Roundtable on Anti-War Organizing in Canada
This roundtable is an attempt to address some of the issues currently facing anti-war (and, more broadly, anti-occupation) organizing within the Canadian state. While obviously not a representative sample of the diverse collectives and organizations that comprise the Canadian anti-war movement, these interviews hint at the political debates that underscore its organizing. Seven participants agreed to answer the following questions by e-mail and sent in their responses. The interviews were carried out by Lesley J. Wood with:
Chris Arsenault: Block the Empire, Students Taking Action in Chiapas, Halifax.
Mike DesRoches: June 30th Organizing Committee (now the Toronto Solidarity Project), Toronto.
Derrick O’Keefe: Stop the War Coalition, Vancouver.
Andrea Schmidt: Block the Empire, Anti-Capitalist Convergence (CLAC), Montreal
George ‘Mick’ Sweetman: Punching Out North-Eastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC), Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Toronto.
Honor Brabazon: The Catapult! Collective, Direct Action Casework Ottawa, Solidarity Across Borders Ottawa; and Jessie X: The Catapult! Collective, Ottawa.
?Describe the trajectory of the anti-war movement in your city since the major anti-war protests of 2003. What is the current shape of anti-war organizing in your city?
Chris: Although better than that of most other cities of comparable size, anti-war organizing in Halifax has seriously declined since 2003. Before the war started, many people who were new to activism took to the streets, feeling they could alter policy and even history. After the bombs started dropping, however, many felt powerless. You could really feel the decline. During the siege of Falluja, for example, marches only attracted 100 people or so.
I think part of the decline in mass participation is due to the lack of a decent political analysis from many of the people who were out in 2003; the idea that the Bush administration would change its policies based on polite public pressure and well articulated moral arguments is absurd. When the war wasn’t stopped by the biggest protest movement in human history, people gave up.
I wish I could say that the movement is on the rebound, but it isn’t. There were around 300 to 400 people out for the demonstration on March 19, 2005, and about 80 attended a panel discussion the night before. The one bright spot is on campuses, where the work of a few very dedicated organizers from the Student Coalition Against War has built a far stronger student network than we saw in 2003. Still, the total numbers have declined dramatically.
Mike: The anti-war movement in Toronto has faced a downward trajectory since it peaked in February and March of 2003. The Stop the War Coalition achieved the goal of their organizing, which was not to stop the war (since that was seen as a US problem), but to tell the world that Canada didn’t like the war. Since the large demos included thousands of folks who had never previously taken to the streets, the Stop the War Coalition was content to end mobilizing and begin working on their more traditional terrain: sectarian politics. They narrowly focused on being the largest body to publicly express (and control) the debate, and sought to discredit other groups so that they would appear to be the only legitimate group taking action around issues of imperialism and occupation.
In order to challenge this, the June 30th Organizing Committee (J30) formed in the summer of 2004 around an explicitly radical analysis that was meant to widen the anti-war debate and to create a space for confrontational challenges to the imperialist Canadian state. By challenging Canadian corporate involvement in the occupations of Iraq, Palestine, and Haiti, we have not only resisted the idea that Chrétien/Martin should be praised for keeping Canada “out” of Iraq, but we have also challenged the widely propagated lie that Canada is not responsible for imperial violence.
While the Stop the War Coalition has retreated into building their sectarian formations, J30 has tried to build a movement that can actually challenge Canadian corporations and the Canadian state within a largely nationalist culture that finds it easier to point a finger at the US than look in the mirror and recognize its own role in global empire.?
Derrick: After the much heralded “fall of Baghdad” on April 9, 2003, there was certainly a sudden drop in the number of people that could be mobilized. Politically, there was broad agreement to move from anti-war to anti-occupation slogans and, while there was some burn out among activists, organizing has continued to be consistent and vibrant.
The movement in Vancouver has been relatively successful in terms of mass education and in maintaining a public profile. The challenge for us has been around building anti-war campaigns that achieve concrete goals while also raising participants’ political confidence. Overall, the breadth and visibility of the anti-war movement in Vancouver over the past two or three years bodes well for social justice struggles in general.
On the negative side, there have been acrimonious factional divisions in Vancouver’s anti-war movement, but these are issues that are irrelevant to the general public. Hopefully, the all too prevalent sectarianism in our movements can be overcome by reaching out broadly and of course by keeping the fire on our real enemy: US Empire and imperialism in general.
Andrea: On February 15, 2003, 250,000 people marched in Montreal against the impending invasion of Iraq. Another 100,000 person march was also coordinated by the mainstream anti-war coalition, Echec à la Guerre, on the weekend following the US invasion of Baghdad on March 20, 2003.
Over the next two years, the anti-war movement’s public presence became markedly weaker. Although the occupation in Iraq has been no less brutal than the invasion, the demonstration on March 20, 2004 drew significantly fewer people (around 10,000). As influential unions shifted their organizing priorities and withdrew significant support from the coalition, Echec à la Guerre began to focus more on public education than on targeting Canada’s role in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or its support for Israeli apartheid. As well as distributing publications, members of the coalition have invited US war resisters and anti-war organizers from the U.K. to public conferences. Though well attended, these events have not contributed to remobilizing the Québécois center-left, and the mainstream anti-war coalition has become increasingly weak.
