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The antiwar movement during the Gulf War.

The national movement against the Gulf War failed to prevent that war, or to bring it to an end before tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed and the United States proclaimed victory. The movement also failed to generate broad popular opposition to the war. In the months before the war began, while policy toward Iraq was still being debated in Congress, there was widespread opposition to, or at least doubts about, military intervention. These doubts evaporated when war was declared, and the antiwar movement rapidly found itself isolated and powerless. It is probably fair to describe the Gulf War as the worst defeat that the U.S. peace movement has suffered since the late 1940s, when public support for Cold War policies was created, and the peace movement of the time was successfully labeled as un- or anti-American.

Although the nation as a whole was plastered with yellow ribbons throughout the war (and beyond), there were cities where the peace movement mobilized tens of thousands of people when war was declared. The San Francisco Bay Area (including Berkeley and Oakland in the East Bay) and Santa Cruz, some 80 miles to the south, were two such cities. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., were the sites of the major national antiwar demonstrations. Unlike the Washington demonstrations, which drew protesters from the East Coast and the Midwest, the San Francisco demonstrations were primarily an expression of greater Bay Area opposition to the war (southern Californians could attend the simultaneous demonstrations held in Los Angeles). As soon as Bush announced that war was imminent, tens of thousands of Bay Area residents took to the streets. The Bay Area peace movement was able to turn public life upside down for about 10 days, with countless demonstrations, teach-ins, forums, and other public events. Santa Cruz, a city of about 50,000, was the other major focus of antiwar activity in the larger Bay Area. As soon as war was declared, 8,000 people gathered to march through the streets in protest, the largest demonstration in the history of the city. The University of California, Santa Cruz, campus was shut down for two days and for the next two weeks life in Santa Cruz, as in the Bay Area, was dominated by antiwar demonstrations, educational events, and discussions.

The purpose of this article is to try to understand why the antiwar movement was stronger in the Bay Area than it was elsewhere in the nation (except possibly New York). I also wish to raise the question of whether local success and national failure were tied to one another, whether there was something about the structure, or culture, of this movement that enabled it to flourish locally, but prevented it from becoming a significant factor in national politics. The movement against the Gulf War was the first major effort of what have been called the "new social movements" to join forces around one issue. It tested the ability of movements that represent discrete constituencies and celebrate difference to coalesce. Looking back at the war and the formation of an antiwar movement in an area where antiwar activity was particularly strong allows us to look at both the strengths and the weaknesses of the new social movements at a moment when unity is called for.

This "test," of course, did not take place in a vacuum, but under circumstances that were particularly difficult. First, the war came and went in a flash. Unlike the Vietnam War, in which U.S. ground troops were introduced only after nearly a decade of gradually increasing levels of U.S. involvement, the prospect of massive U.S. military intervention in the Gulf seemed to appear out of the blue. The Vietnam War lasted long enough for large sections of the public to rethink not only that war, but also the political and cultural assumptions that legitimated U.S. intervention. The Gulf War was over before any such process was possible. Second, the Gulf War came at a moment when the Left, or progressive forces, were extremely weak in the U.S. The fact that it is no longer clear what this sector should be called is an indication of the depth of its crisis. It was also a symptom of the crisis of the Left as a whole that it was possible for sectarian organizations, discredited in the eyes of most left activists, to dominate the structures that gave direction to the movement on a national level. Many local peace organizations participated in the national mobilizations organized by the national antiwar organizations, but the influence of sectarian groups within these national organizations created widespread skepticism and distrust. As a result, the national antiwar organizations were not able to give leadership to the antiwar movement beyond holding national mobilizations. The antiwar movement needed a coherent strategy that would go beyond holding large demonstrations. Such a strategy could only have been formulated by activists from around the country coming together in an atmosphere of trust; this could not happen in national antiwar organizations dominated by sectarian organizations.

It was possible for sectarian groups to provide organizational leadership for the antiwar movement because that role was abdicated by those left and peace organizations that enjoy widespread respect, and that might have been expected to provide more substantial leadership for the antiwar movement. This abdication speaks to the crisis of the progressive sector of U.S. politics. The largest organizations on the left, at the time of the Gulf War, were the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which for a number of years had been in decline, and the Communist Party, which lacked any legitimacy at all outside very narrow circles and was on the verge of collapse. The largest peace organization was Sane/Freeze, which had represented a mass movement in the mid-1980s, through the Freeze campaign, but had since lost its mass constituency and, with the (presumed) end of the Cold War, much of its sense of purpose. DSA and Sane/Freeze were prone to a certain timidity because they were trying to hold onto a prestige and influence that seemed to be slipping away from them. Both organizations were also particularly reluctant to address issues involving the Middle East. Each has been anxious to maintain good relations with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and with liberal groups, including mainstream Jewish organizations. Addressing issues of the Middle East raises the possibility of criticizing Israel, which could jeopardize these ties. Because the major organizations of the Left and the peace movement were weak, disoriented, and prone to timidity, especially around questions of the Middle East, their ability to provide leadership for a movement against the Gulf War was undercut. This situation created an opening for the sectarian left; it also created a vacuum of national political leadership and largely left the task of building an antiwar movement to local groups, with some of them entirely new and others traditionally concerned with issues of domestic rather than foreign policy.

The perspective that I bring to this article is shaped by my own involvement in the movement against the Gulf War both in the Bay Area and in Santa Cruz. I live in Berkeley; I teach at U.C. Santa Cruz (UCSC). I was involved in the antiwar movements in both communities before and during the war. In the East Bay, I was a member of Middle East Peace Action, a group of Middle East and antiwar activists, whose members have experience in the nonviolent direct-action movement and who came together in late summer to sponsor educational events and hold demonstrations against U.S. intervention. A left Jewish group to which I belong organized a candlelight vigil in San Francisco's Union Square for New Year's Eve; the vigil drew between 1,500 and 2,000 participants. At UCSC, shortly before war was declared, along with several other faculty members I organized a group that called itself Faculty Against the War, which promoted discussion among faculty, compiled a widely disseminated reader on the war and its background, sponsored antiwar educational events, and supported student antiwar efforts. This article is based not only on my observation of the antiwar movement from these vantage points, but also on interviews with about 20 antiwar activists.

