You can weed and till the ground all you want, but if there is no clear plan
as to what to plant, well, that's a lot of back-breaking work without much to
show for it--other than some good-looking dirt. After nearly a decade of
organizing in response to the so-called "war on terror," mostly with the
national women-led antiwar organization CODEPINK, I am asking myself some difficult questions: Do we,
as a movement, know how to organize for victory? What does it feel like to
actually effect positive, long-lasting change, rather than just condemn deaths
in Afghanistan and Iraq, weakened civil liberties, environmental ravages and job
During the last 10 years, I whole-heartedly participated in audacious actions
aimed at altering culture and challenging people to imagine a different and
better world. At times this felt like the closest thing to change I could get my
hands on. At times it felt far from adequate. But I am heartened by a recent
rare success: the United States
Conference of Mayors' historic adoption in June of the "Resolution Calling
on Congress to Redirect Military Spending to Domestic Priorities."
The campaign for the national resolution worked because it identified
achievable goals and strategically targeted power-holders. It's all the more
remarkable because a bad-ass group of women, including CODEPINK members, were
behind it (full disclosure: I occasionally work for CODEPINK as a consultant).
The campaign aimed to strengthen the intersections of social movements by
illuminating how the military-industrial-complex--and the endless wars it loves
to fight--has indirectly ravaged American cities. Its path to success shows how
real change can happen.
Maine would like its money back, please
I don't think I've ever seen Lisa Savage's real hair, though I'm fairly
certain she doesn't don her signature cotton-candy pink beehive wig at all
times. Savage is a teacher and longtime peace activist. As Maine's CODEPINK
coordinator, she is possibly the most charming thorn-in-the-side of the state's
two congressional representatives and any local officials who dare to be
short-sighted. She rolls with a creative cupcake-baking crowd who began building
momentum at the state level in 2008 to address the predictably disastrous
effects of then-Senator Obama's campaign promises to escalate in Afghanistan.
No one has taken credit for coining the phrase "bring our war dollars home,"
according to Savage. But on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2010, those words
launched a statewide effort to
pass War Dollars Home city council resolutions. The resolution was drafted by
members of the Maine peace coalition at a kitchen table, and was eventually
adopted in locations across Maine (including one inspired school district),
cities in Massachusetts and Hartford, Conn. The point was to encourage people to
connect the pinch they feel in their wallets and communities with the $126
billion the United States spends annually on war and the more than 6,000 U.S.
troop deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan that have resulted from some of that
By October 2010, the national women-led peace group CODEPINK heeded Maine's
call (due in no small part to Savage's organizing talents and persuasive nature)
and literally took up the pink banner of Bring Our War Dollars Home, just in
time to bring the message to the One Nation March in Washington, D.C. (video of
which is here). CODEPINK's local coordinators' listserv was abuzz. A snazzy t-shirt was made. The
message had traction -- it was just a matter of how to translate that energy
into a winnable campaign. After months of strategy calls and brainstorming,
CODEPINK tried on the idea of a nationwide push to pass War Dollars Home city
CODEPINK co-founder Jodie Evans spent the next few months trying to convince
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to support a resolution. In March of this
year, Villaraigosa, the new president of the Conference of Mayors (USCM), told
Evans that if she could get 10 mayors to sign on as co-sponsors, he would lead a
resolution about redirecting military spending back to U.S. cities at the June
conference in Baltimore.
Why would such a resolution matter? Well, the conference's purpose remains
the same as when it was founded in 1932: advocate for urban citizens' needs by
lobbying federal policymakers. (USCM first convened in Detroit, where big city
mayors gathered to try to mitigate the misery spawned by the Great Depression;
Roosevelt's New Deal incorporated many of the mayors' ideas.) The "adopted
policies" -- resolutions passed at the annual conference -- become advocacy
priorities of city governments around the country, and the USCM lobbies for
those priorities in Congress.
Ready. Set. Go!