A more radical (that is to say, clearly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and generally anti-authoritarian) group, Block the Empire, was formed around the time of the invasion to try to mobilize against not only the occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, but also Canadian imperialism more broadly. In the two years since the invasion, I think it is fair to say that Block the Empire has grown from an ad hoc crew of people who organized direct actions in the build up to the invasion of Iraq to an actual group that tries to mobilize around a much deeper analysis of Canadian imperialism (with a focus on the Middle East). That said, the group is very small and has not significantly grown in numbers since it was started two years ago.
Mick: The current state of anti-war organizing in Toronto is fractured and includes the Stop the War Coalition (social democrats), the June 30th Coalition (affiliated with People’s Global Action), Homes Not Bombs, the Jewish Women’s Committee Against the Occupation, Al-Awda, and a War Resisters campaign, as well as the regular smorgasbord of leftist (mostly socialist) groups. There is very little interaction between the different groups, and most seem content to try and carve out their own individual niche in the anti-war movement instead of trying to build it as a whole. I hope that doesn’t sound too critical as I’m not trying to argue that the existing groups would be able to successfully merge, but the fact is that the anti-war movement in Toronto consists of small, isolated groups of activists and is no longer a mass movement.
Honor & Jessie: As in many other cities, the streets were packed in Ottawa in 2003. There was a concerted effort by people in the region to try to publicly voice their opposition to the war by taking to the streets, although the goal for many people did not extend beyond this. Some notable organizing progress was made, however. For example, activists from both Hull and Ottawa marched together, which is significant since there has seldom been much cooperation between the two adjacent cities.
NOWAR-PAIX is the main left-liberal group, while Together Against War (TAW) and the Student Coalition Against War (SCAW) are newer and a bit more militant. Prior to Catapult!, the main radical group involved in anti-war activity was Anti-capitalist Community Action (ACA), a group affiliated with People’s Global Action (PGA) and whose main focus previously had been anti-poverty work. Catapult! originated when members of ACA and other Ottawa radicals came together to organize as a new PGA bloc, in coordination with Montreal and Toronto PGA affiliated groups, against George Bush’s visit to Ottawa in November-December, 2004. This loose union of Ottawa radicals has since grown into a solid collective.
Since the invasion (with the exception of the visit by Bush), there has been a decline in anti-war organizing, and there is now significantly less presence in the streets. The connections made between activists in Hull and Ottawa are not as strong as they were, and other gains have been reversed. By 2003, the campus based anti-war groups were largely infiltrated by the Trotskyist International Socialists, which aligned itself with existing left-liberal peace groups such as NOWAR-PAIX.
There are two main reasons for the decline. First, many people were satisfied that Canada was not officially participating in the war, and, feeling that the rest was out of their hands, went home. Second, those who had wanted to stop the war completely felt as though they had failed, and, doubting their power to effect further change, also went home. Both reactions seem to be the result of insufficient connections made between the war on Iraq and both broader and more specific contexts.
On the one hand, a broader context was necessary. Had stronger connections been made between the war on Iraq and war and occupation in general (if not our entire system of global capitalism), more people might have seen the struggle as an ongoing process. This might also have helped people to understand the nature of the forces they were up against and the strategies necessary to fight them. In particular, people might have seen that significant change would require a movement which not only spoke out against the war but which also raised the social cost to governments and corporations of continuing their involvement in war and occupation.
On the other hand, a more specific context was needed as well. Connections between the war in Iraq, Canadian war profiteering, and racist immigration policies, for example, could have produced a wealth of local targets in a city like Ottawa. The greater visibility of local targets and their connections to people’s daily lives could have increased understanding and participation in the movement. This, combined with the greater (perceived) accountability or vulnerability of local targets, could have resulted in the winning of small victories, which in turn could have increased participant confidence and commitment. The nature of Ottawa does work against us too, though. In a government town, this type of self-examination is challenging since it forces many people to acknowledge the nature of the machine (and their own role within it).
The radical left recognized these connections and attempted many of these strategies. The campaign against SNC-Lavalin is one example: we have chosen a concrete local target, connected the target to the war and the broader global capitalist system, and used the means necessary to raise the social cost to that target of continuing its role in war and occupation.
How have the radical left, the trade union movement, and the socialist led anti-war movements interacted? Has it been possible for you to work in coalition with the “official” anti-war movement? What have been some of the dynamics that have occurred in your relationship to this movement?
Chris: Anti-war activists in Halifax with an explicit anti-capitalist analysis have largely organized as Block the Empire (BTE). For a while, we had a tenuous but workable relationship with the Halifax Peace Coalition (HPC), a liberal organization that organized marshalled demonstrations. Most of the people involved with the HPC are committed activists and decent folks, but there is definitely some bad blood between us. Relations are currently at an all time low because we issued a press release that addressed the fact that the anti-war movement is in “disarray” (something that has occurred globally), which they interpreted as an attack against them. Right now, some of the organizers for both groups aren’t even on speaking terms. In a city of this size, political comments are often taken very personally.
Block the Empire occupied the Halifax office of Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest war profiteer) on February 17, 2003, and shut the place down for half a day. Even though the action was disruptive, the HPC didn’t condemn us.