The War and Opposition to the War

In the first week of August 1990, when Iraqi troops entered Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (with U.S. encouragement) requested that the United States send troops. President Bush posed the possibility of a U.S. military response, and set the machinery in motion for sending U.S. troops to the Middle East. From that time on, President Bush appeared bent on a confrontation, and probably a military confrontation, with Saddam Hussein. The considerable dissent from Bush's policies within U.S. elites exerted what in retrospect appears to have been an unduly soothing effect on the peace movement establishment. Many leading figures associated with the peace movement made public statements not only deploring the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but also giving guarded support to Bush's decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia - while arguing that economic sanctions would be more effective than military action and expressing the hope that the U.S. troops would remain, as an unused threat, in Saudi Arabia. Jesse Jackson made such a statement, as did Samir Amin and Daniel Ellsberg who later apologized for his naivete in believing that Bush would send troops to the Middle East, but refrain from using them in military actions that would increase the power of the U.S. in the region).

What was most remarkable about the growing opposition movement in the summer and fall of 1990 was the absence of the major organizations of both the peace movement and the progressive wing of U.S. politics. Sane/Freeze was not in evidence, at least on a national level; neither was DSA (representing the democratic socialist tendency). Perhaps they were lulled into the belief that there was not going to be a war. Another reason was that the peace movement and left/liberal establishment in the U.S. has for many years avoided issues concerning the Middle East out of the fear of taking stands that might offend and alienate the liberal Jewish establishment (and also out of internal dissent over the same issues). Peace movement and left/liberal organizations depend on the liberal Jewish community for financial support. They also highly value influence and respectability (with liberal members of Congress and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party generally), and they fear that open criticisms of Israel could destroy this influence and support. Because the peace movement establishment has avoided taking stands on the Middle East, it has also generally failed to educate itself about the Middle East. Caught off guard by the Gulf crisis, the peace movement was not only reluctant to respond but also was unprepared to do so.

As a result, the opposition movement that sprang up, in the Bay Area and elsewhere around the country, included a vast number of local groups, many of them with little or no previous political experience, a significant level of support from the churches, including both leading Catholics and Protestants, and statements of opposition to the war from many trade unions. Ultimately, it was the local peace centers that held the movement together. Some of these centers were slower to become involved than the noninstitutional activist groups that responded immediately, but each of the peace centers eventually devoted its full attention to the Gulf crisis, enabling local antiwar activists to attain some degree of cohesion.

What national leadership existed was provided by two umbrella organizations of antiwar groups, the Coalition Against a Vietnam War in the Middle East (generally called the Coalition) and the National Campaign Against the War in the Middle East (called the Campaign). Both had national offices in New York; on the local level, each brought together antiwar activists and organizations. The Coalition sponsored the major demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco on January 19; the Campaign sponsored the demonstrations in those two cities on January 26.

Unfortunately, organizations of the sectarian Left had considerable influence in both organizations. The Coalition was initiated by people associated with the Trotskyist Workers' World Party; the Campaign, though initiated by independent activists determined to build a broad, inclusive antiwar movement, was dominated in the Bay Area by Socialist Action, another Trotskyist group. Of the two, the Coalition (with its Workers' World leadership) was the more overtly sectarian: in Coalition meetings in San Francisco, any criticisms of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait were likely to be shouted down. But Socialist Action, while more appreciative of the need for a broad antiwar movement, was nevertheless as insensitive as the Workers' World to the need for open, democratic discussion. Socialist Action wanted a broad antiwar movement that it would dominate. In San Francisco, where Socialist Action dominated the Campaign, steering committee meetings were struggles for power. The Campaign held a national meeting in New York in November, Socialist Action packed, and controlled, this meeting. Nevertheless, the demonstrations of January 19 and January 26 were major contributions to the antiwar movement and the availability of dedicated, if sectarian, activists helped make those demonstrations possible.

Because the antiwar movement had no national leadership that could go beyond planning demonstrations, it was essentially a local or regional movement. Both the Bay Area and Santa Cruz had the progressive political culture and institutional resources to back up large and vibrant protest movements. In both areas there were teach-ins and demonstrations before the war began; these began to draw large numbers of people in late November, December, and early January, as it seemed increasingly likely that there would be a war. On January 6, an antiwar interfaith service at St. Mary's Cathedral drew 6,000 participants. On January 13, an antiwar rally in Santa Cruz drew a crowd of 6,500, to that date the largest demonstration ever held in that city. In both Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, however, the focus was on planning for a response after war was declared.

In the Bay Area, the Pledge of Resistance, in coordination with other local peace organizations, announced that there would be a demonstration and civil disobedience at the Federal Building in San Francisco the morning after war was declared. When Bush announced January 15th as the deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal, the Pledge circulated word that there would be a demonstration on the morning of the 15th. About 10,000 people arrived early in the morning to protest, and a decision was made on the spot to take over the Bay Bridge, which was shut down for several hours; about 1,000 arrests were made. Bombing began in the afternoon of the next day. The Pledge of Resistance has its roots in the religious peace and social justice community; in the Bay Area it represents the radical wing of that community and forms a bridge between the church-based protest movement and the Left more generally.

The demonstration on the 15th, like all demonstrations organized by the Pledge, was nonviolent and it featured the participation of the various communities making up the peace movement. On one side of the Federal Building, the gay and lesbian community led the protest; straight people were welcome, but were requested to join in gay and lesbian chants. On another side of the building, religious activists, some of them in robes, led a protest that included prayer in various traditions. On yet another side, women led the protest; women linked arms, forming a wall and holding an antiwar banner that spanned the lengths of the building. On the fourth side of the building, protest was led by the Central America solidarity community. The next day the bombing began; in the evening, protesters again took to the streets, this time under the aegis of the more anarchist-oriented wing of the movement, and this time with a more confrontational approach. The next morning the Pledge again held a major demonstration at the Federal Building, drawing an even larger number of protesters. Again the protests on the various sides of the building were led by various sections of the antiwar movement; this time the environmental movement took the place of the Central America activists; they brought oil barrels and held banners protesting the impact of war on the environment. The same morning, the Pledge held a demonstration at the stock exchange, closing it down. These demonstrations resulted in about 1,300 arrests.

