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Demanding action from the Democrats

August 3, 2007 | Pages 1 and 3

LANCE SELFA reports on an antiwar challenge to John Conyers over impeachment.

ANTIWAR ACTIVISTS are taking steps to put liberal leaders of the Democratic Party on the hot seat--demanding action, not words, to end the U.S. war on Iraq and stand up to a Bush administration hell-bent on continuing it.

On July 23, 48 activists, including antiwarrior Cindy Sheehan, Hip Hop Caucus Chair Rev. Lennox Yearwood and former CIA official Ray McGovern, were arrested for sitting in at the offices of House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.).

The activists were part of a 350-person march from Arlington National Cemetery to Conyers' office in Washington, where they came to demand that he follow through on his earlier pledge to seek the impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

After hours of fruitless discussion--during which time Conyers' office was flooded with thousands of phone calls supporting the protesters--Conyers ordered his offices to be cleared, and the protesters arrested.

As she has since she became a national figure in 2005, Cindy Sheehan spoke for millions of Americans in her post-arrest statement "It's Up to Us."

"It's about partisan politics, pure and simple," Sheehan wrote. "The Congressman claims that there is absolutely no way that impeachment can go forward, and when I was nearing the end of my hope, I cried out: 'So if the people's house won't help us, then we the people have no recourse against the executive branch.' To which he replied: 'Yes, you do, vote the enablers out in '08.'

"Firstly, Congressman Conyers told us to put Democrats back in Congress to end the war and impeach BushCo. We did that, and instead of ending the war, they gave George Bush more money to wage it and to conduct his deadly and tragic surge. Secondly, '08 will be too late to hold George and Dick accountable.

"Like Congressman Conyers said almost a year ago, our Constitution is in crisis, and we can't wait for more meetings and more stalling from reps who think the problem will go away in '08. The Middle East is rapidly falling apart under this regime, and our country is sliding rapidly into a state of one-branch tyranny while our 'heroes,' the Democrats, fiddle."

Sheehan also announced her bid to run as an independent against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the 2008 election.

"I am committed to challenging a two-party system that has kept us in a state of constant warfare for the last 60 years and has become more and more beholden to special interests and has forgotten the faces of the people whom it represents," she said.

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IN MANY ways, the sit-in at Conyers' office and Sheehan's statements were more important for what they represent about the future of the antiwar struggle than for anything they say about the impeachment of Bush or Cheney.

They represent a re-evaluation of strategy by a layer of committed activists who had either tacitly or openly supported the election of Democrats as a means to end the war in Iraq and to put a brake on the Bush administration.

It's a re-evaluation that has drawn lines not only between activists and party leaders, but between activists and apologists for the Democratic leadership on the broader left.

Some of these apologists aligned with the Communist Party USA accused protesters of "the white left" of singling out Conyers, a leading Black member of Congress, for abuse. This disgraceful race-baiting was simply a cover for those who would rather play along with Democratic leaders than challenge them.

Sheehan has also lost a few "friends" among Democratic Party supporters who once considered her a courageous truth-teller--when she was aiming her fire at Bush and the Republicans. Now that she is criticizing the do-nothing Democrats in Congress, she's persona non grata in these circles--even banned from publishing on the liberal Democratic Web site Daily Kos, which had provided her a forum in the past.

The arrests followed by a couple months the explosion of outrage among the "base" of the Democratic Party after congressional Democrats threw in the towel and voted to fund Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without reservation. The Conyers controversy put this polarization between Democratic leaders and their supporters in sharp relief.

Ironically, both Sheehan and Conyers are board members of Progressive Democrats of America, whose affiliated group, After Downing, has been one of the leading advocates of impeaching Bush since before the November 2006 election. Before last November's election, PDA activists and Conyers were mostly on the "same page."

Conyers is one of the most senior members of Congress. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, he voted for articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.

Despite being quite liberal and even willing to speak at left-sponsored events, Conyers is still a loyal member of the Democratic leadership--a leadership that has already ruled impeachment to be "off the table," as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the Democratic sweep last year.

While activists like Sheehan believe that Bush and Cheney should be impeached, the few liberal Democratic officeholders, like Conyers, willing to associate themselves with calls for impeachment were interested only in throwing liberal voters a sop prior to the election.

Now that the Democrats can actually do something about impeaching Bush and Cheney, they're suddenly not interested. The party leadership has showed yet again why it doesn't deserve the support of millions of Americans who are fed up with the war in Iraq and the Bush administration.

McGovern said in his report of the July 23 meeting between he, Yearwood, Sheehan and Conyers that "Conyers protested that he would need 218 votes in the House and complained that the votes are not there."

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Conyers would raise such lame laments. These same sheep bleats came from Democratic leaders in the fight over war funding in the spring. Top Democrats worried about Republican attacks on them for "not supporting the troops"--when all the major polls showed that clear majorities of the public oppose the war and favor a timetable for withdrawal.

The transparent phoniness of these excuses obscures the real reasons for the opposition of Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other leading Democratic officials to impeachment--as well as their capitulation to Bush on the war-funding bill.

The war in Iraq, the "war on terror" and all of the associated policies, such as the Patriot Act, have been bipartisan endeavors. Pelosi, Reid et al are willing to criticize Bush's incompetence and corruption. But they want to preserve the powers Bush has seized for himself for a future Democratic president.

There is no doubt that Cheney, Bush and the rest of their gang deserves impeachment and removal from office. With this administration responsible for so many impeachable offenses--from lying the country into an imperial war in Iraq to authorizing widespread spying on the population--the only difficulty would be in limiting the articles to a manageable number.

But while pressuring the Democrats to vote to impeach Cheney and Bush, activists shouldn't neglect pressure around specific issues related to the war. We must hold the Democratic Congress to account--and pressure it to do what the antiwar majority wants: cut off funds for the war and set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops.

And we must build a grassroots movement and political voice that is independent of both pro-war bosses' parties. As Cindy Sheehan put it, "Challenge the status quo because the status quo is no good...It is up to us."

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