Of Ghosts and Governance
The Campaign for Peace and its "Kitchen Cabinet"
By Purnima Bose & Kathy Mitchell
April 1991; pages 3, 8-9; Volume 2, No. 5
We are members of what we come to define here as the "shadow government" of the Austin Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. We are not members of the steering committee or any other formal decision-making structure. In many respects this is a personal narrative; it contains our views of some of the internal dynamics of the Campaign. This is not a sanctioned document, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Campaign.
In the following article we attempt to explore the formation of elite structures within the Campaign, the existence of which, we believe, are endemic to many left organizations. We hope that this discussion of process and structure will begin to help theorize ways of implementing democratic decisionmaking. As we go to press the future of the Campaign is uncertain, not because we believe the war is over, but because we have been unable to order among the many projects that need long term attention, now that the sense of urgency has abated for many Americans.
Some of us feel that the work of democracy is best served by grassroots organizing around local issues, while others feel that we have a moral obligation to help Middle Eastern peoples cope with the devastation our country has wrought upon them. Ideally, the Campaign could balance both positions, but we have failed to create a strong, formal decision-making process where different ideas and political strategies could be debated and priorities collectively decided.
We will start our discussion by laying out the two fundamental questions that inform our thinking. First, what is the relationship between moments of crisis and the everyday, and second, what are the limitations of working in coalitions? Or to restate these questions in more exasperating terms: what is it that brings people together? And what is it that finally drives them apart?
Education as Imperialism
From its inception the Campaign - largely made up of white progressives, Palestinians and UT students - attempted to prioritize anti-racism and anti-Arab discrimination in its work. We hoped to work with the people of color most impacted by the war either because of their over-representation in the military or exposure to harassment because of their ethnicity as Arabs. But as Antonio Diaz, a member of the Campaign, noted: "it's one thing to make sure that's on your agenda, but then doing the work in those communities - that's very different ... Too often we rely on events to rally people together, and the day-to-day work, the less rewarding or glamorous work of going door to door for example, falls by the wayside ... Whatever structure it might have, if it's determined that the day by day, unglamorous work is what needs to get done, it will be."
Diaz is implicitly pointing to the tendency of many progressive organizations to approach communities of color only in moments of crisis. The meaning of "crisis" itself emerges from specific contexts and is continuously redefined within individual communities. White progressives in Austin rarely recognize or act on crises as they develop east of the freeway.
For example, on the way to a press conference on the Austin American-Statesman's coverage of the peace movement, several Campaign organizers drove past an anti-police violence rally protesting the recent murder of a Hispanic youth. Campaign members, aware of the incident but not of the emerging resistance to state violence, had inadvertently set up a competing event that drew major press coverage in all media.
Because of such moments, communities of color may not respond readily to crises defined and prioritized by white progressives. Without reciprocity, progressives cannot hope to build infrastructures and networks that will be responsive to their particular concerns.
Teaching Without Learning?
The Campaign, in trying to develop diverse contacts and promote anti-war efforts in communities of color, grappled with this problem from the beginning. With only a few contacts outside of the University, we tried to build a program of community forums.
We hoped to tailor our materials and the form of the individual events to particular settings. Because no other organization in our city seriously tried to combat anti-Arab discrimination and the pervasive misperceptions of the Arab world used to rationalize the war, we emphasized an education effort.
In one of our most serious attempts, the Campaign's Education Committee worked with people at Houston-Tillotson College (HT), a historically black college, to organize a teach-in on the Gulf crisis in October. The head of student affairs at HT, present at our September anti-militarism rally at UT, invited us to organize a similar event there. In order to avoid a type of activist imperialism, in which activists with an "educating mission" would sally forth from the center (read: UT) to the periphery (read: HT), we began to look more closely at our education package and ourselves, opening up a discussion of our racial identities for the as well as our academic backgrounds.
These discussions almost paralyzed us as activists. They obscured any concept of the actual audience for the teach-in, mostly eighteen and nineteen year old government and liberal arts students interested in information about the war, behind our own fears of being perceived as racially insensitive.
We reduced the complexities of our backgrounds (gender, various ethnicities, sexual orientations and class) behind a simplistic fear that we would be regarded as "white-identified" by HT students. We nearly lost our sense that we had something important to offer as individuals with experience teaching on the Middle East. To paraphrase Jenny Bourne, the question "what is to be done" was in danger of being replaced by "who am I" (1).