In Santa Cruz, the student antiwar coalition had announced that if bombing began during the day, protesters would gather at the quarry, the large meeting site at the center of the campus, and march downtown together and join with townspeople for an antiwar demonstration; the university would then be closed for two days. When the bombing began, student activists went from classroom to classroom announcing that war had begun. Most classes ended; several thousand students and faculty met at the quarry and marched downtown together to join a demonstration of about 8,000 people, the largest demonstration that Santa Cruz had ever seen. In the days preceding, a hastily organized faculty antiwar group had promised to support the undergraduate call for a strike by calling off classes for two days; a parallel organization of graduate students had also given its support to the strike. For two days, the campus was effectively closed down; for those two days, and for about 10 days after that, there were so many demonstrations and antiwar events of all kinds that even with type set in the smallest available size, it was difficult for the staff of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze, a downtown peace organization, to crowd them all onto the one-page Persian Gulf Events Calendar, which was published every day and circulated on the campus and in town.

In both the Bay Area and Santa Cruz, the antiwar movement was held together by the combined efforts of the various institutions of the peace movement, which served as information centers and gave the local antiwar movement whatever degree of cohesion it had, and ad hoc groups, mostly, but not entirely, made up of young people, who dropped everything else to organize against the war. In the Bay Area, the main institutions that coordinated activities and served as focal points of information were the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) office in San Francisco and the Pledge of Resistance office in Oakland; the Middle East Peace Action/Middle East Children's Alliance office in Berkeley, a considerably smaller operation than the AFSC and the Pledge, played a similar role on a smaller scale. In Santa Cruz, it was the Resource Center for Nonviolence and, to a lesser degree, the office of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze that performed the same function.

The Pledge of Resistance and the Resource Center for Nonviolence are alternative institutions, foci of progressive political activism in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz. They are staffed by people who have long histories as activists. These institutions, and the people who run them, are respected and trusted by large numbers of activists; they are able to mobilize these networks rapidly. Darla Rucker, who works at the Pledge of Resistance, told me that if the Pledge received a phone call about a political emergency in the afternoon, they could have a demonstration on the streets the evening of the same day, complete with monitors, legal observers, speakers, and sound equipment.(1)

Seven or eight years ago, Darla and most of the other staff at the Pledge were activists in the Livermore Action Group, building a mass movement against the arms race. Now they are the leading movement institution of the East Bay: they are a bureaucracy that keeps a progressive response to U.S. foreign policy alive by holding demonstrations, but they are no longer trying to build a mass organization. The Livermore Action Group brought people into a large organization that collectively decided what actions it would hold. The Pledge calls demonstrations and decides what will happen at these demonstrations; most participants are not part of this decision-making process. The Resource Center in Santa Cruz plays the same role. During the Gulf War, the Resource Center played a crucial role in bringing activists together, initiating and sponsoring demonstrations and educational events. It did not, however, attempt to build a movement based on mass participation.

The Diversity of the Antiwar Movement

Given that both the Bay Area and Santa Cruz have in the past been the sites of progressive and antiwar organizations, movements based on mass participation, it is striking that the most experienced activists in both communities were holding events rather than developing mass organizations. One reason perhaps was that the Gulf Crisis came on so fast and was over so quickly. The war in Vietnam and the arms race both developed more slowly and lasted much longer. Building mass organizations takes time. Furthermore, today's activists, who have experience in struggles based on mass organizations, are now mostly in their 40s and want some stability, as well as political activity, in their lives. The alternative bureaucracies of the peace movement provide at least a minimal degree of stability; building a mass organization would not. Finally, experienced activists sense that this is not the moment to build a mass organization. In a crisis, large numbers of people will come to demonstrations and educational events. They may come with others in settings where they already feel some connection (in neighborhood, workplace, or occupational groups, or in groups based on racial or sexual identity). They are much less likely to join organizations that are defined simply by an issue.

The movement against the Gulf War was, in fact, based on countless groups defined by preexisting affiliations, formal or informal. The impulse to form such groups came partly from a desire for a sense of community in the face of a frightening war and partly from a sense that one had to find a particular vantage point from which to speak out. Among the earliest constituencies to come together against the war were relatives of people in the military. In the East Bay, Parents Against the War, a group that included many people of color, held press conferences, demonstrations, and a weekly vigil against the war. Just Peace, a group of East Bay therapists, began meeting in October to talk about the danger of war and about what they as therapists could do.(2) Other antiwar groups came together around particular skills useful to the antiwar movement: Artists and Writers for Peace, Artists and Videomakers Against War, Poets for Peace.

Gays and Lesbians in the Antiwar Movement

The most vibrant sections of the antiwar movement, especially in San Francisco, were organized not around categories of skill or occupation, but around the more emotionally charged categories of sexual and racial identity. San Francisco's network of politically progressive gay and lesbian organizations provided the strongest and most vital community base for antiwar activism in the city. ACT UP, the largest of San Francisco's radical or at least militant homosexual organizations, had split in two prior to the war, largely over the question of whether the organization should restrict itself to the issue of AIDS (the position taken by Golden Gate ACT UP) or relate the issue of AIDS to broader concerns (the position taken by San Francisco ACT UP). When the build-up toward war began, San Francisco ACT UP quickly became involved in antiwar activity. Golden Gate ACT UP debated the issue for many weeks before eventually endorsing demonstrations against the war. Other gay and lesbian organizations that also played an important role in the antiwar movement were Queer Nation (in particular its antiwar committee, Queer Peace), LAGAI (Lesbians and Gays Against Intervention), formed in the early 1980s to oppose U.S. intervention in Central America, and DAGGER (Dykes' and Gay Guys' Emergency Response), formed in the fall of 1990 to oppose a U.S. military role in the Persian Gulf.