The day the war started, however, we organized a march before the official rally that drew over 200 participants. The police violently rushed us, and, targeting activists of colour, made several arrests. Though the march was entirely peaceful, and the police attack unprovoked, the HPC didn’t defend us when speaking to the media. During the incredible demonstrations against Bush’s visit to Ottawa and Halifax (to which 7000 people came out on merely a week’s notice), Block the Empire was at the forefront of the organizing.
Mike: The radical left originally participated in the large anti-war marches but very quickly became frustrated with them. There were a couple of breakaway marches even before the invasion of Iraq which led to confrontation between police and demonstrators at the British and US Consulates. At this point, the breakaway marches were fairly spontaneous because there was no radical left formation working explicitly on anti-war/anti-occupation work. When J30 came together, it rejected the politics, actions, and organizing methods of the Stop the War Coalition. Because we were trying to create a new anti-war movement that would simultaneously complement theirs, the Stop the War Coalition understood that we were a challenge. They scheduled rallies at the same time in order to draw people away from our events and marches. They failed to shut us down in that initial conflict, but our relationship has never resolved itself. The biggest problem for us has been that, because the Stop the War Coalition has retreated from large scale mobilizing, it has had a ripple effect on the possibilities for mobilizing around occupation in general.
Derrick: Socialists and trade union activists have been leaders in the anti-war movement, as have a number of other dedicated political actors of various ideological backgrounds. So, in terms of interactions, I think that the urgency of the global situation – the explicit advance of imperialist power – has brought a number of people together. And, for the most part, people have continued to work together, realizing the necessity to continue organizing against the occupations in the Middle East, the interventions in Latin America, the misnamed “missile defense” program, and the many other manifestations of imperialism which are at work today.
A section of what would normally be defined as the radical left has abstained from the anti-war movement, at least in terms of the work of organizing rallies, pickets, and large public forums. And the more conservative sectors on the left have abstained for different reasons. I’m thinking of sections of the labour movement, for example, as well as most non-governmental organizations, and, with some exceptions, those who are primarily active in the New Democratic Party. Unfortunately, these organizations should – given their stated mandates and the interests of their members – be an important part of anti-war work, but, for the most part, they haven’t been involved.
Andrea: In Montreal, radical left groups like Block the Empire have typically been members of Echec à la guerre, the broad anti-war coalition that was spearheaded and funded by community sector groups and unions. We have attended meetings and made proposals that were sometimes taken up by working committees. In this sense, then, radical groups have been able to push their lines on certain issues. In 2003, for example, there were debates within the anti-war coalition about whether or not to have speakers from the new Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees, because they were concerned that the “No war in Iraq” message would be too diluted. After much arguing, members of the Coalition and No One Is Illegal managed to convince the organizers that publicly opposing impending deportations is related to anti-war organizing and that there are explicit connections between war, occupation, and displacement, as well as Canadian and Israeli state racism.
The anti-war movement as a whole seemed to share this reluctance to make connections between an anti-war and anti-occupation position and (im)migration justice issues. I remember distributing over 2000 flyers for a No One Is Illegal public assembly featuring non-status speakers on (im)migrant justice issues at the 250,000 person February 15, 2003 demonstration. No one from outside of No One Is Illegal circles, or from out of town, attended the NOII assembly.
Two years later, however, there is almost no debate within the anti-war coalition that these issues are connected closely. The union movement and community sector groups have not always been supportive of more radical groups, which are treated with some suspicion within the coalition, largely on (semi-unspoken) tactical grounds.
At the same time, the Echec à la Guerre Coalition seems to have become increasingly willing to endorse events and appeals put out by other groups and coalitions working for (im)migrant rights.
Radical groups typically have given minimal support to Echec à la Guerre. Instead of contributing substantial organizing time or energy directly to its projects, radicals have chosen to work on complementary projects that push a more anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist analysis of war and occupation. For example, Anti-Capitalist Convergence, North-Eastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists, No One Is Illegal, and Block the Empire have all, at different times, called for radical blocs within the large anti-war marches from which to disseminate a more anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist message.
Mick: I was involved in a small group of anarchists and anti-authoritarian communists called “No war but the class war!” during the mass protests in early 2003. We published a critical analysis of the politics being put forward by the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, which was primarily social democratic and nationalist, and also the Trotskyist “defend” Iraq position. We felt that both positions were ultimately pro-war, and tried to carve out a space where people could reject both the bloody capitalist “peace” being advocated by the Stop the War coalition, as well as the pro-war rhetoric of the Trotskyists, who sided with the brutal Iraqi state against the US.
While we had political disagreements with a number of groups, the International Socialists (IS) were by far the most aggressive in shutting down debate. They even threatened to physically attack (in clear collusion with police) demonstrators who refused to move off the street in front of the US Consulate. This incident underlined the type of centralized, top down movement that they wanted.
NEFAC is a small propaganda group and, as such, didn’t have much of an organizational relationship with the Stop the War coalition. We were, however, quite active in the mass demonstrations at fighting for a strategy that focused on refusal, desertion, and mass direct action and anti-war strikes by the working class. The latter occurred on a small scale in Canada when dock workers on the East coast refused to handle war materials. One work refusal is worth a hundred demonstrations.
Currently, I think that the mainstream anti-war movement is taking a positive turn in that its members are supporting US soldiers who have refused to fight in the war and who are claiming refugee status in Canada.
