than the Bush regime.

Antonia Juhasz, author of The Bush Agenda (William Morrow, 2006) and last year's The Tyranny of Oil (William Morrow), has worked with a number of Bay Area antiwar groups. Over coffee in the Mission District, she said much has changed since President Barack Obama took office.

"It's an amazing victory for the antiwar movement that we pushed people to elect a president who pledged to end the Iraq war. Now our job is to make that pledge a reality," she said, visibly tired from long work on a report about Chevron Corp.'s profiteering in Iraq and even at home in Richmond, where it's sued the city to block a voter-approved tax increase.

Juhasz argues that all U.S. troops and contractors should leave Iraq immediately and that all bases be closed. But Obama's plan includes a slower withdrawal timeline and for some U.S. forces to be left there indefinitely.

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CodePink and Global Exchange, told the Guardian that Obama supporters need to realize that it's fine to disagree with our first African American president on some policies. She described, the prominent liberal organization that was a key player in Obama's campaign, as "very top down," and focused on pro-Obama talking points. "It's very hard because a lot of groups have become appendages to the administration."

Juhasz feels the antiwar movement needs to better communicate that "the organizing isn't over when the campaign is over. Even if the leader agrees with you, they still need activists to push them."

But she acknowledges the difficulty of the task. "We want to keep from telling people they're wrong. They won, which is great. But we need to say 'You have the responsibility to keep organizing for the issues, not just the individual.' It's critically important to see beyond the leader, so it doesn't become a cult of personality," she said, recalling that "under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if there wasn't a mass movement for revolutionary change, there wouldn't have been a New Deal."

That kind of pressure is clearly not being exerted on Obama. Tom Gallagher, a San Francisco resident active with the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, told us during a March 21 San Francisco demonstration commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, "If McCain had been elected there would be many more people here protesting. Obama is using the schedule Bush agreed to on pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq."

Gallagher grew more irked as he said, "Obama has sent 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He's getting a pass on it, and McCain wouldn't."

ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) has continued to agitate against war and for social justice. Richard Becker, ANSWER's Western Regional Coordinator, told us the relatively low turnout on March 21 was not surprising.

Becker said he sees Obama's popularity as "elation" over Bush's exit. But no matter how bad the past or good the intentions of a candidate, once the candidate is elected U.S. president, he said, "the job description is CEO of the Empire." Becker cautioned that it will take time for postelection euphoria to wear off and for people to realize that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are dragging on under Obama.

Local activist David Solnit, a mainstay of Direct Action to Stop the War, works with Courage to Resist, which supports military war resisters. The group also helps recruits fight "stop-loss," which sends soldiers back to Iraq for additional tours of duty without their consent.

Also from this author

  • Shaking the city

    Chris Carlsson's new book takes on the legacy of 1960s SF

  • Call of the grisly

    Paco Ignacio Taibo II constructs a guide to corruption in Mexico City Noir

  • Time travel

    The Dashiell Hammett Tour leads the curious through San Francisco's alluring underbelly