Social movements and protest

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Social movements and protest24 Sep 2009 06:50 pm

Andrew Lichterman

On September 12, I gave a talk at the Alameda Public Affairs Forum in Alameda, California. The talk covered the current flurry of enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament among U.S. national security elites, including the Obama administration’s recent initiatives, and my view of their significance for disarmament progress. I attempted to put these initiatives in the context of the ongoing global economic crisis, noting that the current circumstances resemble in some ways those that have brought wars among major powers in the past. Yet most discussion of disarmament issues ignores the fact that even the more optimistic proposals for disarmament do not offer realistic strategies for reducing nuclear arsenals below civilization-destroying levels for decades or more, while the dynamics potentially driving towards great power conflict may be on a much shorter time line. I also addressed the single-issue, increasingly professionalized NGO advocacy that is dominant in arms control and disarmament work (and in work on other issues as well), and its roots in a broader set of assumptions and entrenched institutional patterns that prevent systematic discussion of the forces that drive war and conflict, and that make it difficult to move beyond single-issue advocacy to the broader social movements necessary to make meaningful progress towards nuclear disarmament.

The talk can be heard in its entirety by clicking the link below.

Andrew Lichterman, talk at the Alameda Public Affairs Forum, September 12, 2009.

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Social movements and protest07 Aug 2009 07:19 pm

Andrew Lichterman

On August 6, I spoke outside the fence at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the main U.S. nuclear weapons labs, at a commemoration of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I received many requests for copies of my talk–which at that point consisted of pages of notes and quotes. I have reduced it to a text which should be fairly close to the talk as delivered. A pdf of that talk can be found by clicking here.

Iraq war& Social movements and protest20 Feb 2007 01:34 pm

Andrew Lichterman

In a previous entry about the January 27 Washington march and rally against the Iraq war, I wrote of my sense that our politics are badly out of balance, with our efforts too focused on distant decision-makers and our resources largely channeled into top-down, conventional pressure group campaign tactics (see No Short Cuts: From this March to the Next). Darwin BondGraham, an organizer and student at University of California, Santa Barbara, writes in a similar vein in his report on the February 15 student strike there. That event, and Darwin’s comments on it, provide another illustration of small steps towards an alternative approach to organizing, stressing the way that the big issues–war and peace, the structure of the economy–are manifested in our communities and our everyday lives:

“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….

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….”

You can find Darwin’s piece in full at his blog, Sung a lot of Songs, here.

Iran& Iraq war& Social movements and protest13 Feb 2007 08:29 pm


Andrew Lichterman

On January 27, what was by any estimation an enormous number of people gathered at the U.S. Capitol to protest the continuing U.S. war and occupation in Iraq. Despite the diverse geographic origins and political persuasions represented in the huge crowd, the demand for a speedy end to the war and withdrawal of U.S. forces was clear. If nothing else, this enormous, unambiguous outpouring of anti-war opinion highlighted the distance between an increasingly angry and concerned populace and a professional political class largely in business-as-usual mode, with most still maneuvering to extract every possible advantage from the vicious bloodletting taking place on the other side of the world.

As I have written previously, I believe that too great a share of resources go into large, mediagenic events and to conventional efforts to pressure centers of government directly, at the expense of the sustained local and regional organizing and institution building essential to the kind of social change we will need to reign in the U.S. empire and the runaway global corporate capitalism that it sustains and dominates (see, e.g. Scale, Locale, and Demonstrations. Further reflections on this point and others regarding the state of the anti-war/peace movement follow in the latter part of this piece). But there are times when it is essential to muster as much “people power” as possible to just say NO, and this was one. It was such a moment not only because of the ongoing horror in Iraq, but because of the threat that the American juggernaut may roll on to Iran, unleashing consequences that only those utterly ignorant of history could claim to predict.

As the coming months unfold, we will see whether the Congressional opposition to the Iraq war amounts to anything more than the careful positioning of otherwise status quo politicians for gains in the next elections. We will also see whether there is real opposition among political elites to another war of aggression against Iran — or whether the “centrist” elements of the narrow U.S. official political spectrum are simply waiting to see whether the administration can generate a propaganda campaign sufficient to provide political cover for another Congressional mandate for war. In all of this, we will learn something about who truly rules this country. The idea that over half a decade of war-making, repression and torture on a global scale could happen by mistake or be sustained by a small “cabal” of ideologues is a myth. And if we attack Iran, it will not be because ideology somehow has run wild, with broad-based, complex social currents pushing the politicians unwillingly to the brink. The U.S. population today is largely an amalgam of quiescence and frustrated discontent, with only a distinct minority still blindly willing to follow the martial banner. In a nation where concentrated wealth translates quite directly into political power, we will attack Iran only if a dominant fraction of the most powerful interests desire it. (more…)

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Social movements and protest& War and law01 Feb 2007 01:39 pm

John Burroughs

Direct actionists are sometimes faulted for not doing, or not doing well, all the other things needed besides sitting on the road. The Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action is a model for doing everything well, as I experienced last week in the Seattle area in connection with a trial of the “Ground Zero Three.”

