I'm one of the twelve hundred marchers photographed from air in the spring of 2003, all choreographed into a giant peace sign that’s now a part of the logo of Michigan Peaceworks (MPW). That day, I went down to my old hometown Ann Arbor, a hundred miles from our present home, to protest the Iraq War. I figured that a large university’s peaceniks would best know how to make righteous noise to power, and I was right. The organizers, then called Ann Arbor Committee for Peace and renamed Michigan Peaceworks in 2005, know how to reach and motivate people of conscience. Their strategy appears to be a web-savvy combination of moving hearts, legs and minds that’s worthy of study by activists elsewhere.
A variety of activities win hearts. In time-honored tradition, a new coffeehouse-style peace cafe features folkies providing acoustic music. In 2004 much effort went into a billboard “War is not working... neither are millions of Americans". I may be hotheaded in my sloganeering, but one wonders if, like the Kerry campaign, that billboard meant a lot of resources and righteous indignation going into a watered-down message. They recently recycled the billboard slogan and image as part of a signature ad in the Ann Arbor News against the continuing Iraq war. The effort has won friends and respect in their town, for Michigan Peaceworks was voted "Best local activist group" in Current Magazine's "Readers' Picks 2005”.
These organizers have had success in getting bodies into the streets following the 2003 Iraq invasion. In March 2004, they held a rally that included poet John Sinclair, familiar face at rallies against the Vietnam war a third of a century before, when he was Minister of Propaganda for Ann Arbor’s White Panther Party. Beyond the disheartening deja-vu, I ran into more of my friends’ parents, leaning on their walkers or settled into their folding canvas chairs, at the event than my hometown friends or other people in their forties or thirties.
Sunday, March 20, 2005 was their "Stop the War" Day of Action, where the local rock venue The Cavern Club hosted long-serving Democratic congressman John Dingell and Mayor John Heftje, a dead ringer for Sluggo in the old “Nancy” comic strip. Speeches were followed by a ten-block march to the heart of the University of Michigan campus for more speakers and political education. The day wrapped up with dance party fueled by free goodies from local bakeries and a dance band called Hullabaloo. More recently, the Cavern hosted their showing of the movie “The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror” with the filmmaker Gerard Ungerman.
Michigan Peaceworks makes exemplary use of electronic media to organize and spread the word. Its Community Calendar sent to their email list includes events not sponsored or formally endorsed by MPW. It recently listed talks at U of M and at Eastern Michigan University on Sudan, Iraqi women, neocolonialism, meetings on economic justice at the Presbyterian Church, and an open house presentation on Islamic culture at a local mosque.
On the Web, they publish Weekly Reads, edited by Lauren Helwig. MPW-sponsored area talks by Jimmy Massey of Iraq Veterans Against the War promoted several links to articles about him. An issue might include articles from U of M's Juan Cole, Gold Star Families for Peace, Black Commentator, BBC News, British papers the Guardian and the Telegraph, or even choice essays from the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. The Weekly Reads front page provides a paragraph excerpt, which then links to the full essay. There have also been links to Information Clearinghouse’s digital video segments. A notice on the protests to be staged by peace groups in western Michigan against Bush’s May 21 graduation address to Calvin College links to more details from Grand Rapids Independent Media. A group of Calvin College faculty (originally 100, swelled to over 800), students and alumni at the generally conservative college affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church signed a letter stating as Christians they oppose Bush's war in Iraq as unjust. MPW realizes that progressive organizing is about forging links between people where none existed, so it uses Web links between groups separated by geography but joined by peacemaking purposes.
I had critiqued MPW’s name change to Michigan Peaceworks from Ann Arbor Committee for Peace. Closer to where I live are the small but deeply committed Tri-Cities Action for Peace (TCAP). TCAP activists are close to the Catholic Worker House, and its Women in Black stage impressive silent peace vigils in front of the Saginaw Court House and other area government sites. Having grown aware of such perceived snubs even between the feuding Michigan principalities of Midland, Bay City and Saginaw, I was worried that the Ann Arbor bunch calling their group “Michigan” would be seen as another instance of university-town hubris by other groups, around the state or based in Detroit. When I expressed this concern, I received a thoughtful and reasoned reply that explained their decision, after my concerns had been raised to the group.
Michigan Peaceworks provide a good model of a group developing a peace movement, inventing it as they go along. On one hand its activists keep in mind how the Internet puts progressive organizations in touch with supporters locally and further; on the other hand they take to the streets over misguided militarism and to celebrate solidarity.
Image of March 20, 2004 protest courtesy of Ian MacDowell, Michigan Peaceworks.
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Mike Mosher is a Bad Subjects editor who enjoys the leafy, verdant springtime in Michigan.