Chapter 28 excerpt: Bringing the War Home
On March 19, 2007, morning commuters in Washington, DC, witnessed a terrifying scene outside Union Station. More than a dozen U.S. military soldiers rushed upon a crowd and began apprehending civilians. Soldiers yelled:
“Move!” “Get down on the ground!” “Get your hands behind your back!”
Eight people were detained. Their hands were tied behind their backs. Some detainees had sandbags put over their heads. Beside them, soldiers crouched, surveying the crowd for sniper fire, holding imaginary M16s in their hands and pointing them at the crowd. Some people in the crowd stood still, some screamed, others ignored them. The soldiers were members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and they were reenacting their experiences of combat patrols in Iraq and reenacting what it was like to detain Iraqi civilians. They were bringing the war home, using street theatre to get the public to pay attention to what was taking place overseas and what the politicians, pundits, and media rarely discuss: the brutality of war and its effects on Iraqi citizens and U.S. soldiers alike. Garett Reppenhagen, a former sniper with the 1st Infantry Division, explained why street theatre was needed:
Talking and marching wasn’t getting the point across. We wanted a demonstration that depicted what….we did. The average person could look at that…They can see what we are doing and see that the soldiers are going through a hell of a time and the occupation is really oppressive and violent and brutal on the Iraqi people.
Reppenhagen helped conceive the action, along with Aaron Hughes and Geoff Millard. The three veterans were frustrated by the cautious approach of antiwar demonstrations, exemplified by the massive protest march that had taken place in Washington, DC, a few months prior. As Hughes said:
All these people had come in from out of town and arrived on a Saturday – a time when representatives aren’t even in Congress. President Bush isn’t there. He’s not in the White House. He’s in Texas, in Crawford. And there’s this huge march. But everyone goes home afterwards. Everyone goes and sleep in there own beds. No one’s willing to sacrifice to deal with the war. So we were pissed off. How do we make people deal with the war? Deal with it in a way where it’s a part of their life.
Reppenhagen and Millard named their action Operation First Casualty (OFC) – the first casualty of war being truth. IVAW sent out a press release but never informed the police of their intentions and never sought a permit or permission. They dressed in full military uniform – minus weapons, flack vests and Kevlar vests. They walked in the same formations they used during combat patrols in Iraq. They held their invisible weapons the same way, employing their memory of months of training and battle experience. The detainees were friends – peace activists who agreed to act as if they were regular civilians. During the course of the day, thirteen veterans performed mock-patrols in numerous sections of the city. They did a vehicle search on the National Mall, and patrolled in front of CNN and Fox News (who refused to interview them.) They were briefly detained themselves by police officers on the U.S. Capitol lawn. Hughes recalls:
The cops actually surrounded us and a couple of SUVs pulled up. We were still on the Capital grounds and as soon as we saw that the police were starting to surround us, we immediately got into formation, which is what we practiced the day before.
We had a police liaison stand in front of our formation. When the cops came up to us they really did not know what to do. We were more organized than they were. We were more disciplined than they were. All of a sudden they realized that we were not this mob that they could go up to and pull one person aside. They had to deal with us as a community, as a force together.
For IVAW, the action was a way to force the public to recognize the trauma that the soldiers had experienced and to make a political statement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It re-enforced the primary goals of IVAW: an immediate withdraw of occupying forces from Iraq, adequate care for the physical and psychological health of veterans, and reparations for the human and structural damages that Iraq has suffered from a military occupation. IVAW had formed in 2004 at the Veterans for Peace (VFP) convention in Boston. By the end of 2006, IVAW had transitioned from a speakers’ bureau, where churches or organizations would call requesting a veteran to speak at an event, to a membership-run organization where chapters would stage their own events and campaigns. By 2009, IVAW had 61 active chapters, including six on military bases, and a membership of over 1,700 veterans and active duty service members across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Iraq. Creative resistance is central to IVAW’s tactics. Their actions are decentralized, and arise from the creativity of individual members and chapters. Nothing is mandated from a central leadership. Hughes explains, “There is a real fear with being authoritative within a veteran community when you’re coming from a completely authoritarian structure such as the military.” Their creativity derived from soldiers’ need to heal and the need to speak out. The war had been pitched to the public as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” – a just war where U.S. soldiers would liberate the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator. IVAW argues that, in the process, the U.S. imposed a state of martial law, turned Iraq upside down, and opened it up to allow multinational corporations to come in and reap fortunes. OFC articulates this critical perspective. It turns the stereotypical image of the soldier on its head. In OFC, the soldier is violent and authoritarian, but also critical, peaceful, and creative. Here, the soldier engages with the public on a direct level, and the soldier becomes the leading voice of dissent – reenacting war to end war.