With the clear goal of lining up 10 supportive mayors, C.J. Minster was
brought on CODEPINK's staff in March 2011 to oversee the effort (her background
in international communications and conflict resolution came in handy). Using
the successful Maine city council resolution as a template, another kitchen
table resolution was born (they make for great resolution writing). The Bring Our War Dollars Home
Resolution calls on the president and Congress "to end the wars as soon as
strategically possible and bring these war dollars home to meet vital human
needs..." It demands that tax dollars spent abroad be devoted to urgent domestic
After Villaraigosa withdrew as lead sponsor to focus on immigration reform
efforts in May, Eugene, Oregon Mayor Kitty Piercy became the lead sponsor.
"Mayors call on our country to begin the journey... focusing our national
resources on building security and prosperity here at home," the resolution said. The fact that
Piercy couldn't even attend the conference in Baltimore--Eugene had to cut $20
million from their city's budget in the last three years and could not afford
the travel costs--sadly illustrated why so many mayors around the country would
support the goals of the resolution. America's cities are hurting; federal aid
is in steep decline and as of the June conference, at least 18 states were
cutting aid to local governments. With the burst housing bubble driving down
property taxes (another big issue at the conference), the $126 billion a year
the wars cost struck many mayors as offensive. Villaraigosa may have said it
best: "That we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore
and Kansas City absolutely boggles the mind."
After two months of nonstop coordination with activists to create a great coalition of ally
organizations, dozens of mayoral policy liaisons, and a ready and willing Baltimore activist coalition, the Bring Our War Dollars Home
Resolution dream team was in place. On June 16, the first day of the conference,
the resolution sailed through the Metro Economies committee and was picked up by
media outlets all over the world. The deleterious effects of a tanking economy
and skewed national priorities became the
story of the conference; the resolution put America's struggling cities in
their true national context.
When the full conference participated in a voice vote on June 20 during the
event's closing hours, only one mayor verbally dissented, and more than 1,200
communities adopted the measure. It was the first time since the Vietnam War
that America's mayors had called for an end to war.
Back to (winning) the future
The USCM promptly delivered the resolution to the White House after the
conference (President Obama was added as the premier recipient after the full conference debate. While
inevitably all policies the USCM adopts can't retain the same priority level,
the fact that Villaraigosa and USCM CEO Tom Cochran both vigorously supported
the war dollars resolution could mean it has a fighting chance of staying at the
top of the conference's pile.
Since June, Los Angeles and Seattle have passed city council resolutions
based on the conference's Bring Our War Dollars Home resolution. In total, seven
city councils have passed similar resolutions and more are being introduced in
municipalities around the nation. City councils in New York and Maryland are
currently working on their own resolutions. Obviously, U.S. troops are still
abroad; but significant reductions to the Pentagon's budget appear likely to
come out of the deficit-reduction deal Congress and President Obama reached at
the end of July. No matter how lean our movement feels, we can build on these
victories. Hell, take a page from the Maine playbook--bake some cupcakes and
approach allied city council representative about a War Dollars Home
There is room for the symbolic as we, the peace movement, (re)define success.
The Bring Our War Dollars Home campaign, led by unconventional women, shows how
the symbolic can move from idea to sparkly banner to strategy to victory. It
shows how a campaign can shift how activists interact and achieve concrete
goals. The cliché is worth repeating: think globally, act locally!
Gloria Steinem once said, "No one is going to hand you equality." The same
can be said about peace. I don't want to fight for peace (duh); I want to make
sure that the seeds I'm planting will bear fruit to fill us up in new ways. A
wise woman with a pink beehive once said, "This is collaborative work. If it
succeeds, it's because the quality and the collaboration is strengthened by each
woman who jumps on."
Dana Balicki is a media specialist and organizer with a passion for
telling stories focused on today’s critical issues of peace and social justice.
She is the former National Campaign Director and Communications Coordinator for
CODEPINK Women for Peace. Her website is at http://www.danabalicki.com