From January 22 to January 26, 2007, three individuals with the Ground Zero Center - Brian Watson, CarolAnn Barrows, and Shirley Morrison - were on trial in a local court in Port Orchard, Washington, for their anti-Trident direct actions in May and August of 2006. They were charged with the misdemeanor of obstructing traffic into the Trident nuclear submarine base at Bangor, Washington, “without lawful authority.” Unusually, the judge allowed David Hall, former national president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and me to offer expert testimony on January 24. The defendants also testified at length about the reasons for their actions. The jury, while sympathetic as revealed by post-trial comments, failed to seize the opportunity and instead convicted, as the Kitsap Sun reported.

Another Kitsap Sun story described my testimony. It is somewhat garbled, but does convey the gist. I certainly did not say that international law allows use of nuclear weapons defensively! Nor did I indicate that citizens who fail to write letters in theory could be convicted of complicity! I did not get to all of it, and simplified quite a lot, but if you’re interested here’s the written outline of my testimony.

Beyond the trial, the Ground Zero Center is doing a magnificent job of organizing, and participation and interest is on the rise. On January 15, 2007, Martin Luther King Day, 12 people were arrested at the submarine base, with over 200 there in total. In connection with the trial, they organized several events. I did a talk on “From Auschwitz to Trident” on January 20 at the Seattle Town Hall, with about 200 in attendance. You can see it on YouTube; the slides for the talk are here. I also was on Seattle’s National Public Radio affiliate KUOW on Jan 24, with a Center for Defense Information expert, Philip Coyle - here’s the audio.

It was sobering for me personally, for all the time I spend on these issues, to think about the eight or nine Trident submarines based at Bangor. Based on Natural Resources Defense Council estimates in the Nuclear Notebook, November/December 2006 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, each carries 144 warheads, six per each of the 24 Trident II missiles on a submarine. The warheads mostly are 100 kiloton, about seven times the yield of the bomb with which the U.S. destroyed Hiroshima; some are around 450 kilotons, 30 times the Hiroshima bomb. About one-half of the subs are thought to be on patrol at a given time. The buildup of the more capable Trident II missiles in the Pacific clearly is aimed at exerting additional leverage on China, with the posture of readiness to actually wage nuclear war by striking enemy nuclear forces familiar from the Cold War era. For more on this, see the January-February 2007 Nuclear Notebook by Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen.

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Social movements and protest27 Nov 2006 02:59 pm

Michael Spies

On Thursday, November 16, student activists from the Coalition to Demilitarize the University of California (UC) shut down a Board of Regents committee meeting, which was set to discuss issues related to the University’s management of two U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories: Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

According to the UCLA based Daily Bruin, the student coalition acted to shut down the meeting after “they were cut off during the morning’s public comment period.” Members of the Coalition included students and alumni from UC campuses in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, and community members from the Santa Barbara based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. The Coalition was able to make a statement during the public session detailing its demands:

  1. that the University of California Board of Regents sever their ties with the nuclear weapons laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos;
  2. that the Regents issue a public statement in opposition to the insanity of US nuclear weapons policy, and
  3. that the Regents lobby the federal government, in the interest of true national security, to build a new, federally-funded sustainable energy research laboratory, with said funding to be transferred from the budgets of the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories. Any serious national research effort toward sustainability must be fully autonomous from militarized institutions like the weapons labs.

Later, as the Department of Energy (DOE) Lab Oversight Committee of the UC Regents was set to convene, nine members of the Coalition “adjourned” the meeting by sitting on the floor, chanting and linking arms. As the UCLA police intervened to “disperse” the protest, the regents filed out of the meeting room, thus conceding the day to the protesters.

The nine members of the Coalition were arrested and, one by one, dragged from the meeting room. They vowed to be back and to not let the regents meet until the University met their demands.

Video clips of the protest are available on YouTube (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five).

Additional coverage of the protest and the full Coalition statement is available on Indymedia here.

