On Popular Education

It was about a month ago in Washington, D.C. United for Peace and Justice was conducting a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol announcing our plans for a week of nonviolent direct action the following week. It was going well; five TV cameras were present and rolling, and there was other press there as well.

All of a sudden, about 10 minutes into it, a crowd of 100 or so mainly young people arrived in the plaza area where we were having our event. They were there, we learned, to have their picture taken in front of the Capitol by a commercial photographic firm that had a permit for the area where we were doing the press conference.

Within a few minutes, as they observed the blown-up pictures of Iraqi citizens we were holding and heard the statements from our anti-war spokespeople, a number of them began to sing “God Bless America.” As they did so, the TV cameras turned from our press conference to these unexpected, innocent newcomers.

It was a tense moment. Was our press conference going to be seriously disrupted?

As the group finished singing I walked over to the area where the group was standing. I noticed that they were all white. I learned later that they were a school group from Louisiana. I caught the eye of several members of the group and began talking, explaining why we were there, talking about the emergency nature of the press conference because of the emergency of the imminent threat of war. I pointed out to those who were politely listening to me, mainly older teachers or perhaps parent escorts, that the person speaking at the time had a son in the Marines who was in the Gulf right now. I pointed out another whose brother-in-law died at the Pentagon on 9-11. I mentioned the Congressman, Jim McDermott, who was present, as well as Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches. I told them we would be done very soon and invited them to listen to what we were saying.

Fortunately, my intervention worked. Many of this group did listen to our remaining speakers. We finished the press conference without further incident and immediately moved aside to allow the school group from Louisiana to have its picture taken.

I thought about this last week as I participated in discussions about next steps for the peace movement now that the war has turned into a military occupation. I thought about it because much of the discussion concerned teach-ins and broad-based education about the planned occupation and empire-building and the impact they will have here at home.

It is critical, absolutely critical, that our ongoing peace and justice movement appreciate the possibilities for reaching the people of this country. And we need to organize ourselves to do so, on local and national levels. Or, to be more accurate, we need to STAY organized to do so. Because throughout the country, over the course of the months leading up to the full-scale invasion of Iraq, there were many places where anti-war activists did effective popular educational work.

This work, building upon broad-based skepticism about the drive towards war, has meant that, immediately following his supposed “great triumph,” George Bush Jr.’s popularity ratings went up but to a point 20 percentage points below where his father’s went following Gulf War one, 70% versus 90%. And don’t forget that George Bush Sr. went on to lose the Presidency the following year even with those high post-war ratings.

Let’s remind ourselves: how can we be most effective at our necessary popular education work?

-Don’t be rhetorical. Use understandable language without talking down to the person/people we’re talking with.

-Respect others. People usually respond well when they feel that the person talking to them is genuinely interested in having a dialogue. Look people in the eye. Don’t verbally denigrate the other person’s intelligence.

-Listen. Hear what the other person has to say. Look for areas of common agreement and try to build upon them.

-Don’t sugarcoat significant differences. If there are major disagreements or if the other person is clearly closed-minded, probably the best thing to do is end the discussion.

-Try to show a sense of humor. Most people don’t respond well to uptightness or narrow single-mindedness.

-Try to be as concise as possible so as to give the other person room to respond. Long-windedness discourages healthy dialogue.

Our peoples, and we ourselves, are subjected to daily propaganda from a corporatized and corrupted mass media. Despite this, there are other sources of information and inspiration which made possible the massive resistance to the second Gulf War. We must draw strength from these facts and stay faithful and hopeful. We continue to have awesome responsibilities here in the belly of the beast; but we are in no way alone and isolated. Si, se puede.