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Talk by Paul Surovell: "How to Be About Peace. What's Right and What's Wrong with the Peace Movement."

How to Be About Peace:

What's Right and What's Wrong with the Peace Movement.

by Paul Surovell, Chair
South Mountain Peace Action

Presented at the Ethical Culture Society, Maplewood NJ
February 26, 2006.

Almost exactly a year ago, I gave a talk here with the same title: How to Be About Peace: What's Right and What's Wrong with the Peace Movement.

Since then, South Mountain Peace Action has implemented many of the ideas presented on how to address what's wrong with the Peace Movement. I think the results are very impressive for a local peace group that's active in only two small towns in New Jersey -- Maplewood and South Orange.

Today, I'm going to do three things.

Outline of Today's Talk:

First, I'll run down a partial list of accomplishments that South Mountain Peace Action has achieved in the last year after implementing the ideas of last year's talk. Next I'll answer the question: What's Right with the Peace Movement? And finally, I'll go over ten examples of what I believe is wrong with the peace movement and how SMPA has responded with alternative approaches.

So first, here's a partial list of SMPA's accomplishments in the last year:

SMPA's Accomplishments in the Last Year

(1) In January and February we collected 1,300 signatures on petitions asking our Senators and Congressmen to speak out against the war.

(2) In February and March We organized four delegations and delivered the petitions to our two Congressmen and two Senators.

(3) In May, Congressman Payne cited our petition in a House floor debate on the antiwar Woolsey amendment. Earlier that month, Senator Lautenberg praised the work of South Mountain Peace Action on the floor of the Senate.

(4) Congressman Pascrell, who represents South Orange, who was previously fairly hawkish on the war, voted for the Woolsey amendment and told us that our petition was a factor in his vote. Congressman Pascrell has subsequently become a co-sponsor of Congressman John Murtha's resolution to withdraw from Iraq.

(5) In March we sponsored a meeting with former UN inspector Scott Ritter that was attended by about 180 people in the Maplewood Library. A few weeks later we held our first Be About Peace Day at the Library and here at Ethical Culture that attracted more than 400 families with children. Prior to these meetings our largest meeting was about 100 people.

(6) In May and June our questionnaire on war-and-peace issues was filled out by all Maplewood Township Committee candidates and most South Orange Board of Trustees candidates. We then delivered door-to-door about 400 copies of the responses to homes in South Orange and about 1,100 in Maplewood, door-to-door.

(7) In July we held a picnic at the Duck Pond with Congressman Payne that was attended by nearly 200 people.

(8) In August we hosted a MoveOn vigil for Cindy Sheehan that was attended by about 200 people in Maplecrest Park

(9) In September we went to Washington for the big demonstration and circulated a statement objecting to the ANSWER coalition's demand for the Right of Return to Israel of Palestinian refugees from 1948.

(10) In October we sponsored another MoveOn vigil commemorating the 2,000th soldier killed in Iraq. Later in October, we held another meeting with Scott Ritter at the Woman's Club that was attended by 220 people, and we supported a fund-raiser for Darfur organized by an affiliated group, Mothers Take Action: Darfur.

(11) Later in October we delivered a public letter supporting the Feingold Resolution in the Senate to Senators Corzine and Lautenberg signed by all 5 Maplewood Township Committee members and all 7 South Orange Trustees, plus the entire Columbia HS Student Council Executive Board and 18 of 20 Senators of the Seton Hall Student Government Association.

As a result of this letter, Maplewood and South Orange are the only two New Jersey towns listed on the website, Cities for Progress which lists towns and cities throughout the country that have passed resolutions on ending the war in Iraq.

(12) In November we hosted a meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process with spokesmen from Americans for Peace Now and The American Task Force on Palestine. About 150 people attended..

(13) Earlier this month we held a meeting in St. George's Church featuring the parents of Augie Schroeder, the Marine and Columbia High School graduate who was killed in Iraq in August. About 200 attended. There were 9 members of the community who made presentations. A report on this meeting will be prepared and presented to our elected officials soon.