All of us agreed that there should have been a much longer process of working with African-Americans. While for the most part we agreed that the distinction between "The University" and "The Community" was an artificial one designed to contain oppositional intellectual work and bolster the military, in practice the critique lead to an emphasis on "The Community" that was pretty hard to distinguish from good old-fashioned liberal guilt and student alienation.
There had been very little contact between UT and HT historically, and we had minimal experience organizing off the UT campus. The lack of existing groundwork, combined with our simplistic identification of our subject positions, almost inevitably lead us into tokenizing gestures. Our first move was to contact some of the more highly visible leaders of the African-American community for their suggestions. Based on our unexamined assumption that the "African-American community" could be "contacted" through a set of leaders in East Austin, we were completely insensitive to the internal dynamics of the community; we did not account for the possibility of a "town/gown" division there also. Moreover, we all but ignored ethnic diversity within HT itself, which has a significant number of Arab and Latino/a students.
These teach-ins (we put together two elaborate presentations and several smaller discussions hosted by teachers in their classes) were by-and-large successful in terms of immediate audience response and participation, but the Campaign subsequently lost whatever gains were made because it failed to maintain its new contacts. Instead of continuing to meet people, listen and learn, Campaign organizers became embroiled in the debates of the Austin peace establishment, and internal organizational problems that drained our energies and consumed our time.
An Escalating Movement
The Austin Campaign for Peace in the Middle East initially formed as coalition of community and university groups called together in late September by the University based Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). Most of the strong members of the Campaign came from PSC, which almost disappeared as a separate organization for the duration of the war.
By the Houston-Tillotson teach-ins, the U.S. military build-up had drawn reservists from all across Texas, and the University had approved a measure allowing ROTC students full refunds if sent overseas. Anti-war energy at the University was high and the Campaign planned and executed a Town Meeting on December 11th which brought media attention to the peace movement and a flood of new members to our group.
Overnight, the anti-war emotions released by the Town Meeting discharged directly into the Campaign general meetings. Many members and volunteers had already identified these meetings as too large, cumbersome and impersonal. Unwelcoming to new people and frustrating to the older members, the shape of the meetings themselves quickly became the primary subject on the general meeting agenda.
The old guard members who had worked on the HT teach-in and begun to develop the educational materials, became concerned that the flood of new energy was in no sense informed by a commitment to the original political platform of the Campaign. They lobbied for stricter control over the form of events sponsored by this larger group.
In a debate which had its origins in the Town Meeting planning sessions, however, representatives from Youth Against Militarism (hereafter referred to as the Yammies) claimed that the Campaign was becoming hierarchical and no longer committed to open and democratic decision processes.
In a fine demonstration of democratic fairness the facilitator gave over the floor speakers on the stack, no matter how disruptive. A few individuals held the floor repeatedly and at length, declaiming the need for democracy to the near exclusion of other speakers. While members quickly identified those individuals as obstructionist, the group could not agree on a meeting process that was at once open and controlled. Nor could the general body come to a consensus on the type of decisions it would empower its elected steering committee representatives to make.
As a result the steering committee devolved into a "clearing house for new ideas and information" with no real authority to approve or discard those ideas. The ad hoc decisions made by individuals outside the meetings had neither the brutal efficiency of theocracy nor the solid constituency possible under democracy.
The debate over democratic process was complicated by the fact that the leaders of the Campaign were almost all strong, outspoken women. Their nearly united stand in favor of formal structure threw a wrench in the notions of feminism held by many Campaign members, particularly the male leadership of Austin's traditional peace organizations.
Early in the Campaign's formation, a representative of The Texas Campaign for Global Security (TCFGS) had lobbied for a structure which he termed "feminist process" and defined as "non-hierarchical consensus building." In the face of strong, resistance on the part of several respected and outspoken women, he shifted ground, claiming that only a democratic process could include uneducated and working class people, whom he claimed to represent through his organization.
Neither TCFGS nor the Yammies chose to stay in a Campaign that was inching slowly towards an affirmation of hierarchy; especially a hierarchy that was likely to affirm the tacitly acknowledged leadership in official positions. The TCFGS representative wanted a stronger voice for himself in the Campaign in order to move its agenda from a focus on Palestine and US imperialism towards a more liberal "give Peace a chance" platform. The Yammies and others misidentified the position of facilitator with "power" and confused dialogue with "decision-making", These members never saw the actual decision process that developed outside of the impossible and cumbersome meetings, and eventually superseded them.
