2007 Iraq War Protest At Columbia

1. Summary.

After the success of the coalition of left wing and progressive campus groups in organizing the protest trip to Washington, DC, the Dems decided to join several of the others involved in planning an on-campus anti-war rally. The group formed to put on this event, the Columbia Coalition Against the War (CCAW), is still in existence. After days of negotiations with the other groups, the Dems pulled out of this coalition before the event and did not participate in the protest.

2. Cast of characters.

Planning for the event took place in open meetings comprised almost entirely of members of several campus groups, including the International Socialist Organization, LUCHA, Students for Justice in the Middle East, and the Working Families Party. Two representatives of the Revolutionary Communist Party's World Can't Wait organization were also in attendance, though only one was a student and the group is not a recognized campus club.

Lead Activist Sarah Leonard was the most prominent of the negotiators on the Dems behalf and was primarily accompanied by First Year Rep Jim Downie, Public Affairs Director Jacob Taber, and Lead Activists Jess Blakemore, Jonathan Backer, and Stephen Cox.

3. Why did the coalition fall apart?

Debate centered around the two issues of demands on the university and acknowledgment of the role of Congress in ending the Iraq War.

The other members of the coalition were inclined to view the Democratic Party as part of the problem and not the solution. While the Dems were also unhappy with Congressional leadership on the war issue, they argued that any credible attempt to end the war had to go through Congress. Disagreements about history, particularly about whether Congress or magic was responsible for bringing home American troops from Vietnam, contributed to this sticking point. Other members of the coalition were unwilling to include a call for action on the part of Congress and were hesitant to host representatives of the Democratic Party as speakers at the event.

In turn, the Dems were unhappy with the insistence of the other coalition members that the university be called on to divest from defense contractors. Since the university was not actively supporting the war as it had done in 1968 and the Dems feel that divestment from defense contractors is an irresponsible and unrealistic demand, the Dems were unwilling to accept the language demanded by other coalition members. All members of the coalition acknowledged that this was largely a symbolic demand with no real chance of being satisfied by the university.

Without an agreement on either asking Congress or the university to end the war, the rally would have been purely symbolic with no substantive aspect. This made both the Dems and the other coalition members unhappy, but no agreement could be reached. The coalition split permanently when leaders of the other campus groups refused to confirm to the Dems board that they would advocate before their own groups language that the Dems found acceptable. This was seen as a breach of good faith by those who had been negotiating on behalf of the Dems as they had previously been willing to expose internal division within the Dems in order to facilitate negotiations and propose compromise language.

4. Some lessons learned.

Institutional changes The prominence of the Activist Council leadership in this effort, coupled with the absence of institutional leadership or outreach personnel, frustrated negotiations considerably. Other groups in the coalition felt unable to negotiate effectively with the non-voting Lead Activists and communication between the almost entirely absent Executive Board and the negotiators was slow and prone to misunderstanding. Decisions could not be made without constant referral to the board, a process that took time and eroded good will between coalition members.

While a failure, these negotiations demonstrated three needs that were addressed institutionally by the 2007-2008 Executive Board immediately after election:

  1. Executive votes for the Lead Activists (addressed in the McKenna Amendments
  2. A credible, ongoing outreach effort by the Dems (addressed by Outreach Director Kate Redburn)
  3. A prominent board presence in all important decisions (addressed by the board quorum requirement and by the introduction of formal board decision-making procedures in the McKenna Amendments and by the creation of a formalized event planning procedure)

Coalitions are difficult Indeed, this is a perfect example of the fact that liberal activism is complicated. A lot was learned for the future on how to build a coalition that will stick together, and can be found at the previous link.

3. Media about the event.

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