Honor & Jessie: There have been times when Catapult! members have worked with the “official” anti-war group, either individually or as representatives of Catapult!. These experiences have been both fruitful and frustrating.
We’ve attended the mainstream group’s meetings and worked with them in coalitions; we’ve attended their events and organized complementary events; and we’ve organized blocs within mainstream marches as well as breakaway marches.
From the start, all of this has been difficult. ACA members were active in the coalition formed to oppose the invasion of Iraq. We were met with hostility from liberals, who disagreed with our more confrontational/direct action approach, and our contributions were usually ignored. We have been criticized, preached to, and made to jump through hoops by the “official” group that consistently claims a higher moral ground.
Differences in goals and tactics form the main points of contention. The goal of the radical left has been to stop not only the war in Iraq, but also other wars abroad, the ongoing wars at home, and the global capitalist system as a whole. The goals of the mainstream movement have generally been limited to voicing opposition to the war, preventing Canada’s official participation in the war, or stopping the war.
To achieve these different goals, naturally we use different tactics. The mainstream movement has assumed a narrow focus, catering to the ‘lowest common denominator’ in the belief that this will increase its numbers. These strategies interfere minimally with the workings of the system.
The radical left, on the other hand, explicitly makes links to both broader and more specific contexts, and we directly confront things that represent what we are struggling against. We continually try to educate ourselves and others by conducting research and organizing speaking events about SNC-Lavalin, the war, and the global capitalist system of which they are products, while making links with related struggles.
Ottawa has a relatively small activist community, so the divisions between activists on these kinds of issues are old. The only positive part of this split is that there is a growing radical community in Ottawa which was not there a decade ago. Ottawa is traditionally a tame ‘establishment’ city when it comes to radical analysis and confrontational tactics, but Ottawa radicals are continuing to raise the bar.
Are the forces doing anti-war and anti-occupation work in your city based upon previous networks developed from the anti-globalization movement, or are they based on other struggles?
Chris: Most of Block the Empire’s organizers are definitely from an anti-globalization background. We’re pushing hard, through our actions and public education, to incorporate more of an economic analysis of the war: the visible fist of American power that expands the interests of the market’s hidden hand. Many of the folks from the HPC come more from an anti-nuclear or even Vietnam war era context, so their methods of organizing and analysis are quite different.
We conduct our meetings in a consensus formula that most of us learned while organizing for the protests against the FTAA in Quebec City. The e-mail lists, Indymedia center, and, most importantly, the personal and organizational relationships built during global justice organizing made it far easier to get the ball rolling for anti-war mobilizations.
Mike: J30 originally started in order to fill the gap that existed in the radical left. There were many people from such left groups as Autonomy and Solidarity, the New Socialists, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), and No One Is Illegal, as well as student organizers and folks involved in the Palestinian solidarity movement who were frustrated with the state of anti-war organizing but who lacked a space to come together around that issue. Everyone was doing their own thing and getting frustrated that nothing was being done about the war. So J30 drew together people from these groups, and many of them were indeed linked to the anti-globalization movement. It has now become much more of an organizing collective, but, when it started, it was very much a convergence of different groups and organizers.
Derrick: I think that existing networks from previous struggles against capitalist globalization have been part of the anti-war and anti-occupation movement’s success. Events like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in 1997 and the WTO in Seattle in 1999, definitely helped to rekindle a spirit of mobilization in this region, which has a rich legacy of militant labour, anti-war, and other social justice movements.
There’s also a growing awareness of the need to integrate anti-corporate and anti-war analysis. Members of the Stop the War Coalition have done some work on campaigning against SNC-Lavalin, a massive multi-national based in Canada that is selling bullets to the US army for Iraq and that has a finger in a number of other occupied countries. Exposing the truth about the war profiteering of an outfit like SNC-Lavalin helps to destabilize the idea that Canada is a sleepy, peace loving alternative to the war mongering United States. Canadian capitalists are eager to support the US Empire in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Iraq, but are subtle about it in order to maintain a ‘peace-keeping’ façade. The ‘radical’ groups I have mentioned have in various ways grown out of the anti-globalization movement and use the networks that were formed during that wave of social mobilization (I’m thinking here of the CLAC and its broader regional networks). That said, broadly speaking, anti-war and anti-occupation work in Montreal is also based on movements and organizing attempts that preceded the ‘anti-globalization’ movement (and in some instances, contributed to its development), such as the anti-sanctions movement, the union movement, and Latin America solidarity projects that were developed during the 1980s.
Mick: The International Socialists were certainly constituted before the anti-war movement, and, to a large extent, J30 seems to have grown out of social networks in the ‘radical’ milieu that also existed before the invasion of Iraq. To be honest, I’m not terribly impressed with the way that either group formed. The IS was very authoritarian in its formation of a ‘steering committee’ that claimed ownership of the movement, thus negating a participatory process. J30 seems to have formed primarily through different ‘cliques’ in a broader unstructured ‘radical’ milieu. It was an equally unstructured group in that it was difficult to participate in a serious way if you were not in with people on a personal level.
