Address to Student Walk Out for Peace
Stacy Chappel – VIPIRG Executive Director
It’s an amazing time to be part of the peace movement. You can feel that this moment is historic. You can feel it in the buzz about the demonstrations, and you can see it in the faces of the people you march with today. In this moment of history-making, I want to remind you of some of our history, of activism in our region for peace in the past, and to think about what we can learn from those movements.
During World War 2, Canadians of Japanese heritage were interned in this province. And we learned how racism feeds war propaganda, and we learn how cool heads must prevail, how important it is to remain true to basic principles of justice and speak out bravely on behalf of justice
Throughout the 80s, Vancouver Islanders, like their sister activists at Greenham Common UK set up a camp to protest the US nuclear submarine testing range at Nanoose Bay. Environmental activists have always been a part of that movement, drawing the links between militarism at Nanoose and the destruction of our ocean. In fact, Environmental groups go to court today to argue against the Federal Expropriation of that testing range. And we learn the importance of understanding the long term environmental devastation of war and war preparations.
Also in the 80s, and still today, Victoria is part of a vibrant Central American solidarity movement. And as we saw Nicaragua win human rights cases against the US in the International Courts, and as we watched Oliver North admit to abuses of international and US law, and as we witnessed the absolute cynicism of the US claiming that invasion after invasion was for democracy while they were at the same time arming and training those who would torture civilians, cause tens of thousands to “disappear” and assassinate leaders of peace like Oscar Romero, we learned to listen carefully to what refugees had to tell us about our governments, and to dig deep into the actions of our militaries and arms dealers to uncover their involvement in human rights abuses and terror.
We also spoke out against low level flight testing in BC and over Innu territory in Labrador. And the links were drawn between the oppression of First Nations people and militarism.
The Citizens of BC won a major victory when all but one MLA voted to make BC a Nuclear Free Zone. And we learned that no matter what our victories in legislation, it is up to citizens to work to maintain those victories and those principles.
Victoria is the birthplace of the Raging Grannies. And groups of grannies have sprung up around the world, singing for peace and challenging ideas of women’s passivity. And we learn that art and music and theatre and fun and are what keeps our movements going when we struggle against what seem like insurmountable odds.
When we trace the history of the peace movement, we can see that students and peace activists have been increasingly successful over the years at disrupting the war machine. During the Vietnam war, it took six years of bombing and death before there were mass protests. From the years those activists spent in the streets in small demonstrations, slowly increasing their numbers, determinedly refusing to give up year after year, we learned that we can win major victories if we refuse to give in. And we can also learn how far we have come as a movement when today we are in the street in the millions before the latest wave of war has even started.
Looking at the Gulf War in 1991, there were small demonstrations leading up to the attacks, and then the day the bombing started there were massive demonstrations. All over the world, students were leading those demonstrations. High school students from two schools in Vancouver, walked out en masse, onto Lions Gate Bridge and sat down. They shut down the bridge for the entire day.
In Victoria, marchers left from UVIC, and wound for hours through the city, passing Camosun, and high school after high school, where students left class to join the marchers. At some schools, the teachers had decided to bar participation, so the march went by the school while teenagers leaned out of second story windows, chanting, “we are with you! We want to come with you!”
By nightfall, the demonstration was winding through the city, lit by candles, and it filled the lawn of the Legislature from the stairs to the street. We were determined that there was a better way. We were convinced that the war was morally wrong. But I must admit to you, that never for a moment did I truly believe we would stop the bombing.
Today, over a decade later, I feel entirely different. Today, I feel that we can stop the bombing. That we will stop the bombing. We are a movement filled with hope. We know that peace is possible. We are in the streets in the millions opposing a war that has not even started, and every time we turn around we see more progress. Am I being naïve and idealistic? Well, if you don’t believe me, believe the New York Times, where Patrick E Taylor wrote on February 17, “The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
As we grow stronger than we have ever been before, we will face increasing opposition to our work for peace. And we need to learn from the history of our movements what that opposition can look like. And we need to think about what we want future struggles for justice to learn from our movement today.
