Monday, March 02, 2009

If We Don't Do It, It Won't Get Done...

The VVAW's Future In the Anti-war Movement Under an Obama Administration, West Coast Tour
Willie Hager

Cracker Swamp, Fl – After one of the more intense (in a good way) weeks of my surprisingly long life, I am finally getting back to normal. Well, make that as near normal as I am capable of getting, under the circumstances. But that’s a story for another day. This day is for the story of that week, and the dynamics that led up to it. Hopefully, the story of that week will be the story of the future of grass-roots organizing under the governance of an Obama administration. Particularly as it relates to the effects of seemingly un-ending war, and especially it’s impact on Veterans, their families, and their quality of life issues.

This was the week that Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) went out on the road, all the way to to California. (Photo was taken at front gate, Los Angeles National Veterans Park. L to R are George J, Jan R, Willie H & Marty W). We had come to assess the current vital signs of the ant-war movement, and to discuss possible planning for activist political organizing in the political environment of an Obama administration, and to report back our findings to the National Coordinators of VVAW.
In reality, the week began shortly following the Winter Soldier Investigation - Iraq & Afghanistan in March of last year. Just as with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s 40th Anniversary gathering in Chicago, the WSI I&A event, which was co-sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against The War (IVAW) and VVAW. The event generated a turn-out of old school VVAW types who had gone on to other lives after the fall of Nixon. The passion of current events, to include Iraq and Afghanistan, and a VA demonstrating badly needed reforms, has rekindled an energy in many of these folks that is seeking direction for release, and ensuing therapeutic action. After each of these powerfully motivating events, folks were asking, “What now…? Where does VVAW go from here…? Where do I go from here…? Where do us old school VVAW types fit in with all of this?"

Well, that conversation went on behind the scenes for awhile, amongst many of us who had come back together after thirty or so years. But it was also going on in all of the e-lists that we all belonged to. That repetition of questioning, in and amongst the various groups and organizations cried out, it seemed to us old school VVAW types, for the formulation, implementation, and maintenance of a pragmatically realistic and doable operational plan. One that would provide a bonding in struggle at the grass-roots level of not only passionate and principled individuals, but also diversified resources and talents rallied around a set of shared political principles and pre-determined, mutually prioritized, focused, objectives.

One that would give VVAW and other progressive organizations a re-newed focus, and a channel for newly re-generated energy, based on the formula that had worked so successfully for VVAW, back in The Day; unity + struggle = victory. This model is perceived as an operational plan which like back in The Day, would provide a unified front of multiple organizations, all coalesced around issues that touch all aspects of the Veterans’ and the families of Veterans and active duty G.I.s, and Veterans’support groups. The VVAW West Coast Tour was set up for the purpose of seeing if y'all agreed with this perspective, and if so, could we, together, organize an effective grass-roots anti-war campaign, in today's political world?
The Week, In Retrospect

Previous discussions of these pressing questions within VVAW had culminated in the “VVAW STILL STRONG AFTER ALL THESE YEARS”: The Antiwar Movement Under An Obama Administration, West Coast Tour. A tour that began in the San Francisco Bay area on the 15th of February, and concluded in San Diego at Jan Ruhman's house on the 21st of February, 2009.
A tour that was in search of answers.
The VVAW traveling road show was headlined by Barry Romo and Marty Webster, VVAW National Coordinators; George Johnson, of Veterans For Peace (VFP), San Francisco Chapter 69, and a long standing member of VVAW, was on board, and served as Northern California tour coordinator and subsequent panel member; Jan Ruhman, the VVAW SoCal Organizing Contact and VP of San Diego Chapter of VFP, was the over-all West Coast Tour coordinator, and a subsequent panel member.

The SoCal leg of the Tour, which began with two day visit to the California Central Coast Chapter of VVAW, headquartered in Camarillo, Ca, and coordinated by Steve and Carolyn Crandall. This leg of the Tour was also accompanied by Mickey Krakowski, an old school SoCal VVAW type from way back when. A back to back brother who got wind of the Tour all the way up in Grand Junction, Colorado, and wanted to come to listen and learn; and, finally, myself, Willie Hager, currently a VVAW Florida Organizing Contact, and once upon a time long ago, Regional Coordinator of VVAW, Calif/Nev, circa 1972-1974, who had come to listen and learn, as well.

Fact is, that’s why we were all there. That’s what the tour was all about. To find out what’s working, and what’s not. To get out amongst the grassroots and personally meet and talk with folks still committed to the fight (in Florida, we call this grippin’ n’ grinnin’ vs e-in’ and keyin’). To listen to what they have to say, and work to coordinate all our efforts in a broad unified front, based on a networking of talent and resources and organizations. We didn’t come to tell folks what they should be doing, or how to do it…we came to listen, and to learn, and to contribute our historical perspective of the realities of todays political arena as it applies to grass-roots organizing. I personally participated in all of the panels and discussions, beginning in Camarillo, and ending in San Diego, at Jan's house, for a house party and discussion group.