Honor & Jessie: Those who are doing radical anti-war and anti-occupation work in Ottawa definitely have come together through previous networks. Ottawa has a small radical community, so we all end up working together on a semi-regular basis. Many Catapult! people know each other from the now essentially defunct ACA and from Carleton University’s Ontario Public Interest Research Group. There is also membership overlap between Catapult! and other groups organizing around a number of issues.
Are there connections between anti-war organizing, local organizing in your city, or issues taking place in Canadian society at large? How do they work together?
Chris: The Halifax Peace Committee is currently beginning to incorporate other struggles into their demonstrations, whereas, for a long time, they only talked about Iraq because they thought that talking about Haiti or racism here at home would alienate people. At the demonstration organized on May 19, Block the Empire and SCAW pressed for speakers to address the displacement of Africville residents here in Halifax, the occupation of Haiti, and attacks on immigrants and refugees. It seemed as though it was the first time that speakers who had never previously spoken at an HPC rally were able to address these issues.
Mike: From the start, J30 has been solid about identifying how attacks on immigrant and refugee communities in Toronto are a part of Canadian corporate interests and policy abroad. We have also tried to make links between foreign occupations and the occupation of native lands within Canadian borders. During demonstrations and public forums, we have paid particular attention to the struggle in Kanesatake. In many ways, though, J30 came about through reverse link making; all of its core organizers were already active in various struggles for native self-determination, refugee rights, anti-poverty, and international solidarity work, and it was from those positions that we came together in opposition to the war. Instead of fighting against military involvement overseas and then trying to connect that to what was going on here, we tried to highlight the connections of the struggles we were already involved in to occupation.
Derrick: Opposing the war at home has been a key point of agreement in the anti-war movement. That said, there’s much to be done on this front; the rollbacks of civil liberties and the increased racial profiling, discrimination, and deportations that have occurred since 9-11 have been staggering. It’s important to note, too, that the racist discrimination against immigrant, refugee, and indigenous communities didn’t begin in 2001; it’s only accelerated. The use of Security Certificates has been one of the most frightening manifestations of this process of taking away democratic rights.
To build these links, for example, we have ensured that there have been indigenous speakers from the struggle against Sun Peaks resort at some of the big anti-war rallies, and, recently, statements and letters of support to those opposing the extradition of John Graham (former American Indian Movement member) to the United States. It would be worse than foolish to try to build an anti-war movement here in British Columbia, on indigenous land, without recognizing these ongoing struggles for self-determination.
Andrea: Block the Empire interacts significantly with a range of solidarity projects (some of which precede the anti-war movement). These projects attempt to offer direct support to people on the front lines of imperialist wars abroad, such as the Colombia Accompaniment Project (PASC), the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), and the Iraq Solidarity Project (ISP). Block the Empire (BTE) also works with groups such as No One Is Illegal (NOII), and the Indigenous Peoples’ Solidarity Movement (IPSM).
It is worth noting that most of these groups are member groups of CLAC and that many of them are made up of a small core of organizers comprised of 5 to 15 people.
This works in a number of different ways. Firstly, we try to make clear conceptual links between issues in our educational materials, actions, and campaigns. BTE explicitly tries to contextualize its work against Canadian imperialism and war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan within an understanding that there is also a war taking place here at home. This war has targeted indigenous peoples on Turtle Island for over 500 years and is a war that makes use of the spectre of “terror” and a number of forms of racism to criminalize (im)migrants, as well as to create classes of easily exploitable migrant labour. Recognizing that wars at home and abroad both aim to preserve a system of global apartheid, we try to be explicit about the fact that any worthwhile anti-imperialist movement in North America is also going to have to become a decolonization movement, and a No Borders/migrant justice movement.
Tangibly, the connections between the work of a group like BTE and groups like IPSM or NOII are facilitated by the fact that there is an overlap in membership between groups. It is common for these groups to work together to put on educational events which explicitly make these conceptual links. A “War on Terror” workshop series was held in neighbourhoods throughout Montreal last spring by a number of these groups, who also support each other’s actions to the best of their abilities. The overlap in group membership also means, however, that organizers spread themselves thin.
Mick: To be honest, I don’t do a lot of “anti-war” organizing. In the long run, wars aren’t going to end as long as capitalism and the state still exist. What I’m really interested in is the building of workers’ power and autonomy, both here and internationally. So, most of the activist work that I do is strategically targeted towards building that power in workplaces and in working class neighbourhoods.
How this can connect to anti-war work is interesting. I first met members of the Workers Communist Party of Iran (WCPI), as well as its sister group in Iraq, through WCPI militants who were active in the OCAP. Though we were sidelined by both the liberal and so-called ‘radical’ anti-war activists in Toronto, our collective has maintained informal ties to them and has supported their efforts to organize independent unions of unemployed people, to distribute Iraqi feminist perspectives on the war, as well as to collect donations for the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq. As anarchist-communists, we still have a number of disagreements with the WCPI, but, in general, we see them as closer to our position on international class war against occupation than reactionary anti-imperialist elements of the resistance. The fact that the only sizable leftist political organization of Iraqis in Toronto has been deliberately and systematically silenced by almost all Toronto anti-war activists (most of whom have never set foot in Iraq) is nothing short of shameful.
Honor & Jessie: Catapult!’s main campaign is aimed at shutting down SNC-Lavalin, a company which highlights links between numerous issues (indigenous, environmental, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, etc.), as well as between the different levels of Canadian participation in war and occupation (government subsidization, corporate lobbying, trade, etc.).
