Peace Action national congress 2004

by Jim Stoffels, WCP Chairman

I was privileged to be one of about 350 people who attended the 17th annual national congress of Peace Action (PA), the weekend of July 16-18, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — my hometown. Peace Action ( was formed by the 1987 merger of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign with SANE. It is the largest grassroots peace organization in the United States with almost 100,000 members.

The congress was held in the student union building of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW-M), northeast of downtown. To be near to all the activities on the agenda, I stayed in a student dormitory for two nights. Having lived at home during my six years at Marquette University just west of downtown, it was fun to get a little taste of dorm life.

The Friday program featured a four-person panel of "Eyewitness Accounts from Iraq":

Mario Galvan, Peace Action-California, related that his group found no security at the Iraq border. Because of the open border, Iraqis have the idea that the U.S. wants to make Iraq a battleground for all anti-U.S. forces in the region. He spoke about the importance of citizen diplomacy — building bridges at the personal level with the ordinary people of Iraq.

George Martin, Peace Action-Wisconsin and United for Peace and Justice, alleged that U.S. troops who liberated Baghdad not only stood by as the city was looted, but also encouraged the looting.

Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now, commented on U.S. imperialist moves in Iraq: the establishment of 14 permanent military bases and plans for the largest U.S. Embassy in the world. The embassy is to employ a staff of 3000 — including 500 CIA agents — under the direction of Ambassador John Negroponte, who ran President Reagan's war against the Contras in Nicaragua from neighboring Honduras.

Sr. Virginia Lawinger, Voices in the Wilderness, said VitW's embargo-breaking trips to bring school supplies and medicine to Iraq also brought the message: "We are sorry for what our country has done and is doing. We want to change U.S. policy."

Saturday sessions were opened by Rob Ricigliano, director of the Peace Studies program at UW-M, with the statement: "Peace is not just something you study; it's something you do."

In a plenary address on "The Ongoing Occupation of Iraq," Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, advocated immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Iraq. We want to fix the problem, he said, but the problem can't be fixed as long as we are there. We are engaged in a civil war — killing people to keep people from getting killed — and the human cost is terrible. He repeated John Kerry's question about the Vietnam War — Who is going to be the last American soldier to die for a mistake? — and said Kerry, who wants to send more troops to Iraq, should be asking that question today.

From among 11 offerings in three sessions during the day, I attended workshops on "U.S. Unilateralism," "Nuclear Weapons/Weapons in Space," and "Colombia/School of America's":

"U.S. Unilateralism"

Henry Schwarz, director of Peace Studies, Georgetown University, commented on the neoconservatives' Project for a New American Century. America is an imperialist nation, he said, although we don't use that term. We couch it in terms of "spreading democracy."

Al Fishman, Peace Action-Detroit: This administration is trying to take us back to 19th-century robber-baron capitalism. We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent self-interests.

"Nuclear Weapons/Weapons in Space"

John La Forge, staff member with Nuke Watch: The main focus of their organization is the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) transmitter in northern Wisconsin used for communication with underwater nuclear submarines. Their staff members have a combined 9-1/2 years in jail for civil disobedience protests. "The greatest crimes committed against humanity," John said, "were crimes of obedience, not disobedience."

Arnold Kaufman, Peace Action-Wisconsin: The 1967 Treaty on Outer Space prohibits the stationing in outer space of nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction. But the U.S. government and military oppose a further treaty to prohibit all weapons in space. The U.S. Space Command's published "Vision for 2020" is to dominate the world militarily from space. NASA has announced it will not take on new missions that do not have military applications.

"Colombia/School of America's"

Cecilia Zarate-Laun, founder and program director, Colombia Support Network: Columbia is a constitutional democracy on paper, but not in practice. The one word she uses to describe Columbia is "exclusion" — the government exists to exclude most of the population from the rights and wealth of the country. Although there are two political parties — liberals and conservatives — there is no difference between them; both exist to maintain the status quo.

The Colombian army has been fighting a civil war against rebel guerrillas (FARC and ELN) since the 1930s. In 1984 the government declared a truce with FARC and offered them the formation of a third political party. This new opposition party elected some members to their Congress, but all have been killed.