ACT UP, Queer Nation, LEGAI, and DAGGER together sponsored gay and lesbian demonstrations against the war and also served to educate the gay and lesbian community about the war and to draw gays and lesbians to demonstrations and other antiwar events. The homosexual organizations contributed their own flavor to the antiwar demonstrations that took place when the U.S. declared war. On the morning of January 15, in the San Francisco Federal Building demonstration, the gay and lesbian activists who led the protest on one side of the building set a considerably more provocative tone than prevailed on the other sides of the building. Arawn Eibhlyn, a member of San Francisco ACT UP who helped plan the gay/lesbian sector of the demonstration, told me:

We wanted to make sure that there was a strong homosexual tone. We did a queer fashion show; Queer Nation led a kiss-in; people laid out American flags and lay down on them and simulated fucking. Our intention was to show disrespect to the U.S. government, and to make connections between the war and censorship issues. There were straight people as well as gays and lesbians; they were welcome if they were willing to participate in gay chants.

One of those chants went as follows: "Fags suck dicks, dykes lick labia, U.S. out of Saudi Arabia."(3) The gay and lesbian contingents in the January 17 and 26 demonstrations also had their own chants, including "The War: It's a Dick Thing," and "Cut It Out or We'll Cut It Off." Nancy Solomon, a member of San Francisco ACT UP, told me that the latter two chants were led by women; some men joined in, while others couldn't bring themselves to say the words. "It was hilarious to watch straight people react [to the gay and lesbian chants]," she said, and continued:

Some laughed and joined in, some grimaced, some said, "Do you have to chant something as distasteful as that?" To me, it was great. I was part of a group, I was surrounded by friends. For me, gay identity has always gone hand-in-hand with being on the left, being prodeviance, pro-opposition.(4)

The prominent role of gay and lesbian organizations helped to give the movement against the Gulf War a diversity that has often been lacking in U.S. protest movements. People and groups of color were also present in larger numbers than has often been the case in the peace movement. Black, Chicano, Asian American, Native American, and Arab American leaders spoke out against the war; polls showed that people of color, especially African Americans, opposed the war in considerably higher proportions than did whites. In the Bay Area, the most visible antiwar organization of people of color was Roots Against War, or RAW, a group made up of people of a variety of racial backgrounds.(5)

Roots Against War: People of Color in the Antiwar Movement

RAW began at a forum held at San Francisco State University in mid-December that featured Tahan Jones, an African American conscientious objector to the war. After the speech, Abdi Jibril, a San Francisco State student, stood up and called for people of color to come together and form their own antiwar organization. About 10 people met in response to this call; by the time the war began, meetings were attracting 50 or 60 people. The majority of RAW members were in their 20s, though a few were in their teens, and a few in their 40s and 50s. Some were students at San Francisco State or at the University of California, Berkeley; some were former students at those universities or others. Initially, RAW drew mainly African Americans and Latinos, but by the time the war began it also included Asians, Palestinians, and Pacific Islanders. A considerable number of RAW members had backgrounds in other radical activities, mostly in the anarchist community or in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a Maoist group that many independent activists in the Bay Area have looked upon with considerable suspicion. Many RAW members with backgrounds in left organizations were tired of being used as tokens, being constantly called upon to speak or perform other functions to demonstrate the group's commitment to opposing racism. RAW members with left backgrounds also brought with them a determination to oppose the war militantly and uncompromisingly. While most of the antiwar movement was making public statements of support for the U.S. troops in the Middle East to avoid being labeled as anti-American, RAW took the position of supporting the troops that refused to go, and those that came home, but declining to give its support to the troops carrying out the war.

RAW held antiwar forums, directed primarily at an audience of people of color, and put out leaflets urging people of color to attend antiwar demonstrations. RAW led a demonstration through San Francisco's largely Latino Mission District on the afternoon of January 15. RAW members spent a great deal of time in the streets, speaking to people about the war, urging them to join RAW in the antiwar demonstrations. In the demonstrations themselves, the RAW contingent provided a burst of energy. Some RAW members brought conga drums; others danced. They carried posters with Malcolm X's portrait and antiwar signs and banners in Spanish as well as English. Many people of color joined the RAW contingent during the marches; some subsequently came to RAW meetings.

Although most RAW members were students, former students, or in some way connected to the universities, RAW considered itself a community organization rather than a university-based organization. During the war, RAW held marches through Latino and African American neighborhoods, and held antiwar rallies in these communities. On the whole, they were not welcomed. On one of these marches they entered the courtyard of Valencia Gardens, a housing project inhabited largely by poor African Americans and Latinos, holding banners with Malcolm X's portrait; speakers urged the residents to oppose the war and join them in demonstrating against it. People in the courtyard shouted at them, "Get out of here, leave us alone." The RAW contingent left; a few stayed behind and asked Valencia Gardens residents why they had been so hostile. "You're bringing the police into this neighborhood with your march," the RAW members were told. "Besides, what are you doing for this community? Don't come here and preach to us about the war; we have enough problems of our own." At evaluation meetings held by RAW after the war, some members raised questions about whether it had been appropriate for them to describe RAW as a community organization. After all, most of its members were college students or college educated, from middle-class backgrounds; few had connections to the poor and working class that the term "community" was meant to suggest. RAW then decided to redefine itself as a university-oriented organization.

In the weeks before and during the war, conflicts within RAW had to do with issues of identity in an organization that was quite heterogeneous, and not only by race. In fact, there was little, if any, conflict between members of different races. The conflict that emerged had to do with the difficulties of building an organization composed of men and women, gays, lesbians, and straight people, and also conflicts between people whose parents were both of one race, and those with mixed racial backgrounds. Women, who at one point made up about 75% of the organization, felt that men nevertheless were dominant. Speakers at Raw-sponsored forums were often contacted and invited in haste; some made remarks in their speeches that violated the political principles of at least some RAW members. In a discussion of rap music at one forum, a speaker made what were taken to be sexist remarks; at another forum, remarks that were taken to be homophobic were made. This heightened tensions within RAW between homosexual and straight people. About one-third of the African Americans in RAW had one white parent; at times, such people were accused of being white, not really understanding the Black experience. The rapidity of events and the pressure to respond quickly made it difficult for RAW to deal with any of these tensions; discussions of them were continually put off to the next meeting. Despite these tensions, for the most part RAW members worked together well. If the antiwar movement had lasted longer, however, issues such as these would no doubt have become more pressing.