So just as activists spoke out against the internment of the Japanese Canadians in WW2, we must raise our voices against the racism against Arabs that is being stirred up to fuel war hysteria today. Today, that racism shows in the fearful face of the White person who successfully insists another passenger be removed from an air plane simply because he is Arab. That racism shows its face when Arabs disappear off the streets of the US in the thousands, when innocent Arab Canadians are arrested in US airports and deported or are detained indefinitely in the US without counsel in solitary confinement.
And just as we learned to do when we worked in solidarity with people from Central America, and as we continue to do today, we must listen to the voices of refugees, and listen with the understanding that it is often not safe for them or for their families back home if they are publicly vocal about what is happening to them. Waves of refugees are crossing the border into Canada as the US immigration regulators decides that the country that they were born in is the next Arab nation of origin whose former citizens are up for review.
As we did -and do–when Central American refugees make their way to our country, we must speak out in solidarity with them and tell our government that: No one is illegal.
When our movement refuses to accept the racist fear mongering, when we refuse to fear each other, we are choosing to move towards community solidarity. I believe that community solidarity is the only real safeguard against terrorism. Fear is a great buttress for war. And this vision of refusing to live in fear is why I love the last verse of the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome”, which simply says, “We Are Not Afraid”. As a movement for justice and peace, we choose to live in solidarity, not in fear.
Victories for peace movements in challenging the US in International Courts, in creating a Nuclear Free BC, teach us that victory is possible. The internment of people of Japanese descent in BC teaches us to root ourselves firmly in the principles of justice and to never waver from those principles. A movement that is winning sometimes underestimates its own power and gives in as soon as it makes a small gain, rather than pushing for a complete vision of justice. Today we see that despite low public support for any war, even a UN led war, the peace movement, especially in North America, is shy of moving beyond the argument that Inspections should be first, and saying what is really the truth: which is that Inspections are already working, that IRAQ has been effectively disarmed, and that there is no moral justification for the war at all, even a UN led war.
We are not afraid. And the combination of people abandoning fear, moving towards solidarity, bringing millions of people out into the streets for peace is truly shaking the foundations of militarism in our world. Some parts of the UN are actually doing their job. NATO is collapsing. The US is failing to bribe and bully their way into setting up bases on foreign soil.
As our movement becomes stronger, the opposition we face becomes stronger. We learn from the responses of pro-globalisation leaders to successes of the anti-globalisation movement that those who oppose justice latch onto anything they can to discredit the successful movement we are building. We must not enable their attempts to discredit us by giving them valid opportunities to attack our actions. Just as racism fuels support for war, so does Anti-Semitism, bigotry or prejudice, within our movement, destabilise and discredit our work for justice. So I commend those of you, and I know that there are many of you, who challenged a man at a recent rally who carried a placard that claimed there is Jewish conspiracy to control the media. And I am very proud to be a part of a movement where every person who told me they saw that bigoted placard also told me they had argued with the man who held it and challenged him on his views. And I encourage everyone to take that kind of responsibility for the movement as a whole. This is our movement, it belongs to us each of us, and we must each choose what kind of movement we want it to be.
So I ask you, as agents of history, to remember your role as people creating history. And I ask that you make conscious decisions about what you want that history to look like. Because when the people of the world stop this unjust war, we will inspire efforts for social justice to strengthen themselves, to learn from us and to build upon our victory.
Stopping this war is the foundation of future efforts for justice. Just as today’s victories and struggles are built on the foundation of high school students blocking Lions Gate Bridge 12 years ago in Vancouver, and of similar struggles in our neighbourhood and around the world.
When we choose to resist fear, racism and bigotry; when we choose to be educated, informed, passionate and active; when we choose to remain true to our principles of justice; when we choose to know our history as social movements, we are setting the course for strong, successful movements for social justice and peace and the environment in the future. We are not only stopping one war, we are, bit by bit, stopping all war and injustice.
And it is true that: We are not afraid. We shall overcome some day.
(March 5, 2003)