Symposium INDEX

Japan Peace Conference 2006
International Symposium


TJ Johnson

Councilmember, City of Olympia
Olympia, Washington, United States of America



Confronting Weapons and War:
Actions and Lessons from Olympia, Washington, USA

Thank You. I am pleased and honored to be with you today as a member of the Olympia, Washington City Council, and as a representative of my community's vibrant and diverse movement against weapons and war, and for the realization of a just, sustainable and peaceful future for all members of the human family.

I stand before you today to confirm what many of you already understand only too well- that my country suffers from a dangerous obsession with war and weapons as its primary instrument of foreign policy. Today, this military madness is not only responsible for the unraveling of an entire framework of international laws, conventions and treaties dating back at least 60 years, but is also undermining the basic civil rights guaranteed to all American citizens by the US Constitution. If the current situation continues unabated, the world faces the likelihood of continued conflict, further human suffering and the eventual use of nuclear weapons that could wipe the human race from the face of the planet.

Yet I also come before you to affirm that as a citizen of the United States and an elected official in my community, I have accepted my responsibility to speak out forcefully and frequently against the actions of my government when these actions threaten the public interest and our shared goal of a more peaceful planet. I do this not because I hate my country, but rather because I love it. For I believe that, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Macguire "to challenge oneユs own government when it ignores moral and ethical values is true patriotism."

In our brief time together, I want to share with you information about my own activities over the past few years, as well as examples of various anti-war and peace building efforts within my community. I will also offer some analysis about the results of our recent national elections, and what this might mean for efforts to oppose US militarism and further the cause of peace.

When I decided to seek election to the Olympia City Council, I did so not because I wanted to become involved in large international issues such as the abolition of nuclear weapons, but rather to address more immediate needs in my community such as protecting the environment, expanding sidewalks and bicycle facilities, and building a sustainable local economy. In essence, I came into my position on the City Council as many people have - as a community activist. However, I quickly learned that the range of issues one deals with as a City Councilmember spans the spectrum from the personal to the global. I also learned that global issues can quickly become personal.

In May of 2004, the City of Olympia was contacted by the Washington State Patrol with a request to provide security for an upcoming visit by the USS Olympia. The USS Olympia is a nuclear powered US Navy submarine, armed with multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. After researching the issue, I became convinced that floating this mobile nuclear reactor into our small downtown harbor was not in the best interests of the community, and was in reality little more than a high profile public relations stunt designed to bolster popular support for the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy. As such, I encouraged the local peace and justice community to speak out on the issues. I also authored a resolution opposing the visit and convinced a majority of the City Council to agree to hold a public hearing on the resolution. This action made regional and national news and, fueled by a misinformation campaign led by right-wing Seattle area talk radio stations and pro-military websites, I received hundreds of e-mails and phone messages, some of which threatened direct physical harm to me and my family. At the public hearing the following week, the testimony was evenly split between those opposing and those supporting the visit. However, a clear majority of Olympia residents that testified opposed the visit. Several days later, before the Council acted on the resolution, the Navy cancelled the visit for what they termed "operational reasons." I believe the visit was cancelled due to the concerns of the City Council and the opposition of so many members of the community. The primary lessons I learned from this experience were the importance of not bowing to personal threats and political intimidation, and the value of providing a public forum in which to discuss issues of militarism and its impact on our community.

While this experience left me with a deep impression of how local issues fit into a larger global context, another experience later that year was even more important in my journey towards peace activism. In September 2004, following a trip to Olympiaユs Sister City of Yashiro, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Hiroshima. Now, two years later, the emotional power of that experience remains fresh. I left Hiroshima convinced that no one should be permitted to serve in elected office - particularly in the United States - who had not visited the museum and International Peace Park, witnessed images of the carnage and destruction, and listened to the stories of the hibakusha. I also left convinced that I now had a special obligation to use this experience to educate my community about the horror of nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear proliferation.

Upon returning to Olympia, I began to channel this commitment in several directions. First, as a private citizen I organized a new organization, Beyond Hiroshima, whose mission was to educate and empower the Olympia community to take steps towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. Beyond Hiroshima has since become the central organization working to educate the community on nuclear issues.

Second, I felt strongly that I must use my position as a member of the City Council as a platform to address nuclear weapons. Some may argue, indeed have, that local governments have no business involving themselves in national or international affairs. The job of local government, they say, is to fix the streets, pick up the trash, and put out fires. And they are right, that is the job of local government. But so are a host of other things. In today's increasingly interlinked and globalized world I believe that the argument that we should draw a line around the City of Olympia and ignore what happens on the other side of that line is naive and undermines our community's goal of achieving a high quality of life for both todayユs Olympians and for future generations.

There are at least six legitimate reasons for local governments, particularly the Olympia City Council, to act towards achieving a world free of what Nobel Prize winner Kenzabuoro Oe called "these awesome weapons that reign over our age like raving mad gods."

