Not Your Mother's Peace Movement

Major anti-war groups change strategy, hoping to win over mainstream voters the Bush administration can't ignore

"American people are not the problem. If I want to win their agreement, I need to talk to them. Americans, in their concern about terrorism, did not sign off on a pre-emptive strike policy."

Meanwhile, the California and national Peace Action groups bought 25 billboard ads targeting the Washington, D.C., subway stops most used by congressional staff workers. By then, of course, the door-hanger postcards were beginning to arrive in Washington, as well. "This was all about demonstrating to them at this point that we're just getting started," Ferenbach says.

The targeting of Congress is not surprising; California Peace Action has focused its efforts nearly entirely on gaining political clout, with about 80 percent of the group's budget earmarked for lobbying. "We've definitely put our eggs in the legislative basket," says Ferenbach.

The Oct. 26 peace march in San Francisco was the 
largest here in decades.
Paolo Vescia
The Oct. 26 peace march in San Francisco was the largest here in decades.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee is one of only a few politicians 
endorsed by California Peace Action; rather than 
endorse candidates, the group usually tries to obtain 
promises from them to vote in favor of peace issues.
Paolo Vescia
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee is one of only a few politicians endorsed by California Peace Action; rather than endorse candidates, the group usually tries to obtain promises from them to vote in favor of peace issues.

The organization produces "report cards" on California's congressional delegation, distributing them each year on at least 150,000 door-hangers. In fact, door-to-door canvassing goes on constantly in parts of the Bay Area and Los Angeles to build membership.

In L.A., Physicians for Social Responsibility also had introspective discussions about what to do immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. "There was this time of getting into an emotional space, mourning the loss of lives and not concocting a spin out of the ashes," says Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of PSR in Los Angeles. "To come out and criticize the president about his plans to immediately go into Afghanistan -- as a secular organization, we didn't have the political cover at that time."

So PSR helped create a coalition of interfaith leaders opposed to war.

"We decided to work with the religious community because you could hear things from rabbis and priests and imams and respect it, at that time," Parfrey says. "It was pretty harsh out there."

As months passed, PSR began to act on its own again, though it remains part of the Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice. Basically, the physicians' group went back to its roots, educating people about the health-related consequences of using nuclear weapons.

Earlier this year, the organization produced a conference with the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health and a handful of government agencies on the subject of weapons of mass destruction and the potential terrorist use of those weapons. "To look at it on the face, it sounds like it would be a theme for a right-wing Republican Party conference," Parfrey jokes.

The idea was to examine the threat head-on, to see what would happen if terrorists detonated a 12.5-kiloton nuclear weapon in the middle of downtown Los Angeles during lunchtime. In the UCLA conference scenario, about 117,000 people within a 19-mile-diameter circle area nearest the blast would die immediately, and more than 300,000 people would suffer from radiation sickness.

"We came to the conclusion that there is nothing that the medical community can do to prepare for an adequate response to that," Parfrey says. "Therefore, the only way to deal with it is to prevent it from happening."

The group rallied more than 7,000 people at an event highlighting the hazards of nuclear weapons in October and has beefed up fund-raising activities, which include a concert scheduled for this week.

There are numerous reasons to believe that the electoral middle could be receptive to anti-war messages.

Public opinion polls taken during September and October show that Americans who mostly were unified in support of military action after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks now seem to have much different feelings about a war in Iraq.

For instance, CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls taken a year ago showed that 74 percent of respondents said they favored sending American ground troops to the Persian Gulf to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Asked the same question in mid-September, only 57 percent said they favored the idea.

Similarly, recent polling by Zogby International, a market research firm, showed that a majority of Americans (52 percent) oppose a war with Iraq if it were waged without significant United Nations or international support. Respondents were split in their opinion of a war in Iraq if it meant sending in hundreds of thousands of ground troops, with 45 percent in support and 46 percent opposed.

Also during the last two months, political opposition to a military action has come from organizations not generally listed among the usual peace suspects.

On Sept. 17, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to President Bush expressing "serious questions about the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq." The same organization had, only a year earlier, said the use of force against Afghanistan could be justified if it were carried out in accord with "just war norms" and as part of a much broader effort to stop terrorism.

The National Council of Churches, which represents Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox denominations that have about 50 million members throughout the United States, followed suit within weeks. In an Oct. 8 letter, the council urged Bush to "reverse the momentum toward war." The World Council of Churches, which represents Christian denominations in 100 countries, also has opposed the proposed U.S. war against Iraq.

In mid-October, the NAACP, which pledged support for Bush's war on terrorism a year before, joined the opposition, though in a less forceful statement. The organization stated that it opposed war against Iraq "before all options are exercised, including but not limited to United Nations arms inspection."

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