By Sarah Lazare, Courage to Resist. Published by AlterNet. March 5, 2009
The milk frother screams as a couple of young soldiers in camouflaged combat uniforms peruse the lit table. All around them are the familiar surroundings of a coffeehouse: posters on the wall, tables and chairs, and shelves stuffed with used books. Yet this café, just across the street from the sprawling Ft. Lewis Army Base in Washington, is not your ordinary coffeehouse. “Support War Resisters: Iraq Veterans Against the War,” reads a huge banner on the wall. GI Rights handcards sit next to the cash register and manuals about “getting out” cover the lit table. Social movement history books fill the bookshelves, and a picture on the wall shows a soldier throwing a grenade with a caption that reads, “What am I doing here?” The sign on the front window declares “COFFEE STRONG. Veteran Owned and Operated.”
Opened four months ago, COFFEE STRONG provides a free Americano, as well as wireless internet and computer use, to all military enlisted persons. More importantly, it provides a space off-base for soldiers to question their service, talk about the war, and explore the possibilities of GI resistance. When GIs walk in, they are met with information about topics ranging from GI resistance to counseling and advocacy services for veterans. And they are greeted by a barista who is himself a young veteran against the war.
COFFEE STRONG follows in the tradition of the GI coffeehouse movement of the 60s and 70s, when anti-war activists and resisting GIs set up coffeehouses at several military bases throughout the U.S. — from Colorado Springs, CO to Tacoma, WA, to Maldraugh, KY — to provide a physical space for anti-war GIs to congregate, speak freely, and strategize their role in the anti-war movement. GI resistance during the Vietnam War was a key factor in forcing the United States to end the war.
This GI coffeehouse, 40 miles south of Seattle, joins a handful of cafes that have sprung up at U.S. military bases since the beginning of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Different Drummer Cafe, at Ft. Drum in upstate New York, aims to promote “the free and uncensored exchange of ideas and information among active duty and reserve military personnel and civilians.” Under the Hood Coffeehouse in Ft. Hood, Texas, and the Off Base café in Norfolk, Virginia, also provide places for active duty troops to question their own participation in war.
At a time when the Obama Administration has announced plans to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, in addition to the 36,000 that are already there, these GI coffeehouses reach out to a population facing the possibility of imminent deployment.
We had the opportunity to speak with two of the key organizers of COFFEE STRONG: Seth Manzel and Michael William. In this interview, Seth Manzel talks about the vision and goals of the GI coffeehouse. And Michael William discusses the nuts and bolts of getting the coffeehouse up and running. Both are active members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
Courage to Resist: What was the original vision of COFFEE STRONG?
Seth Manzel: Originally we started out with the idea of having a web page, radio station, and coffeehouse. The purpose was to promote general awareness of veterans’ issues and to promote GI rights and GI resistance. The radio station played music, as well as speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky, and Malcom X.
We had never envisioned that the coffeehouse would turn out so nice, because we thought we couldn’t get the money for it. But it turned out pretty good.
Courage to Resist: What were some of the goals you hoped to achieve by creating COFFEE STRONG?
Seth Manzel: To give people in the military and veterans a space and voice to express themselves. The coffeeshop is supposed to be a place where they can express themselves freely.
Courage to Resist: What kind of reaction do you get from active duty GIs?
Seth Manzel: Overwhelmingly positive, with the exception of one who referred to GI rights people as barracks lawyers. I haven’t heard of any negative reactions besides that. Everyone has been pretty positive.
Courage to Resist: What about literature?
Seth Manzel: Yeah, we have lit available on stuff from GI rights to military rape to job mentoring after they separate from the military. Also, we have free books for soldiers. We put out a call on the internet to get free books from people, to get soldiers involved in the movement.
Courage to Resist: So do you feel that the coffeehouse is living up to the vision set out with?
Seth Manzel: Yes it is. The primary goal is promoting ideas and providing space for soldiers, and it has met that goal. As far as creating a movement in the military, we have been working hard on that and we need to be diligent about promoting ourselves to soldiers. If we want to turn this into something that has a strong effect on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to work even harder.
Courage to Resist: Has COFFEE STRONG helped you build the local IVAW chapter?
Seth Manzel: Some people have come and taken membership forms and I know numbers have gone up. There is a lag time between people finding out about IVAW and people actually signing up. I know regularly have to replace membership forms, which means people are taking them. The coffeehouse has also been a tool to activate the existing membership and give them a place to go regularly.
Courage to Resist: How many active duty troops are involved in local anti-war stuff?
