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"The antiwar movement was right"

By Ben Dalbey | June 6, 2003 | Page 11

WASHINGTON--As many as 2,000 people packed into National City Christian Church for a daylong teach-in against the occupation of Iraq May 31. The event was sponsored by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) to reaffirm the goals of the antiwar movement and to push forward efforts to organize against Bush's war on the world.

"We were right. They were wrong!" exclaimed Rev. Graylan Hagler, welcoming the crowd and setting the tone for the day. "We said it was a war for occupation of a region. We said it was a war for oil. We said it was a war to expand American imperialism. We are still right!"

The event brought together groups, activists and individuals from around the region, cramming into pews and spilling out the doors of the downtown church throughout the five-hour meeting. The crowd listened intently and responded enthusiastically to a panel of speakers representing a range of ideas--and some disagreements--within the movement.

The day was dominated by an unequivocal condemnation of the U.S. war and occupation and a desire to connect U.S. imperialism in the Middle East to the class war on workers at home, the expansion of racist profiling and repression and the hypocrisy of an administration whose clear priority is making the rich richer at the expense of everyone else.

Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) representative Khury Petersen-Smith received wild applause when he called the U.S. war and occupation "armed robbery," and he went on to describe the impact of the war budget on education programs. Confirming CAN's committment to organizing, Petersen-Smith promised, "They're in it for the long haul--and so are we."

Gene Bruskin, a representative of U.S. Labor Against the War, argued that while Bush is bent on destroying organized labor in the U.S., his attacks on unions and handouts to the rich have made many workers more likely look critically at the war in Iraq. As a result, some 250 union locals and councils passed antiwar resolutions in the lead-up to the war, and several unions mobilized for the big demonstrations.

Bruskin said that as corporations known for their anti-union tactics in the U.S., such as shipping giant Stevedoring Services of America, win lucrative contacts to "rebuild" Iraq, there remains an opportunity within the union movement to agitate against the occupation. "This will be a century of empire--or a century of international solidarity," said Bruskin.

Palestinian activist Rania Masri warned against succumbing to one of the main ideas that would destroy any hope of this solidarity--that the U.S. now has to stay in Iraq because the country would devolve into chaos without the presence of U.S. troops. "There is no such thing as a good occupier," she said. "Let us please not embrace 'the white man's burden.'"

Masri, along with several other speakers, linked the occupation of Iraq with the Israeli occupation of Palestine and denounced the current U.S.-backed "road map" to Middle East peace as another component of Bush's plans to dominate the region. With 90,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq facing possible expulsion, the "road map to hell," as one speaker put it, denies Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes in what is now Israel, simply because of their ethnicity.

Unfortunately, Masri also said it was wrong for the United Nations (UN) to lift the sanctions against Iraq because "it means the selling of Iraq can begin." While confusing many activists who have worked for years to get rid of the deadly sanctions, Masri's point was to say that the UN could retain some vestige of control over the process of rebuilding Iraq by maintaining the UN sanctions and "oil for food" program. But as she herself said, the "reconstruction" is more of a plan to "deconstruct" Iraq--to tear down any remnant of opposition to U.S. domination and create an oil colony, not a nation. What's more, this is a project the UN Security Council has now officially endorsed.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies said the UN "was part of our global movement for peace--until last week." But she also admitted that French President Jacques Chirac and the other leaders who temporarily "stood up" to Bush did so not out of "sudden concern for Iraqi children," but in their own self-interest and out of fear of reprisal from the massive global antiwar movement.

These mixed hopes in the UN and "international law" stood in contrast to calls for international workers' solidarity and a bottom-up, global movement for justice capable of winning another kind of world. These differing viewpoints were also evident in the discussion of patriotism and American history. Ralph Nader, for example, talked about the need to reclaim the U.S. flag, which he said represents "the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance: 'liberty and justice for all.'"

Also waxing patriotic, former U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney claimed, "There was a brighter time in our history, when America was respected around the world." Author and activist Edward Said, however, warned the audience in a pre-recorded video address "not to be fooled by patriotism...the last refuge of scoundrels."

Both Said and historian Howard Zinn, who also prepared a video address, were optimistic about the future, not because of a whitewashed view of the past, but because they know our side will continue to organize. Zinn encouraged activists to learn the true history of U.S. empire building--from the extermination of the Native Americans, to the brutal subjugation of the Philippines, to the repeated invasions in Latin America and the Caribbean and the deadly expansion into Asia and the Middle East.

Even with its long and terrible history, however, the expansion of U.S. empire is not inevitable, Zinn said. "Despite the awesome power of the American military, it rests on a very fragile base--that is, the hearts and minds of the American people," he said. "The questions people have now will continue to grow."

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