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From mass immigrant rights marches to the vote against war
A year of gathering discontent

December 15, 2006 | Page 3

TWO YEARS ago, George Bush was bragging about spending his "political capital" after winning re-election by 3 million votes over John Kerry. Bush vowed to privatize Social Security at home, stay the course in Iraq and expand the "war on terror" to new targets.

Today, the president who seized on the September 11, 2001 attacks to launch a new, aggressive phase of U.S. imperialism has brought the U.S. military to the brink of its greatest strategic defeat in its history. Bush is a crisis-bound lame duck, trying to cling to control of U.S. foreign policy after both voters and the political establishment repudiated his handling of the Iraq war.

This is the result of a dramatic shift in U.S. politics over the past year--a change driven by the crisis in Iraq, but also by widespread bitterness over rising social inequality and the economic uncertainty facing working people.

A process of radicalization--underway in the late 1990s, but thrown back by September 11--is again taking shape.

One central focus is, of course, the Iraq war, which has become the prism through which U.S. politics is viewed. Since Bush wasn't on the ballot in November, voters punished his party instead. The seemingly permanent Republican "red state" majority--supposedly locked into place by gerrymandered congressional districts and rigged electronic voting machines--crumbled away.

But there were other factors that made voters determined to vote out the Republicans--from a series of corruption scandals to economic policies that squeeze workers and the poor and funnel billions to corporations and wealthy, symbolized by the abandonment of New Orleans and the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

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AND LONG before the election, there were signs of the potential of an alternative to "Bush country." The most important struggle to develop in the past year was the explosion of immigrant rights protests and organizing.

Huge rallies emerged out of nowhere in the spring, followed by spontaneous school walkouts that spread from the Southwest across the country. The demonstrations culminated with a massive mobilization of working-class immigrants for May Day that shut down a number of businesses.

The spark for these demonstrations was legislation passed a year ago by the U.S. House that would have criminalized all 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., along with anyone who aided them. The proposal was known as the Sensenbrenner bill, after its chief sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)

The mass protests sank the Sensenbrenner bill. But within mainstream politics, there was no alternative to represent the aspirations of the millions who marched. Instead, a "compromise" proposal in the Senate merged some of Sensenbrenner's enforcement provisions with a corporate-backed guest-worker program and a highly restrictive path to legalization for a minority of the undocumented.

When that stalled, Republicans succeeded--with the support of many Democrats--in passing bills that repackaged some elements of the original Sensenbrenner proposal, such as extending the wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. With official politics at an impasse, the media gave a platform to the anti-immigrant right, helping to fuel the growth of right-wing organizations like the vigilante Minutemen.

If the new immigrant rights movement didn't mobilize the same massive numbers in response, it is because a gap remains between the sentiment of pride and anger displayed in the spring marches and the organization necessary to sustain any struggle over the longer term.

Nevertheless, no one should underestimate the importance of the new immigrant rights movement because it didn't force official politics in Washington into a U-turn.

Today's struggles face more difficulties because of the decline of the U.S. left over the past 25 years, which has left a vacuum of experience and organization--including the labor movement, which represents only 8 percent of workers in the private sector.

The low level of struggle in recent years could make it seem as if the working-class majority had acquiesced to the relentless drive to squeeze wages and undermine its standard of living. But the explosion of immigrant rights protests was a window into the anger that exists below the surface around many issues.

Moreover, the demonstrations did spur the beginnings of organization that continued after the marches, and can lay the basis for further activism in the future.

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THE NOVEMBER election that ousted the Republicans was a cause for celebration for anyone opposed to the Bush agenda. But the expectations of voters go far beyond the policies being put forward by the new majority party in Congress.

For example, a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 73 percent of Democrats favor new programs that would achieve universal health care--which is definitely not on the agenda of the incoming Congress.

Likewise, Congressional Democrats used the Iraq Study Group proposals of James Baker and Lee Hamilton to retreat from calls to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, but support for a rapid withdrawal continues to grow, according to a Newsweek poll taken in early December. "Sixty-two percent of Americans want the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawal," the magazine reported. "And not in the distant future. Forty-eight percent of Americans want U.S. soldiers and Marines to come home now or within the next year."

But if the U.S. were to pull out, it would abandon a central aim of the occupation in the first place--direct control of the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world and, with it, crucial leverage over the world economy. It is this imperialist drive--upheld by Republicans and Democrats alike--that is at odds with the interests and desires of the working-class majority in the U.S.

That's why the real challenge to the war won't come from Washington insiders, but by turning the sentiment against the war displayed in the election into active opposition.

The first step in rebuilding the antiwar movement is to organize the biggest possible mobilization for January 27 antiwar demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco. The march can give voice to the opposition of the antiwar majority--and it can be a focus for activists to organize or re-launch local groups that can be the basis of future action.

This holds true for other struggles, such as the immigrant rights movement. Activists are forming local committees to fight the so-called "no match" letters from the Social Security Administration--in which discrepancies in workers' social security numbers are being used by employers to carry out terminations of immigrant workers. This threat was the trigger for last month's walkout by about 1,000 workers at the huge Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.

Even modest struggles can play the role of creating organizations that can help sustain a wider movement. There are no shortcuts in this process. But antiwar activists can take up the challenges ahead with confidence that the majority supports their efforts to bring the troops home now.

Even where the debate is more polarized--as with immigrant rights--immigrant workers have shown the potential for a long-term struggle comparable in many ways to the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

That earlier movement has lessons for today as well. While the great successes of that struggle have made it into the history books, the many setbacks and defeats the movement endured are often overlooked.

It was in the 1960s, moreover, that the antiwar and Black Power movements confronted a Democratic Congress and White House--and once they broke with the Democrats, the movements reached their most radical and powerful stage.

There is no predicting the shape of the struggles ahead. But with the U.S. ruling class increasingly divided over Iraq and the White House both dysfunctional and in denial, there's a growing sense that genuine change is needed. It's time to organize.

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