War can be a divisive issue, even for those on the same side. So United for Peace & Justice seeks to mobilize its members behind one common goal: immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
The US peace movement has always been plagued by a natural tendency to divide itself over tangential issues, rather than unite. It is simply the nature of the beast. Peace is a cause that attracts support from every element of the political spectrum; consequently, the movement consists of a multitude of groups that may agree on little other than the proposition that war is bad.
As all persuaders know, a single off-message voice can erase the influence of an entire group. Opposition to the Bush administration's war in Iraq has come from many quarters, and the opposition recognized early on that it was important to present a unified front, at least for the purpose of large public showings of strength. With that in mind, United for Peace & Justice (UFPJ) was formed in October 2002 as the largest and most coordinated coalition in the entire US antiwar community.
At the time, UFPJ was essentially a loose band of 70 or so peace and social justice groups that agreed to work together against the war. Today - scarcely three years later - the number of member groups stands around 1,400.
How did such a far-flung and ethereal organization multiply its membership 20 times over, all while organizing the largest protests this country has seen since the Vietnam era? Politics might have been the motivation, but a unique communications network of like-minded individuals was key to its growth.
Role of comms
UFPJ's communications are organic in every sense of the word. Efforts have been powered largely by word-of-mouth rather than centralized dictates that are followed to the letter. In the early days, the coalition didn't even have an in-house communications employee; instead, it relied on volunteers with PR experience who worked pro bono for a cause they believed in.
Eventually, the group hired Bill Dobbs, who had extensive communications experience with a variety of grassroots activist organizations, as its full-time media coordinator and took its communications program to a higher level of professionalism.
For a group like UFPJ, PR's primary importance resides in internal communications and media relations. The organization must make sure that all of its members are on the same page when time comes for action and then manage the media effectively so that its message resonates on a national and international stage. These twin tasks are the keys to any protest coalition's success, and occupy much of the efforts of UFPJ and its partners.
Some, even on the left, have questioned the relevance of major mobilizations like peace marches in this age of instant communications and steadily increasing corporate political influence. UFPJ is well-aware of such objections - indeed, its membership reflects the full spectrum of tactical thinking - but is also faced with the necessity of maintaining media visibility, which is hard to accomplish without the news hooks that marches and similar actions provide.
"Often, the coverage of the US peace movement is spot news, rather than using us as a source in other kinds of pieces, so that's one of the challenges from a communications point of view," says Dobbs.
In fact, the peace movement finds itself in a quandary at this stage of its opposition: Opinion polls show that the majority of US citizens now believe that the Iraq war was a mistake, but the media spotlight continues to linger on the daily horrors of the war and the Bush administration itself, which has the advantage of the bully pulpit. UFPJ has leveraged internet communications heavily to spread its message, and its internal communications as a whole are incredibly effective, as evidenced by its ability to consistently draw crowds larger than medium-size cities to its appointed protests. Nevertheless, establishing itself as a viable political force in the eyes of the American media is a task that occupies much of the group's strategic communications thinking.
David Lerner, president of the progressive agency Riptide Communications, has assisted UFPJ with communications for major marches in New York and Washington, DC. "We branded them [in 2003]," he says. "Working with coalitions is always tricky and time consuming. ... We're simply saying, 'Let's also build the brand,' and I think people bought into that."
Lerner says that the periodic legal battles between UFPJ and New York City over the permissibility of various aspects of protests actually helped to raise the group's visibility by providing a parallel storyline to the protest itself. He agrees with Dobbs' assessment of the need to establish a more lasting presence in the media and advises the group to issue regular press releases and Op-Eds to keep in contact with the press.
"In years past ... the event was always the way that organizations like this got press," he notes. "[UFPJ should] get out there in the same way any nonprofit organization or any [NGO] would, and speak your messages."
The Mintwood Media Collective, a worker-owned, DC-based PR agency, has also worked with UFPJ on its events in the capital. Mintwood founder Adam Eidinger says that the group can take advantage of the fact that national media are becoming more receptive to antiwar stories as the public's mood shifts and woes pile up for the Bush administration. Although he admits that Hurricane Rita's arrival at the same time as the latest DC march "blew us out of the water when it comes to national press," he believes that UFPJ's position as the vanguard of the peace movement will only raise its profile in the months and years to come.
"I think, as time goes on, it's just a natural progression, where the media and the public become more skeptical of this whole thing," says Eidinger. "The antiwar movement has a ton of credibility right now."
Working with members
Bob Tancig, state coordinator for the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice (FCPJ), says a visit to UFPJ's website influenced him to bring his group into the fold two years ago. "I thought it was a very good site. It gave resources to people who wanted to become involved," he says. "When people call and ask what's going on in their area, I tell them to just go to that site."
FCPJ is representative of UFPJ's membership, which primarily consists of small, local organizations around the US, supplemented by larger regional, national, and international groups.
The coalition is a who's who (and a "who's that?") of mostly left wing names that run the gamut from well-known political organizations to makeshift grassroots citizen initiatives. Respected (in liberal circles) groups like the American Friends Service Committee, the Green Party, and MoveOn.org? Check. Local groups like the Florida Progressive Alliance, Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, and Communist Party of Central Indiana? Check. Others like the Glorious Revolutionary Federation of Fortune 500 Killers and the BOP Collective? Check.
Every 18 months since its founding, the group has held a national assembly that draws delegates from its far-flung members. A bare-bones staff of nine people, based in New York, handles the day-to-day work of organizing.
"The power resides in the national assembly, which then sets priorities," says Dobbs. A steering committee of about 40 guides the group's actions throughout the year, but its structure is fundamentally democratic. As FCPJ's Tancig notes, "They include a lot of input from the membership."
Most of UFPJ's time is spent assisting members in their own work. "It's sometimes as simple as a phone call about media assistance," Dobbs says. "Sometimes it's figuring out how to push against the war in a give area or region."
The group also issues periodic "calls to action" designed to bring the entire movement together on a national stage at times that are deemed to be of strategic importance. Its first major action was organizing the US portion of the worldwide day of protest in February 2003, highlighted by an antiwar rally in New York that UFPJ says drew half a million protesters. Its most recent event took place last month in Washington, where more than 100,000 people marched past the White House, calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
Organizing and promoting such an event requires extensive cooperation, especially considering UFPJ's dearth of internal resources. The steering committee chose the date of the protest six months ahead of time, and Dobbs and his supporters got to work.
"It's organized by a combination of the staff, as well as people in DC, who are working with us, and the steering committee members and member groups," says Dobbs. "Our coalition is an example of the infrastructure that's put in place to oppose this war."
Mintwood Media Collective, Riptide Communications