(14) Our Second Annual Be About Peace Day is scheduled for March 18th. There will be a full afternoon of Arts and Crafts for Peace for Children at the Maplewood Library and a Re-Dedication of the Peace Memorial behind Ethical Culture, in the memory of Augie Schroeder in the early evening.

(15) During this period, SMPA distributed about 500 Be About Peace Lawn Signs (we've given out 1,400 over three years) and about 800 Be About Peace T-Shirts. The lawn signs and T-shirts are available at three stores in Maplewood..

(16) Finally, with the help of a local volunteer, SMPA has established a website that I like to call the best website on the Internet.

It's been a busy year in which South Mountain Peace Action has helped make the issue of peace a part of the social fabric of our community. And through our lawn signs and T-shirts, we've helped make peace a part of the visual landscape of our community.

What's Right with the Peace Movement?

How was all of this possible? The answer is in the title of my talk: How to Be About Peace: What's Right and What's Wrong with the Peace Movement.?

It's easy to answer the first question: What's Right with the Peace Movement? The peace movement advocates and educates about humankind's most important priority -- alternatives to war and military solutions to conflicts among nations. The peace movement speaks truth to power, challenges the media and holds out a vision of a better world. And of course, in the nuclear age, peace is a requirement for the physical survival of the human race.

What's Wrong with the Peace Movement: Ten Examples

What's Wrong with the Peace Movement is its style of work and how it sometimes frames its message -- oftentimes in ways that obscure the message and keeps the Movement out of the mainstream and on the margins of society.

I'm going to discuss this proposition through several specific examples where South Mountain Peace Action has gone against the grain of the movement and achieved positive results like those I listed at the beginning.

An underlying theme that I will be expressing is that peace initiatives should be community-based, with as much support from community members, leaders and organizations as possible. Additionally, the goals of peace initiatives should be expressed in a way that is consistent with the culture, values and the politics of the community involved.

(1) Public Letters versus Official Resolutions

The first example that I'll discuss is our public letter to Senators Corzine and Lautenberg asking them to sign the Feingold resolution. There are two aspects of the letter that I'd like to address.

First, that we obtained virtually unanimous support from all elected bodies in Maplewood and South Orange as follows:

ALL 5 Maplewood Township Committee members, ALL 7 South Orange BOT members, ALL members of the CHS Student Council Executive Board and 18 of 20 Seton Hall Student Government Assn members.

As I said earlier, as a result of this letter, Maplewood and South Orange are the only towns of New Jersey listed as Cities for Peace which have called for an end to the war in Iraq. There is also a separate listing of Cities for Peace before the war, on which Maplewood is represented.

How was SMPA able to obtain such broad support for this letter? We took a different approach than what is usually done with town councils. Rather than seek official resolutions we framed the letter as a public letter with the signatories signing as private citizens. Had we sought resolutions, Maplewood would not have been unanimous, it is doubtful that South Orange would have approved and we know that Seton Hall would not have approved.

Is there a difference between an official resolution and a public letter? Yes, a resolution has more weight, but in the final analysis, they are both statements of the elected officials and they both have a similar impact, as reflected in our recognition as cities for peace.

(2) The slogan Out of Iraq NOW vs Out of Iraq -- A silly distinction that excludes 85% of the population.

We need a slogan that expresses our opposition to the war that will attract the maximum support from the public.

Polls show that about 60% of the US population thinks US troops should be withdrawn from Iraq, but only about 15% believe they should be withdrawn immediately.

But most of the leadership of the peace movement has taken a position of immediate withdrawal and has chosen the slogan "Bring the Troops Home NOW."

You wouldn't believe how much argument, debate, shouting, name-calling and other forms of divisive and time-consuming activity have centered around the question of whether the peace movement should call for immediate withdrawal or just withdrawal.

Do we promote a slogan Bring the Troops Home NOW or Bring the Troops Home?

SMPA opts for the slogan that will resonate with 60% rather than 15% of the public: "Bring the Troops Home."

