On April 16, 2016, I attended a teach-in by Democracy Awakening in Washington, DC. This activist collective featured hundreds of organizations and represented a wide array of movements, as thousands of citizens came together to call for democratic voting and economic reform. The entire weekend of April 16-17 featured demonstrations, teach-ins, direct action training seminars, live music and a march. Democracy Awakening calls for a “Congress of Conscience” through nonviolent direct action.
The topics and subjects for discussions in the many teach-ins encompassed climate change; race and social justice; workers’ rights and fair pay; safe food, air and water; proper health care; world peace; immigration reform; and education. The common themes and essential questions running through each activity became apparent to me: What is keeping ordinary citizens out of the political process? How does voter suppression affect people of color, seniors, students and those with low-incomes? How can a free society continue to use big money to shape elections and policy? Why does our Congress not stand up for democracy, but rather stand in its way?
Democracy Awakening has clear objectives. They are calling for Congress to pass: fair consideration of the nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy; the Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR 2867, S. 1659); the Voter Empowerment Act (HR 12); the Democracy For All Amendment (HJ Res. 22, SJ Res. 5); and the Government By the People Act/Fair Elections Now Act (HR 20 and S. 1538).
I attended one Saturday Teach-In, called “Making a More Peaceful World: Money Out of Politics, Honoring Peacemakers and Challenging Empire.”
The framework of this talk was not just how big money, private interests and massive corporations are buying our elections, but also how they are pushing our country towards costly, never-ending wars.
Democracy Awakening is calling for the release of our political system from the chokehold of big money. Democracy needs to go back to its rightful owners, the US citizens. As Edward S. Herman writes, “War is Our Business, and Business Looks Good.”
One of the first speakers of the day was Phyllis Bennis, fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Bennis is an accomplished writer, speaker, activist and political commentator. She is a leading advocate for the rights of the Palestinians. Her main argument that day was the basic message that “money distorts efforts for peace.”
She started her talk by providing a powerful quote by American diplomat Chas Freeman:
The United States has now been engaged in a cold war with Iran — Persia — for 37 years. It has conducted various levels of hot war in Iraq for 26 years. It has been in combat in Afghanistan for 15 years. Americans have bombed Somalia for 15, Libya for five, and Syria for one and a half years. One war has led to another. None has yielded any positive result and none shows any sign of doing so. In none of these wars is end in sight.
Bennis cited that billions of taxpayer money devoted to Middle East wars has done very little. Bennis continued, “We have been at war with terrorism for 15 years and terrorism is doing just fine.”
She continued by saying,
As a nation we changed little on September 11, 2001. As tragic as that was for everyone involved, it was sadly, anormal occurrence considering much of the rest of the world. As a nation, we changed however, on September 12, 2001, when we said, we will answer this with war. War is not what people want. People want money for schools. Some people want war, and it is because they are making a killing, literally.
It is strange to see McDonnell Douglas and Raytheon advertisements near the DC Metro, placed in a setting with amass audience, but are most likely directed at a select and favored few elite members of the tech industry. War profiteers rarely get caught, and the free market has a way of suspending reality.
Bennis elaborated that we need “diplomacy not war, [you] can’t go to war against terrorism.”
Another presenter was Michael Knox. Knox is the chair and founder of the US Peace Memorial Foundation. According to Knox, “The Foundation exists to demonstrate that advocating for peaceful solutions to international problems is an honorable and courageous activity.” Knox wishes to “focus attention on the contributions of those citizens who have opposed war and [those] who have attempted to influence US foreign policy towards peacefulsolutions to international problems.”
In addition to promoting this important project, Knox briefly shared a few titles of talks he regularly gives: “A Cultural Shift toward Peace: The Need for a National Symbol,” “Honoring the Peacemakers” and “Peace is Socially Acceptable”.
Knox’s observation is that most US monuments commemorate war, while peace activists are often labeled “un-American” and “unpatriotic.” Knox also contends that we have become a country that devotes our recognition and resources to war sacrifice, but fail to honor those who make valiant efforts to preserve peace.
The third presenter of the teach-in was Raed Jarrar. Jarrar is an Arab-American architect, activist and writer. The Jarrar family organized their blogs into the form of a book: The Iraq War Blog, An Iraqi Family’s Inside View of the First Year of the Occupation, published in 2008.
In this book, Jarrar explores how his family was affected by terrorists, the US military and the destruction of his hometown. The Jarrars survived the horrors of night invasions and daytime missile assaults. They documented their daily lives while experiencing and observing the daily destruction and provided a political analysis in the process.
Raed Jarrar also serves as the American Friends Service Committee’s government relations manager at the Office of Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, DC. He has worked on political and cultural issues in the Arab worldand is considered a regional expert on geopolitical developments in the Middle East. He regularly appears on national and international Arabic and English media.
Jarrar pointed to the importance of holding our elected officials and corporations accountable when they violate their own laws. For instance, the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), an existing US law, has clear stipulations for how countries are to use weapons provided by the US. For example, war crimes are prohibited.
The AECA says that every country that receives arms shipments from the US must certify that the weapons are used for “internal security and legitimate self-defense,” and that their utilization does not lead to a war or “an escalation of conflict.” The US is clearly not enforcing this law with the Israelis in Gaza.
Jarrar also discussed the Presidential Policy Directive — US Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. Jarrar’s point in regards to this PPD, or executive order with consent of the National Security Council, is that our weapons transfers with Saudi Arabia are extremely problematic, if not in violation of international law. He cites the violation of two specific provisions: 1) Supporting democratic governance and other related US foreign policy objectives and 2) Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law. The latter being the most egregious on the part of US foreign policy.
Another agreement Jarrar directed attention to was the Arms Trade Treaty, which, according to Jarrar, is a multilateral agreement, but not in effect. The treaty is supposed to regulate international trade in conventional weapons. The objective of the treaty is to promote regional peace and transparency. Countries such as Italy, Germany, France and Spain have ratified the treaty. The US has signed the treaty but has not ratified it. This is partly because of powerful lobbies and interest groups such as the NRA and the Heritage Foundation.
Jarrar is a critic of the Saudi Arabia lobby and urges American citizens to actively call for the US to disclose where our money is going, and to ask, who are the human rights offenders in the world, and what forces and regimes are supported directly by the US?
Together, Phyllis Bennis, Michael Knox and Raed Jarrar posed many challenges and inspired the audience and teach-in participants while making a more peaceful world. They are great citizens of the world.