Amidst financial chaos, Washington state's largest peace group has shut down—right at the time when the Bush administration has launched an unprecedented military expansion around the globe and is threatening an all-out invasion of Iraq.
The Peace and Justice Alliance (PJA) was, until about two years ago, the Washington state chapter of Peace Action, the nation's largest and best-known peace group. With 18,000 current members statewide, the group tackled not only traditional peace issues like the military budget, nuclear weapons, and whatever the U.S. jihad of the week might be, but other, more local violence-related topics: gun control, the War on Drugs, and homelessness. The group had both pull in Olympia and a long history of effectiveness beyond the usual leftie anti-war circles. But things have been rotten inside, and in recent weeks it all came tumbling down.
In mid-June, longtime executive director Scott Carpenter unexpectedly resigned for health reasons. What the board discovered when he left was a fiscal catastrophe. Neither Carpenter nor staff organizer Fred Miller had been paid in nearly a year. The group's two-year-old storefront Peace Cafe on N.E. Roosevelt Way was hemorrhaging red ink. Overall debts totaled well over $100,000.
By the end of June, the understaffed board—it now has only four members, including former Gov. Mike Lowry; PJA's treasurer and state Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds; and Washington state Labor Council member Nancy Rising (PJA's president)—had closed both the cafe and the political programs, laid off Miller, and closed the office except for the phone banking. Even board members were ill- positioned to pitch in; among other things, Rising has been consumed with a family medical crisis and Chase is embroiled in a tough re-election campaign.
Two weeks ago, the phone bank operation was also shut down. Phone bank director Mark Tennyson—who had briefly stepped in as executive director when Carpenter left—was also out of work, along with his callers, and PJA was officially closed. For now.
A board letter that was e-mailed to laid-off phone bankers pledged to reopen the cafe (in a better location) and resume the phone bank in three months. The letter also promised to remake PJA politically, dropping the group's local issues and historic anti-nuke focus to work primarily on Iraq and the War on Terrorism. According to Miller, no political work is to resume until the group is out of debt. Word of the group's future plans and focus has disturbed some local activists—both because of the obvious, immediate need for PJA's current work and because existing Iraq and War on Terror- ism groups weren't consulted.
But Rising says all plans are up in the air now. "That was something we were hoping to do," she says of the July 28 phone bank letter. "Even if we had all the agenda right now, we don't have the staff to do it, and it was probably ill- considered (to put it out). A new executive director will probably want to form the policy agenda."
It might be a while before the debt is gone. Carpenter has forgiven his back wages, but Miller has not; he is also owed over $20,000 for personal loans he made that funded the launch of the cafe. And a brand-new cafe isn't likely to rake in money, either.
Meanwhile, ugliness between the board and the former staff—both Miller and Tennyson have threatened lawsuits—is in part rooted in very different visions of organizing styles and constituencies. The board's letter to phone bankers envisions that when it returns, the group will " . . . move the outreach beyond the peace community to the broader population . . . [with] full participation in the society and the political culture. . . . We all agree we must take this discussion to the majority in our country. We in the peace community spend a great deal of time talking to ourselves."
Hard to argue with that, but Miller—by far PJA's most visible presence for the last seven years—offers an acidic translation: "It'll be a long time before they have anybody [on the board] who can't sit down and talk about the latest crisis on the state Democratic Party Central Committee."
The internal bickering, what Rising calls "some poor business practices," and PJA's precipitous fall are symptomatic of the ills of the country's (and Seattle's) peace movement in general: no money, no visibility, rampant incompetence, few articulate responses to the worst outbreak of U.S. militarism in a generation, and no connection to the large swath of the public that already has concerns about that militarism.
The biggest tragedy of PJA's collapse is that at such a critical time, almost nobody outside Seattle's activist left either knows about it or cares.