To Fight Imperialism, Organize Soldiers and Veterans

At the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, Jonathan Wesley Hutto, Sr. speaks at the January 15, 2007, launch of The Appeal for Redress. In The Appeal for Redress, active-duty service members sent protected communications under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act to their congressional representatives to advocate against the Iraq War.

Perhaps the unspoken central question of this issue of Democratic Left is: “How can we as socialists do effective work against war and imperialism?” By organizing those who are the victims of America’s Poverty Draft, Jonathan Wesley Hutto tells us below. In this open letter, Hutto mobilizes his own autobiography and the tradition that has inspired him; we hope Democratic Left readers are equally inspired.

During the U.S. war in Iraq, I was a lead organizer of The Appeal for Redress, in which 2000 service members told their members of Congress: As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home. The Appeal was a watershed moment in my life. I now truly understood that the struggle is eternal and must be waged everywhere, with a  specific, direct and intentional focus on this country’s working and marginalized classes. 

I feel proud of the example the Appeal set during that time, with inspiration coming directly from the Vietnam-era GI Movement. Given where our Movement is currently, the overwhelming majority  based in the middle class in terms of those actually doing the work, the Appeal for Redress — a movement generated directly by active-duty service members — can serve as an example of the influence and potential power of the working class of the United States, when connected to the international working class.

From the Appeal’s first week in October 2006, its influence was recognized. Even with just 65 initial signers back then, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was forced to use a press briefing to speak to our Constitutional rights. That’s with 65 signers (we ultimately got over 2000). Imagine if we could actually permanently mobilize and organize the grunts within the enlisted core? Such an organization would certainly wield real power, especially with the active support of civilian antiwar organizations. 

Long before I enlisted in the United States Navy, I’d already embraced my calling as a political organizer, as an undergraduate student at Howard University in the late 1990s — guided by the history and legacy of Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), who was chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC ) from 1966 to 1967.

When I was Howard’s student body president (1997-98), I met Ture through his comrades Banbose Shango and Bob Brown, the latter a founding member of the Black Panther Party. I developed a relationship with Ture’s All African People’s Revolutionary Party and Lawrence Guyot, former Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. It was through them that I first learned the power of what ordinary common citizens can do to make change.

February 17, 1998, was a watershed moment in my life. That night, two months shy of my 21st Birthday, I introduced and we hosted Brother Kwame Ture at Howard. He laid down some dictums that night that not only helped to change the course of my life but still guide my activism and organizing to this very day.

Ture told us that the struggle was eternal, that there was no time for us to simply kick back, relax and enjoy life. The more we Struggle the more we know, the more we know the more we can do/ Our people are going to need us to do until we die. Therefore we prepare ourselves for Eternal Struggle. The climax of that night for me was his journey to Mississippi, upon graduating from Howard in 1964; that he was in unknown territory not knowing anyone, and that despite the conditions Black sharecroppers risked their lives to protect, shield and house him. 

A few years before, as a freshman student, I met Professor Rodney Green, the founding Director of the Howard University Center for Urban Progress. My very first demonstration at Howard was with Rod and other Howard students, marching to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s home. We were protesting  the Republican “Contract with America,” better known as the Contract On America. Rod and I worked very closely together for years; our Voluntary Coalition against Police Brutality lasted from 2000- 2003, with more engagement in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murder in Sanford, Florida.  And it was through Rod that I first learned about the Vietnam-era GI movement.. 

For, in addition to being a professor of economics, Rodney Green was a veteran of that movement, having been drafted upon graduating from Yale. Rod is also a member of the Progressive Labor Party; some PLP members were part of  the grassroots People’s Coalition for Police Accountability in Prince George’s County, MD. The PLP had (has) a history of working within the enlisted ranks of the military dating back to the Vietnam Era, building and organizing among the enlisted “grunts” as an extension of the working class.

Rod was primarily responsible for me not going AWOL in February 2005. Rod pushed me to return to my ship, to deal directly with a draconian chain of command that had sought retribution against what they perceived as my anti-authoritarian ethos and posture. Had I not returned to my ship (the USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71), there would have never been an Appeal For Redress a year and some months later.    

The model of how Rod worked with me, a Black college youth from the Southern United States with working-class proclivities, is actually a model for how people within DSA could potentially build a movement that can dig deeper. I would challenge today’s movement to keep an eye toward not only impacting the most affected, but actually building leadership among the working class.   

Current DSAers should see themselves as organizers  who are working themselves out of a job. Because if you’re not bringing in and consolidating new blood, then ultimately you’re not building a movement. Whether you’re a college professor, high school teacher, or bus driver, you need to dig deeper, to actually politicize those persons loading the bombs on the planes, shooting the rifles, driving the tanks. Failure to dig deeper pretty much limits our movement to being one that is solely about building spectacles that are not a real threat to the ruling class. 

Screaming out in a congressional hearing, throwing paint at a politician and/or statue, even massive marches — none of it moves the needle at all, if those doing the actions primarily come from the middle class, with positions within academia and  the non-profit industrial complex. This is our current movement construct, and the reason why we couldn’t stop the war in 2003 despite the largest number of demonstrations across the world ever. Those doing the marching were not the working class. This was not France in 1968, where workers shut down the country and nearly overthrew the government. The antiwar marches in 2002-03 were mostly spectacles, relying on a cult of personalities and liberal politicians to win over the ruling class. We cannot win that way.

From where I sit, we should ideally have a base within these Midwestern, mid-American towns that have been abandoned by industry and where the military has become the number one employer — places like Steubenville and Akron, Ohio; Indiana; Detroit and Flint in Michigan; along with southern towns such as Huntsville, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. I remember vividly that the highest proportion of sailors I worked closely with came from Ohio; that was between the years of 2004-2008, but I’m sure that paradigm has not changed, but has only worsened over time. 

History would say that the work would be focused best among both the active duty and reserve troops, coupled with counter-recruitment work within high schools. To the degree that you have a base-cadre close to military bases and within military towns, a conscious effort should be made to reach out to and organize among active-duty and reserve forces. Consider partnering with organizations such as the GI Rights Hotline and the Military Project. For counter-recruitment work, the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth is an awesome collective that can help your cadre get in front of high school youth and speak truth about military service. 

This work must also be coupled with a serious political education program, which digs into the canon of work by those who have been front-line fighters in this way. Up Against The Brass by the late Andy Stapp, and John Catalinotto’s Turn the Guns Around both chronicle the work of the American Servicemembers Union during the Vietnam Era; Andy was an enlisted soldier, while John supported the union from a civilian base community. And  Soldiers in Revolt, by David Cortright, is, from my vantage point, the best overall study of that period, with many lessons and organizing strategies that can be imparted today. Indeed, it was David’s book that helped give me a road-map, which I talk about in my own book, Anti-War Soldier.

I still think often of that 1998 night at Howard, when Kwame Ture told us how to do this. He told us, Once you fight for the people, the people will always fight to protect you. But your fight must be honest, it must be dignified, it must be with integrity and it must be without any compromise at all.

That last sentence, I have lived it. And the example of Ture and SNCC, relying on the strength and leadership of the most marginalized and oppressed, can guide us today in our work with members of the actively serving United States military. Solidarity forever!