“Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War” Conference Breaks New Ground

MAPA Newsletter February 2021

Jodie Evans, Rev. William Barber Jr., and Larry Cohen at MIT Conference
Jodie Evans, Rev. William Barber Jr., and Larry Cohen at MIT Conference

by Jonathan King

Three national movement leaders wrapped up our day-long conference “Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War” on Jan. 23 with calls for nuclear disarmament and abolition, cutting the Pentagon budget, and organizing for political power. “We musts challenge this war economy,” the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, told the 300 conferees assembled on-line. He called for the nation “to cure its warring madness” and “to care for the poor and the hurting and the broken” instead feeding the military industrial complex.

“The United States can blow up the world a hundred times,” Rev. Barber pointed out, “but not one of those nuclear bombs can stop a teeny germ that looks like a tennis ball with dreadlocks.” The pandemic has exposed the fissures and inequities in our healthcare system, he noted. While federal funding for healthcare has been cut sharply over the past 15 years, Pentagon spending has gone up and up. While we spend billions to maintain expensive military bases overseas, he said, “The water in Flint is still not safe to drink, the subway systems in Washington D.C. and New York still have deadly accidents, and the schools in Baltimore and South Carolina don’t have enough heat and still have lead paint.” He said a “resurrection to stand for peace and against this war economy is within our grasp, right now.”

Larry Cohen, national co-chair of Our Revolution, urged grassroots door-to-door organizing to elect progressive candidates to the House of Representatives that would carry out policies such as cutting the military budget. The Congressional Progressive Caucus will be a more effective vehicle for advancing a progressive agenda, he said, now that it has new rules requiring its members to vote with the caucus 2/3 of the time. Jodie Evans, co-founder of CodePink, reminded the audience that there was no shortage of evidence that humans are fully capable of engaging each other in loving and respectful modes, and there was no basis for accepting mutually assured destruction as a model for relations between nations.

This virtual conference was one of a series of annual conferences on the threat of nuclear war sponsored by MIT’s Technology and Culture Forum (Radius), Mass. Peace Action, and more than a dozen peace organizations. Some 50 panelists contributed, in four plenary sessions and 13 breakout sessions. The conference brought together constituencies from a range of backgrounds and struggles. The breakouts addressed not only nuclear weapons and disarmament initiatives, but Climate and War, a Moral Budget for Massachusetts, and Demilitarizing Police.

Experts, Organizers, and Elected Officials Address the Conference

In a keynote address, Sen. Edward Markey briefed the conference on his plans for multiple legislative initiatives in the Senate this spring to rein in out-of-control weapons policies and programs. These include his No First Use legislation and the SANE Act which would cut $75 billion from nuclear weapons purchases and upgrades.

Rutgers climate scientist Alan Robock presented new data showing the precipitous fall in world temperatures that would follow from even a limited nuclear exchange. Harvard Prof. Elaine Scarry reaffirmed the need to enforce the Constitution’s clear position that only Congress can bring the country into war, conventional or nuclear. The spate of accidents which almost resulted in nuclear war were dramatically summarized by MIT Prof. Max Tegmark, who has collected examples on the Future of Life website www.FLI.org William Hartung documented the extensive lobbying apparatus supporting continued spending on each leg of the nuclear triad, with particular emphasis on the ICBM lobby, pushing for the irrational and dangerous replacement of the fixed-site ICBMs.

Subrata Ghoshroy of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists described the enormous $740 billion military budget, which now accounts for more than half of all Congressional discretionary spending. Erica Fein of Win Without War mapped out the increasingly expensive and destabilizing program to upgrade existing nuclear weapons in all branches of the air-land-sea triad. Prof. Jonathan King of MIT explained how funds needed by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control—to develop vaccines and therapies to combat Covid and address future pandemics—have been depleted by increases in the military budget.

Medea Benjamin of CodePink made a compelling case that the US government must develop a more diplomatic and humanitarian approach to the Iranian people, by ending its cruel sanctions program and rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement. Denise Duffield of Los Angeles Physicians for Social Responsibility reported how their Back from the Brink campaign has been used to broaden advocacy for nuclear disarmament among community organizations, municipalities, and state legislatures.

Lindsay Koshgarian of the National Priorities Project described the major priorities of the Moral Budget for America, developed by the Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies. Mass. State Senator Jamie Eldridge argued that the current economic and public health crises provided an opportunity to bring issues of nuclear disarmament to the state legislative arena.

Black Peace Activists in Dialogue: Heart Talk and Hard Talk

Savina Martin, Jim Anderson and Michelle Barnes spoke at MIT Nuclear conference, January 23, 2021
Savina Martin, Jim Anderson and Michelle Barnes, January 23, 2021

One unexpected highlight of the day was an impromptu, frank discussion that developed among several Black leaders as they remained in the on-line public space during one of the breaks. They talked about the lack of widespread participation by Black people in this and other events in the peace movement and explored some of the ways that barriers might be overcome.

Jim Anderson, president of Peace Action New York State referred to the old saying, “If you want to catch trout, you have to go to where the trout are.” He stressed the need to reach out to communities of color and said one way to do that was through media such as radio. (Jim runs a popular talk radio program in Buffalo.) He stressed the need to talk to people in a way that was “palatable” and that connected peace issues to their daily lives. He warned against the “silo” mentality that still infects the movement, and the need for social justice and peace organizations to work together.

Savina Martin, co-chair of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, emphasized the importance of forging relationships. “We do that in the Poor People’s Campaign,” she said. “We pride ourselves on listening to stories. And building relationships honestly and openly.” She noted, “We’re not a monolith. We’re not these special people that you have to come up with a grand plan to find us. Have you invited us to the table? We’ll even bring our own chairs.” She added, “One step at a time, let’s begin to forge relationships with our Black and Brown brothers and sisters…Sometimes it will be painful, but it’s okay and we’ll get by. We are all about dismantling this system that has kept people oppressed.”

Michelle Barnes, 25, a recent graduate of UMass Dartmouth, said she believed the issues being addressed by the conference could seem to many people not only “high-level…intractable and intertwined” but also “esoteric to the struggles of daily life.” She added, “I think people feel these issues don’t apply to them because in the day to day struggle of choosing between rent and dinner, nuclear proliferation doesn’t seem to come into that.” Another problem, she noted, is that the military is like a “socialist jobs program” that offers pay, benefits, training, and stability. “So much of the military is people of color who just felt there was no other way out and it was the most stable thing to do.”

Many conference participants (in the chat and elsewhere) said they found this conversation instructive and valuable, and hoped there would be more like it in in our work in the days to come.

Next Steps

Among the next steps will be a late spring / early summer follow-up conference on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons. This conference will draw on the expertise and work coming out of an earlier No Presidential First Use Conference at Harvard University in November 2017. Rather than constituting a new organizing committee for each year’s conference, the conveners of the Jan. 23 conference hope to form a Nuclear Disarmament Coordinating Committee to increase communication and collaboration among nuclear disarmament advocacy groups interested in continuing these gatherings.

—Jonathan King was chair of the Conference Program Committee. He serves as co-chair of the Mass. Peace Action Board of Directors and chair of the Nuclear Disarmament Working Group.