On Oct. 9, 2012, the legislature of Albany County, N.Y. approved a proclamation calling upon Congress to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, cut the U.S. military budget, and use the savings to fund vital public programs at home.
This official demand for new national priorities -- by a county of 304,000 people -- was not entirely novel. Within the past year or so, the U.S. Conference of Mayors had passed a similar resolution, as had the governments of numerous cities, including Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Hartford, and Portland. Even so, the idea of "moving the money" from war to peace had largely fallen off the political radar screen. The Albany County Peace Dividend Proclamation, as it was dubbed, helped bring it back to public attention.
The Albany campaign began this past July, when a small group of peace and social justice activists in Albany met with Doug Bullock, a sympathetic Albany County legislator, to discuss the possibilities of the legislature's passing a "move the money" resolution. In recent decades Albany's peace and social justice community had been growing ever more intertwined, with a good deal of overlap in membership. Also, national polls showed that the general public was fed up with the Afghanistan War and preferred cuts in military programs to cuts in social spending.
Yet significant factors weighed against the possibility of success. Although Albany County was heavily Democratic, much of the Democratic Party (particularly in the City of Albany) was controlled by machine politicians who might just as well have been Republicans. Bullock's strong antiwar stance was not the norm. Indeed, in 2008, when he tried to get the legislature to pass a resolution opposing the Iraq War, the legislators not only rejected it, but banned all future resolutions.
Despite the obstacles, it was decided to move forward with a Peace Dividend Proclamation campaign -- one that involved getting a majority of Albany County's 39 legislators to sign an official statement on behalf of the county. The activists, drawn from Upper Hudson Peace Action and the Solidarity Committee of the Capital District, conferred with staff members from Peace Action (the nation's largest peace organization), who helped them pull together the relevant statistics and wording for the proclamation. Once the proclamation was in final form, Bullock circulated it to potentially sympathetic legislators and secured an additional six co-sponsors.
The activists decided that the next step would be to recruit local organizations to the campaign. After brainstorming about peace, labor, religious, environmental, political, student, tenants' rights, and other groups that might be sympathetic, they approached them about not only endorsing the proclamation, but sending a speaker and turning out supporters for the September 10 meeting of the county legislature.
In Albany County, there is a Public Forum immediately preceding official meetings of the legislature during which citizens are free to speak to the assembled legislators on any issue. And the activists used this opportunity to good effect, presenting 10 speakers from well-known organizations and constituencies. To offset possible charges that the proclamation "disrespected the troops," they drew upon two veterans as speakers. They also distributed the proclamation and a list of 19 local organizations that had endorsed it.
Even if they hadn't secured any signatures that evening, it would have been a useful exercise, for the assembled legislators were forced to sit through 50 minutes' worth of lectures on the costs of war-- both economic and human -- and the need to fund social programs.
But, in fact, they came away from that evening with 18 signatures out of the 20 needed for a majority. That gave them until Oct. 9, the next meeting of the legislature and their self-imposed deadline, to gather just two more signatures.
In fact, it proved very difficult. Although, in the following weeks, Bullock circulated the proclamation at legislative committee meetings, no one else was willing to sign it. Among the Democratic holdouts, some said that they did not believe that issues of war and peace should be addressed by a county legislature. One Democrat angrily denounced the proclamation as "unpatriotic," and stated that she had been told that by the county executive. Another said that it would undermine President Obama's re-election. A few said they were thinking about it.
Among the 10 Republican legislators -- none of whom had signed the proclamation -- there was even stiffer resistance. Some simply dismissed the proclamation as the Democratic presidential campaign platform. Others said that they would be willing to sign it if the savings on military programs were not re-channeled to domestic social programs.
Although, eventually, they picked up an additional Democratic signature, bringing them to 19 out of the 20 needed, they began to feel a bit desperate as the Oct. 9 deadline neared. Would they ultimately fail, just one signature short of their goal?
In the final days, they mobilized some of their most powerful organizational endorsers -- the Albany County AFL-CIO, the Interfaith Alliance of New York State, the Working Families Party (which, under New York law, can and does make cross-party endorsements, often of Democrats), Veterans for Peace, and United University Professions -- to send letters to holdout legislators. They pored over the mailing lists of key groups, identified the constituents of targeted legislators, and called upon them to phone these legislators and urge them to sign the proclamation. They drew upon other legislators and people with political connections to press key holdouts to sign. Finally, they scheduled a press conference and rally, outside the doors of the legislature, just before the legislature was to meet, on Oct. 9.
When, unexpectedly, the twentieth legislator signed that day, everything fell into place. The press conference/rally turned into a victory celebration. At the legislature's Public Forum, they distributed a list of 29 endorsing organizations and brought in another battery of speakers lauding the proclamation. By the end of the evening, the proclamation had 22 signers (all of them Democrats), a solid majority. On Oct. 10, in accordance with the terms of the proclamation, the Albany County Clerk mailed off copies to President Obama, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York congressional delegation, the New York State Legislature, and all government departments in Albany County.
It will take much more, of course, to change the priorities of the U.S. government from war to peace. But, as the Albany example indicates, it's possible to make a start on the local level.
This is a revised version of an article that was published by Foreign Policy in Focus on Oct. 17, 2012.
Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual" (University of Tennessee Press).