As the war moved from threat to certainty the Campaign needed decisions. A suddenly attentive press with a few contact numbers only increased the pressure on the old guard to find some process for those decisions. Further, during the period of the "countdown" to the fifteenth, the entire membership, involved in several major projects, grew tired of the unconstructive large meetings and voted instead to work exclusively in committees for a month and to save the proposals for structure till late January.
In the meantime, coordination among the committees took place via a network that included some of the democratically elected steering committee representatives, some old guard regulars, and an odd assessment of new members. Several unofficial meetings of unofficial people laid the groundwork for a "shadow government" Of "elite" that would haunt the Campaign for the rest of the war.
The Birth of Shadow Governance
Jo Freeman, over twenty years ago, in her tract The Tyranny of Structureless defined an elite as "a small group or people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent ... Elites are nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities."(8)
Between the Town Meeting and the planned Emergency Action for the start of the war, an informal elite emerged from several friendship groups that had coalesced during the previous two months. The Education Committee, in which most but not all or the older members worked, became the home turf of this informal elite. Although they were not actually elected representatives, several of these individuals regularly attended steering committee meetings. Decisions were made in the interstices between these two bodies. At the same time, other committees began to establish their own networks and nonaligned members of the Campaign formed a number of alternate work groups.
The informal elite consisted primarily of writers and highly articulate graduate student activists. This group, with some crossover to the steering committee but never exactly identical, debated basic issues such as structure and process, the Campaign's definition of "action," its relation to the "liberals." its approaches to communities of color, and the problems of tokenism. This shadow government quickly became a powerful force in the Campaign as a whole.
The shadow government itself was overburdened by discussions of authority and process. By early January it began to focus on the "unilateral" actions of non-members and of individuals within the alternate Campaign faction, People for Peace. (People for Peace formed when the Campaign steering committee voted to endorse but not to sponsor a large concert produced by a few Campaign members in the Action Committee) While individuals within the shadow government continued to publish, speak and eventually spend money with very little accountability to the larger Campaign membership or to one another, the actions of others were closely scrutinized.
Where Has All the Money Gone
Because we lacked a process by which to identify our membership, individuals outside the Campaign altogether were able to initiate complex and often costly actions in the name of the Campaign. One person, for example, fronted $2,600 for a labor intensive mailout that he claimed would raise thousands of dollars for the organization. Fortunately, the Campaign made just enough money from it to pay him back.
Within the shadow government old guard members also pushed through costly projects. One spent $1,250 to send another member to Iraq as part of a Fellowship Of Reconciliation delegation. As a member of the shadow government observed later, "Unilaterals are people in the Campaign we don't like doing things we don't approve. When it's someone we like, or an action that is successful, everyone calls it leadership."
Without an official decision-making structure ,the Campaign could cope with neither the initiatives of individuals within the "shadow government" nor individuals only marginally involved in the organization, who sometimes represented themselves and their ideas as if coming from the larger group. The Campaign, by now the most well known anti-war organization in Austin, began to find itself represented in the press, for example, by a variety of white liberal peace men who knew very little about the Middle East. They advocated, a different platform than the one laid out in the Campaign literature.
The debates within the larger peace movement in Austin mirrored those that had taken place at National meetings of the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East in New York. Conflicts developed around the role of the UN, the condemnation of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and the links between the conflict and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Peace organizations in Austin, a PSC member commented, had refused until now to engage the issue of the US role in the Middle East. "The Gulf crisis caught them by surprise because they didn't have any knowledge of the Middle East and they had never worked on this issue," he said in an interview. "We face the reality that even with this crisis in the Middle East they still want to ignore the Palestinian question, and even to some extent they want to ignore the Middle East."
Many in the movement tended to accept the media's portrayal of Arabs as either terrorists or wealthy oil sheikhs, and conflated Jews and Israelis, perpetuating a widespread equation between a pro-Palestinian stance and anti-Semitism.
In Austin, representatives from TCFGS and other peace men tried from the beginning of the campaign to dilute the Campaign's anti-racist emphasis and to purge the Palestinian issue from the Campaign's platform. When their demands met with the resistance of the steering committee, these individuals appropriated the discourse of identity politics.