The issues of identity that emerged in RAW pervaded the Bay Area antiwar movement. While the established peace organizations, the churches, and, to a lesser extent, some Bay Area labor unions provided the institutional backbone of the movement, the more informal groups that did much of the campus and community organizing were frequently defined around sexual, racial, or gender identity. Groups of people of color opposing the war, besides RAW, included the African Americans for Peace and Justice, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, the Chicano Moratorium, and the Raza United Against the War. Furthermore, for many activists, issues of identity emerged, or became more salient, during the war. Some activists, belonging to an organization defined in terms of one identity, found themselves caught up in issues posed by another aspect of their identity. Members of RAW found themselves in conflict over issues of homosexual/straight and male/female relations; many gay and lesbian activists found themselves confronting issues of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism.

The Debate over Anti-Semitism

Kate Raphael, a member of DAGGER (Dykes' and Gay Guys' Emergency Response), told me that there was tension within the gay and lesbian community over the question of Israel. A group called Queer Jews for Peace was formed; some of its members felt that groups such as DAGGER, which were critical of Israel, were anti-Semitic. Kate pointed out that there have always been large numbers of Jews in the peace movement; in DAGGER, all of the lesbians, and some of the gay men, were Jews. All were critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Kate said that some DAGGER members questioned the right of Israel to exist as Jewish state, but that she did not agree. Kate and many other Jews in DAGGER became increasingly aware of expressions of anti-Semitism outside and within the peace movement: it seemed as if the war somehow allowed people to say things that ordinarily they would refrain from. Kate said that as the daughter of a holocaust survivor, with a vivid awareness of the history of Nazism in Germany, it made her very uneasy when antiwar speakers spoke of wealthy Jews supporting the war effort, or blamed Bush's policies on the influence of the Israel lobby.

There was little acknowledgment, Kate said, of the role of Jews in the peace movement; instead, she saw non-Jews trying to distance themselves from the Jewish left, or from Jews. She saw this most often, she said, on the part of white men associated with the sectarian left; she suspected that they were trying to impress people of color, believing (erroneously, Kate thought) that people of color in the antiwar movement were receptive to anti-Semitism. She mentioned signs that she saw at rallies reading "No War for Jews," and statements in the left press to the effect that "once again the Israeli dog wags the American tail." She pointed out that if a Jew supported the war or took an ambiguous position on it, someone was sure to point out that that person was a Jew; if a Jew opposed the war, the fact that he or she was a Jew was likely to go unmentioned; a Jewish opponent of the war seemed not to count as a Jew. Kate said that she heard a speech by Willamette Brown, a lesbian Black activist, who mentioned her disappointment with "the Jewish perspective" on the war. "People wouldn't do that to any other group," Kate said. "No one would assume that one Black speaks for the entire community."(6)

Jews who were opposed to the war did so in the context of an organized Jewish community that for at least the last three decades has been overwhelmingly associated and identified with Israel. Most liberal Jews distanced themselves from the tradition of progressive politics that the Jewish left of the first part of this century represented, a tradition that is continued by the large number of individual Jews who continue to participate in progressive movements, but who generally do not do so explicitly as Jews. In recent years, the division between conservative Jewish organizations and progressive Jews who do not form any coherent community has begun to break down somewhat. There were a number of Jewish groups in the Bay Area, such as the International Jewish Peace Union, that spoke out quickly against U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Yet the International Jewish Peace Union is small and has little in the way of resources.

It was Tikkun, the Jewish national magazine published in the Bay Area, that was taken by activists and others in the Bay Area and beyond to be the voice of the progressive or, perhaps more accurately, liberal Jewish community. Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, waffled on the question of the war. In an article in the November-December issue of Tikkun, he wrote that he was torn between the progressive within him who opposed U.S. intervention and the Jew who feared for the security of Israel and wanted Saddam destroyed. He called for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. He accused those in the peace movement who publicly criticized Israel of anti-Semitism.(7) Perhaps in part because of the outraged response from many Tikkun subscribers and others to a call for a first strike, Lerner changed his position. Under the auspices of Tikkun, he held a Jewish teach-in against the war, at which he called for Jews to oppose Bush's war. He apologized for his earlier support of military intervention and called upon others who might also have supported the war at first to rethink their positions as he had. Yet he continued to identify criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism.

In the Bay Area, the role of identity politics in the antiwar movement was positive in many ways. Gay and lesbian organizations played a major role in the antiwar movement and their constituencies were probably more mobilized against the war than any other single community in the area. Gay and lesbian organizations as well as organizations of people of color gave the movement flair, creativity, and energy. The prominent role of these organizations gave many gay activists, and activists of color, a sense that they were no longer simply supporting someone else's movement; this was their movement as well. Nancy Solomon argued that it was identity politics that gave the movement its sense of rootedness in community and also its streak of defiance:

What's good about the idea of queer identity is that it's trying to encompass any kind of outrageous thing that you can think of. It's pro-sex, pro-deviance, shave your head and dye it purple. A friend of mine is - what's the politically correct term for it? - well, overweight, a big, black dyke, with short black hair, and she wears a black leather jacket. There's no assimilation here. To me, that's what's vibrant and great about this new politics. Her identity is multilayered, and it's completely in-your-face, this is who I am and I don't care what you think.

Nancy Solomon, who like Kate Raphael had been disturbed by the indications of anti-Semitism that she saw during the war, pointed out that having a multilayered identity, in her case that of a lesbian and a Jew, often meant conflict with others in those communities. "I would be comfortable challenging homophobia in a Jewish organization, or challenging anti-Semitism in a queer organization," she said. "But I'd rather be challenging anti-Semitism in a queer organization because that's my community, that's where the social opportunities are for me. I'd hate to be a heterosexual these days," she said, "especially a heterosexual looking for a relationship, or for a community. There used to be a left community, but it just isn't there any more."(8)

The politics of identity worked better for some people than for others: it drew upon communities defined by their oppression or marginalization in terms of sexual orientation or race. It was not nearly as helpful in fostering the development of other kinds of communities. Especially after the war began, there were many people who wanted somewhere to go, some community to be part of. For those who did not fit into any of the identity-based groups, or who did not understand their opposition to the war in those terms, there was often no place to go. The Middle East Peace Action, an ad hoc committee that had come together to organize demonstrations and other events, was swamped with phone calls from people who wanted to come to meetings; unsure of how to incorporate all these people and afraid that suddenly opening up our meetings would destroy our capacity to organize antiwar events, we simply told them to go away.