Many of us had poured our re-newed energy, and our eternal hope, as well as our grass-roots organizing talents into the Obama presidential campaign. Many others were afraid that we would get fooled again, as in “new boss same as the old boss…”, and just hunkered down and hoped for the best. Again, when the dust settled, and Obama had won the day; “What now…? Where does VVAW go from here.” The other e-lists and groups, such as Veterans For Peace (VFP), Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Military Families Speak Out, Orange County (MFSO-OC), and Courage To Resist, were all asking one another the same question; “What now…? Where do we go from here?” All of the panels and meetings on the VVAW tour were attended by folks from the above mentioned organizations. They were still asking these same questions when we met with them in their home 20s.
Framing The Argument

Here's my personal take on all that I saw and heard, during that week...
They all, at every stop, agreed on this much; that we should all be doing something. But what to do? How to do it? What with? By when? Who to call? All that was missing it seemed, was a plan. Here were all these folks from all these different organizations who shared political principles, if not shared ideological bases or philosophies, eager to seize on a mission. Folks who realize that the struggle for change is long term, and that change is what we make it. All were in agreement at every stop that, indeed; yes, we can.

It seemed as though we were already, by default, a Coalition Of  The Un-willing. Un-willing to support a militaristic foreign policy; un-willing to ignore the critical need for VA reform of current mental health diagnosis and support paradigms, as well as the service model of it’s disability claims division’s processes; un-willing to accept the increasing rate of active duty and veterans’ suicides; un-willing to ignore the sexual abuse of our women in uniform, often in combat theatres, and finally; un-willing to give up the fight for G.I Rights. It seemed like all that was needed, now, was… a plan.

Together Then - Together Again

Here were the doers…those who keep all of our organizations alive at the grassroots. Here they were, one-on-one, and as representatives of the various organizations already mentioned, in all of the communities that were on the VVAW West Coast Tour. And, here they all were, in peoples' living rooms and groups' meeting halls, all asking one another; how can we be most effective, in light of an Obama administration, a massive economic restructuring, and changing war on terror strategies, tactics, and theatres? I was honored to be part of the discussion.

As I understood them, these were the propositions that were recurrent throughout each of the gatherings that we attended:
  1. That the concept of finding a way to present a unified front of organizations (affinity groups) that are rallied around, and focused on, a manageable number of issues or goals, which are realistically attainable, and that are mutually supportive focal issues and/or objectives, is a viable strategy that is worthy of further review as we move into the Obama era of grass-roots community organizing.

  2. That it would be a good idea for the groups that were represented to set up follow-up meetings, where, together, they could identify mutual goals and objectives, and discuss a plan of action for their local groups and chapters to work in consort with.
  3. That folks should outreach other local groups for the discussion, as well. The discussion to center on how to work together, each under our own particular organizational banners, sharing resources and talent on pre-determined, mutually agreed upon, operational plan
  4. That it was not only possible, but that it was in fact our best option, to adapt a pragmatic model of critical thinking in our planning, rather than waste precious time and resources on protracted debates on philosophy and ideology that drain energy and impede forward momentum on pressing issues.
Here are the mutually supportive issues that were expressed by those in attendance at each of the gatherings that I attended:
  1. Full funding of all Veterans care
  2. x
  3. VA reform of mental health PTSD diagnosis, treatment, and service delivery paradigms
  4. x
  5. Sexual abuse of women in uniform, often in combat theatres
  6. x
  7. Military recruiting practices, on campus & abroad
  8. x
  9. GI Rights, i.e. Robin Long
Seize The Moment

There were other suggestions worthy of consideration, of course. The ones that I have listed were simply the most frequently referred to as potential focus issues. My feeling is that, whichever ones would work best in your local area, with what resources are available amongst group members, should be decided on by an organizing committee that is composed of representatives of each organization in your area that is interested in this concept, and can speak for their local group or chapter. I believe that decisions of this nature should come from those who they most directly effect, not from those who think them up while having no personal stake in either the the process or the outcome. But, that's just me.

This Tour was a very powerful personal experience, as well as a powerful learning one. I was mightily impressed with the amount of energy and commitmant that we found out there at the grass-roots. I want to close with the concluding sentence from an organizing pamphlet, one that Jan Ruhman and I created together for California/Nevada VVAW, back in The Day. It reads, "Again, the main thing is not to be intimidated by myths about your community, but to find out for yourself what needs to be done and to go do it." The only word I would add at the end of that sentence, for all our considerations, is "together..."

To all the great folks in California who worked to put the Tour together, and to all the other folks that we met with all along the El Camino Real; Thank you for your gracious warmed a Southern man's heart. And, most importantly, thanks to all of y'all; we now have a plan!

Nothin' left, now, but to do it...

Unity, Struggle, Victory!

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