Catapult! has tried to emphasize these links in its actions and educational efforts, and by acting in solidarity with other communities and groups. An example is the recent revival of Direct Action Casework Ottawa, a group working primarily with immigrant and refugee communities. We also offer informal support by attending other groups’ events. Membership overlap between groups facilitates this. Finally, at our speaking events, we try to reflect how SNC-Lavalin and imperialism have affected people from many communities. At times, however, we have made decisions which have not reflected our commitment to real solidarity with others’ struggles. This is an area where more discussion and work is needed.
?How have imbalances of power and privilege within the anti-war movement impacted its growth and development?
Chris: Block the Empire has major problems around oppression, and we really haven’t done a proper job addressing them. In fact, at a debrief meeting last March, there was only one woman, and all the participants were white. The problem of whiteness seems to be one faced by many peace activists from a variety of political persuasions, but issues around gender in this city seem exclusive to radicals.
We state our commitment to anti-oppression principals in all our literature and try to incorporate them into our work and analysis. Personally, I think it’s a vicious cultural circle. White middle class men relate to each other in a certain way; it’s not any one action, phrase, or comment that causes the problem, but an organizational culture that we haven’t been able to break out of. Of all the challenges to organizing, a generally complacent public, lack of resources and time, harassment from the authorities, and issues around internal oppression have been the most destructive.
Mike: The first thing I think of when you mention power and privilege within the movement is trade unions. They are very powerful within the Stop the War Coalition and could really contribute to anti-war work if they put themselves on the line. Instead, leaders of the trade union movement have used anti-war organizing for personal gain or for the gain of their political party. This is why, after some of the biggest demonstrations in Canadian history, the Stop the War Coalition put the brakes on mobilization. After defining themselves in a certain way, they failed to examine how to build the movement with the thousands of folks who came out to their first demonstration. This type of organizing disempowers people.
Derrick: These internal dynamics always need to be considered and addressed – and it’s certainly not an easy challenge. Men, and perhaps especially white men in their twenties, tend to take up a lot of space and do a lot of the talking at meetings. And I think that long time activists can often become blind to the alienating environment that we tend to create in our meetings with speechifying, over-heated rhetoric, and pointless or repetitive polemical discussions. Not that there shouldn’t be political debate; it just needs to be done in a way that ensures that everyone feels comfortable participating.
Our movement’s future prospects depend on respectful and consistent consultation with the diverse communities that oppose war and Empire and that are having their rights attacked here at home.
Andrea: I think that within the large anti-war coalition in Montreal, the power and privilege harnessed by the mostly white community sector and union bureaucracy membership explains the trite sloganeering that dominated marches in 2003. “No to War, Yes to Peace” was the dominant slogan and, though comforting and unifying for the white Québécois middle class, alienated other sectors of the community. It also explains the reticence that the group demonstrated in 2003 towards making connections between migration justice issues and the impending invasion of Iraq.
In a related sense, I think that an imbalance of power and privilege allows anti-war organizing to somehow ‘float’ above more day to day/bread and butter forms of organizing. This contributes to a disturbing lack of consistency and urgency, as well as a failure to strategize seriously about the most effective ways of resisting imperialism from inside North America (this is specifically in reference to radical groups that have been involved in anti-war organizing).
The failure to embrace these connections during the height of the anti-war mobilizations in 2003 contributed to an inevitable and massive demobilization as soon as it was obvious that the so-called global anti-war movement had failed to stop the war.
Mick: That’s a daunting question; while I don’t have a crystal ball I would say that it impacted in a couple of key ways.
Class privilege in the activist left generally means that there are very few people who have direct experience or family members in the military. This leads anti-war activists to create caricatures of the ‘evil imperialist soldier’ instead of trying to connect and organize with disillusioned, but often extremely isolated, members of the armed forces. The lack of a base and militants in industrial workplaces it also a problem. Strategically this is where workers can cause the most disruption, but the fact that the radical left in Canada is so removed from the shop floors makes it impossible to initiate industrial action against the war. When workplace action does happen, it gets little support form the anti-war movement, even when the workers are shutting down a munitions plant as was seen in Ingersoll, Ontario in 2004 (because it wasn’t specifically an ‘anti-war’ strike but one over wages, job security, and increasing the war profits being made on their backs).
Activists also tend to protect their own power (and that of the party, union, group, etc. they’re affiliated with) instead of trying to distribute that power throughout the broadest layers of the movement.
I would also say that the lack of a coherent politic that tied together oppression in relation not only to the anti-war movement but to society at large was a major problem. Without that, it’s no surprise that the wars weren’t stopped and that most people in the West packed it in and tried to get on with their lives. Focusing people on the anti-war message led to people asking “How can we change society if we can’t stop a war?” instead of “How can we stop war without changing society?” It was a real stumbling block.
Honor & Jessie: Within the mainstream movement, little space has been created to deal with issues of privilege and oppression. There is an increasing analysis of race, but this is in reference to American, Canadian, and Israeli state racism and rarely addresses how we as activists have internalized and reproduced structures of privilege in our own organizing. Even within Catapult!, discussions about internal oppression are rare (space is created for this when requested, but the quality of change is questionable), and anti-oppression training has been repeatedly postponed allegedly due to our busy organizing schedule.
