Our institutions have failed us; it’s up to us to make change

March 1, 2003
Speech given at anti-war rally on Ohio University’s College Green


The last time I was at a rally with this many people on College Green it was last February’s walkout against sexual assault and hate crimes. Like today’s rally, that one was also organized against violence – specifically violence on this campus against women and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community. This time around, we’re rallying against the violence of an unjustified war against the people of Iraq.

But there’s something else these two rallies have in common, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

On the spot I’m standing now, at last February’s walkout rally a very bright and passionate student activist named Thom Wright said something that stuck with me. He said we were here that day because our institutions had failed us. And that since our institutions had failed us, we would need to go beyond and outside of them to create positive change.

What institutions was Thom talking about? First of all, there was the university. How had that institution failed us? First, by not providing us with control over our formal education so that we could make it relevant to the problems of violence and hate on our campus. Within 8 days in January two women had reported being raped by men in OU’s residence halls and a third woman reported being beaten by a group of men because she was gay. Our classes here weren’t addressing the problems of sexist and heterosexist violence on this campus. They didn’t create a public forum for students to discuss and identify the sources of these problems and the ways we could work to address them. The institution had failed us, and we needed to go outside of it – to literally walk out of our regular classes in order to create a more relevant and useful educational environment. As another speaker that day put it, “We’re not skipping a class, we’re attending one of our own.”

We had to, because our institution had failed us.

And it had failed us in other ways, too. It failed us, because the administration – that clique of managers that runs the university without any formal way for students to hold them accountable – had for years been in violation of the primary federal law for informing students and employees of on-campus assaults. Our institution continued to fail us as administrators denied this fact for a month after students brought it to their attention, even going so far as to provide them with the written text of the act itself. OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan denied it. Assistant Director of OUPD Mark Matthews denied it. OU spokesperson Leesa Brown denied it. But we persisted and finally, to avoid further embarrassment most likely, the administration complied with the law. But even after they complied and sent out the required information to all students and employees, they still had the audacity to tell the Athens News that they had never been in violation. And at this point, we know that they weren’t simply mistaken, they were lying.

This institution failed us in multiple ways, but it wasn’t the only one.

The local media failed us, too. The reporter for that Athens News piece didn’t even bother to take the 10 minutes of research needed to find out that OU’s spokesperson was making false statements. The same was true of The Post. Not a single one of the student paper’s reporters ever investigated students’ claims that the university was violating a major federal law concerning student safety, even though their reporters were present when these claims were made.

In the end, it was up to us, students acting outside of our roles as obedient grade-chasers at OU, and acting outside of the local media institutions, to set the record straight. Just as we had worked outside of these institutions to make the walkout happen and to force the administration to comply with the law, we tracked down the person at the Department of Education in charge of enforcing the law, and we interviewed him. He confirmed what we already knew: the law was exactly what it said on paper, and, contrary to what OU administrators claimed, they had unequivocally been in violation of that law for years.

The local media failed us by failing to cover this administration’s disregard for the safety of students, its incompetence and its dishonesty.

Our institutions had failed us. The university failed us. The local media had failed us.

And, you know, it only makes sense that the student media, in particular, would fail us – because the university is simply one failed institution that prepares us for other failed institutions. Take the corporate-controlled mainstream media that the university is preparing its journalism students to enter.

We live in a country where the mass media are so subservient to the agendas of the powerful corporations that own and fund them, and to the government that maintains the system from which they profit, that for the last few months they’ve been cheering on the “Showdown with Saddam” like it’s a football game.

As Jeremy Scahill of the alternative media projects Democracy Now! and Iraq Journal puts it, “The words ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘our forces’ are being used so frequently by major corporate media personalities that it has become difficult to figure out if it is the Bush Administration or the media that are gearing up to bomb Iraq.”

Scahill points out that the press cannot be the vigilant watchdog of a government with which it identifies so closely that it persistently uses the term “we” to describe them both.

Given the lapdog rather than watchdog nature of the media institutions students of the prestigious Scripps Howard School of Journalism are being trained to enter, it should come as no surprise that student journalists here at OU would be so willing to blindly accept the claims of university authorities at face value. Today Terry Hogan and Leesa Brown; tomorrow George Bush and Ari Fleischer.

Thus our institutions have failed us. And their failure has once more brought us here today.

