“The anti-war movement needs a strategy of how we are going to stop the war and occupation of Iraq. People power is an assertion of real democracy. Every successful movement in U.S. history, from the workers and civil rights movement to today’s farmworker-led Taco Bell boycott, and every dictator toppled in recent history have relied on people power methods.”  by David Solnit, AlterNet. Posted February 18, 2005.


Shelter Under the Anti-war Umbrella

As the atrocities of the occupation of Iraq continue to mount, at the same time, the war at home has been taking billions from schools, healthcare, Social Security, wages and benefits and our communities and transferring them to corporations, the wealthy and war. But where are the outraged thousands in the streets? Where did all of us anti-warriors go? What will it take?

The world seems to be waiting for those of us in the U.S. – and millions of us here are ready – to really stand up to the Bush administration and the bipartisan policies of empire. But it’s hard to mobilize against the war and occupation when there is no clear logic to where our efforts are headed. What will another march or even nonviolent direct action add up to? How will we actually stop the war and occupation? Where is a strategy that could work?

The anti-war movement needs a strategy of how we are going to stop the war and occupation of Iraq.

The solution is written in last month’s mountain road blockades and the citywide shutdown of El Alto, Bolivia that kicked out water privatizing transnational corporation Suez from devastating their water system. It’s also in our own re-written history. It’s called people power.

In 2003 we tried almost everything to stop the invasion of Iraq, and in 2004 we tried to un-elect the invader. Both times, incredible groundswells of grassroots activism from most nearly every sector of society hit the streets and doorsteps of America and won important, less visible victories, but failed on both counts.

We have clearly and massively exhausted the established channels of change; political pressure, lobbying and elections have not worked. It’s time for a different approach.

People power is an assertion of real democracy. It can assert the democratic will of communities and movements to change the things that matter when the established so-called democratic channels turn out be little more than public relations for elite rule. Every successful movement in U.S. history, from the workers and civil rights movement to today’s farmworker-led Taco Bell boycott, and every dictator toppled in recent history have relied on people power methods.

A people power strategy that identifies the key pillars that support the Iraq war and occupation and wages a determined campaign to weaken and eventually remove those pillars can stop the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. It can also take a major step in weakening the systemic pillars of empire at the root of so many problems in our communities and in the world. Do we have the guts and imagination?

Power to the People

Author and activist trainer George Lakey describes the people power strategy employed in former Yugoslavia, in his article “Strategy for a Living Revolution.” He explains the group Otpur’s (Serbian for “resistance”) effort to oust Slobodan Milosevic by toppling the “pillars” that were supporting him:

One pillar of support for Milosevic was his police. Otpur systematically undermined that pillar. They took photos of their wounded. They enlarged the photos, put them on signs, and carried the signs in front of the houses of the police who hurt them. They talked to the cop’s neighbors about it, took the signs to the schools of the police officers’ children and talked with the children about it. After a year of this, police were plainly reluctant to beat Otpur activists even when ordered to do so, because they didn’t want the negative reactions of their family, friends, and neighbors. When the movement ripened into a full-fledged insurgency in Belgrade, many police were sent out of the city by their commanders while other police simply watched the crowds take over the Parliament building.

In the lead up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, as the world protested and pressured the warmongers to stop, some parts of the anti-war movements began to turn towards a people-power approach. In Ireland, a campaign of protest and direct action at Shannon Air Force Base successfully stopped it from being used as a major refueling stop for troop and supply flights on their way to Iraq. In Britain some dockworkers refused to load supplies for the U.S. war. In Italy activists blocked trains moving supplies for the war. In Turkey, mass protests forced the government to refuse to let the nation be used as a staging base for the invasion, which U.S. war planners had taken for granted.

In San Francisco, Direct Action to Stop the War called for a next-day shutdown of the city’s financial district if the U.S. invaded Iraq. The well-publicized goals of the shutdown said in part, “We will impose real economic, social and political costs and stop business as usual until the war stops … with the express intention of deterring a war in Iraq and future wars.” A diverse San Francisco Bay Area anti-war movement united around this common framework. On March 19, 2003 the U.S. began its invasion. The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted San Francisco police officer Drew Cohen as saying, “They succeeded this morning – they shut the city down. They’re highly organized but they are totally spontaneous. The protesters are always one step ahead of us. ”

Over the next ten weeks a series of mass actions imposed an economic, political and social cost on Bay Area corporate war profiteers. Actions disrupted and publicized the war profiteering at the headquarters of Chevron Texaco, Lockheed Martin and Bechtel. But, lacking a strategy, the actions became less frequent and the numbers smaller.

What if we, locally or national or internationally, had agreed on a long-term people power strategy that would place our direct action – and our education, grassroots organizing and demonstrations – into a longer term people power strategic framework? We could then pick our tactics and campaigns based on a shared understanding that we were not just trying to have our voices heard and influence those in power, but we were actually asserting our own power and withdrawing the sources of power or pillars of support for the war and occupation of Iraq and empire building policies. What if we do it now?

Pillars of War

A people power strategy to stop the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq means first identifying the key pillars of support, then waging campaigns to weaken or remove those pillars. Three key pillars are troops, corporate profiteers, and corporate media disinformation.


The Bush administration can’t fight war or maintain an occupation without troops – or without obedient troops. Nor can they begin new wars without enough compliant soldiers. This pillar could be weakened with campaigns to support troops and National Guard (or private or government employees) who refuse deployment or orders in compliance with international law; counter-recruit to reduce the military’s ability to recruit young people – disproportionately low-income and of color; and to resist the draft and draft registration by supporting young men to refuse to register for the selective service and prepare for mass resistance to a possible draft.