First, local governments are compelled to act due to the 60 year failure of national and international institutions to meaningfully address the problem. Simply put, national and international efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons have been ineffective, and are currently on the verge of collapse, a precarious position brought on in large part by the aggressive pro-nuclear posture of the Bush administration, with its utter disregard for international cooperation and the rule of law. It is time for local communities and local governments to step forward and lead the way to a nuclear free future.

Second, it is appropriate for cities to take action because cities have the most to lose. As centers of culture, commerce and population, cities are the most likely targets for the use of nuclear weapons, either by terrorists or nuclear states. As both a state Capitol and Port City, Olympia is especially vulnerable.

Third, the dollars wasted on nuclear weapons rob cities of the resources we need to deal with a host of growing social and environmental problems. The United States has wasted trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons since 1945. Over the past few years funding for the US nuclear weapons program has steadily increased, with the full cost now approaching, by some estimates, nearly $60 billion per year. It is important that community leaders clearly articulate the connection between spending on nuclear weapons and the lack of resources available for more socially productive and life enhancing investments. President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood this connection well when he stated that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Fourth, the City of Olympia has adopted a goal of aligning its values with its policies in order to put sustainability into action to improve the quality of life in our community and do our part to save the planet. Nothing is more contrary to the goal of sustainability than the fact that there are enough nuclear weapons on the planet today to, according to Dr. Helen Caldicott, kill every man, woman and child on the planet 32 times. The City of Olympia is a recognized pioneer in the area of community sustainability. Yet what good does it do to take these important local actions for sustainability if we are always 15 minutes away from the end of civilization as we know it?

Fifth, in taking up the issue of nuclear weapons we send a clear message to other communities and other nations that not everyone in the United States agrees with the Bush administration's reckless and arrogant policy of intimidation and violence. We can send a message to other communities that there are democratically elected leaders in the United States who vigorously oppose our government's nuclear doctrine and who are working to create a world free of the evils of nuclear weapons.

Sixth, the primary role of local governments is to be responsive to the people we serve. If something is important to members of the community, it is a legitimate concern of local government. Over the past few years, my constituents have clearly demonstrated that they care about the issue of nuclear weapons. As such, it is a legitimate issue for action by the City Council. This is the essence of the democratic form of government.

For these and other reasons I proposed a resolution in support of the Mayors for Peace 2020 Vision Campaign, which seeks the total elimination of all nuclear weapons by the year 2020, the 75th anniversary of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This effort reached fruition on February 2nd, 2005 when the Olympia City Council unanimously endorsed the resolution in support of Mayors for Peace, becoming the first city in the state of Washington to do so.

Following passage of the resolution, I was invited to join the Mayors for Peace delegation to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations. My experience as member of the delegation was profound. Simply put, I was appalled at the mixture of thinly veiled tolerance and outright contempt with which the United States approached the conference. Rather than constructively engaging with the international community to identify ways to improve implementation of the treaty, the US delegates pointed their fingers at Iran, North Korea and other nuclear upstarts, while refusing to recognize its own responsibility to eliminate its massive stockpile of illegal nuclear weapons. Similar to my experience in Hiroshima, I left the NPT conference committed to taking local actions to fill the clear void in leadership, and to do so by ending our communityユs complicity with nuclear weapons. This was the genesis of the movement to establish a Nuclear Free Zone in the City of Olympia.

In May, 2005 the City Council agreed with my recommendation to develop a Nuclear Free Zone ordinance for public comment and Council consideration. After conducting extensive research on what other cities, counties and regions had done, I drafted an ordinance that prohibits the development, production, transportation, storage, processing, disposal or use of nuclear weapons within the City of Olympia, and prohibits the City from investing in companies or entering into contracts with individuals or corporations that are knowingly engaged in these activities.

The ordinance was discussed for three months by a City Council committee, and presented to the public for consideration on August 9, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the US bombing of Nagasaki. Over 40 people testified at the public hearing, all of whom voiced support for the ordinance. In addition, we received dozens of other phone calls, e-mails and letters on the issue. All told, over 85% of the people who expressed an opinion supported the ordinance. The strong showing of community support was made possible by the extensive community education and outreach conducted by the Beyond Hiroshima group in the weeks prior to the public hearing. Beyond Hiroshima organized forums, lectures, dance and music performances, sermons in local churches, and a poster display of images from the Hiroshima bombing. This community education was essential to the success of the Nuclear Free Zone ordinance, which was approved by the City Council on August 23, 2005. While several members of the City Council attempted to repeal the ordinance earlier this year, public support remains strong and the ordinance continues to stand, serving as a symbol of our communityユs commitment to a nuclear free world.

Another important area of my personal and my community's opposition to US militarism is the strong movement against the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. A large majority of Olympians have opposed the Iraq War, even before it began, and have voiced their opposition to their elected representatives, at demonstrations and rallies, and through various local media. In addition, the Olympia community has provided support for Lt. Ehren Watada, Chaplain James Yee, Kevin Benderman, Suzanne Swift and other members of the military who have defied orders from their commanding officers and refused to participate in the war.