The failure of the movement in Ottawa to prioritize addressing our own oppression weakens the movement on a number of levels. The failure to see that larger patterns of domination are maintained through day to day patterns, and that one cannot successfully be fought while the others are maintained, is a critical strategic error. Within Catapult!, a group united on the basis of the interconnectedness of anti-oppression politics and direct action, we cannot be selective about which oppressions are more pressing. How an action is organized is as important as the action itself.
Issues of oppression have consistently come up within Catapult! but have never been properly dealt with. Membership began as mostly white, male, and under 30, and it continues to be so as new members join (for example, until very recently there was a maximum of two women present at any given meeting). There is clearly a need to examine issues of privilege, particularly in our internal and external organizing strategies.
Internally, efforts are made to achieve gender parity at speaking events and on communication teams, but these are sometimes overridden by decisions made during (sometimes preventable) last minute crises which expose where the true power lies within the group. Externally, many of our actions are high risk which assumes that all potential participants share the same relationship to the policeand limits the number of people who can participate safely. Actions have also been criticized for being macho in nature.
Recent actions spanning (and connecting) different degrees of confrontation have broadened participation and have been successful without compromising the principles of the group. We are trying to put our principles of solidarity with various struggles into action by attending events organized by affected communities and following their lead. We have made a conscious effort to be a publicly bilingual group (unusual despite Ottawa’s significant francophone and anglophone communities), although we still function primarily in English. And we have made efforts not to let decision making get concentrated among key members who are socially close.
This type of self-examination must continue and expand so that conscious anti-racist and anti-oppression practice is present in all that we do. Hopefully these issues will be addressed at our upcoming ‘visioning meeting’ for long term planning.
?What have been your most successful organizing efforts in regards to anti-war work? What were the elements that made these actions successful?
Chris: In terms of scale, the demonstrations against Bush’s visit were by far the largest; he was greeted by significantly more people in Halifax than he was in Ottawa. However, the politic never went much broader than “Bush out Now”. Euphemisms such as this one are constantly used, as many people see Bush’s actions and personality as a deviation from the presidential norm, rather than its very embodiment. As soon as Bush left, we were essentially back where we started before he came.
In terms of creating something new and exposing the workings of empire, our most successful action was the occupation of Lockheed Martin. It was a different model of organizing than we were used to because much of the planning was done in secret; we spent hours debating every detail of how it would look, how to coordinate between the occupation team and the outside support demonstration, and how to transport an entire demonstration to an office outside of the city without the police knowing where we were headed. We didn’t disclose the target until two minutes before we arrived at the office, and by that time 11 people were already inside, locked arm to arm with PVC piping.
We disrupted Lockheed Martin’s technocratic operations for several hours until the cops dragged everyone out. Even the corporate press noted, in a rather positive way, that we were trying to push the envelope of moral protest. A year later, the occupation crew defended themselves in court and fared well. Though the judge was forced to find them guilty because the occupation took place on private property, she offered an absolute discharge so that no one would face punishment or receive a criminal record. The occupation was a comparatively tiny step, but, for us, it represents the direction we want the movement to take.
Mike: J30 has had a number of successes, but the action I’d like to highlight actually occurred before we formed as a group. It was in many ways what made us know that the June 30th action was possible, although it occurred about a year prior to it. The Saturday following the initial attack on Iraq, there was a major demo called by the Stop the War Coalition. The latter’s core organizers were tense because there had already been a breakaway march the night after the first bombing attacks. The major demo was heavily marshalled and well away from the US Consulate. When it began to disperse at Queen’s Park, 10 to 15 of us took a banner and megaphone and began marching through the crowd, calling for people to head back to the Consulate. We ended up with close to a thousand people in front of the US Consulate, tearing down barricades and confronting police. We immediately recognized that something more was possible. I believe that this is still true.
Derrick: There have been major successes in developing a diverse anti-war movement in tune with oppressed communities. An emergency rally in August, 2004 in response to the attack on Najaf was a collabourative success. Leaders in the local Muslim community approached us, and we organized a genuinely joint effort. Also, the consistency of the presence of the anti-war movement has been a big success; at no point did organizing really fall off the map. And the major element that made this possible was the dedication and tireless work of many people.
Without any substantial funding, without any paid staff or office space, the anti-war movement has remained visible. And this is a result of the people who poster late at night in the rain, the people who distribute thousands of leaflets on their days off, and the people who make sure that their union meeting passes a motion against the Israeli apartheid wall or the US-led occupation of Iraq.
Andrea: I don’t feel like I personally have been involved yet in tremendously successful anti-war actions or organizing. If we can cut SNC-Lavalin’s share price in half, I might consider that successful in a limited kind of way.
My favourite action was the small riot in front of the US Consulate at the March 20, 2003 demonstration just after the invasion of Iraq. Watching a mixture of young men in keffiyehs, people wearing black masks and carrying black and red flags, young women wearing purses, heels, and head scarves, and young children slinging mud at cops was an emotional highlight.
