U.S. Antiwar Movement Falters: An Insider’s View

by on January 25, 2008 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Election, Organizing, Peace Movement, War and Peace

by Andrew Pollack / January 2008

An international call for March 2008 worldwide protests to mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was issued in London on Dec. 1. The 1200 delegates from 43 nations at the World Against War conference voted unanimously to call on antiwar movements in every country to organize mass protests demanding that all troops be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. They opposed any U.S. attack on Iran. The broad-based London call paralleled and reinforced another call by antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan and other forces in the United States for mass antiwar demonstrations in March 2008.

Unfortunately, despite these important initiatives, it now appears that the fifth anniversary will come and go without a mass mobilization in the U.S.-the main country responsible for the Iraq War. This default of the leading U.S. antiwar organizations is the most serious evidence yet of a movement in crisis.

UFPJ rejects mass action

Over the weekend of Dec. 8 and 9, the Steering Committee of United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) met in New York City. The committee rejected three separate but overlapping appeals to co-sponsor a national mass demonstration on the fifth anniversary.

Instead, they considered a variety of proposals for local actions, all of them clearly oriented toward lobbying, influencing, or electing Democrats during the 2008 election year.

What’s more, the theme of all the proposals was not to end the war, but to get the Democrats to “stop selling out” and stop funding the war. This shows a tragic misunderstanding of the nature of the Democratic Party. Its politicians haven’t “sold out” on the war. They don’t need stiffer spines or proof of more support before voting the right way. Their consistent pro-war votes reflect their true nature as creatures of the ruling class.

At the June 2007 UFPJ National Assembly, which initiated the Oct. 27 regional demonstrations, the discrepancy between the often cited figure of 70 percent of the people in the U.S. opposed to the war, and the still modest numbers mobilized in mass actions against it, was properly used as motivation to work harder to boost turn out for the fall actions.

Now that 70 percent figure has taken on a different life: In the opening session of the December Steering Committee, UFPJ co-chair Leslie Cagan tried to explain that much of that 70 percent consists of people who don’t care about Iraqi lives but are merely distressed at the mismanagement of the war. With this explanation, a huge antiwar majority inspiring mobilizing efforts has now become a justification for demobilization.

The Steering Committee decided that its strategic goals for 2008 in regard to Iraq were counter-recruitment, military resistance support, and cutting congressional funding. The former goal was to be achieved by supporting Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and other veterans’ events.

Several proposals for local actions were put forward-all explicitly counterposed to mass national demonstrations. The options considered were (1) holding actions at each of the 435 local offices of members of Congress; (2) calling several protests in a variety of cities or regions; or (3) a civil disobedience action to shut down either Congress or the Pentagon.

None of these were projected as involving large numbers of people. Even the attempt to shut down Congress, said the proposal’s maker, Lisa Fithian, head of UFPJ’s Nonviolent Direct Action Working Group, needn’t be big. She directly counterposed it to calls for a march in Washington of several hundred thousand, and said that what is needed instead is a march of 10,000-with 500 or 1000 willing to get arrested.

Of course, the proposal for actions in every congressional district was the one most openly geared toward bending Democratic Party ears. Its mover, Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, said that national demonstrations are too costly. And more important, in his mind: “We don’t need the morass of getting bogged down in coalition politics.”

In his written proposal, Ruebner claimed that UFPJ’s past national and regional actions proved it was difficult, if not impossible, to turn out a significant chunk of the 70 percent opposed to the war. What’s more, mobilizing large numbers in 2008 would be impossible anyway, and convincing Congress to vote to cut off appropriations for the war “seems the most likely way to achieve UFPJ’s goals during the remainder of the Bush administration.” He saw his proposal as a complement to civil disobedience at the Capitol.

One steering committee member said she was uncomfortable with an exclusive focus on cutting off funding, reminding the group that “our goal is to bring the troops home.” Phyllis Bennis, UFPJ’s leading ideologue, replied that while that may be our long-term goal, in 2008 the goal has to be to stop the funding, so actions focused on getting the Democrats’ ears are key.

Throughout the consideration of the various proposals for local action, negative references were made to calls for national demonstrations by other forces. Cindy Sheehan’s call for a unified national action, outlined in detail below, was described repeatedly-and inaccurately-as primarily an effort to unite UFPJ and the ANSWER Coalition, ignoring the role of other 20 antiwar groups in the effort.

The New England letter

An observer at the meeting distributed copies of a letter written in early November by a working group set up by New England United. The letter had already been sent to groups throughout the movement, and was seeking feedback on the idea of a national mass demonstration on the fifth anniversary. The letter mentioned the initiative for a spring 2008 national demonstration by forces working with Cindy Sheehan. NEU was formed to support the Oct. 27 regional actions called by UFPJ, but from the start was purposely structured to be broader than just regional affiliates of UFPJ. The result, as in other cities that organized broader coalitions for Oct. 27, was quite positive-the 10,000 who marched on Boston Common constituted one of the biggest and most youthful turnouts on that day. And the experience encouraged regional activists to continue to build NEU.

