The 21st Century Teach-In

Forty years ago this week, Arthur Waskow stood in front of a crowd of 3,000 students and faculty members at the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus and gave a talk called "The New American Arrogance." It was 3 a.m., his speech was interrupted by a bomb threat, and, as he left the auditorium, walking through two feet of snow, frat boys marched past him carrying signs that read "Nuke Hanoi."

Welcome to the first teach-in against the Vietnam War, held on March 24, 1965. It set off a wave of teach-ins that swept through college campuses all over the United States and helped bring about the mass movement that eventually ended the Vietnam War.

For those who aren't clear about what a teach-in is, it's an educational event that sometimes lasts all day or all night long, during which people make presentations, participate in discussions, and debunk myths about various aspects of an issue, such as its history, its connection with other issues, and its impact on human beings and the environment. Teach-ins also encourage participants to use their new knowledge to take action for change.

This Thursday, March 24, 2005, teach-ins are being held in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, and Washington, DC to mark the 40-year anniversary of that first teach-in, and to launch a new educational campaign by sectors of the peace movement that know we need to add some new songs to our playlist, which seems to have been stuck on our favorite tune, "the mass mobilization," for the last several years.

Organizing teach-ins, town hall meetings and speaking events; handing out educational flyers; and talking with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and especially people who aren't already part of the choir, may not be the sexiest anti-war tactic, but it seems to be the one that's called for at the moment. Consider that yet another poll was just releasing showing that huge numbers of Americans still think Saddam Hussein was connected with the Sept. 11 attacks, and that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Consider that the Iraq election seems to have wiped from the American psyche any memory of the death and destruction that occurred during the occupation of the last two years. Consider that millions of people get their information about what's going on in Iraq from Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

There's also quite a bit of education that needs to be done within the peace movement itself. There are many well-intentioned people who believe the Iraq war was a mistake but still need to be convinced that pulling the U.S. troops out now isn't going to make things worse. There are also people who came into the peace and justice movement because of the Iraq war and still don't know whether the war fits under the category of 'empire' (an ongoing effort to dominate world events) or 'quagmire' (an unfortunate mistake that will be corrected by honest policymakers once the mistake is pointed out). And of course there are all of the other issues that people still can't seem to connect with the Iraq war – oil, Palestine, the domestic war on terrorism, and so on.

If the peace movement owned its own television network, we could just discuss all of this every night on our nightly news broadcasts. But we don't and we can't [as a pleasant exception, the Washington DC teach-in will be broadcast on C-SPAN). Thus the need for teach-ins, discussions, speaking tours, listening circles, and any other type of educational event we can think of.

Educational campaigns aren't the only new anti-war tactics that are coming soon to a community near you. Local organizing is also going to be much more of a focus in 2005 – because the war is profoundly impacting local communities; because local victories are actually possible right now (whereas national victories are highly unlikely); because local targets (like congressional representatives) are easier to pressure than federal ones; and because building alliances at the local level will create a stronger and more diverse peace and justice movement that can win on the Iraq occupation and other issues in the long-term.

And it certainly hasn't escaped anyone's attention in the peace movement that the greatest asset of the movement today is the military families and Iraq war veterans who are calling for the troops to come home now. The peace movement will hopefully be finding more effective ways to amplify their voices and support their fledgling organizations in the coming months.

All of these ideas and plans for action will be discussed and moved forward at the teach-ins this March 24. But if we are going to be true to the spirit of the Vietnam anti-war movement, we need to realize that their teach-ins were more than educational events. They also empowered student organizers, who went up against campus administrators to demand that regular classes be cancelled during teach-ins. These same students would eventually go up against the federal government and the war machine.

The teach-ins of 1965 "taught that intellect, emotion, and spirituality (nobody called it that, but the sense of spirit was high ...) could be joined to action," Waskow says. Perhaps what is needed now more than anything is an infusion of that high level of spirit that existed in 1965. In those days, peace activists believed that the government would have to listen and respond to them as it had on the issues of civil rights and voting rights. Comparing the Vietnam and Iraq anti-war movements, Waskow says, "Today, criticism of the Iraq war is much broader, but the sense of possible success is much weaker." If there's anything we can learn from the history of the Vietnam anti-war movement, it's that our movement can win. And it did.

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