Antiwar activists look ahead

August 2, 2010

Paul Le Blanc reports on a gathering of antiwar activists United National Antiwar Conference in Albany, N.Y.

A LARGE number of activists turned out for the United National Antiwar Conference (UNAC) held in Albany, N.Y., on July 23-25, marking what is likely the broadest antiwar conference in six years.

Over 700 people registered, with plenary sessions peaking at about 500 and roughly 200 voting on proposals. While the composition tilted in the direction of those over 50 years of age, and had all too few people of color, it had greater political breadth and diversity than has been the case with similar gatherings in the past few years. And after intensive, open, democratic discussion, attendees adopted a comprehensive and multi-faceted resolution calling for bicoastal antiwar demonstrations on April 9, 2011.

The possibility for success depends in large measure on the strength and breadth of the forces involved. There was, of course, the National Assembly to End Wars and Occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has worked tirelessly for antiwar unity and a "mass action" perspective, and which was the key organizer of the Albany gathering.

Participants listen to a panel of speakers at the United National Antiwar Conference
Participants listen to a panel of speakers at the United National Antiwar Conference (Jon Flanders)

But there also were substantial elements associated with the recently disintegrated coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ)--including prominent representatives from Peace Action, Code Pink, U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), Veterans for Peace, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and others.

Two left-oriented antiwar formations, World Can't Wait and the International Action Center, were also very much in evidence, as were various socialist groups--but so were the Progressive Democrats of America, the religious-pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation and the anarchist-oriented Food Not Bombs. Representatives of the only major antiwar force explicitly not involved in the gathering, ANSWER, also made an appearance and participated in some of the discussion.

Also in attendance were significant numbers of longtime activists representing local coalitions, committees and activist centers from Albany, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York and elsewhere. Most impressive, too, were substantial numbers of Palestine solidarity activists, accounting for some of the youngest and most vibrant elements at the conference.

There was much that united the participants. In a keynote address videotaped especially for the conference, Noam Chomsky presented an analysis with which most at the conference agreed. Chomsky highlighted the interrelationship of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine and more, which are encompassed in a region-wide strategy rooted in the profit-and-power considerations of the U.S. corporate and political elite. He emphasized the importance of U.S. antiwar forces challenging the inhumanity and injustice of this imperial agenda.

In a second keynote, South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna DeWitt made additional points that conference participants embraced, emphasizing the need for solidarity of workers and the oppressed across borders and linking the struggle against a destructive U.S. foreign policy with the struggle against corporate-induced economic crisis and injustice in the U.S.

YET DESPITE the conference's impressive size and scope, and important steps forward in regard to antiwar unity, questions remain regarding the depth of that unity and the extent to which effective antiwar mobilizations will be in the offing.

The conference's opening panel on strategy and tactics featured speakers from virtually every point of view in the broad antiwar movement. One of the central differences appeared to involve how the movement should relate to the Democratic Party. This was especially evident when Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report offered an eloquent, uncompromising critique of the policies of the Obama administration--generating an ovation from many, but folded arms from some.

On the other hand, all conference participants appeared to be comfortable with the interlinking of a variety of struggles and concerns. A variety of resolutions on these were adopted, and workshops ran the gamut of progressive issues--health care, environment and immigration joined traditional antiwar topics like Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The conference's biggest controversy revolved around the issue of Palestine. Since Israel's assault on Gaza in winter 2008-09, and especially since the massacre on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on May 31, the international Palestine solidarity movement has been spurred forward, embracing the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Palestine workshops were among the biggest and most energetic at the conference--retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a Freedom Flotilla survivor, raised thousands of dollars for a planned U.S. boat to Gaza.

In the discussion on the proposed action program of the conference, an amendment demanding the end of U.S. aid to Israel was put forward by the Palestine Solidarity Caucus. This was strongly opposed on the floor by USLAW representatives, including National Coordinator Michael Eisenscher and Executive Board member Jerry Gordon, who was also the conference secretary. They argued that such a position would not be accepted in union circles, and they proposed an alternative amendment that avoided the formulation about ending all aid (not simply military aid) to Israel.

