Nearly three years ago, when many Americans were plastering the Stars and Stripes on their windows and mounting it on their cars, a free national anti-war newspaper was conceived by a handful of San Francisco Bay activists who were grappling with the US government’s frightening response to 9/11.
The idea behind War Times/ Tiempo de Guerras is to provide the public, especially working-class, ethnic and immigrant communities who would be worst affected by George W Bush’s zealous jingoism, with a full picture of the war on terror. “If you were in the anti-war loop, you were filled with anti-war information,” says co-editor Max Elbaum. “But it was invisible in broader society, where we were being fed pro-war propaganda. We needed to give people the information, rather than requiring them to come to us.”
War Times distribution coordinator Jan Adams adds: “Much anti-war conversation goes on the internet. But the trouble with that medium is that if you aren’t looking for an anti-war perspective, you won’t find one. You can’t hand someone a website.”
And so the US’s largest anti-war paper was first put together in a warehouse in West Oakland, California, on 16 February 2002. From the outset the venture was endorsed by notable heavyweights like Noam Chomsky and radical historian Howard Zinn, and was supported by labour organisations and peace groups. Although only 7,500 copies of the pilot issue were planned, the demand was so great that now 100,000 copies of the free, eight-page, bilingual (Spanish and English) tabloid are distributed to every state in the US and also Puerto Rico roughly every six weeks. Says Elbaum: “People could take the paper to co-workers or relatives, which gave them a sense that they weren’t alone.”
The paper is active in the massive US campaign coalition United For Peace and Justice, and War Times managing editor Bob Wing sits on the coalition’s steering committee. But War Times claims its only political agenda is to draw attention to the injustices of Washington’s “permanent war”. Although the stories touch on a number of left-wing causes – from civil liberties to anti-racism campaigns – it’s designed to break out of the left ghetto. “For one thing, it’s too thin and the articles too short to be aimed at the left,” jokes Elbaum (articles never exceed 800 words). “It’s an entry-way – for people who were open to our message but weren’t already convinced.”
The pilot issue featured an interview with Hollywood actor Danny Glover, who denounced the 2001 bombing of Afghanistan and “the idea that the US is the judge, the jury and the executioner”. A more recent edition profiled both an American mother whose two sons were deployed to Iraq and a Baghdadi woman who lost her husband and children when they were shot dead by a US military patrol. “We put a human face on events,” says one contributor.
You”d be hard-pressed to find War Times in newsagents, and more likely to spot it at work, on a train – even at your dentist’s. It’s distributed in a novel way: willing volunteers send an email requesting the number of bundles (each containing 25 copies) they want. Many of them attach a cheque ($7.50 per bundle) to help cover printing and shipping costs, and individuals” donations make up two thirds of the $450,000 War Times has received so far. (But with an annual budget of $175,000, funding is a constant struggle.) A third of the 700 distributors are well-known peace groups, but a good proportion are “highly motivated individuals” who circulate the paper in their universities, unions, food cooperatives or churches. The paper is also enthusiastically used by Spanish and English teachers as an inspiring educational resource. To ensure that all copies printed get used, volunteers are emailed when a new edition is in production and asked if they want another bundle. “It’s not a huge commitment,” says Elbaum. “If you don’t want it, you don’t have to answer your email.”
Through its publication and distribution, the tabloid has built new networks and strengthened existing alliances. But it’s not a stand-alone effort. “War Times lends credibility to anti-war organisers by showing that it’s possible to produce something left and anti-racist without screeching about it,” says Elbaum. “But we”re dependent on the strength of the anti-war movement.” Although much stronger than in 2001, the movement in the US is still in its infancy. “Local initiatives are very important,” says Adams. “They use War Times because it is beyond their capacity to produce their own materials. We provide a tool in a situation where the political infrastructure is completely undeveloped.”
The 30-strong volunteer staff – predominantly 1960s activist veterans (“our biggest weakness,” says Elbaum) – are currently putting together issue number 18. They work from various parts of the country: there’s no permanent “office”, and not all the regulars have met. In the run-up to the presidential elections, they are determined to keep peace and justice in the public eye without backing any particular candidate, but they believe there will be a need for an anti-war and anti-racist movement whoever is elected.
War Times” job has been made a little easier by the shift in the US media inspired by Abu Ghraib, Falluja, US casualties and the non-appearance of WMD in Iraq. Even the founder of the conservative daily USA Today published an indictment of Bush, asking the cowboy president to “ride off into the sunset”. “To print ‘Bush lies’ is no big deal anymore,” says Elbaum.
The paper’s staff remain pretty low-key about their impact: with only one copy per 3,000 population, no single community gets blanketed. And owing to the limitations of its resources and the movement, War Times hasn’t been able to cross the 100,000-circulation threshold. But it’s got reason to celebrate. A distributor from a small, conservative town in North Carolina has just emailed for his next bundle. “We need our regular 25 copies. Amazing how sentiment in our neighbourhood has changed in the last year& War Times has certainly helped.”