While the Bush administration has not shown that Iraq poses an imminent threat to the American people, we know without a doubt that a US invasion of Iraq poses an imminent threat to the lives of Iraqis. The consequences to innocent civilians would be enormous.

Iraqi people are already vulnerable and dying by the thousands from the damage caused by the last Gulf War – from the regular and nearly-unreported US bombing campaign of the last 12 years, and from 12 years of crippling sanctions, which may have resulted in more than a million easily preventable deaths.

The international aid agency OXFAM gives us this description of the present situation in Iraq:

“It is very difficult to see how a military strike on Iraq can be justified, nor indeed how such an attack could be waged without violating international humanitarian law.

“Iraq’s economy is already devastated. Even with the food rationing system set up by the international community, malnutrition is widespread, especially among women and children.

“A recent visit to Iraq by aid agency experts, including an Oxfam specialist, confirmed that the water and sanitation system is on the verge of collapse.

“Most urban homes get piped water but two thirds of it is untreated. In rural parts of central and southern Iraq, UNICEF says that only 46 per cent of homes have piped water. In the towns, the trucks that empty cesspits and septic tanks aren’t working properly because there are no spares, tires or batteries. Sewage flows back into people’s houses.

“Iraq’s water and sanitation system depends on an electrical supply that was crippled during the 1991 air strikes. Eleven years later, it is estimated that one-third of the national power supply is still down. Most water treatment plants have their own generators but 70 per cent of them don’t work.

“Any military action that damages power supplies will inevitably destroy the already fragile water and sanitation system. Inevitably, diseases such as cholera and hepatitis will sweep through the population. Any attack that affects roads, ports or railways will lead to the collapse of the system of food distribution upon which the bulk of Iraq’s population depends.”

According to an internal UN report leaked to the press by concerned UN personnel last month, in addition to the 500,000 direct and indirect civilian casualties estimated, “the collapse of essential services in Iraq… could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well beyond the capacity of UN agencies and other aid organizations.”

According to the report, 30 percent of Iraqi children under the age of 5 – that’s about one million, two hundred and sixty thousand children – would “be at risk of death from malnutrition.”

Rueters reports, “Aid agencies predict that up to 900,000 refugees could head for the Iranian border if a war starts. Iran already hosts more than three million refugees, the largest number in the world, including around 2.4 million from Afghanistan and 450,000 from Iraq.”

Article 54 of Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention prohibits attacks upon “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” In Iraq, such objects include ports, roads, railways and power lines. The Convention states that “in no event shall actions against these objects be taken which may be expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation or force its movement.”

Given this, Oxfam asks, “How can an attack on Iraq fail to violate international humanitarian law?”

And all the while our president and media commentators have the nerve to talk about “liberating,” about “freeing,” the people of Iraq.

Our institutions have failed us.

We’re told that the war on Iraq will at least bring democracy to the Iraqis that survive it. In response to this claim, Vietnam Veterans Against the War have produced a simple multiple choice question. “Since the end of World War II,” they write, the US has bombed the following countries:

China 1945-46
Korea 1950-53
China 1950-53
Guatemala 1954
Indonesia 1958
Cuba 1959-60
Guatemala 1960
Congo 1964
Peru 1965
Laos 1964-73
Vietnam 1961-73
Cambodia 1969-70
Guatemala 1967-69
Grenada 1983
Libya 1986
El Salvador 1980s
Nicaragua 1980s
Panama 1989
Iraq 1991-the present
Sudan 1998
Afghanistan 1998
Yugoslavia 1999
Afghanistan 2001-2002

“In how many of these instances,” the veterans’ group asks, “did a democratic government, respectful of human rights, occur as a direct result?

Is the answer…?
(a) zero
(b) none
(c) not a one
(d) a whole number between -1 and +1

Our institutions have failed us. And all this talk of democracy has to make you wonder how Geroge W. Bush defines the term. Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder because he’s told us himself.

After a weekend in February when roughly 10 million people across the globe attended demonstrations against Bush’s planned war – probably the largest anti-war showing in the history of the world – George Bush told reporters “Democracy is a Beautiful thing. People are allowed to express their opinion, and I welcome people’s right to say what they believe.”