In pressing for an end to all aid to Israel, amendment proponents noted that restrictions to "non-military aid" might block sending tanks to be used against Palestinians--but would allow for sending bulldozers used to knock down Palestinian homes. After a vigorous debate, the Palestine Solidarity Caucus's amendment passed handily, taking over 60 percent of the vote.

Many activists see this position as a way to reach out to an audience of Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East in upcoming demonstrations. Not only are struggles against oppression in Palestine inseparable from the other conflicts in the region, but the U.S. Palestine solidarity movement has attracted far greater numbers and energy than antiwar efforts appearing to sideline the issue of Palestine as "too controversial." Recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza and against the pro-Gaza flotilla have definitely shifted popular perceptions in favor of Palestinian rights.

Paradoxically, the conference's step forward on Palestine was at the same time an index of the difficulty of unifying the movement. In the aftermath of the conference, USLAW leadership decided overwhelmingly not to participate in the conference's Continuations Committee. The divisions over Palestine also cut straight through the core leadership of the National Assembly to End the U.S. Wars and Occupations, the key group behind the conference.

For that matter, it's unclear how committed the remaining 30 cosponsors are to the action program passed by the conference. Even the program's centerpiece, a call for national antiwar demonstrations on April 9 in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, has uneven support, based on resistance to actually setting that date from many who had been involved in UFPJ, plus comments made on the conference floor by Kevin Martin, the executive director of Peace Action.

It's not clear whether those inclined to pull their punches in regard to the Democratic Party will be willing to mobilize now that Afghanistan and Iraq are Obama's wars.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, national mass actions--mobilizing millions of people in the U.S., over a period of years, against the policies of the war-makers--played a key role in bringing an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam. These potently combined with a rich variety of local antiwar actions, educational efforts, referenda and more, plus the elemental resistance of the Vietnamese people against U.S. invasion and occupation, and the growing antiwar sentiment and resistance among U.S. GIs.

National mass actions were clearly an essential part of the chemistry. This understanding has, over the past several years, obviously motivated those drawn to the efforts of the National Assembly, and it was reflected in the resolution adopted by the UNAC conference.

The fact that the date for national mass actions--April 9, 2011--has been set by this large and relatively broad gathering of antiwar forces is significant. What's not clear, however, is whether there will be the forces, the resources, the organization and the will to make this a genuine mass action. For the past two years, national antiwar demonstrations have attracted between 3,000 and 5,000 participants-- hardly the kind of mass actions that are needed to force an end to war.

THE CONFERENCE reflected a heightened awareness among opponents of the war of the important organizing tasks before us. This came through in the recognition of the interrelationship of the struggle in Palestine with the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan (recognizing all as part of U.S. policymakers' strategic orientation). It also came through in the recognition of the interrelationship between U.S. foreign policy and an unfair and unjust economic reality facing a majority of people in the U.S.

But more than heightened awareness of activists is needed to overcome the contradiction between majority opposition to the war and the several-years-long failure of the movement to translate this into effective mass action.

The organizational infrastructure and concentration of energies and resources--crucial for the antiwar successes of the Vietnam War era--have yet to come into being. Without this, it is not clear how genuine mass actions can be achieved on April 9. Related to this is the fundamental fact that the antiwar movement remains weak at the base level and must be built up and revitalized if national mass actions are to become a reality. It is unclear that this task can be accomplished by the time of the projected spring mobilizations.

Important sectors of the antiwar base have been disoriented by Obama and the Democratic Party, whose foreign policy has so far been all too similar to that of the Bush administration.

Some of the organizations associated with UFPJ that had initially helped to mobilize masses of people against "Bush's war" shifted to a de-mobilization mode--maintained for an extended period of time--in deference to Democratic Party politicians who, in fact, are themselves committed to the imperial project so brilliantly analyzed by Noam Chomsky at the Albany conference.

New politics and new events, such as came together to propel the Palestine solidarity movement forward, will be required to revive the antiwar movement. That and hard work.

If the organizers and participants of the Albany conference are able to build a stronger organizational infrastructure, rooted in strong and revitalized committees and coalitions and movements on the local level, they will go some distance to realizing the vision projected at the UNAC gathering.

Proposals and resolutions from the conference will be posted on the conference Web site shortly. For audio and video from the weekend, visit the United National Peace Conference Media Project.

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