Chapter 15 excerpt: Artists Organize
“Art has turned militant. It forms unions, carries banners, sits down uninvited, and gets under- foot. Social justice is its battle cry!”—Mabel Dwight, WPA-FAP printmaker
Prior to the start of the WPA-FAP, the Artists’ Union in New York City was already a well developed organization, and by the end of 1934 it had upward of seven hundred members. Meetings were held every Wednesday night, and attendance often fluctuated between two and three hundred people; crisis meetings would draw upward of six hundred.
Locals were also formed across the country, in Philadelphia, Boston, Springfield (Massachusetts), Baltimore, Woodstock (New York), Cedar Rapids, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.
By 1936, the WPA-FAP employed more than five thousand artists and well over a thou- sand of these artists were Artists’ Union members, spread out across eighteen states. Many of the Artists’ Union members, though not all, were also affiliated with CP USA and Communist campaigns. Others were fellow travelers, sympathetic to communism and socialism and the movement against war and fascism. The Artists’ Union, however, distanced itself from direct Communist ties, stating that it would not align itself to any political party. Instead, its primary role was economic—helping unemployed artists obtain work in federal and state art programs, and advocating for the arts to reach all Americans. In short, the Artists’ Union became the mediators between artists and PWAP (and then WPA-FAP) administrators, settling grievances between workers and administrators and threatening to take direct action if needed.
On November 30, 1936, more than 1,200 artists, writers, actors, and actresses gathered in protest in New York City over WPA funding cuts and layoffs. Two days later, on December 1, more than four hundred Artists’ Union members gathered outside the WPA administration offices on Fifth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street while 219 demonstrators stormed the offices and occupied them. The administration’s response was to call in police, who proceeded to assault them. Twelve Artists’ Union members were badly injured and taken away in ambulances, including Philip Evergood and Paul Block (who had led the demonstration), and all of the demonstrators were arrested.
In jail, some gave fake last names to the authorities, claiming to be Picasso, Cézanne, da Vinci, Degas, and van Gogh. A couple days later, the 219 individuals arrested were arraigned in court on December 3, found guilty of disorderly conduct, and given a suspended sentence.
More protests would follow. On December 9, some 2,500 WPA workers orchestrated a half-day work stoppage of all art projects to protest pending dismissals. Three days later, artists joined in with 5,000 other WPA workers in a picket at the central WPA office. The January 1937 cover of Art Front—the Artists’ Union’s official publication—documents their capacity to demonstrate. Visualized is a street packed with protesters; prominent among them are Artists’ Union signs and red banners with the “AU” letters. Also held up high are cut- out images of pigs with top hats—a likely reference to bankers.
These demonstrations produced results. The street protests, the police brutality at the WPA offices, and the resulting press caused Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to make an emergency trip to Washington that resulted in funds not being cut. Gerald M. Monroe writes, “While average employment on the WPA as a whole de- creased 11.9 percent from January to June 1937, employment on the four Arts Projects increased 1.1 percent.”
However, this temporary reprieve was short-lived. In April 1937, President Roosevelt and Congress pushed through a 25 percent cut of all WPA funding that did not spare artists. In late June, WPA-FAP employees began receiving their pink slips, setting off another wave of sit-ins by the Artists’ Union and others—writers, musicians, actors, and actresses—who occupied the WPA offices in Washington, DC. In New York, six-hundred-plus demonstrators occupied the Federal Arts Project Office and held Harold Stein, a New York City Art Project administrator, captive for fifteen hours. There, he was ordered to call his superior in Washington, DC, and relay the strikers’ demands that all cuts should be rescinded. Eventually, Stein signed an agreement that the layoffs would be delayed, but in reality Stein had no power in stopping the cuts from eventually going through. These actions alone represented a new militancy among artists as they began to realize their collective strength. Stuart Davis, the first editor for Art Front, wrote:
Artists at last discovered that, like other workers, they could only protect their basic interests through powerful organizations. The great mass of artists left out of the project found it possible to win demands from the administration only by joint and militant demonstrations. Their efforts led naturally to the building of the Artists’ Union.
Others were less apt to pay compliments to these tactics, or to the Artists’ Union. Olin Dows, an artist and the director of Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), believed the actions were counterproductive: “It was grotesque and an anomaly to have artists unionized against a government which for the first time in its his- tory was doing something about them professionally.” And Audrey McMahon, head of the New York City Art Project, argued that the Artists’ Union, along with other radical art groups, tarnished the image of the entire WPA-FAP, for it led the public and conservative members of the government to see all artists as radicals. But, the Artists’ Union represented the workers’ perspective, not management’s. They held little faith in the sincerity of government bureaucrats and believed that it was the artists’ ability to organize that had led to artists being included in the WPA programs in the first place.