One of the primary focal points of opposition to the Iraq War has been the Port of Olympia. In 2005, after a 17 year hiatus, military cargo began being shipped through our Port. Opposition to the use of the Port by the military has been steadily growing over the past year, and reached an important turning point in May of this year when a brigade of armored Stryker vehicles began using the Port to mobilize for a one year deployment to Iraq. Unlike previous shipments which had offloaded equipment from Iraq, this was the first time the Port had been used to send equipment to Iraq, which many of us knew would be used to kill innocent Iraqi civilians. As a result, anti-war activists responded quickly and forcefully.

For over a week citizens demonstrated against the military shipments. Some held signs and stood in silent witness. Others chanted and sang songs of peace. Still others blocked roads leading to the Port, literally putting their bodies on the line to stop the war machine. It was an amazing outpouring of resistance to the militarization of our community, and resulted in over 30 arrests. The actions culminated on the evening of May 30 when police attacked protestors with pepper spray, batons, and rubber bullets, injuring several protestors. Undeterred, protests continued until the ship carrying the Strykers left the Port the following day.

I was present at the protests throughout much of the week, and at one point found myself shoved with a baton and pepper sprayed by a Washington State Patrolman for attempting to support several protestors who had been hit with batons while complying with police orders to move back. Shortly thereafter I helped negotiate a cooling off period between the crowd and the police. My actions became the subject of significant regional media coverage and much community debate, with some calling me a traitor and demanding that I to resign or apologize for my actions. I of course did neither. I am proud of my role in the Port protests, and believe my actions were completely consistent with my obligations as a citizen and elected official to speak out against a war that is clearly illegal under United States law. And I will be there to resist again the next time the military tries to use the Port to support its illegal war of aggression against the Iraqi people.

Another important initiative underway in Olympia is an effort to educate our children about peace. In 2001 a local mother, distraught by the calls for revenge and blood following the terrorist acts of September 11, started an organization called Peace Scouts whose mission is to educate children about peace and conflict resolution. Since its inception, Peace Scouts has expanded to several local elementary schools, and groups have also begun in several other US states. I became involved in Peace Scouts in 2005, and since that time have worked directly with children in the classroom and with other parents to improve the overall quality of the program. We are currently in the process of legally incorporating the organization, with the hope of establishing Peace Scouts programs across the country and around the world. I've chosen to be involved in Peace Scouts because as a father I am deeply concerned about the world my son will inherit, and I firmly believe that we cannot afford to squander the potential of another generation in the pursuit of violence and war.

Let me turn now from our specific actions against weapons and war and for peace to a brief analysis of our recent national elections. While George Bush himself was not on the ballot, exit polling indicated that voters across the United States turned out in record numbers to vote against the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Not a single Democratic incumbent lost his seat, while dozens of incumbent Republican's who were closely aligned with Bush and his Iraq policies were swept from office. The day after the election, Bush accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, indicating that perhaps he understood the people's verdict. If there is any justice in the universe, Donald Rumsfeld will soon be tried and convicted for his crimes against humanity.

Democrats now firmly control the House of Representatives, and narrowly control the Senate, providing - at least theoretically - a balance to future excesses of the Bush administration. However, while the vote was a clear rejection of US policy in Iraq, it is important not to overestimate its meaning in terms of future changes in US foreign or military policy.

Many Democrats campaigned not against the idea of war and violence as the primary instruments of foreign policy, but rather against what they saw as Bush's ineptitude and mismanagement of the Iraq War. In fact, key Democratic leaders such as likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton do not favor an immediate pullout of US troops from Iraq. They have also promised to continue the so-called War on Terror, and have pledged to get even tougher with Iran, South Korea, and other nations that dare to challenge US dominance.

It is essential to understand that Democrats and Republicans share far more in common than they have differences. Both support increases in US defense spending. Both support continued reliance on nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of US military policy. Both recently supported the nuclear deal with India, which rewards India with more nuclear weapons at the same time it continues to refuse participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both strongly support continued military assistance to Israel in its ongoing violence against the Palestinian people, aid which now totals over $16 million a day. And clearly neither party is committed to taking on the military industrial complex that is a dominant sector of the US economy, providing one out of every six jobs. In short, the Democratic victory does not fundamentally change the imperial ambitions of the United States or challenge what Professor Andrew J Bacevich calls "The New American Militarism."

If the basic trajectory of US foreign policy is to change, it will do so only as the result of a massive, vigorous and vocal grassroots effort within the United States, in concert with an equally vigorous international movement. In essence we, the people of the world, must force the US and other major industrial nations to act in ways that are consistent with the will of the governed, international human rights standards, and the long term sustainability of the planet.

The seeds of this international effort were planted long ago, and are beginning to flower across the globe in growing movements to resist the expansion of US military bases, abolish nuclear weapons, locate and prosecute war criminals, develop sustainable local economies, and educate and empower our children to be peace makers, not war mongers.

Our discussions and dialogue today and throughout this conference are an important step in this ongoing process of building an international coalition for Peace. As leaders of this movement, we must continue to demonstrate to those who doubt our sincerity and question our ability to succeed that we are united, firm in our convictions, and absolutely committed to creating a new culture of peace to guide humanity's relationship with itself and the planet. Working together we can and we will succeed.