Colombia's civil war was not caused by drugs, but it is aggravated by drugs. When U.S. troops returned from Vietnam, many were addicted, and Colombia became a major source of cocaine. Because of its unique geography as the only South American country with coasts on both oceans, it could supply drugs to both California and New York. With lots of money, drug traffickers hired private armies to protect their land. These right-wing paramilitaries became involved in the ongoing civil war.

Twenty people per day, on the average, are killed for political reasons — anyone who thinks: teachers, unionists, priests and nuns. They are called out of their homes and beheaded on the spot. This reign of terror has displaced 3 million people internally, and most had their little bit of land taken. The displaced people go either to the cities, where they become beggars and prostitutes, or go into the rain forest, clear a small plot of land, and raise coca.

The U.S. government, which provides billions of dollars of military aid to the Colombian government, says the war there is being fought as part of the war on drugs. Actually, Cecilia says, it is being fought as part of the civil war to support the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). Her organization has a program to support a nonviolent community of resistance in Colombia.

The School of Americas (SOA) had its genesis when the U.S. brought Colombian military to our country to train U.S. soldiers because Colombia was the only country that had experience fighting a guerrilla war in the tropics. SOA (located at Fort Benning, Georgia) subsequently became a training school in kidnapping, torture, and assassination for Latin American military to oppress their own people.

Joyce Ellwanger, SOA Watch: SOA has recently been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Someone did a master's thesis study on SOA/WHISC and found that the more courses taken there and the more times attended, the more human rights abuses committed by the graduate.

Joyce spent six months (until October 2003) in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, for "crossing the line" at the annual SOA protest. Now that Martha Stewart is incarcerated at Danbury, she said, everyone wants to interview her again about what it is like there.

Activism was part of the congress agenda. On Saturday afternoon, about 85 other people and I participated in a lively street demonstration that proceeded to a nearby park. There we heard brief comments by Ray McGovern (Uncovered) and Lila Lipscomb (Fahrenheit 9/11), who were featured speakers at the evening after-dinner program (more below).

Dinner — a delicious Middle Eastern buffet catered by a local restaurant — was served in the basement of nearby Plymouth Church, a United Church of Christ "just peace" church. Middle Eastern music during dinner was provided by Tablatain, a three-piece group including Hamid from Baghdad on the tabla (drum).

Back at the union ballroom after dinner, we heard powerful talks by Ray McGovern and Lila Lipscomb.

ray_mcgovern.jpg (2920 bytes)Ray McGovern's talk was preceded by a clip from the documentary Uncovered, in which he is featured. A retired 27-year veteran of the CIA, Ray is now with the organization Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), which is dedicated to exposing the Bush administration's propaganda used to justify the war in Iraq. An interview with him done by Mother Jones can be found at

When someone said to Ray there is a moral line that the Bush administration won't cross, he replied, "Show me that line. I don't see it." Ray quoted Thomas Aquinas: "If you can live in the middle of injustice and not be angry about it, you are unjust."

He also related the story of a woman with a daughter in Seattle whose birthday is on November 2nd. The daughter said to her: "Mom, all I want for my birthday is a new president."

lila_lipscomb.jpg (2567 bytes)Lila Lipscomb's talk was likewise preceded by a clip from Michael Moore's award-winning and record-breaking documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, of which Lila is the emotional heart. Lila comes from a family with generations of military men, and she is a staunch supporter of the military — but not of the commander-in-chief and his war of aggression in Iraq. Lila's son, a career sergeant in the U.S. Army with seven years service, was killed in Iraq in the crash of a helicopter. And now, she says, "My job is to wake America up."

Lila's grief is still fresh and just below the surface. When it rises to the surface, as it readily does, it is impossible not to feel it. Lila is the main reason many people who see Fahrenheit 9/11 leave the theater in tears.

Lila's concluding message was: "On November 2nd, vote for integrity, because if you have the integrity, I can teach you the job. But I can't teach you integrity."

For a full-length feature article on Lila's appearance at the Peace Action congress click here.

At the annual business meeting on Sunday, July 18, Peace Action executive director Kevin Martin related that PA membership and funding took a nosedive after the election of Bill Clinton in 1996 because he was a liberal Democrat, who would presumably take care of peace issues without the need for organized lobbying. Also, he said, according to PA member and noted nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel, the Bush administration may resume nuclear weapon testing before the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Conference in May 2005.