Politics of Identity in the Antiwar Movement

The politics of identity were also a major factor in the antiwar movement in Santa Cruz, especially on the UCSC campus where for several years undergraduate politics and student government has been dominated by a number of identity-based organizations: MECHA (an organization of Chicano/Chicana students), ABSA (the African-Black Student Alliance), APISA (Asian/Pacific Islanders' Student Alliance), and, more recently, the Progressive Jewish Student Union. MECHA, ABSA, APISA, and a large number of other organizations based on particular racial/ethnic identities make up the Third World Core, a coalition of organizations of students of color. These organizations have played an increasingly prominent role in the Student Union Assembly.

Early in the fall quarter, a small group of students came together to educate the campus about, and mobilize it against, what appeared to be an impending war in the Middle East. These students were white; their organization, which they called the SCSSR (Santa Cruz Students for Social Responsibility), attracted a few students of color, but remained a largely white organization. Their first effort was to circulate a questionnaire asking students, faculty, and staff if they would support a shutdown of the campus in the event of a war, the responses showed widespread sympathy for a shutdown and also helped generate discussion about the war and other possible responses. SCSSR activists were meanwhile consulting with other student organizations about responses to the war, out of these discussions SCSSR called a meeting to organize an undergraduate antiwar coalition. There was broad participation in the coalition; nevertheless, in the months leading up to the war and during the war itself, it was SCSSR activists who did most of the work in mobilizing what turned out to be a very impressive campus antiwar movement, including a two-day shutdown of the campus and many demonstrations, teach-ins, forums, and other events. SCSSR members essentially became the staff of the student coalition, doing antiwar work in the name of (and subject to the control of) the student antiwar coalition.

The solidarity of the coalition remained relatively intact until several weeks into the war when, in the wake of SCUD attacks on Israel, the Progressive Jewish Student Union, a coalition member, announced that it could no longer take a position opposing the war. This set off several weeks of discussion on what the coalition should call itself and, by implication, what stand it should take on the war. Eventually the term "antiwar" was dropped and replaced by the words "peace and justice." Meanwhile, the coalition was falling apart, partly because of internal dissension and partly because of the growing demoralization of the antiwar movement.

After the Progressive Jewish Student Union withdrew its opposition to the war and conflicts within the coalition intensified, Julie Martin, an SCSSR member who had called the coalition together and remained its most active organizer, talked to several members of the faculty antiwar organization. The latter proposed holding a forum on problems of coalition building, with a majority of speakers of color. Julie later told me:

I presented this idea at a coalition meeting and I was told that this was an imperialist policy, that we didn't need a lot of people coming in from the outside. I was told that I was a racist. I said that white people can feel insulted too. One woman said that you can only be insulted if you're a person of color or a Jew. She read a passage from a book about how much people of color and Jews have been victimized. She said I didn't have a right to feel insulted. In fact, I'm a Jew and a lot of people in the room knew it. But I didn't put that out.

Julie said that chairing coalition meetings was extremely difficult, because everyone in the room was intent on representing not just an organization, but a conception: the African American perspective, the Jewish perspective, the gay/lesbian perspective. In fact, she said, the identities were not nearly as neatly parceled out as one would have thought from listening to people's remarks. Though the representative of the Progressive Jewish Student Union (PJSU) spoke in the name of Jews, in fact, about one-third of the members of the coalition were Jewish and many often found themselves in disagreement with positions taken by the PJSU. "The PJSU representative would say, |Jews think such-and-such,' and about a third of the room would squirm," Julie said. "Unfortunately, none of us had the courage to say anything, except privately, among ourselves." There were also many lesbians in the coalition, not all of them representing lesbian or homosexual organizations; on the Santa Cruz campus, as elsewhere, women often play a leading role in political activism and many women leaders in a range of progressive movements are lesbians. There were lesbians representing organizations that did not describe themselves as homosexual; there were students of color representing particular racial groups who were themselves of mixed background. At some point during the war, one of the MECHA representatives discovered that she had a Jewish grandfather and became interested in Jewish issues.

The overlapping of identities within the coalition did not detract from the fervor with which coalition members put forward the views of particular constituencies, or their certainty that they knew what these constituencies thought. Jewish students who disagreed with the Progressive Jewish Student Union found its claims to represent Jews galling. At one point, after a conflict with the PJSU representative, the woman representing BALI (Bisexual and Lesbian Individuals) said in exasperation, "Look, both you and I are queer Jews, so stop giving me a hard time." Charges of racism and anti-Semitism were often uttered in the same breath, and the couplet became a more or less routine part of political discourse. Many of the organizations of students of color were uneasy about civil disobedience, which members of SCSSR and some other white student radicals tended to push for; the students of color were afraid that arrests might lead to the loss of scholarships or other penalties that might jeopardize the careers of students with few resources to fall back upon. A civil disobedience demonstration, organized independently by members of SCSSR, brought on charges that the antiwar movement was racist and anti-Semitic.(9)

SCSSR was treated with suspicion throughout the war by the other organizations in the student coalition, partly because it was predominantly white and partly because it was organized around opposition to the war rather than around an identity. Hacmin Cho, a leader of the Asian/Pacific Islanders' Student Alliance and also the chair of the Student Union, told me that the organizations of students of color were determined that "white issues" should not become the center of student politics - that the concerns of students of color not be marginalized. Also, she said, in their experience, identity provided a solid basis for politics; organizations concerned with issues, rather than identity, tended to come and go and could not be trusted. Furthermore, she said, discussion, or alliance, with people who did not speak from an identity was difficult:

When some people speak from a location, and others don't, then you don't know where you are on any of these issues [of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism]. If I locate myself as a Korean American woman, I can't talk to someone who doesn't locate themself.

