“Elephant in the Room” Project Raises Awareness

MAPA News & Analysis, May 2020

War Budget Banner at Bernie Event
War Budget Banner at Bernie Event

by Tony Palomba

It was an idea born out of frustration with the Democratic presidential debates.  Why are the hosts not asking more questions about our bloated military budget and why aren’t the candidates talking about it? 

This lack of attention to the most obvious source of funding for vitally needed domestic programs – such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a host of others – resulted in the six-month project “The Elephant in the Room – U.S. Military Spending and the Massachusetts Democratic Presidential Primary.

The goal was simple but daunting. We wanted to get the leading Democratic presidential candidates, when they spoke in Massachusetts before the March 3rd primary, to address the issue of military spending: how would they reduce it and how would they reallocate those funds? We also aimed to increase media coverage about military spending, build awareness among voters about candidates’ positions on the issue, and create a cadre of activists committed to raising the issue at candidates’ public appearances.  

The Elephant in the Room project was undertaken by representatives of the American Friends Service Committee, the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice and the Environment, and Survival Education Fund, Inc. with Massachusetts Peace Action Fund, Inc. providing critical administrative and logistical support.

With financial support from Survival Education Fund, Inc, and a generous contribution from a long-time MAPA member, the group moved quickly to: hire Erica Eustis as a part-time coordinator; develop literature describing how there was a better way to spend the $738 billion now allocated to the defense budget (FY20); create a website and Facebook page; and begin implementing a three-prong strategy to achieve our goals. The major component of the strategy was a media campaign that sought to reach traditional mainstream media as well as social media; to conduct a public education and outreach effort to raise awareness among activists in peace, justice and environmental groups about military spending and alternatives; and to implement a rapid response plan designed to have a public presence at candidates’ events.

Like any short-term project, too much had to be done in too little time.  Fortunately, we were able to bring on a second coordinator in the person of Steve Powell. Erica and Steve, together with the organizations represented, were able to achieve many of the project’s goals. They worked with experts from national organizations, such as the Center for International Policy, the Cost of War Project at Boston University, and the National Priorities Project at Institute for Policy Studies. Twelve op-eds and six letters-to-the-editor were written and submitted to major daily newspapers and local community papers. These pieces approached the topic of our massive military budget from different angles. Some emphasized the folly of sacrificing money and human capital on the altar of military dominance; some pointed out how defense contractors and corporate CEOs reap enormous benefits from annual defense spending; and  some focused on the lost opportunity to provide decent jobs, healthcare, public education and a strong safety net for the 99% when billions are spent annually for war. Eight of these excellent pieces were published. 

On January 23, we brought together 70 activists for a mini-conference on Pentagon spending and the presidential election. The conference featured William Hartung, Neta Crawford, Lindsay Koshgarian, State Senator Jamie Eldridge, and Savannah Wooten speaking about military spending and its impact on state and federal domestic spending. It included workshops on bird-dogging candidate events, getting our message to the media, and taking action on military spending. We were present with our banners – “US War Budget — $738,000,000,000 – It’s An Election Issue!” and “Windmills Not Warheads – Candidates Must Speak Out” at Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Mike Bloomberg events. We appeared on television and radio shows and segments of our conference ran on local cable stations.  Our website and Facebook page provided activists and others with resources and materials they could use to discuss the issue of military spending and misplaced national priorities with family, friends and colleagues.

Did we achieve our primary goal of inducing the candidates to talk about military spending prior to the Massachusetts primary? No, we did not. This was due, in part, to a faulty  assumption that leading presidential candidates would make appearances in Massachusetts prior or near to Super Tuesday, March 3. We also took on too many activities in a short period of time, were unable to generate interest among many sister organizations, and relied too heavily on activists who were already stretched thin to participate in the Project. On the other hand, the project enhanced the work that MAPA has done around the issue of military spending, adding one more effort to bring the Elephant in the Room to the forefront. This project helped lay the foundation for our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the new Fund Healthcare, Not Warfare campaign.

As we confront the enormous financial commitment needed to support the millions who are unemployed, the millions on the verge of homelessness because they can’t afford the next month’s rent or mortgage payment, and the hundreds of thousands of small businesses facing bankruptcy due to COVID-19, we need now more than ever to talk about the Elephant in the Room.  Remember, about half of the $2.2 trillion in the CARES Act, the largest relief package in US history, is equal to what we spend on “defense” in one yearImagine how one year of military spending could have been used to support our public health infrastructure and prepare us to meet the challenge of COVID-19 and save thousands of lives.

—Tony Palomba is a six-term, at-large Watertown councilor who has served on the Steering Committee of Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice, and the Environment since 1995 and is the president of Survival Education Fund, Inc.