Seth Manzel: We have two. One is our secretary and the other is a soldier who comes in from time to time. We have a constant turnover because people come in and out of the army. It is hard to keep a constant base of active duty people.
Courage to Resist: When people come in, how do you engage them?
Seth Manzel: Generally they are a little mystified about what we are there for when they see sign on the wall we support war resisters. They ask us how long we have been here. We tell them about the project and about GI rights and VA benefits and things like that, and usually that gets people pretty excited.
The military has said that they will treat us like any other business. As far as being blacklisted, the Shelter Half, which was the GI coffeehouse that was here during the Vietnam War, was blacklisted. The Shelter Half sued the army and won, and the army had to take them off the list. Since then, the army has been careful. If they blacklisted us, it would be the best publicity we could get. Attendance would double.
Courage to Resist: Do you see COFFEE STRONG as a part of the larger coffeehouse movement?
Seth Manzel: Yeah absolutely. Since we’ve opened, there have been two more coffeehouses that have opened their doors. We see it as a growing thing. The Different Drummer Coffeehouse is having trouble keeping their doors open. We hope they can get the financial help they need. I have heard rumors of people trying to start a fifth coffeehouse in Colorado. We hope that eventually there will be one in every military base in the nation.
Courage to Resist: What significance does Obama’ plan to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan have for your work here?
Seth Manzel: I think it gives it more significance because Afghanistan is kind of the forgotten war. A lot of people are returning from Afghanistan with the same problems they return from Iraq with, yet they are less recognized for it. We plan to oppose the conflict in Afghanistan with the same energy we oppose the conflict in Iraq.
Courage to Resist: What motivates you to do this kind of work?
Seth Manzel: I did a lot to wrong the world at one point when I was deployed to Iraq. I know I can never make amends for that but I can do my best to prevent more wrongs from done.
Courage to Resist: First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in COFFEE STRONG.
Michael William: I became involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War a few months after I went AWOL back in fall 2007 and I was working as a barista in downtown Seattle. I’ve been working as a barista since 2004 I believe, since I was a student at the University of Washington. I heard about this project when it was just a pipedream, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. It seemed like a perfect fit so I asked Seth if I could be a barista, and he said sure thing. So I started promoting our fundraisers pretty heavily.
Courage to Resist: In what way was it a perfect fit?
Michael William: Well, I’m dedicated to the cause and I know how to make good coffee!
Courage to Resist: And how did you all get to the point where the pipe dream turned into a reality? How did you make the cafe happen?
Michael William: I helped them put together a list of everything we needed to get started. I scoped out the business before we acquired it. I’ve also secured free coffee from one of the best roasters in Seattle, Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
Courage to Resist: Did it take a whole community of people to get the coffeehouse off the ground?
Michael William: Oh definitely. There were news articles about us, for instance, and then Tom Tully O’keefe read one of these (he’s the CEO of Tully’s) and he decided he wanted to help us out. So he contacted Seth and set us up with free equipment. It was so wonderful. I got to tour the Tully’s warehouse and pick out the equipment!
Courage to Resist: You get other donations from the community as well, right?
Michael William: Oh yeah. Everything we have is donated. Our website, coffeestrong.com lists all of the things we need. I also make announcements and updates on Facebook. And then people send us stuff. For instance, i really wanted a piano for the joint, and then one day i get a call from one of our supporters and she’s picking up a piano from goodwill.
The coolest thing that gets sent our way is the resources and services for soldiers veterans and their family members.
Courage to Resist: It sounds like people are excited about what you are doing and want to support it.
Michael William: Yeah, I mean, we didn’t open this place just to sell coffee or play piano.
Courage to Resist: What advice would you have for folks who are interested in starting their own GI coffeehouse or supporting yours?
Michael William: First, locate local resources. If you want to know who is involved in your area with GI rights counseling, call the GI Rights Hotline: 877-447-4487.
Seth had already created GI Voice, a corporate structure through which all the business is taken care of, and to tell you the truth, I do not know what steps it takes to do that, to get a corporate charter.
You need to scout out the area you have in mind, look at the prices for rent, and put together a budget.
If people want to know the fine details on what you need to get a place up and running, we would really recommend that they call us.
But I also want to point out that if people want to do something similar to this they don’t necessarily need to have a coffeehouse. They could also start an antiwar bookstore or other sort of business. People should get creative about what they are doing, so long as they are making it a priority to get resources to soldiers, veterans and their family members. Really, any environment where troops hang out.
To find out more about COFFEE STRONG, go to www.coffeestrong.com
Sarah Lazare is the Project Coordinator of Courage to Resist, an organization that supports military war resisters.