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Antiwar coalition holds national assembly meeting in St. Louis
Debating UFPJ's direction

February 25, 2005 | Page 2

ERIC RUDER reports from the United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) national assembly meeting in St. Louis.

MORE THAN 400 activists and organizers gathered February 19-21 for the second annual UFPJ national assembly to map out a strategy. The event brought together people from UFPJ's 850 affiliated organizations.

In the opening plenary, Dave Cline, national president of Veterans for Peace, expressed in stark terms the challenges facing the movement by drawing on his experience as a soldier and antiwar activist during the Vietnam War. "Having fought in Vietnam, I came back to the war at home and fought in that war as well," Cline told the audience. "Three factors ended the war--the continued resistance of the Vietnamese people, popular opposition at home and the breakdown of the U.S. military. The same three factors, though to a lesser degree, are already at play in Iraq."

Cline's message--that the antiwar movement needs to focus on how to support and organize a growing opposition on the streets and in the military--was warmly received.

But it was also clear that the leadership of UFPJ has a different focus in mind. Immediately after the speakers finished at the opening plenary, the discussion was opened up by a question read from the podium that came from the UFPJ steering committee: "What would a UFPJ congressional strategy look like? How do we reach out to sympathetic politicians?"

In case anyone needed clarification about who the "sympathetic politicians" were, a representative of Progressive Democrats of America was on hand to discuss local or state lobbying efforts with anyone who wanted to.

Throughout the weekend, no one addressed the elephant in the living room--the decision of leading members and forces in UFPJ to campaign for John Kerry, a pro-war presidential candidate. For most of last year, the antiwar movement was at a standstill--even as the potential audience for antiwar opposition increased, and the U.S. occupation was shaken by the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and a growing Iraqi resistance.

This disorientation has continued in the post-election period, and was evident over the weekend--for example, in the discussion of proposals for mass mobilizations. Despite a "strategic framework" adopted earlier in the day calling for UFPJ to focus on organizing against the occupation of Iraq and its related consequences, proposals for mass mobilization focused on demonstrations to reform the United Nations and against nuclear proliferation.

Activists had to press for a large national demonstration focused specifically on Iraq during a mini-plenary discussion.

Members of Connecticut United for Peace handed out a leaflet outlining the reasons for such a demonstration. "Grassroots activity unearths potential new recruits to our movement," read their statement. "Only powerful national mobilizations that confront the government in the streets with hundreds of thousands can turn them into confident, steeled and combative new leaders for our movement...Mass national actions remain the clearest, most direct means to demonstrate our power and reshape the political landscape."

After some discussion, the mini-plenary agreed to bring a proposal to the assembly floor for a September 10 national mobilization to march on the United Nations and demand that the U.S. bring troops home from Iraq now. UFPJ National Coordinator Leslie Cagan and UFPJ Co-chair Lisa Fithian voiced their agreement with the call.

Delegates to the full assembly passed this proposal by an overwhelming margin--and also voted for other initiatives including a grassroots education and speaking campaign, a focus on organizing to expose the local costs of the war, and a campaign to counter military recruiters in high schools and on college campuses. This showed that among UFPJ delegates were activists involved in local initiatives who were anxious to get back to building a visible protest movement and who hoped that UFPJ could serve as a vehicle to generalize these efforts.

Nevertheless, by the narrowest of margins, a proposal for a UFPJ legislative and lobbying strategy passed, garnering 68 percent (a "super-majority" vote of two-thirds was required to adopt a proposal). And a proposal for UFPJ to mobilize demonstrations and direct action against corporate war profiteers, the pro-war mainstream media and the military--dubbed "People Power" by its sponsors--was narrowly defeated, winning only 61 percent support.

One glaring weakness of the assembly was the virtual absence of Arabs and Muslims--who have borne the brunt of the war on civil liberties.

Even the panel organized to address the challenge of building a multiracial movement had no Arab speaker. And the discussion focused internally on the question of "privilege" and the need to "build trust" instead of coming to terms with UFPJ's reluctance to incorporate opposition to Israel's occupation of Palestine into its opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq--and its silence last year as the issue of U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay grabbed headlines.

There was no discussion of the most obvious way of building such trust--namely, taking a strong stand against the witch-hunts of Arab professors and antiwar activists.

In sum, the assembly demonstrated the ongoing gap between UFPJ's stated aims and its practice.

Our movement has to put activism and protest ahead of looking for friends within the pro-war Democratic Party. The key to moving ahead will be in building local struggles and initiatives that can strengthen the fight at its grassroots and form the basis for a stronger national antiwar movement.

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