Movements ebb and flow. I experienced this fluctuation first-hand as an organizer during the Central America peace movement. As the U.S. wars in the region raged relentlessly from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, public awareness of these brutal but largely clandestine conflicts faded in and out, and the strength and focus of the movement regularly waxed and waned. As someone new to activism at the time, this experience of a movement’s frustratingly attenuated rhythm served up an important lesson. Making change takes more time than we think, and our job is to both respect this fact and to contend with it. How can we take steps to ensure that what started out so promisingly doesn’t fall into oblivion? What creative surges can give our campaigns new life?
Many movements have struggled with this test, from the labor movement to Occupy. I thought about this challenge again recently as I called to mind a campaign that some of us helped organize 25 years ago this month.
Steps to Freedom was a nationwide campaign created in 1988 by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, or CISPES, the Winning Democracy campaign, and the Pledge of Resistance, for whom I worked in those days. It featured 70 demonstrations and walk-a-thons across the country, and it culminated in 214 people being arrested at the Pentagon. The campaign’s goal was to raise the visibility of U.S. policy in El Salvador.
One of the challenges of the Central America peace movement was convincing the public that the United States was at war at all. Thousands of people were killed throughout the region as the direct result of U.S. policies, but this intervention was often hidden from people in the United States because there were few U.S. boots on the ground. Consequently, the movement mostly grew in response to specific outrages or escalations — the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua, military aid to the counter-revolutionaries, or “contras,” in Nicaragua and so forth. When the realities of these wars occasionally broke through — either because of atrocities that couldn’t be swept under the rug or by the efforts of the Reagan administration to marshal Congressional or public support for these policies — it was easier to organize. We were, as a result, more reactive than pro-active.
This context was the dilemma faced by activists wanting to change U.S. policy in El Salvador. The Central America peace movement had chiefly been sparked by the war in El Salvador — especially news of wholesale killings carried out by death squads and then the emergence of the Sanctuary movement, whose members broke U.S. immigration law by openly giving refuge to Salvadorans who came to the United States with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Throughout the 1980s, however, the violence in El Salvador was largely overshadowed by the Reagan administration’s more visible attack on Nicaragua (as well as by other movements active at the time, including the anti-nuclear weapons movement and the movement to end apartheid in South Africa). Though the war in El Salvador churned on throughout the decade, U.S.-based activists had few visible opportunities around which to organize.
This challenge, in turn, led to a certain form of strategic thinking that verged on triage. For example, at a time when virtually all attention was focused on the Nicaraguan contra aid bills in Congress, some of us broached the idea that the Central America Working Group (50 national organizations that coordinated legislative work on Capitol Hill) should focus more substantively on El Salvador. A progressive church lobbyist adamantly countered, “No! We can’t win on El Salvador!” When I suggested that advocating for a shift now might help make change possible later, she was not having any of it.
In this atmosphere, CISPES and the Pledge — and, later, Winning Democracy — decided to join forces to put El Salvador more firmly on the social change agenda. We imagined protests across the country and a national action at the Pentagon. We spent months pulling this plan together. Part of what this campaign involved was resolving some friction that had accumulated at the local level between some of the Pledge and CISPES groups, as is sometimes wont to do between organizations with even slight differences. I took part in a campaign planning meeting in one of the cities where both local groups were somewhat wary of one another. I started off my presentation saying that I had just heard that the National Security Council was holding an emergency meeting that morning because they were nervous that the Pledge and CISPES were joining forces to organize nonviolent action and that it was resolved to find any way it could to keep the two groups apart. The point seemed to sink in, and we went on to have a very productive session.
In addition to scores of actions across the United States, the 1988 Steps to Freedom coalition organized a nonviolent action at the Pentagon on October 17, which was attended by a thousand people, most of whom nonviolently thronged the doorways and engaged employees as they arrived at work. A highlight of the event was building a cemetery on the helipad consisting of crosses bearing the names of the women, men and children who had died in El Salvador. When the military police came through and knocked the crosses down, protesters moved back in and planted them again. The hundreds of people arrested while engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience were taken into the Pentagon building and hustled through the corridors, which resounded with their chanting about their opposition to the war.
Long-time activists Daniel Ellsberg and David Dellinger risked arrest that day (though the authorities opted not to arrest them), but I was most moved by the presence of Mexico’s literary giant, Octavio Paz, the aged author of The Labyrinth of Solitude, who two years later would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. We chatted for a while in the midst of the splendor of the profusion of nonviolent action unfolding all around us in the Pentagon’s shadow. (Other memories from that time come streaming back — including the fact that most of us that summer read Norman Mailer’s classic “true life novel” on the 1967 march on the Pentagon, Armies of the Night, and that some of us took precautions against “pre-emptive arrests” by staying in a motel very close to the Pentagon so we wouldn’t be nabbed on the Metro subway before the action. It’s not something I have ever done before a protest since then, but there was some justification for the jittery carefulness on the part of my colleagues since some 60 CISPES offices had been broken into over the previous few years.)
It is difficult to precisely quantify the impact of the Steps to Freedom campaign. Nonetheless, it is possible to surmise that it may have played a role in refocusing the importance of ending U.S. support for the death squad government in El Salvador and continuing to build the capacity of the Central America movement to respond to the policy there. This in turn may have contributed to preparing the movement to take new action.
We had no way of knowing then that, just over a year later, we would be called across the United States to take such action. On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter would be brutally killed on the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador. Over 1,000 demonstrations took place across the United States between November and January, in which 1,000 people were arrested engaging in peaceful civil disobedience. (Part of my job at that time was tracking and documenting this intensive wave of action, which the Pledge later published in a detailed report.) There is little doubt that this organized response played a key role in Congress’ decision to cut off aid to El Salvador, which in turn cleared the way for the United Nations to begin a peace process that was completed a few years later.
What lessons do I take from this experience today, 25 years later during a time when there are many challenges but also many impasses? A few come to mind: Be relentless, take initiative, collaborate, and follow the threads of nonviolent action into the unknown future. Taking these steps may bear much more fruit than we can imagine.