Former career military vet Stan Goff said recently, “Every successful revolution requires either the neutralization or active participation of military people. It’s really time we factor that into our thinking. It’s time we thought about organizing within the military. And organizing is not helping out a handful of conscientious objectors (though that is important) or dropping into Fayetteville with anti-war petitions for GIs to sign. Organizing is getting to know them, listening to them, building relationships with them, and standing alongside them when they confront their own institution.”

Corporate Profiteers

Corporations are essential to continuing the war and occupation in Iraq and forcing them to withdraw their participation would shut down essential parts and motives for the war and occupation.

There are four main types of corporate involvement in the war and occupation:

* Mercenary “private security” corporations providing logistics and services, like CACI, who provides interrogators, including those involved in Abu Ghraib torture.
* “Reconstruction” contractors, like Bechtel, which has already been paid $680 million while failing to restore Iraq’s water, sewage or electricity systems and still has over $2 billion in contracts.
* Privatizers: Corporations who are working towards privatizing Iraq’s economy, such as Chevron Texaco, which is poised to reap trillions of dollars off of the potential privatization of Iraq’s oil sector.
* Manufacturers of weapons and military supplies, like Lockheed-Martin.

This pillar of the war and occupation can be weakened through aggressive, relentless and innovative anti-corporate campaigns. These campaigns can create economic, political and social cost to profiting from war and occupation so that these corporations may be forced to pull out from profiting from the Iraq war and occupation.

Corporate Media Disinformation

Corporate media’s steady stream of lies, distortions and repetition of the Bush administration “war on terror” assumptions was essential in propagating the pretense for the invasion and is key to maintaining some level of public support for the war and occupation. Imagine if switching to independent media sources had been a key component of all the anti-war organizing over the last two years – millions of people might have switched.

We can weaken this pillar by media accountability campaigns to educate the public to become critical of media bias, and possibly to curb some of the most outrageous lies and distortions. Additionally, independent media advocacy campaigns could set goals of switching over large numbers of people from watching/listening/reading corporate media to watching/listening/reading more alternative media.

A Shared Strategy Framework

Leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion or up to the 2004 elections many had a shared strategic framework – a sense that everyone was doing what they could in their own way, but that we were working together and it was complementary and built on each others’ efforts.

People now are coming to similar conclusions – that we need to turn to people power and find ways we can assert our own power or withdraw our support. It’s clear we are not all going to agree on any one (or two or three) campaigns, but it is possible for us to be proactive and consciously adopt and promote a larger people power strategic framework that makes our various efforts and campaigns complementary and cumulative. I think of it as a massive umbrella under which we can – whether we are a national organization, a local group or a decentralized network – make our efforts add up. We can look for ways to collaborate with people and groups who are resisting the Bush administration and corporations’ efforts to privatize Social Security to cut other critical social programs and to infringe on basic civil liberties, immigrant and workers rights. The war and occupation’s costs alone are reasons to cultivate this collaboration but so is our shared commitment to a better world.

Having wide sectors of the anti-war movements and allied movements understand and support a people power strategic framework is the first step. Being able to clearly articulate and popularize the strategic framework to many different constituencies is essential. This could involve widespread trainings, articles and literature explaining the people power strategy, and efforts to encourage more and more groups to adopt it either formally or informally.

To stop the next war – be it in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela or elsewhere – and to counter the domestic impact of the policies of empire (of which the Iraq war and occupation are a symptom), it is essential that we think, and frame our campaigns and education within its systemic context. In this way our efforts to stop the Iraq war will build momentum towards stopping other wars and injustices without having to start new movements, organizations each time. Policies of war and occupation are one part of a global system of control called empire. Empire also includes polices of corporate globalization and the war at home policies of cutbacks in human needs and infringements on our basic rights.

In addition, organizing and thinking systemically can make the various movements taking on different parts of the same system complementary and cumulative rather than competitive and fractured.

We can also need to articulate positive, directly democratic, socially just, ecological alternatives to the policies and to the system we are fighting as an integral part of our campaigns. For example, if we are weakening the corporate pillar by opposing oil companies like Chevron Texaco, we can simultaneously advocate alternative fuel/transportation systems and democratic non-corporate institutions to take their place. This “saying yes as loudly as we say no” will help the movement we are building to continue on long after we have stopped the Iraq occupation.

Battle of the Story

A final key ingredient in a successful strategy is our ability to frame our own struggles or tell our story. If we are acting defensively within the framework or stories of the Bush administration and their “war on terror” story, we will always be on the defensive. If we allow them to define reality we will always lose. If we limit ourselves to defensively arguing that there are no nuclear weapons in Iraq, for example, without challenging the legitimacy and cost of the U.S. being an empire, then we are operating in a Bush defined reality. We have to be able to understand, fight and win the “battle of the story.”

Grassroots social movements best tell our stories through action. The Zapatista uprising of 1994 was an incredible and contagious story that re-defined the post-Cold War reality. The Seattle direct action shut down was another powerful story whose significance is constantly under attack from The New York Times and the forces of corporate reality.

The world is hungry for a different story from within the heart of the empire and they have our back. It’s our turn now.

David Solnit is part of the People Powered Strategy Project, an alliance of anti-war organizations who are bringing a “Proposal for a People Power Strategy to End the Iraq War and Occupation” to the Feb. 18-21 United for Peace and Justice Assembly. He is grateful to the People Powered Strategy Group for help with this article. David was an organizer of the 1999 anti-WTO shut down in Seattle and the 2003 anti-war shut down of San Francisco. He is the editor of Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World (City Lights).