One person declared that be had been "silenced" because he was a white male. This argument is a classic instance of double speak; in order to shore up their eroding authority, individuals who have traditionally "spoken for the movement" try to occupy the subject position that seems the most powerful. In doing so, they use the language of oppression without understanding the historical dimensions of forced labor exploitation and violent repression that the word "silence" holds for many communities.
Forming Strategic Alliances
In order to coordinate the long-term efforts of the various anti-war organizations, especially with regard to building alliances with communities of color, members of the Campaign called a strategy meeting in mid January. Instead of coordinating long term strategies, this meeting turned into a planning session for a January 19th rally. "In response to questions of outreach, one of the organizations spearheading the event decided to use money collected that day to place announcements on Spanish language radio," said Diaz. "Furthermore it was decided to place translated flyers in Latino neighborhoods to get people out to the event, as if placing a few flyers in strategic locations would make up for the lack of people of color present at previous events organized by the white peace community."
The liberal peace establishment ostensibly tried to target a broad audience by focusing their platform on "support the troops by bringing them home." This appeal to the lowest common denominator masked a condescension toward people's ability to understand the issues. Pervasive anti-intellectualism lead the establishment leadership to dissipate their energies in proving their patriotism at the expense of any useful analysis. In her critique of the simplify-the-message tactic, one Campaign member, Carrie Hattic, argued that "you don't broaden your base by narrowing your focus."
The Campaign's position has been based on an economic and geopolitical analysis of the Gulf. Each fact sheet, for example, highlighted the connections between an aspect of the gulf war and another domestic or international issue so Campaign materials could be useful to a variety of other organizations (Earth First!, Steve Biko, etc.). Meaningful alliances can only be forged with organizations and institutions already in place in various communities. Although the Campaign hasn't been entirely successful in merging goals with strategy, its position statement was still a starting point for building broad based alliances.
Because the Campaign never entirely eliminated its graduate-student elite, however, its platform was vulnerable to charges of being too academic. The fact sheets and other statements were written from the Education Committee by individuals committed to original research and local analysis. It hoped to demystify the idea of "expert knowledge" by creating extensive files on a variety of topics. In fact, an elite emerged from within the shadow government itself by virtue of its access to these files, the National Campaign mailings, the office, and the answering machine. The absence of channels through which to efficiently share new knowledge and research about the war allowed some individuals to hold a monopoly on information. Moreover, these individuals were primarily graduate students with flexible schedules. They could and did invest much time in organizational work. Other members of the campaign, tied to their jobs, could not contribute as much time and often hesitated to criticize this core group. No real measure of accountability was applied either to the core members or to those acting from outside the Campaign.
What is to be done?
We offer the following structural suggestions for democratizing the Campaign and moving in measured steps towards a long-term, rather than crisis-based agenda.
- Ideally, every member of the group should know enough about the Middle East to act as an official spokesperson, a function which should be rotated. Regular information sharing sessions and formal debate over analysis help to broaden the information gathering base. Individuals could be responsible for reading publications of their choice and clipping articles. Everyone needs to participate in this process to avoid creating an information hierarchy.
- The people making decisions need to be formally acknowledged so that they are accountable to the larger group. If these individuals do not wish to be elected to a steering committee or other formally empowered body, then they must disavow other ways of effecting strategy.
- Periods of self-criticism should be formally included at both the committee and Campaign level. Self-criticism at the organizational level requires that strategies be checked against a definite set of larger goals. Self-criticism at the personal level must also be formalized, in that individuals should be held accountable for a limited set of tasks. These will be best undertaken when they know exactly what is required, and new skills can be learned through an apprenticeship system.
We are now at a crucial juncture. The Campaign's energy escalated with the build-up, and declined when the media declared an end to the war. The current debates within the Campaign, pitting domestic issues against solidarity work in an oppression sweepstakes, are not very useful. Our smaller numbers and the range of tasks demanding attention require a new strategy. This is the opportunity to develop a long-term vision that ties an end to military involvement in the Middle East and the Third World with social justice in Austin. No single action can encompass the breadth of the Campaign's agenda. In the long term, a decision to do a neighborhood mural project tomorrow and a Teach-in on the Middle East next month does not mean that the Campaign gives any less importance to the Middle East in its overall program. Sequential order does not reflect Campaign priorities. We must be able to make daily decisions with the long-term goals in mind, instead of being guided by the urgency of a particular crisis.