Here are some other options: MoveOn -- a mainstream component of the peace movement has called for Out of Iraq in 2006. The Congressional Caucus opposed to the war calls itself the Out of Iraq Caucus. And SMPA sponsored a meeting on February 8th called "A Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq" which examined a range of withdrawal options.

(3) Bring THE Troops Home or Bring OUR Troops Home. Another silly debate

There has also been another debilitating debate within the movement over whether to say Bring "OUR" Troops Home or Bring "THE" Troops Home

The THE Troops advocates have won out over the OUR Troops advocates. And the reason for this is the misguided concern among some movement leaders that if the movement says OUR Troops, it will be implied that the troops are carrying out OUR mission. I think this is nonsense. Our opposition to the war and the mission is obvious.

The argument over "THE" troops rather than "OUR" troops serves no purpose other than to make the slogan less appealing to the general public and to raise questions about the movement's sincerity when it says it supports the (our) troops.
South Mountain Peace Action has no problem saying Bring Our Troops Home.

(4) The American Flag -- A symbol that the Peace Movement should embrace.

This is a no-brainer, as far as I'm concerned, and I think headway has been made in the last year or so. The peace movement has for too long ceded "ownership" of the flag to pro-war advocates. Our country is supposed to be based on principles of freedom, equality and yes -- peace. The fact that those in power are pursuing the opposite goals doesn't detract from what our country is supposed to stand for and what the flag is supposed to stand for. By not using the flag, we not only are rejecting a symbol that most Americans identify closely with, but we fail to convey the message that we are committed to the values that our country stands for.

SMPA always displays the flag at its public events.

(5) Counter-Recruitment -- A program without a constituency that could undermine the Peace Movement's most important principle: Oppose the War, Support the Troops.

Counter-Recruitment is a catch-phrase that most of the leadership of the peace movement has adopted. Fortunately, it's not a real program that the movement is carrying out to any degree. One exception is fairly widespread efforts to inform high school students and parents about how to opt-out from the No Child Left Behind law that automatically sends personal information of high school students to military recruiters unless the students or their parents submit an Opt-Out form to the school. SMPA is involved in this issue and we convinced the local Board of Education to improve the opt-out forms sent out by Columbia High School to enable students as well as parents to opt out of the program.

However, the phrase "Counter-Recruitment" conjures up the image of disrupting the work of military recruiters either by trying to persuade potential recruits from not enlisting or by blocking the entrances to military recruitment centers. Neither of these activities is happening to any extent because the rank and file of the peace movement isn't interested in taking part in such activities.

South Mountain Peace Action has adopted a policy, which I think is an effective and sensible approach to the issue of military recruitment. Our policy is based on the premise that military recruiters are having problems meeting their quotas because young people are becoming more aware of the reality of the unjust and dangerous mission the military is required to carry out in Iraq. And the peace movement plays an important part in developing that awareness.

Our connection to recruitment should be limited to informing young people of their rights and options. The movement should not intervene in the personal decision of a young person to join the military. What people say on a personal basis to their friends and family is of course their own business. On the other hand, if we become aware of recruiting abuses -- misrepresentations and undo pressures -- we need to speak out about them in a public way.

It is my view that the peace movement, by proclaiming it has a program called "Counter-Recruitment," is creating the impression -- and possibly opening the door -- for direct challenges to recruiters in their work -- civil disobedience, or other kinds of in-your-face protest that pits the peace movement against the military. And the problem with pitting ourselves against the military is that we risk undermining the bedrock principle that we support the troops while we oppose the war.

For more details, read SMPA's statement on military recruitment on our website.

(6) An effective an obvious way to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- "Support the Peacemakers in Israel and Palestine"

The world supports the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but the US peace movement does not. Why not? There are two main reasons. (1) Part of the leadership of the peace movement, especially the ANSWER coalition, actually OPPOSES the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They regard the state of Israel as illegitimate and favor the literal Right of Return to Israel of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now totaling about 4 million people. This position in effect calls for the dismantlement of the state of Israel and its replacement by a unitary, secular state for Jews and Palestinians. (2) The second group of peace movement leaders who avoid taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are those who fear being attacked by ANSWER as being anti-Palestinian. Or they fear being attacked as anti-Israel if their support for the peace process involves criticism of the Israeli government.