However, the NEU working-group letter was ignored by the UFPJ Steering Committee, some of whose leaders had previously asked why NEU was operating “on a parallel track” and “going around us,” as if UFPJ is the antiwar movement in and of itself.

The Committee also ignored a proposal that included the idea of a spring national demonstration from its own affiliate in the region, Boston-based United for Justice with Peace. The proposal supported “one unified mass action that somehow avoids competing demonstrations.” But such appeals for unity were dismissed by the Committee as foolish.

One of the materials handed out in the packet was UFPJ’s 2005 document rejecting any future work with ANSWER, a discussion which had been reprised at a pre-meeting Steering Committee conference call. Late in the day Saturday, after a decision on which local action proposal to approve was tabled until Sunday, a straw poll was taken to see whether there was even enough support to bother discussing the Sheehan initiative.

The direction in which things were headed was made even clearer, if such were needed, by a rephrasing of the straw poll to determine whether there was any interest in talking about pursuing unity with ANSWER, once again mischaracterizing the Sheehan forces’ proposal.

Only three hands out of 16 Steering Committee members were raised, but this was sufficient to secure a discussion the following day. After this discussion had made clear the almost unanimous disinterest in working with anyone interested in a national demonstration, Bennis encouraged UFPJ to reach out to the “rest of the movement,” which she then explained meant MoveOn, Win Without War, and other pro-Democratic Party forces.

Clearly, the almost unanimous desire to avoid working with a broad array of forces in the movement favoring mass action overlaps with UFPJ’s orientation in 2008 to focus on currying favor with the Democrats. A unified national mobilization-even a national demonstration UFPJ could run itself or at least have preponderant influence in-cuts across that in their minds.

The Monday after the Steering Committee was concluded-even before a scheduled Sheehan/Year Five-initiative conference call at which UFPJ was to give its response to the 5th anniversary proposal-UFPJ issued a statement on the results of its meeting that pointedly excluded the possibility of working with the rest of the movement on a joint national action.

They announced that their sights were set on getting the next Congress and president to end the war and occupation in Iraq. And, in an echo of Bennis’ urging that UFPJ broaden itself out to the right, they announced they would “continue to build alliances with other antiwar forces as well as other progressive movements for peace and justice.”

They further announced that the “many different tactics” to be used in 2008 would include “activities and projects specifically related to the election-year cycle.” The action proposals decided on included “what we hope will be the largest nonviolent civil disobedience action yet against the war in Iraq,” that is, encouraging people to do civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., on March 19. Those who couldn’t make it to D.C. were encouraged to protest on that day at the 435 congressional offices.

Soon afterwards, UFPJ sent an e-mail to all its member groups rejecting collaboration with the Sheehan initiative. It ruled out participating in a coalition around the 5th anniversary, adding: “It was not clear how being part of another coalitional structure would help move all of this work forward. And that’s what is most important … moving the work forward.” By which, obviously, they just mean moving UFPJ’s work forward.

Less than two weeks after the Steering Committee had adopted its Democratic Party oriented action agenda came more evidence-as if any were needed-of the futility of relying on the Democrats, as they voted yet again, to the tune of $70 billion, more money for Washington’s wars, with no restrictions or timetable on troop deployments.

In a Dec. 21 statement, Cagan called the vote “a disgrace.” But it can only be said to be a disgrace if one expects something different from those warmongers.

The Cindy Sheehan initiative

In November, prominent antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan announced an initiative to try to unite the antiwar movement around a national demonstration in Washington to mark the fifth anniversary as well as a peace summit to be held in late January 2008.

In a column entitled “Come Together, Right Now!,” Sheehan wrote that she “left the peace movement in May of this year partially out of frustration over this lack of unity. At the time I was in despair over the fact that our movement had been unable to stop anything because of the egos and the infighting.”

But the continued horrors of war, she said, as well as new economic and environmental dangers, inspired her to give it another shot. Sheehan set up two conference calls involving many prominent antiwar groups, including not only ANSWER and UFPJ, but also Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Gold Star Families for Peace, Camp Casey Peace Institute, CODEPINK Women For Peace, AfterDowningStreet.org, Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, Common Ground Collective New Orleans, Hip Hop Caucus, World Can’t Wait, ImpeachBush.org, Cindy for Congress, National Council of Arab Americans, Grassroots America, Democracy Rising, and Voters for Peace.

All participants on the calls agreed to a proposal for bicoastal national demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco-except UFPJ’s Leslie Cagan, who said she would have to consult her upcoming Steering Committee meeting.

After the UFPJ Steering Committee rejected the Sheehan proposal, another conference call, as well as some behind-the-scenes discussions, led to the issuance of a public call for the March 15 demonstration, as well as support for UFPJ’s proposed March 19 activities. The call was explicitly motivated as being “in solidarity with those planning similar events around the world.”

The activities were to be organized by the “Iraq Occupation 5th Anniversary U.S. Mobilization Committee.” In an apparent effort to head off unilateral actions by any participants, the announcement said that by signing the call “you agree to coordinate announcements as part of the committee, contribute to these events, and not oppose or take actions that hurt any of these events.

