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Local Calls for an End to the War
M any of the citizens in the audience were restless at a city commission meeting in Kalamazoo, Michigan this Spring. They wanted to speak in favor of a resolution that urged the president and the Michigan congressional representatives to end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home.
The resolution had been proposed by peace activists organized through the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents to War (KNOW). It was the group’s latest action over the past three-and-a-half years. KNOW had been to the commission before and won approval for resolutions to prevent the war (October 2002) and for assurances over non-cooperation with the USA PATRIOT Act (October 2003).
The impetus for the resolution came from Cities for Progress (www.citiesforprogress.org) that advocates an end to the war by “unit[ing] cities and people of many political ideologies, all of which are adversely affected in some way.” CFP is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC that has been building a network of locallyelected officials and communitybased activists working together for social change at the local, national, and global levels on issues that affect people in their communities. In 2003 CFP managed to get 165 cities to oppose the impending war in Iraq.
The pro-war response to the peace activists’ latest effort was to question the local government’s role in national policymaking. What is most revealing in these pro-war responses is the way political loyalty and self-interest supercedes any recognition of the reasons for going to war, the cost of the war, or America’s declining reputation in the world.
“The city matters, not national politics,” said one person at the city commission meeting. “Do the job you were hired to do,” said a defeated commission hopeful who questioned the commissioners’ expertise “to make policy decisions on foreign affairs” and then complained that citizens had not been polled on this issue. Voting for the resolution would only advance commissioners’ personal opinions about the war, he argued, and this would set a dangerous precedent if other groups approach the commission on other national issues like gay marriage, immigration, and abortion.
A few other people objected to the resolution through letters to the local newspaper. One suburban reader said that officials elected for the nonpartisan city commission had campaigned for office “on local issue platforms and their views on national issues are not part of voters’ decision-making process.”
The newspaper also editorialized that, like previous resolutions proposed by local peace groups, these anti-war, anti-Administration resolutions were a “waste of the city’s time,” especially when commissioners were only able to pass “tepid resolutions that stood for very little.” Instead, the editorial advised commissioners to “buttonhole their congressperson” and speak for themselves and not for the city on “what should be done in the Middle East.”
F or their part, dozens of peace activists showed up at all three commission meetings to plead their case for the resolution. They talked about the cost of the war taking money away from local governments that were already strapped with budget cuts for reduced service and infrastructure programs. They cited CostofWar.com estimates that $44 million was lost to the city of Kalamazoo alone out of the nearly $300 billion already spent on the war.
“Everyone has a part in what happens in the United States and we must speak to the federal government,” said one pacifist. “We have a collective voice as a city commission to speak about our serious local needs like housing, recreation, youth development.” Local citizens have died as soldiers, said another person. That makes the war a local issue.
A Vietnam vet spoke about how difficult it is for military people to speak out against the war. Even generals, like four-star General Shinseki, lost his job for speaking out against plans for war. “It’s hard for politicians to say they are wrong,” said the vet, “and it’s hard to call for troops to return because they are afraid of ‘cutting and running’ and being blamed for what’s going on. So it behooves citizens to give politicians some backbone by telling them what we think. What would have happened in Vietnam in 1968 if [Secretary of Defense] McNamara had admitted the war was unwinnable? We had already lost 25,000. He said nothing and 30,000 more lives were lost and three million Vietnamese were killed.”
“Children need good examples,” said a parent. “Through this war we are teaching them violence, hate, and lies. We need to teach them the right thing. [Commissioners] are responsible to the children of the city.” Another person said, “The easiest thing in the world is to pass the buck. Democracy begins at the bottom, from the grassroots.”
When it came time for the commissioners’ response, one said he objected to peace activists taking a “You’re either with us or against us” position—a curious charge since that was the same argument President Bush used to set the tone for the post-9/11 era. Another stated that the city had precedents for making resolutions on state and national issues and that maybe the resolution could be supported with more compromising wording. Still another said that while she opposed the war, “it’s not our place” to influence national issues.
The vice mayor, who has a brother in Baghdad, admitted to being torn by his role as a commissioner and a family member. “We need to encourage our government to have an exit strategy,” he said. “We also need to address how we’re going to redirect federal funds into communities to help communities be successful.”
Another commissioner, who is a peace and social justice advocate remonstrated against the commissioners’ objections, saying, “Kalamazoo doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” He pointed out that just that night the commission had recognized the efforts of Earth Day organizers who contend that human activity at all levels is destroying the environment and affecting all of the world’s people. Furthermore, the global marketplace has caused thousands of people in the Kalamazoo community to lose their jobs after five paper plants, a national bank, a pharmaceutical company, and one auto plant either closed or moved away.
“Iraq deeply affects people in this community,” he continued, “and we must take a stand on it—and the financial burden it puts on us…. All that is required for the triumph of evil is silence. Our house is on fire and we need to speak out.”
K aren Dolan, of Cities for Progress, says that the Kalamazoo city commission experience is typical of the grassroots debate that has been going on since before the war began. Yet, she was excited about the result. “I think it is a very productive and healthy approach to civic participation,” said Dolan. “Typically, citizens feel there is no civic avenue receptive to them other than their city council. The U.S. generally has a very well educated citizenry that understands that we live in a global society in which a war ‘over there’ has direct impacts—in both human and monetary costs—on our own communities and that democracy demands our participation. I think the courage and civic engagement of the citizens and commissioners of Kalamazoo are to be applauded as the kind of patriotism that makes Kalamazoo, the U.S., and the world more decent.”
On June 6, 2006, Kalamazoo joined 100 other U.S. cities by signing the resolution.
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor of education at Kalamazoo College and the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq.
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