Report on “Facing Our Challenges in Dangerous Times” Conference

Peace Advocate December 2022

Moderator Hayat Imam and questioner Paul Shannon with speakers Jackson Lears, Phyllis Bennis, and Lindsay Koshgarian at "Facing our Challenges" conference, Dec 3, 2022. MAPA photo
Moderator Hayat Imam and questioner Paul Shannon with speakers Jackson Lears, Phyllis Bennis, and Lindsay Koshgarian at "Facing our Challenges" conference, Dec 3, 2022. MAPA photo

by Martha Karchere

In a world where humanity itself is the largest threat to the planet, many of us struggle for understanding and a course reversal. Over one hundred political activists for peace and progress gathered via Zoom on December 3rd to hear how the United State’s orientation toward militarism has contributed to world peril, both helping to create the climate crisis and putting us at risk of nuclear holocaust.

Organized by the Mass Progressive Action Organizing Committee, a coalition of six state-wide organizations, along with many additional associated progressive advocacy groups, the conference encompassed three levels of scrutiny and recommendations.  

You can watch video of the presentations here.

Current Political Analysis:

The conference began with current political analyses by two commentators. State Senator Jamie Eldridge addressed the situation in Massachusetts, and John Nichols, national political editor for The Nation, focused on the recent national elections. Both began with good news; Democrats won additional seats in the state legislature, the state referendum questions on the Fair Share Amendment and the Immigrant Driver’s License Bill were endorsed. Democrats did better at retaining Congressional seats in a midterm election during a president’s first term than anytime since 1934. Secretary of State candidates who opposed election deniers swept elections throughout the country and Democrats won two additional governorships. However the positive report backs were brief as both speakers addressed themselves to the chasm between progressives and conservative members of the Democratic party. 

Nichols emphasized the need to resist corporate influence and “Washington thinking” and the necessity of having a fifty state, 3,300 county strategy which encompasses rural populists and progressives. Senator Eldridge cited the powerful combination of unions and community groups who advocated for the Fair share amendment as a model of building progressive power and urged progressive organizations to weigh in now to the Healey / Driscoll transition team with priorities such as debt free college, universal healthcare, protections for municipal employees, increased wages for human service employees and protection against wage theft. 

First Panel on Militarism

Next up, a three member panel addressed themselves to the understanding of militarism in the United States. Acclaimed writer and speaker, Phyllis Bennis, explained that militarism was central to the genocide of native Americans and enforcement of the slave economy. Currently, US arms are present throughout a globe mobilized for war, including in Ukraine, Yemen, Myanmar, Mali, Columbia, Sudan, South Sudan, Mexico and many other countries. Additional harms include the Pentagon as the biggest polluter and our overt and clandestine wars largely carried out against poor, non-white countries leading to misery at home and mass migration to the US and Europe. The US is currently sending the military to protect newly opened trade routes in the melting Arctic and the war in Ukraine is leading to an increasingly militarized Europe. 

Professor Jackson Lears, a widely published cultural historian, cited his experience as a cryptographer on a nuclear armed sub during the Vietnam War, saying he was first exposed to official lying when the Navy adamantly denied the existence of those nuclear missiles which he would be responsible for launching if he decrypted such an order. As an officer he was successful in obtaining an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector while an enlisted companion with less education was harassed and ultimately arrested as a deserter for requesting the same. He said the pattern of official lying continues through the present and the distortions are magnified as retired CIA and military generals are invited to radio and television programs as commentators. Both Democrats and Republicans endorse a permanent war economy, with Democrats justifying themselves in the language of human rights. President Obama made a renewed commitment to nuclear arms, setting off another stage of the nuclear arms race. Since 2016 peace issues have largely disappeared from the progressive agenda. 

Lindsay Koshigian from the National Priorities Project rounded out the panel. She explained that Congress has normalized the exchange of increased military spending to ensure an increase in domestic spending. The current military budget will be close to $847 billion, excluding Homeland Security, ICE, Border Patrol, the FBI, the ATF and Veterans whose numbers are swelling. The full security budget is two thirds of national discretionary spending. Congress has actually increased the military budget by $45 billion more than what was asked for, an amount twice that of the child care tax credit which they just rescinded. 

Building Progressive Political Power

The second panel spoke about empowering communities most affected by the domestic effects of our country’s focus on militarism, where the working class, the poor, native Americans and people of color are over policed, disproportionately incarcerated and whose college education is only made affordable by joining the armed services. Where returning veterans have difficulty finding jobs except with the police, or border guards or other paramilitary enforcement agencies. 

Jean-Luc Pierite of the Tunica Biloxi tribe, president of the North American Indian Center of Boston, spoke of building political power with the Massachusetts Indigenous Agenda; five bills calling for National Indigenous People’s Day, Protection of Native American Heritage, Removal of Racist Mascots, Celebration and Teaching of Native American Culture and History and lastly Education of Native Youth. Until there is recognition of indigenous people’s rights and culture, Jean Luc said that it is difficult to engage in more abstract analyses like the relationship between neoliberalism and indigenous peoples. He also talked about the struggle to free Leonard Pelletier, the longest serving indigenous political prisoner and the recent attack on the Indian Child Welfare Act by the same lawyers who defend the rights of fossil fuel extractors. 

Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, stated flatly that our current penal system is an extension of slavery, a cornerstone of white supremacy and upholds the hierarchy of the social system. Her organization is led by incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women and families of incarcerated women whose organizing principle is “Reimagining Communities” where participatory research enables community led infrastructure and solutions. Neither Democrats or Republicans support this approach; the war on drugs under Reagan quickly became a war on people of color and the biggest expansion of the criminal legal system occurred under President Clinton. She stated there is no safe prison for women and spoke about programs run by Families for Justice as Healing, including basic income support, guaranteed housing, community food pantries, freight farms and participatory defense hubs which truly meet the needs of poor women. With solidarity between women in well resourced communities and Families for Justice as Healing, a bill calling for a moratorium on building new women’s prisons in Massachusetts was written and passed by the state legislature within a year, a rare event for any bill. Vetoed at the last minute by Governor Baker, the plan is to re-submit the bill with the inclusion of a moratorium on the construction of new youth detention centers. 

Jordan Berg Powers, executive director of Mass Alliance, a coalition of unions and community groups which supports progressive candidates and helps build progressive power, spoke about the slow and deep work needed to empower a community. When the system tells poor people they have no voice, the only way to engage them is to have a relationship which centers them and their needs. It is essential to meet them emotionally where they are and to use language and concepts relevant to their experiences. Organizers have to build trust and use the media the community turns to for news, local TV and radio stations, Instagram and Twitter, not the “Boston Globe.” Research shows that it takes 8 – 12 years to turn a non-voter into a sometimes voter. And, Jordan said, racism is real. Focus groups with middle and low income white families reveal resentment that black and brown people are getting privileges denied them. Finding common ground between identity groups will take resources and organizing. 

Next Steps

Between breakout group recommendations and the seasoned advice of conference panelists, there is much to build on, but no quick reversal from the  United States’ militarist orientation toward meeting human needs. 

Our two political analysts, Jamie Eldridge and John Nichols urged progressive solidarity in supporting candidates, even when they don’t directly represent us. Senator Eldridge named Raise Up, a coalition of community and union groups as a model for organizing for progressive power. He urged progressives to organize a substantial presence to address the transition team put in place by Maura Healey and Kim Driscoll. John Nichols advised us to look at the campaign of Debra Ramirez’s for Congressional Representative; she made peace a central issue and was elected. He also advised activists to educate Massachusetts state rep, Katherine Clark, now assistant speaker of the House, about peace issues. As an advocate for peace, she is in a position to be very effective. Educate our progressive political leaders in general so they can speak about the intersectionality of peace issues. Both men heartily endorsed the idea of an organizing table for constitutional offices. Senator Eldridge gave the example of the state treasurer who could divest from fossil fuels and could make school buildings fossil fuel free.

Phyllis Bennis points to the Poor People’s Campaign as a model where the intersectionality of Racism, Poverty, Militarism and Climate are explicitly addressed. Our peace movement must be broad and comprehensive. We need a diplomatic strategy for reaching out to other groups.We need to expose the racism and xenophobia which are part of military actions across the globe. Furthermore, she says the US treatment of Ukrainian refugees should be the model for how we treat all refugees. 

Jackson Lears says we need to link domestic and foreign policy and gives four examples:

  1. Draining money away
  2. Continuing catastrophes we’re creating abroad create immigration and hardship for those left behind
  3. Can’t address climate change without international cooperation
  4. Impossibility of Life after Nuclear war

Lindsay Koshigian recommended building ties with other anti-militarism campaigns, not just ideas but real relationships and points to the younger generation as having a clear understanding of the links between anti militarism, defunding the police and defunding ICE. They have not bought into American exceptionalism. The National Priorities Project wants to share the tools they have developed for understanding the costs of militarism with other movements. She urges support of the Congressional bills to reduce the military budget and says the Ukraine War is a distraction which should not make us waver from our overall mission.

Jean Luc Pierite helped us understand the need to be in solidarity with Indigenous Americans whose very identity was targeted for eradication by US militarism. Critical partners in understanding how to steward the earth as well as exemplifying the strength and wisdom to endure almost insurmountable oppression, we need to cherish and support our native brothers and sisters as they build back their energy and power to help lead our movement away from militarism and toward a reverence for our planet.

Mallory Hanora’s framework of abolitionism honors our history of fighting for the freedom of all people and invites us to take the next steps of “Reimagining Communities” with community led solutions. The example set by Families for Justice as Healing of partnering with women across the Commonwealth in writing a Bill to establish a prison moratorium and then getting it passed by the legislature within the year, deserves study and emulation. All our organizations should learn how they did this and we need to support each others’ legislation. Of note, MAPA has submitted peace bills – are there ways to embrace some of these intersectional perspectives in them and collaborate with other orgs?

As Jordan Berg Powers has a well deserved reputation for educating and electing progressive leaders throughout Massachusetts, his cautions about the time and resources needed to be effective need to be heeded. Voting is the result of a long process of community engagement and trust building without shortcuts.  The needs of a community have to be centered, communication and messaging must be emotionally resonant and in the media people prefer, not the “Boston Globe.”

Our progressive and peace movements must work with youth protesting military recruitment, investments in war and fossil fuels. We need to hold forums on campuses addressing the intersectionality of the peace movement. 

The progressive movement must ally with Labor. At a minimum, we need to contribute to strike funds.

Morality is central to our cause, we must embrace that.

— Martha Karchere is the co-chair of Our Revolution Massachusetts.