Mick: The most exciting anti-war work that I’ve done has been the writing of a column for the NEFAC newspaper Strike! that covers (mostly US) soldier-resisters’ activities, thoughts, and stories. I had a chance to give it to a number of active duty GIs when I was in New York City for the demonstrations against the Republican Convention, and it was enthusiastically received. There’s a real and serious lack of organizing between anti-war activists and soldiers, which is a strategic mistake if we really want to have an impact in stopping this war. Radicalized soldiers can become important anti-war activists themselves.
Honor & Jessie: It is hard to say which action was our most successful. We have catapulted bullet casings at the SNC offices, shut down the offices, and disturbed an arms fair dinner. We have organized to educate, to reach out, to disrupt. One favourite was July’s Week of Mayhem or “Under the Gun”. The week was designed to broaden the groups we reach and work with. It included a panel discussion, a movie screening, and a march—events that ranged in content, style, and degree of confrontation.
The panel discussion addressed Haiti, Palestine, Iraq, indigenous peoples’ struggles, SNC-Lavalin, and the Canadian military industrial complex. We wanted to make crucial connections between these issues and facilitate a dialogue among local groups. This was particularly important because Catapult! has tended to organize actions rather than create discussion, which can be very exclusive. Though our organizers are mostly young, middle class white males, the speakers and the audience were not. The speakers were excellent and highlighted the interconnectedness of the issues through a solid class and anti-racist analysis. The movie screening also reached groups we generally see very little of. And, finally, because the march was more strategic in its use of confrontation, we attracted the participation and confidence of a new group of people, and we were able to complete the planned ‘tour’ to identify 12 local war – profiteers without being shut down.
Do you have hope for the future, given the global political situation?
Chris: At this point, it seems like any hope for an effective resistance won’t come from inside the belly of the beast. It will come from the periphery: countries currently under occupation (Iraq and Palestine most specifically) and regions like Latin America and Indonesia, where the over-stretched Empire is losing control. There is also an internal crisis looming at home with the Bushites running the largest budget deficit in human history. At some point, foreign capital will get tired of underwriting US government debt, and, once that happens, the whole thing will unravel like Enron.
The ever rising cost of oil, the increasing power of the Euro, and global warming are a few of the other interesting, though admittedly strange, places to find hope. If there is to be serious social upheaval in our lifetime, it won’t be caused by us.
In February, 1917, Lenin gave a speech in Zurich in which he declared that he probably would not see the revolution in Russia in his lifetime; we all know what happened in October. Now, arguably more than ever before, with the absurd intricacies of global capital movement, we don’t really know when things will fall apart. I am, however, quite certain that they will. It may seem like distant dreaming, but I think one of the key questions is are we ready with our own viable alternative structures to fill the void once things start getting really ugly here?
Mike: I definitely have hope. It’s hard to justify that answer after Bush has been re-elected and has started making noise about “disarming” North Korea, Syria, and Iran. The global context is not very promising, and a lot of people are going to be killed in the next few days, months, and years. I do, however, still believe that the majority of the people on the planet reject these genocidal policies, reject politics of power and hate, and are capable of bringing this system down.
Derrick: There’s a lot to be pessimistic about in today’s world, but I think that hope is indeed required to sustain any social movement. Hope is an emotion that mobilizes people, so I think that we have to look for positive developments and take strength in the diverse movements worldwide that are challenging imperialism and building alternatives.
Firstly, the Iraqi resistance has been more tenacious than most predicted; all of the military might imaginable has been unable to convince the Iraqi people to accept re-colonization. And, of course, Palestinians have set the standard for stubborn and courageous resistance over the decades of occupation and dispossession. That millions of people worldwide have coordinated their solidarity with people in the Middle East under the gun of Empire is itself something to take hope from. The February 15, 2003 rallies hinted at a great potential for international solidarity and resistance.
Here in Canada, I think the anti-war movement has made some important strides. Paul Martin’s decision to stay out of missile defense, for what that’s worth, was based on broad public opposition. And, recently, Canada’s criminal role in the coup d’état against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti is beginning to become more widely exposed. We have the potential to deal Canadian imperialism a blow for what it’s done in Haiti.
Finally, events in Venezuela should give us all hope. The myth that there is no alternative to capitalism is being challenged by the Bolivarian Revolution. Hugo Chavez gave voice to a discussion that has been brewing in Venezuela for a long time when, at the recent World Social Forum, he stated that the reclamation of socialism – and not a bureaucratic version, but a democratic and humanist socialism – is the political challenge of the 21st century. I think that the successful defeat of Empire will require that we meet this political challenge.
Mick: For words of hope and revolutionary optimism, few have said it as well as Buenaventura Durruti, a revolutionary anarchist who fell fighting in the Spanish revolution:
We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.
Honor & Jessie: In many ways, I don’t really think we have the luxury of choosing whether or not to be hopeful. Things have to change, and it’s up to us to change them. In this sense, hope is almost irrelevant; the question becomes more about seeing possibility.
We can differentiate between believing it’s possible to change things and believing that things will change. We have to be confident that we have the power to change things or else it’s not worth continuing. We can be encouraged by all kinds of examples in history and by ongoing examples here and abroad, particularly efforts by those facing severe repression. And we can be encouraged by the fact that much of the system we are up against only exists because we consent to its existence. As Audre Lorde said, “that you can’t fight City Hall is a rumor being circulated by City Hall”.