She said that she respected the work that SCSSR had done in bringing the student coalition together and in doing most of the work to mobilize the campus against the war, but the fact that SCSSR had no location in identity was a problem.(10)

Part of what was involved in the tensions between SCSSR and other organizations in the student coalition was that SCSSR was a new arrival on the scene of student politics and was nevertheless dominating the student antiwar movement. Another factor was the greater uneasiness of the existing student organizations about antiwar militancy, partly because these organizations had not been formed in order to oppose the war and did not want to jeopardize their main aims. They also did not want to jeopardize their alliance: when the PJSU withdrew its opposition to the war, the other organizations were willing to modify their own opposition partly to avoid undermining an alliance that predated the war and would continue to be important after the war, an alliance that sustains the influence of all these organizations within student politics. Hesitation about a clear and perhaps militant opposition to the war also was reflected in the sense of the students of color that their foothold in the university might be precarious, and in the response of many Jewish students to the danger that the war posed to Israel.

The problems in the coalition also involved a clash between two different ways of understanding politics. The SCSSR was trying to introduce a politics that centered on an issue; this was discordant in a student movement dominated by the idea that politics was an expression of identity, in particular an identity based on oppression or marginalization. The virtue of identity politics is that it insists on the inclusion of groups that are marginalized within society and whose perspective has in the past not been given adequate recognition even within many progressive movements. The danger of identity politics is that it can become reduced to a politics of the self, which in the extreme can mean an interest-group politics in which there is little basis for groups working together and little connection to a progressive vision of overarching social change.

The experience of the antiwar movement on the Santa Cruz campus suggests that here, at least, the language of identity politics has largely taken over, that many student activists do not see any other basis for politics as legitimate. Identity politics seems to be the politics of the 1990s; few undergraduates have experience with any other sort of politics. Santa Cruz is a relatively progressive campus; it is also a center for the poststructuralist/postmodernist intellectual currents that promote particularity and renounce conceptions of universal value. These two influences intersect to encourage a conception of radicalism centered on the defense of particular, marginalized, or oppressed identities. UCSC is also a relatively elite campus. This may also have something to do with the fierceness with which such identities are defended. White and middle-class guilt are important components in the construction of radical politics, though usually unspoken. Identity is an uncertain and fragile matter for many people these days; this is especially true for young people, for whom many categories of identity are not yet fixed, and who often come from backgrounds that are mixed in terms of race or ethnicity. The appeal to identity is one version of a politics of nationalism that in a variety of guises appears to be sweeping many areas of the world. In the wake of the collapse of the socialist world, it often seems difficult to imagine anything but nationalism, or identity, as a basis for politics. It also no doubt expresses the desire for some stable definition of the self, some reliable basis for community, in a society and world where it often seems that everything is in flux.

Why Did the Antiwar Movement Fail?

Since the end of the war there has been much discussion among activists about whether the antiwar movement could have prevented the war, or ended it before so many Iraqis were killed. Some have argued that we made the mistake of opposing the last war, of believing that the Gulf War was a repeat of the Vietnam War, and falling back on a strategy of opposition that was appropriate for the war in Indochina, but did not work this time. At a meeting of the U.C. Berkeley Peace Committee a month or so after the war ended, Peter Dale Scott, Professor of English and antiwar activist, argued that we relied too heavily on demonstrations.(11) He argued that it was as if we were trying to repeat the strategy of the movement against the Vietnam War: the massive demonstrations of 1971 were a major factor in turning the tide against that war. The difference, he pointed out, was that opposition to the war in Vietnam had by that time been building for five or six years, and those demonstrations helped to turn an antiwar minority into a majority. We faced a different situation: we were a small minority in a sea of popular support for the war. It was not enough to "go out and be ourselves on the streets." Demonstrations, Scott said, were appropriate as part of an antiwar strategy, but our main focus should have been on education, on convincing the public that the war was not in the interest of Americans or anyone else.

It is true that many of us thought, or hoped, that we were opposing the last war. Through the fall there was in fact substantial public reluctance to support U.S. military involvement in the Gulf. We hoped that the lessons of Vietnam had held and that the widespread public misgivings of the prewar months could be turned into a fierce majority opposition once war began. We were, of course, wrong: we were caught off guard by the quick and dramatic drop in opposition to war virtually the moment the bombing began. Many of us then found ourselves in the awkward and unhappy position of hoping that the war would last a long time, that the Iraqi opposition would be strong enough to impose substantial costs on the U.S. We were afraid that if the U.S. won a quick and overwhelming victory, the experience would serve to justify the use of force in other conflicts to come. We predicted that the war would be long because we had to make this argument to mobilize opposition. We believed it because our actions were premised on it, and because we guiltily hoped that it would turn out to be true. We quickly learned that we were dealing with a very different kind of war.

As many activists argued after the war was over, it is not clear that the antiwar movement could have done better if we had been able to predict the shift in public opinion toward support of the war, or if we had understood how quickly the U.S. could defeat Iraq. In spite of a shrinking base of support we mobilized massive opposition, especially in the first two weeks after the war began. Despite predictions that this would be a long war, many of us dropped everything else to oppose the war. For 10 days or so, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and many other cities and towns were entirely caught up in antiwar activity. Max Elbaum, in "The Storm at Home,"(12) argues that the Bush administration's intention of winning a military victory over Iraq was determined by factors beyond the control of the antiwar movement. The administration saw its opportunity to greatly enhance U.S. power in the Middle East and believed that the U.S. had the military capacity to win an overwhelming victory; the Soviet Union no longer stood in the way of such plans, and there was not sufficient opposition from Western European governments to pose a serious obstacle. U.S. public opinion swung over to support of the war once it seemed that the U.S. would win easily.

The movements, and constituencies, that made up the antiwar movement in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz mostly fall into the category that over the last 10 years or so has come to be called "the new social movements." According to the terminology introduced by Alain Touraine, Alberto Melucci, and other European social analysts - and now increasingly adopted by analysts in the U.S. as well - the "old social movements," the movements of the 19th century and the first several decades of the 20th, were those organized around class, especially the movements of the working class. These movements, often defining themselves as socialist, regarded sustained organization as a necessity and tended toward hierarchy and bureaucracy. The "new social movements" are those of the 1960s and beyond, those organized around issues and identities not immediately related to class; these movements have often been infused with an anarchist sensibility, rejected institutional politics, and attempted to work outside of it.(13) The women's movement, the gay and lesbian movements, and movements of people of color are all examples of movements concerned with the redefinition of social identity and the defense or creation of communities around those identities. The peace movement and the environmental movement are examples of movements concerned with issues that transcend or at least operate at a remove from issues of class. These have been among the most vital movements of the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. It was from these arenas that the antiwar movement emerged.