The call also announced Sheehan’s proposed peace summit, to be held in San Francisco, Jan. 18-20, 2008, “to bring all of the various groups together so we can strategize and brainstorm more effective ways of challenging war and injustices.”

The summit would work out the details of the national demonstrations. As described on the Camp Casey Peace Institute website, attendance would be limited to 125 participants. Other than one rally open to all, with live blogging for those in other cities, all sessions in the proposed agenda would have been held in small groups rather than in open, voting plenary sessions. This process would have been the opposite of that used at the best of the conferences during the Vietnam War era, where large, open, meetings of hundreds or even thousands of activists from the entire spectrum of the antiwar movement voted to set dates, locations, and demands for actions, and steering committees elected at the conference were then left to work out the logistics.

Of course, it was not just Sheehan’s proposed summit that failed to live up to this more democratic conception. Since the Iraq War began, not a single open, mass antiwar conference, where the full range of the movement’s groups and activists could come together to decide its course, has been convened.

Winter Soldier hearings

The March 15 demo, it was announced, would support the IVAW’s planned Winter Soldier hearings. But soon after issuance of the call, a representative of Mass Global Action (MGA) circulated a letter from IVAW Executive Director Kelly Dougherty opposing any Washington, D.C., actions other than the Winter Soldier hearings during the March 13 to 16 period. The MGA spokesperson asked groups around the country to hold off endorsing March 15 until a conference call between the Sheehan forces and IVAW had been conducted.

The upshot of that conference call was an announcement by Sheehan canceling both the March 15 demonstration as well as the peace summit. Sheehan also announced that the ongoing dissension in the movement had convinced her that further efforts at achieving unity were fruitless. She stated that she would forthwith focus all energies on her run against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her San Francisco congressional seat.

The fact that the IVAW objections were the catalyst for the dissolution of the Sheehan initiative for a united mass action must be analyzed. Dougherty’s letter pointed correctly to the crucial role of veterans in the movement, but it also mirrored the shortsightedness of many in the movement. Wrote Dougherty, “For many of us, the most frustrating, depressing thing is to see the level of detachment and apathy that is so common among the American people. The antiwar movement seems no closer to ending the occupation, and more and more people seem content to believe that things in Iraq are improving and they no longer need to bother themselves with worrying about it.”

The problem, according to her analysis, was that “the voices of those who have been to war, have participated in occupation, and have been the victims and survivors of U.S. foreign aggression are not being heard. Those of us who know, first hand, the brutal realities of war have been ignored and marginalized, and it is well past time that we are given the space and opportunity to tell our stories.”

Dougherty continued, “This is why IVAW is holding Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, March 13-16 in Washington, D.C. We will offer first-hand, eyewitness accounts to tell the truth about these occupations; their impact on the troops, their families, our nation, and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Certainly the mass media has largely ignored the voices of antiwar veterans and active-duty soldiers. But Dougherty’s letter ignores the regular and increasing prominence in antiwar rallies, marches, and forums of IVAW members organized by every wing of the movement. And this prominence could have reached new levels with a program of Winter Soldier hearings buttressed by a huge Washington, D.C., national action.

Instead, for Dougherty, the sole focus of the anniversary had to be the Winter Soldier hearings: Because “Winter Soldier provides a unique opportunity to reveal the reality of U.S. occupation,” and “in order to give our veterans the necessary space and attention we deserve to tell our stories, we are requesting that, during Winter Soldier, March 13-16, the larger antiwar movement calls no national mobilizations and that there are no local protests or civil disobedience actions in Washington D.C.”

Dougherty concluded, “IVAW will not endorse any mass mobilizations or DC-based actions that conflict with Winter Soldier. We feel that large-scale activities will compete with Winter Soldier and dilute the voices of those testifying.”

This explanation puts things backwards. A well-organized national demonstration could have not only drawn attention to the Winter Soldier hearings, but would have served as a springboard for more military organizing efforts. Every marcher could have held a sign proclaiming support for the hearings, and rally organizers could have worked with IVAW to organize marchers to go back home and build veteran and active-duty troop-support activities.

Equally important, a portion of the movement’s platform in Washington could have been turned over to the IVAW to allow veterans’ testimony to be heard by hundreds of thousands of people.

What next for the movement?

As mentioned above, several of the regional coalitions formed to build Oct. 27 set a good example of the potential to build broad, democratic organizations that could steer clear of ruling-class politics and stay focused on getting the troops home now.

Many of the activists in these coalitions had hoped that one of the calls for national action in 2008 would be agreed upon, and in the absence of such a call many of these same activists are discussing how to collaborate to build a national movement that mirrors the inclusion and democracy practiced in their own groups.

Thinking through how to get to the kind of movement we want at this particular stage, and for the long term, will take a combination of informal and formal discussions, of patient and honest assessment of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

We can state concretely our ultimate goal. We need to construct a mass movement that stands for the immediate and total withdrawal of all U.S. troops, for mass action aimed at building such a movement, for the movement’s political independence from the rulers’ pro-war parties, and for inclusive, democratic national meetings to decide on and organize around such a perspective.

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