The challenges ahead for opponents of occupation
October 24, 2003 | Page 8
ALAN MAASS talks to organizers and activists about where the antiwar movement is headed.
OCTOBER 25 will mark the first national mobilization of the antiwar movement since the invasion of Iraq began. The demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco come after the systematic lies of the Bush administration have been exposed--and with the occupation of Iraq facing increasing resistance, including armed attacks.
Opinion polls show a majority of people in the U.S. opposed to Bush's demand for $87 billion to fund his occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. "So many of the things that we were pointing out before the war have become more known--that all this was based on misrepresentations, distortions, sometimes outright deceptions--that it's time for people to take it back into the streets," says Dave Cline, president of Veterans for Peace and a founder of the Bring Them Home Now campaign launched this summer.
At the same time, sponsors of the October 25th demonstrations agree that these protests won't approach the size of the ones before the war--when literally millions of people around the world took to the streets for one of the days of action on February 15. This has led to some "concern" among activists, in the words of Medea Benjamin, a cofounder of the women's peace group Code Pink.
"I don't see the same level of energy out there," Benjamin says. "I think people are confused about whether things would be worse if U.S. troops leave. I think people are demoralized that the huge protests that we did organize didn't have the effect that we wanted. So I think those two things combined mean that our movement doesn't have the same momentum that it did before the war."
Activists throughout the movement are dealing with these same questions. The Bush administration's swaggering victory celebration after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops unleashed a tide of propaganda that put the antiwar movement on the defensive. The White House has since been set back on its heels itself.
But activists across the country report that the growing doubts about the occupation and the anger at the administration's lies have so far not translated into renewed growth for the antiwar committees and coalitions that organized the outpouring of protests before the war. One common attitude is cynicism about the impact of protests--since the Bush administration ignored millions of protesters around the world before the war.
Nevertheless, Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of the antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), believes that the majority sentiment isn't to give up. "A lot of activists get it that we're up against a formidable power here--the power of the U.S. government, the U.S. military, the U.S. corporations, the mainstream media," Cagan says.
Rania Masri, a writer and activist who works with the Institute for Southern Studies and serves on the steering committee of UFPJ, agrees. "To think that a mere one protest, no matter how large, could stop the war is somewhat naïve," Masri said. "Maybe it resulted in a different kind of a war. Maybe it resulted in the Bush administration being more hesitant about another war afterwards. Maybe it resulted in a very strong political statement that we need to be making.
"We don't know. But what we do know--and this is what I think as activists we have to recognize--is that if we don't act, we know what's going to happen. By not acting, we're supporting the policies."
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ANOTHER FACTOR affecting the state of antiwar organizing is the disagreements between different wings of the movement about how to approach the occupation.
Groups with very different political beliefs and strategies could come together before the invasion around the common demand of "no to war." But many liberal and pacifist organizations now believe that some sort of continued occupation of Iraq is necessary--maybe under the United Nations (UN) flag, or even a U.S. presence with different priorities. The result, says Michael Letwin, co-convener of New York City Labor Against the War, is that "there's been a certain number of people in the antiwar movement who do not feel comfortable and who aren't necessarily mobilizing--or if they are mobilizing, they aren't very enthusiastic about it."
UFPJ and International ANSWER, the largest national antiwar coalitions and co-sponsors of the October 25 demonstrations, are agreed on the call for an immediate end to the U.S. occupation--and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. "We recognize that as American occupiers, we are not the ones who will improve the situation," says Rania Masri. "We are only making the situation worse, in so many different ways. It's like a spokesperson for Military Families Speak Out put it so marvelously--that there's no right way to do a wrong thing. There's no right way to improve the occupation of Iraq."
Even bigger differences exist over what should happen after the U.S. leaves--especially the role of the UN. The pacifist American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is supporting the October 25 protests as a member group in UFPJ, but Michael McConnell, AFSC's regional director for Chicago, says that his office hasn't mobilized for the demonstrations beyond advertising them to members.
To McConnell, the occupation is "a much more complex situation" than what existed before the war. "AFSC's position is that the UN should be overseeing the transition to a new government in Iraq," he said. "But obviously, that's a bit harder to mobilize around than stopping the war before it starts--or even ending an occupation. At least from our perspective, it's more complex at some level than just a slogan."
But to Elias Rashmawi, who is on the national steering committee of the Free Palestine Alliance and the International ANSWER coalition, support for UN mandate in Iraq means setting a "goal of internationalizing colonial control." "For the antiwar movement to sustain itself, it actually requires clarity," Rashmawi says. "I think the struggle within the movement in terms of defining politics, will start taking shape in the next phase, and I think the size of the movement will be reflective of that sort of discussion."
Michael Letwin thinks that the UN Security Council's unanimous vote in favor of a U.S.-backed resolution last week will help clarify issues for activists. "The fact that the UN has just come out and endorsed the occupation unanimously really will, I think, accelerate that process of people having to figure out which side of this thing they're on," he said. "Because it's even less possible to view the UN as some benign alternative to U.S. occupation. Now it's one and the same."
Leslie Cagan says that differences around questions like the role of the UN should not prevent different organizations from coming out to demonstrate on what they do agree on--and that the movement has to figure out how to discuss these political questions as they develop. "You don't get agreement unless you open up the debate," Cagan says. "And that's part of what the job of a mass movement is--to open up debate."
Or as Rashmawi puts it, "In order to have a more organized movement, I think that the politics need to be at the front."
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SOME ASPECTS of the organizing for October 25 mark an unmistakable step forward for the antiwar movement. After issuing competing calls for demonstrations in the past, ANSWER and UFPJ are working together on this national mobilization--a sign, says Cagan, of "a certain level of maturity in the movement that we agree the crisis of the occupation is bigger than whatever the differences exist between us."
And since the summer, the most dynamic antiwar organizing has taken place among the families of U.S. soldiers--and even the soldiers themselves. The coming together of military families with different antiwar veterans groups to launch the Bring Them Home Now campaign in August will make for a stronger working class base for the movement, says Dave Cline. "It grounds us in the reality of this country, and hopefully, that will help advance the common cause," he said.
And while organizing on campus may have started slower than some activists expected, the national "Speaking Truth to Empire" tour sponsored by the Campus Anti-War Network (CAN) has drawn good turnouts--ranging into the hundreds in some places. Kirstin Roberts, a Midwestern representative on the CAN coordinating committee says that these audiences want answers first--which is why they aren't necessarily drawn to protests immediately.
"Once they get an explanation and get pointed toward activism and mobilizing and organizing as one of the things they need to do, you find people are signing up to get involved, are signing up to get on the bus to Washington, are signing up with their local antiwar committees," Roberts says. "To me, it feels not like the decline of the movement, but more of a rebuilding phase of the movement, and on a different kind of a basis.
Likewise, Dave Cline believes that the October 25 demonstrations can mark the beginning of a new phase of the antiwar movement, organized with a clearer sense of how to answer the political questions it will face. "I think we're at the beginning of a new cycle," Cline says. "What happened before the war was a cycle that culminated in February 15. And on March 20, Bush said forget about it. He never intended to consider our views. That was one wave of the movement. We're at the beginning of the second wave, and hopefully, it's with a more profound consciousness about what we're up against.