The solution is logical and simple -- the American peace movement should support its counterparts -- the peacemakers -- in Israel and Palestine, who are working for a two-state solution that will provide peace and security for both peoples.

SMPA has found a practical way to implement this principle. We have endorsed the positions of Americans for Peace Now -- a Jewish-American support group for the Israeli peace organization, Peace Now (which defines itself as a Zionist organization), and The American Task Force on Palestine -- a Palestinian-American support group for Palestinians who advocate a peaceful and nonviolent path to an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza.

We thus follow the leadership of Jewish American and Israeli Zionists and Palestinian nationalists in our support for a peaceful, nonviolent and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

SMPA's November 2005 meeting at the Woman's Club with leaders from APN and ATFP provides a model for how the peace movement can engage the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace from a positive, rather than a negative perspective.

One last word on the ANSWER position of support for the literal Right of Return to Israeli of 4 million Palestinian refugees and descendants. This is a call for the dismantlement of the state of Israel as a Jewish state and therefore a call for war, not a call for peace. This demand, in my view, has no place in the peace movement. SMPA made this point in its flyer distributed in Washington on September 24th. The solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, as articulated in the Geneva Accord, is to provide for reparations for those refugees who lost property and to allow all refugees to settle in the new Palestinian state when it is established. This is the position that SMPA has endorsed.

(7) Peace Movement Lawn Signs. Do We Want Many Signs or A Few?

UFPJ is offering lawn signs that say: "End the War!" This is a great slogan, but not many people will put up those signs in front of their house. It's too strident, too political for most people who are against the war.

SMPA has found the perfect sign that mainstream people are comfortable putting in front of their homes, and it was designed right here in Maplewood by Jackson Roberts when he was 10 years old. It's our Be About Peace lawn sign, which is now also a T-shirt.

SMPA has distributed over 1,400 of these signs in Maplewood and South Orange alone. I don't know how many of the UFPJ signs have been installed, but I'd be very surprised if it's more than a few thousand for the entire country.

(8) Slogans that Attract Congressional Support / Slogans that Repel Congressional Support

Members of Congress don't want to be associated with immediate withdrawal from Iraq. They don't want to be associated with the Palestinian Right of Return. These were two of the leading demands of the September 24th demonstration in Washington. Should we be surprised that only two members of Congress appeared at the rally?

(9) Talking to Ourselves vs Engaging in Dialogue

Discussions within the movement are important, but dialogue with the general public and our elected officials is more important. A peace organization must have an ongoing public presence in which its message is communicated. Street tabling and educational events are two main examples of this. Meetings with elected officials are also important

SMPA has a consistent, ongoing program of public dialogue, with street tabling, public meetings and meetings with officials.

In January, SMPA sought to extend our dialogue to the White House. We invited the WH to attend our forum on February 8th and to present the President's program "National Strategy for Victory" as one option facing the American people. I am not aware of any other peace organization extending an invitation to the White House to engage in dialogue. The White House Public Liaison politely declined our invitation, by the way, claiming that they could not afford the transportation and lodging costs.

(10) We don't always have to push our slogans.

Sometimes, less is more. Like participating in the local Memorial Day Parade without slogans, signs, banners or even flyers. Last memorial day, SMPA was asked by the Maplewood parade organizers to not politicize the event.

I assure you that most peace groups would have objected, claiming that memorial day is about war and war is about politics.

However, SMPA agreed to respect the wishes of the organizers. We marched with our banner, which just says, "South Mountain Peace Action." We held no signs, we shouted no slogans. We were part of a parade to commemorate the lives of servicemen and women killed in war. We will do the same next memorial day. On other occasions, we will display our signs, flyers and slogans at times and in places that will be accepted and well-received by the community.

And that's the best way to Be About Peace.

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