Protesting war abroad and austerity at home

Danny Katch reports from New York City on the biggest antiwar protest in recent years.

The April 9 antiwar protest in New York brought together antiwar groups with large contingents of Muslims (Alexander Super | SW)The April 9 antiwar protest in New York brought together antiwar groups with large contingents of Muslims (Alexander Super | SW)

AS MANY as 10,000 people gathered in New York City's Union Square on April 9 to make the connection between militarism abroad and austerity at home--and renew the antiwar movement's demand to bring U.S. troops home now. Across the country, some 1,500 people rallied the next day in San Francisco in a sister demonstration.

"I'm fed up with all the waste of money on military spending," Charlie, a protester from Queens, said in New York. "They spent over $650 billion in defense spending in 2010 alone. They have money to spend for bombs to kill people. That money could be used to help people who really need it--for education, for health care, and to feed people."

From the front of the rally, Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti spoke about the other cost of U.S. militarism:

These last few days, Palestinians in the besieged and occupied Gaza Strip have lost their lives...They were bombed by U.S. weapons and U.S. airplanes. It's your tax money that is doing the killing, the maiming and the dispossession in our country. Our oppression has "Made in the USA" written all over it.

The two rallies in New York City and San Francisco were organized by the United Anti-War Committee (UNAC).

In San Francisco, marchers drew the connections between U.S. wars abroad and repression at home, whether the victim is Bradley Manning, held by the military for allegedly releasing documents to the muckraking WikiLeaks website, or the Palestinian solidarity activists who have been targeted by the FBI.

Malalai Joya, the antiwar and women's rights activist driven from her seat in Afghanistan's parliament because of her outspoken opposition to both U.S. occupation and the rule of the warlords, was the featured speaker at the demonstration in Dolores Park.

Joya spoke about the ongoing tragedy in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of more than 56,000 innocent civilians, reinforced the oppression of women throughout the country, and installed the warlords in power. Joya called for the end of the U.S. occupation and the withdrawal of all NATO troops--liberation can only be achieved by Afghans themselves, she said.

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IN NEW York, the demonstration brought together dozens of antiwar and socialist organizations with large contingents of Muslims from mosques and Islamic cultural centers in the New York area.

Salma, a Hofstra Univeristy student and member of the Muslim Ummah of North America, explained why she and her friends had come out to the protest:

We wanted to show that as Muslims, we're fighting for the same thing. We want the troops home. We're showing that we're not oppressed. We're Muslim women. None of our father figures are trying to oppress us. We're here on our own, and we're trying to show that we're Americans as well. Before, everyone was just spread out, but with these organizations, we're more united, and it gives us confidence having other folks fighting with us.

Around 150 students from a number of campuses organized a feeder march to the rally from nearby Washington Square Park. A number of unions endorsed the protest, but they didn't mobilize their members to attend--perhaps in part because of a separate labor rally against budget cuts called for the same time in Times Square.

Many protest organizers and participants agreed that the day was a successful first step in reconstituting an antiwar movement in the era of a Democratic president. "The antiwar movement had started to lag since Obama's election," said Fran Geteles, an organizer in the Witness Against Torture campaign. "But so many people have been totally disappointed [in Obama]. It's very important that the antiwar movement is reuniting."

International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki said the hopes that Obama raised and dashed have had an impact internationally:

Many people in the Middle East also expected change after eight terrible years of the Bush administration. I think that was a contributing factor to the revolts shaking the Arab world--the realization that the U.S. was going to continue business as usual in its wars and occupations, and its longstanding support for oil kingdoms and dictatorships. That has been one of the sparks that helped to ignite the Middle East.

According to Cindy Sheehan, cofounder of Gold Star Families for Peace, "The movement's focus during the Bush administration was so much against Bush that I think it was an anti-Bush movement. We really need to have an anti-empire, anti-capitalist movement if we're going to be effective."

The signs and speakers at the protest showed that UNAC is trying to rebuild the type of movement that Sheehan envisions. Ashley Smith of the International Socialist Organization spoke at the rally about the need "to build an independent antiwar movement, no matter who's in office."

Other speakers emphasized the importance of opposing all U.S. wars, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya--though many in the crowd expressed doubts and questions about the U.S. intervention in Libya.

Importantly, the protest also took up the domestic impact of the "war on terror." Alicia McWilliams, the aunt of one of the imprisoned Newburgh Four, led the crowd in a chant of "I am Muslim!" She then explained, "This is solidarity. We have brought the war to America. Let's take a stand to make these issues one."

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IN THE past, some criticized antiwar protests that take up a range of issues for diverting people's attention from a central theme with a "laundry list" of demands. But for Ann Wright, the retired Army colonel and diplomat who has become a leading antiwar spokesperson, the connections between the issues are becoming more apparent:

It's great to have this crowd here, and pulling in all the issues of racism, immigrant rights, war, the environment, torture--all these things that our government is engaged in--is critical. People around the country are protesting this, whether it's in Wisconsin against anti-union legislation, or right now in Times Square where teachers are protesting, and there will be demonstrations on Wall Street later this week.

People all over the country are finally saying that we've had enough of this stuff. And we can tie it to the fact that 55 percent of the federal budget is going to the Defense Department. So it's critical to tie this together and say that if you want the services we need from our government, then stop the wars.

Abdul Malik Mujahid, a leader of the Muslim Peace Coalition, reflected this mood in a speech that fired up the crowd:

If Martin Luther King were here, he'd find his dream had turned into a nightmare. We're here to say no to the nightmare and yes to the American dream. A dream where prisons are not filling up every day...Where corporations actually pay their taxes...

Let's not turn against each other. Lets not detain our undocumented workers and children in the burning sands of Arizona. That's not us....Let's build a nation where justice prevails. Today, we arrest a Muslim and tell him your evidence is secret. Tell me, brothers and sisters, can you defend yourself when your evidence is secret? Is that justice? Is that America?

By bringing together Muslim leaders like Mujahid with established antiwar forces, the April 9 demonstration broke new ground for the movement. The next step is to bring in still broader forces--like the 10,000 union workers who demonstrated in Times Square as the antiwar protest took place--to create a movement large enough to make itself heard in the budget cut debates in Washington.

It will be a challenge for UNAC to win unions and other liberal organizations--which have traditionally been staunch supporters of Israel--to an anti-imperialist platform. But the constant protests against budget cuts and austerity offer antiwar organizers plenty of opportunities to begin those discussions.

For now, said Joe Lombardo, co-chair of UNAC, April 9 and 10 represents a "great start. We have a very diverse crowd, a younger crowd than we've had at antiwar actions in a long time, and I think this is a good start for UNAC, which has only existed for several months. I think we are on a path to rebuilding a new and stronger antiwar movement."

David Elaine Alt contributed to this article.