Funny, I was always under the impression that democracy meant self-governance; that people either collectively reached decisions among themselves or that governing officials were bound to adhere to the will of the population.

Despite a massive war propaganda campaign by the US government and its partners in the mainstream media that has convinced half of this country that Saddam Hussein is partially responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks even though no link has been proven, the latest polls nonetheless show that about 40 percent of Americans are flatly opposed to a US invasion of Iraq and a clear majority of Americans oppose a unilateral US war.

And yet, according to the Associated Press, “Bush said that the size of the protests against a possible US-led war against Iraq was irrelevant.” The New York Times reports, “Mr. Bush said he would base his decisions not on protests or opinion polls but on what he thinks is right for history.”

Our institutions have failed us.

Because if this is democracy, then so is a prison as long as its inmates “are allowed to express their opinion.” If that’s democracy, I have no doubt that the Bush administration can bring democracy to Iraq.

Our institutions have failed us because George W. Bush sits in office after being appointed to the presidency by the Supreme Court, rather than elected.

Our institutions have failed us, because our president, having stolen the election, is not even afraid to say that he doesn’t care what the population thinks.

Our institutions – our media, our government, our universities – have all failed us. And we’re at the point where I don’t see any reason to call these “our” institutions. They are only ours in the sense of being “our” problems.

These institutions have failed us, and as always if we are to overcome their failures, we will need to go outside of them.

We will need to go outside of our classrooms to develop an education that’s relevant to this struggle.

We will need to go outside of the mainstream media to find accurate information.

We will need to go beyond our role as voters because the election won’t come in time to save hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and whatever number of American troops are sacrificed along with them.

We will need to go beyond simply speaking out and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances– because, as Bush has said, the president welcomes your right to express your opinion, he just doesn’t give a shit what you have to say.

We will need to go beyond simply “Speaking truth to power” because power doesn’t care.

We will need to go beyond passive protest to more active resistance.

What do I mean by active resistance? I mean that all of these failed institutions depend on our cooperation in order to function. If we relinquish that cooperation, they cease to function.

In order to shut the institutions of war down, however, large numbers of people need to be organized enough to act collectively. We have the numbers. The anti-war movement is enormous. Now the questions are: 1) Are we determined enough to do something beyond holding signs and waiting for the next election? And 2) If we are determined to act, do we have the means to act collectively?

In order to get to a point where we can give a more confident ‘yes’ to the second question, I think the primary task before us now is to go outside of our failed institutions and to build alternative institutions — institutions that allow large numbers of us to develop and carry out massive coordinated actions like strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, blockades of military equipment transports, and so on. Resistance, not just protest.

So long as we are isolated and unorganized, we are relatively powerless. But if we act together, we can stop this war.

If we really care about saving lives, instead of just holding a sign and feeling good about ourselves, then it’s time for us to become organizers and institution builders, not just protesters.

For my part, I’m facilitating a workshop on organizing this coming Wednesday in Baker 327 from 7-9pm.

Also, Chris Crews and I have created a website to make local organizing easier at http://www.awrn.org.

If you have an idea for a project, or need help with something, you can post your ideas and contact information to the site and connect with other concerned Athenians. If you are putting on an anti-war event or holding an open meeting, you can post them to the online calendar, a central source where people can go to find out about local anti-war efforts.

Also included will be information on joining and building People for Peace and Justice’s coalition of local anti-war groups – which I think is exactly the kind of alternative institution we need to carry out large strategic actions.

But at the moment, if you’ve got web design skills, we need your help to fix a couple hang-ups. So if that’s you, please find me later. The rest of you should be seeing flyers all around town advertising the website as soon as it’s fully functional.

We have a moral obligation to solve the problems of our failed institutions.

If not us, then who?

As Paulo Freire points out, “To wash one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless is to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

We have a moral obligation to solve the problems of our failed institutions – for the sake of our own freedom and well-being, and for the sake hundreds of thousands of Iraqis whose survival depend on how much opposition we can muster. That’s what’s at stake here. Not whether we speak out, but whether we act to save lives.

Our institutions have failed us, we can’t afford to fail ourselves or the Iraqi people.

We have to do this, and we can do this.

Thank you.

This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Our institutions have failed us; it’s up to us to make change

  1. Pingback: 10 Years Later: Anti-War Writings, Old & New | Damon Krane

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