For more information about military spending at universities see: Military Spending: Researching Impacts on Your Campus or Community

Disarmament& Military budget& Iraq war& Social movements and protest06 Oct 2006 05:41 pm

Andrew Lichterman

“Contemporary historians, confronted with the spectacle of a few capitalists conducting their predatory searches round the globe for new investment possibilities and appealing to the profit motives of the much-too-rich and the gambling instincts of the much-too-poor, want to clothe imperialism with the old grandeur of Rome and Alexander the Great, a grandeur which would make all the following events more humanly tolerable…. The only grandeur of imperialism lies in the nation’s losing battle against it. The tragedy of this half-hearted opposition was not that many national representatives could be bought by the new imperialist businessmen; worse than corruption was the fact that the incorruptible were convinced that imperialism was the only way to conduct world politics.” Hannah Arendt, Imperialism (Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism); (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), p.12

This week I received an e-mail fund raising pitch from an arms control group that bills itself as the peace movement’s electoral arm. I have removed the name of the group because the message typifies certain characteristics of “mainstream” discourse on issues of war and peace, characteristics that can not be narrowly attributed to– or blamed on– a particular individual or organization.

Here are the e-mail’s opening paragraphs, which capture the essence:

“Dear Friend,

Republicans have again reached for the gutter. You knew they would do it. In a desperate attempt to win the election, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) began running a deceptive TV ad attacking [name of state] Democrat [name of candidate] for receiving support from [name of group]. You can watch the ad on our website.

Contribute $35, $50, or more to [name of group] and help us respond to this Swift Boat style attack!

The ad is a typical GOP distortion.

It claims we recommend cutting $130 billion from the Pentagon’s budget. False.

What we do favor is cutting Cold War weapons and focusing on equipping our brave soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq with what they need: body armor, fully armored vehicles, Predator drones, the best communication equipment, and beefed-up Homeland Security - including protection of our food and water supplies, and chemical and nuclear plants.”

The e-mail massage also had a link pointing readers to a “list of security programs supported by [name of group],” including not only the body armor, unmanned aircraft, and armored vehicles promoted in the e-mail, but such programs as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship, better countermeasures for improvised explosive devices, and increased funding for precise, low-yield munitions–a good start on a shopping list for invasions and occupations present and future.

So: a fund raising pitch from a “peace” organization–not a “strategic” communication to hypothetical undecided swing-state voters, mind you, but a message aimed at being persuasive to their own “peace”-oriented base–that proudly proclaims that this organization does not advocate major military spending cuts, but instead advocates better weapons to fight bloody wars of occupation (with one of them, the Iraq war, also clearly being illegal from the outset). There was not a word in the e-mail to suggest that the Iraq war was a bad idea, or that endless pursuit of global military dominance is a bad idea, or that a military budget approaching a half trillion dollars a year is a bad idea.

This message echoes the approach taken by many Democratic Party politicians to “peace” issues this election season (and for many years now): it neither makes a case against U.S. wars of aggression, nor addresses the causes of the wars the U.S. fights. Instead, “opposition” is limited to “pragmatic” advocacy of what purportedly would be a cheaper, more efficient, less risky mix of weapons. But these weapons still will be used to advance a goal of permanent U.S. global military dominance that remains largely unquestioned by mainstream politicians and “arms control and disarmament” groups alike. And it is more than likely, if past performance is any guide, that little in this approach will change regardless of the outcome of the Congressional elections. If Democrats win, those who control the money and the visible platforms in the Democratic party and the constellation of thinly-disguised advertising agencies that roughly serve as its “intellectual” establishment will claim victory for their focus group-tested “moderate” approach. If they lose, they will seek to hang defeat on “the Left,” implying that “they” (despite being virtually invisible) somehow blurred the carefully confected vision of a slightly kinder, gentler empire that otherwise surely would have captured just enough of some all-important group of voters, however instrumentally stereotyped in this year’s jargon: NASCAR dads, security moms, the role of ordinary people in politics reduced to answers to questions we never get to choose.

It is impossible to know in the case of any particular organization or individual which motivation prevails–”bought by the new imperialist businessmen” or simply “convinced that imperialism [is] the only way to conduct world politics.” But what is clear is that most U.S. politicians and most U.S. “national security” and “foreign policy” professionals, regardless of party affiliation, fall into one or the other category. If there is to be a movement in this country for global justice and hence for any real peace, we are going to have to put it together largely without them. We can begin by refusing to give either money or votes to politicians, parties, and organizations who respond to U.S. wars of aggression by suggesting better ways to fight them.

Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Iraq war& Social movements and protest12 Aug 2006 01:52 pm


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Andrew Lichterman

On August 9, 61 years after the United States dropped the second of the two atomic bombs used in war on Nagasaki, Japan, groups around the country gathered to protest continued U.S. commitment to war as a means of achieving political and economic ends, with a focus on the global corporations that profit from war and preparation for war. The focus was Bechtel Corporation, a company with a history intertwined with U.S. ascendance as the world’s dominant military and economic power and with its nuclear power and weapons industries. With billions in Iraq reconstruction contracts and billions more in U.S. military contracts, Bechtel continues to profit from U.S. war making.

In San Francisco, about 200 people gathered at Bechtel’s global headquarters for a program of speakers and music. Keiji Tsuchiya, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, spoke of his experience, and there were speakers addressing various aspects of of Bechtel’s global impact. A number of people blocked the entrances to the building complex housing Bechtel, resulting in a small number of arrests by the San Francisco police. A few people chanted “this is what a police state looks like” as one protester was carried off, but to those who experienced San Francisco street demonstrations in decades past (for example, in the 80’s under Mayor Dianne Feinstein), the police presence was pretty low key– no truncheons, no beatings, no one run over by motorcycles or stepped on by horses.

I had three or four minutes on the program for some remarks on Bechtel’s nuclear weapons role and its connection to their other activities; several people asked for a text. For those interested, it can be found after the “more” jump below.


Iraq war& Social movements and protest25 Jul 2006 07:58 pm

Andrew Lichterman

Grandmothers Against the War came to the multi-service Armed Forces Recruiting Center in suburban Pleasant Hill, California, yesterday, symbolically offering to enlist to prevent the waste of young lives in U.S. wars. The Army and the Navy locked their doors, but the Marines stayed open. Grandmothers and their supporters filed in; the Marines distributed literature with enlistment requirements and informed them that they would not need their service at this time. Four people who refused to leave the recruiting office were cited for trespassing by Pleasant Hill police and released at the scene.

The Contra Costa Times ran a good story on page 2.

Secrecy and democracy& Social movements and protest& civil liberties07 Jul 2006 06:57 pm


Air Force personnel filming protesters, Vandenberg Air Force Base, May 2005

Andrew Lichterman

This week brought another in the long line of disclosures of government spying on Americans in the name of “security.” This time it was the California Office of Homeland Security, revealed by the Los Angeles Times to have compiled information about peaceful antiwar protests. These events included several discussed in previous entries here, such as the Walnut Creek, California demonstration on the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion and a demonstration supporting MacGregor Eddy, arrested protesting the many activities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in support of U.S. aggressive war making.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the California Office of Homeland Security intelligence reports on political demonstrations were prepared by a private contractor, SRA International Inc. The media coverage hasn’t told us much about SRA International, but a quick internet search reveals that they are a large information services company that has many contracts with the federal government. Among their services are “data and text mining,” and among their clients are a number of Defense Department organizations and “various intelligence agencies.” As SRA International’s web site notes, “text mining” for “Homeland Security and Intelligence” applications can include “Surveillance of the Web, e-mails, or chat rooms.” SRA International claims its text-mining techniques allow extraction “from free-text document entities such as persons, organizations, places, artifacts, and other concepts of interest, as well as key links between, and events involving, these entities.”

Although the Times reported claims by the California officials that the monitoring of peaceful protests was done in error, the story really raises more questions than it answers. How did this “mistake” happen? If, as state officials assert, there is no ongoing monitoring program that would sweep up the activities of peaceful protesters in its data-gathering net, what is a high powered (and undoubtedly high-priced) contractor that provides such services as “data and text mining” being paid to do? What kinds of precautions, if any, has the state taken to insure that monitoring that encompasses peaceful protest will cease? Was SRA International involved in the collection of raw data, or only in the analysis of data collected by public agencies? If the former, has SRA been told to stop gathering data on peaceful political protests, or only to stop including such information in its reports to the state? If the latter, who was collecting raw “intelligence” in a manner that swept up information about peaceful protests? It’s not enough simply to tell the contractor not to report information they collect on peaceful protesters (which is all the state appears to have done so far).

The Schwarznegger administration’s first response to getting caught with its hand in the civil liberties cookie jar (again) has been to allow the press (and the press alone) to review redacted copies of the series of reports in question, but apparently not to copy them. This response manifests another casualty of the current “security” frenzy, which is government openness. The California Public Records Act does not permit the state to release documents only to the press; once records have been released any claimed exemptions to public access are waived. Further, I know of no provision in the act allowing the state to release records for inspection without allowing them to be copied. Despite the statutory presumption in favor of releasing records, California officials (like most officials) are trying to get away with as little openness as they can probably with the hope of making this story as difficult for the press to cover as possible short of outright stonewalling. The ACLU has, however, filed a comprehensive public records act request for relevant documents, including SRA International’s contract with the state.


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