To the extent that "New Social Movement" theory recommends a strategy or direction for the movements of this period, it is a focus on the defense or creation of communities and the articulation of new identities and cultures, or sets of values.(14) The movement against the Gulf War was in large part based on communities engaged in redefining identity, assigning new meaning to identities and social positions that are frequently devalued. In the Bay Area, the gay and lesbian community was the strongest base for antiwar activism and gave the antiwar movement much of its vitality. Groups of people of color also played an important role. On the U.C. Santa Cruz campus, groups organized around sexual and racial identity made up much of the base of the antiwar movement. The women's movement had little organized presence in the antiwar movement in either city, but the movement included at least as many women as men, not only as participants, but also as leaders. Identity politics showed its most positive side off the campus, where small organized groups devoted themselves to mobilizing their constituencies against the war. It showed its most negative side in campus politics, where jockeying for power among various groups was more salient.

The main problem that the Bay Area antiwar movement faced was that it could not win alone. Ultimately, it did not matter how many people in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and the East Bay opposed the war: ending the war required a national movement and a national strategy. The movement in the larger Bay Area flourished as long as it was possible to believe that opposition to the war around the nation was developing. The movement in the Bay Area began to collapse 10 days or so after the war began, largely because it had become clear that in the nation as a whole support for the war was overwhelming.

In looking back over the experience of the antiwar movement in the larger Bay Area, I see two factors that caused serious problems: a strain within identity politics that magnified internal divisions in the movement and the absence of any forum for arriving at a national strategy. The latter seems to me to have been by far the more serious of the two problems. The strength of the Bay Area antiwar movement reflected the strength of a progressive culture and the fact that a few progressive institutions have survived the Reagan era. The weakness of the antiwar movement was that it expressed what amounted to a counterculture, rather than a national political force. A war cannot be effectively opposed by a local counterculture or even a series of loosely linked countercultures in various parts of the country.

Such a judgment raises the question: What are the prospects for progressive politics at a time when so many social movements are organized around identities? Identity politics can degenerate into interest-group politics, with the divisiveness that that implies. This is not meant as an argument against particular groups organizing themselves on behalf of their own concerns. The question is whether those concerns are seen in a broader context, making ongoing alliances possible and also whether the emphasis is placed on attaining the group's aims or policing its boundaries. That a movement is based on a particular community is not itself a problem; in fact, a movement's ability to maintain its connection to a broader community is often a source of vitality. The fact that the Civil Rights Movement was able to sustain its connection to the Black communities of the South, especially the Black churches, was a source of great strength. Problems are more likely to emerge when the community in question is unable to take itself for granted, but instead is engaged in staking out its boundaries. If this process becomes a salient part of a movement's agenda, Problems quickly emerge: conflicts over who is in and who is out, an assumption that there is such a thing as the Black, or female, or gay, perspective, and pressures on members of those and other groups to adopt the perspectives assigned to them.

In many social movements that have emerged more recently, identity has become a more salient issue. This is probably largely because so many aspects of identity are undergoing rapid change and because the assertion of identity appears to hold out a solid basis for community, which many people otherwise experience as thin and unreliable. Social movements cannot win people's loyalties or provide people with a base for political activity without addressing these issues. Yet there is a delicate balance between two dangers: the first, of ignoring these concerns, and the second, of getting lost in them. When the creation of community becomes an end in itself, conflict is driven underground, the community becomes static and people begin to leave. When the assertion of identity becomes an end in itself, differences - often including spurious distinctions - quickly take precedence over shared concerns, communication deteriorates, and the basis for a broad movement or effective political action evaporates. These are the problems of a movement in decline, or in remission. If the movement against the Gulf War had grown, opposition to the war would have created a sense of unity; difference and particularity would probably not have overwhelmed that sense of unity, but would have emerged within it and with luck would have prodded it forward. At moments such as the present, when there seems to be no basis for unity, it seems to me that it is important nevertheless to remember that the assertion of identity is only one side of an ongoing tension between the need for autonomy and the need for a more inclusive collectivity.


(1.) Interview with Darla Rucker, June 12, 1991, Oakland. (2.) Interview with Andrea Aidells, June 26, 1991, Berkeley. (3.) Interview with Arawn Eibhlyn, June 27, 1991, San Francisco. (4.) Interview with Nancy Solomon, June 28, 1990, San Francisco. (5.) This account of Roots Against War is based on an interview with Tanya Mayo, May 17, 1991. (6.) Interview with Kate Raphael, May 24, 1991, San Francisco. (7.) Michael Larner (1990). (8.) Interview with Nancy Solomon, June 28, 1990, San Francisco. (9.) Interview with Julie Martin, June 1, 1991, Santa Cruz. (10.) Interview with Amy Cho, June 13, 1991, Santa Cruz. (11.) Meeting of the U.C. Berkeley Peace Committee, April 8, 1991. Scott Kennedy of the Resource Center for Nonviolence made a similar argument at a conference to evaluate the antiwar movement in Santa Cruz, June 1, 1991. (12.) Max Elbaum (1991). (13.) For a description of what is meant by "new social movements," see Boggs (1986). For discussions of construction of identity and meaning as elements in the politics of the new social movements, see Melucci (1985) and Offe (1985). (14.) For discussions of strategy or direction for the new social movements, see Laclau and Mouffe (1985), Melucci (1989), and Tourain (I 988).


Boggs, Carl 1986 Social Movements and Political Power: Emerging Forms of Radicalism in the West. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Elbaum, Max 1991 "The War at Home." Crossroads 9 (April): 21-22. Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe 1985 Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso. Lemer, Michael 1990 "My Inner Conflict about Iraq." Tikkun (November-December): 48-57. Melucci, Alberto 1989 Nomads of the Present. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1985 The Symbolic Challenge of Contemporary Movements." Social Research 52, 4 (Winter): 789-816. Offe, Claus 1985 "New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics." Social Research 52, 4 (Winter): 817-867. Tourain, Alain 1988 Return of the Actor: Social Theory in Postindustrial Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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Author:Epstein, Barbara
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Mar 22, 1992
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