How to Respond to New York Times Redbaiting of the Antiwar Movement

by Fred Feldman

Last night (Jan. 23), about 160 activists met to prepare the February 15 march and rally to be held in New York City. The meeting decided to include in the framework of our opposition to the war against Iraq a clear statement of opposition to the threat of U.S.-backed ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Israeli-held territory. We expressed support for proposals to have a speakers platform that would reflect the real antiwar population of New York City and the powerful forces that need to be brought into action to defeat the warmakers—roughly 75 percent people of color and 50 percent women. We formed committees and began the distribution of leaflets and other materials to get the show on the road.

Precisely because of the inspiration and energy represented by that meeting, I think it is very important that our movement respond very strongly to the following article from today’s New York Times as what it is—an attempt to redbait the entire movement and disrupt the process of building a genuinely united and truly massive action on February 15. The article is an attempt to heighten the line of attack on the struggle against the war that attempts to divide and conquer by selecting ANSWER as a scapegoat.

Of course, as we all know, ANSWER, and the Workers World Party which participates in ANSWER, have the right to take any positions they want on any questions they want—North Korea, Yugoslavia, whatever.

Right or wrong, these positions do nothing to illegitimize or throw into question the tremendous work they have done for the fight against the war in Iraq by initiating, building, and successfully involving broad forces in the October 25 and January 18 protests. In building a united fight against U.S. aggression—that’s what “preemptive war” is—the antiwar movement does not pretend to stand in judgment over its participants’ political positions.

We unconditionally support ANSWER’s right to be part of the movement, and we welcome its full participation at every level in building February 15.

The crookedest trick in the Times article is to present our coalition, United for Peace and Justice, as some kind of “okay,” safe and sane “alternative” to ANSWER. Leslie Cagan’s statement, made repeatedly in all kinds of contexts, that we assume speakers on February 15 will relate their perspectives to their opposition to the war in Iraq is presented as a kind of attack on ANSWER or criticism of January 18 or as indicative of a desire to keep ANSWER at a remove from the February 15 action.

United for Peace and Justice is not an “alternative” to ANSWER but an attempt to build a broad, united network of antiwar forces, including ANSWER and anyone else who sees the need for broad united action.

The Times’s attempt to disrupt and divide a young and growing movement needs to be firmly countered.

Among other things, this requires, in my opinion, firm action by United for Peace and Justice to reach out to our sisters and brothers in ANSWER and involve them fully in the preparation and building of a united action. We have to take affirmative action right now to make it clear to ANSWER that they are not merely free to join the action—which they have already endorsed—but that we strongly desire their full participation at every level. A deliberate and conscious effort to reach out to ANSWER is also necessary to establish clearly in the public mind what UFPJ really is—an effort to strengthen the unity of the WHOLE antiwar movement—and also what it is not (a coalition of the, as far as I know nonexistent, “right wing” of the antiwar movement).

I know that we aren’t going to fall for the New York Times bait. That goes without saying. But I think that we should counter the crude trap set for us by moving aggressively to advance the perspective of including ANSWER in a prominent, public, and, I might even say, defiant way in a genuinely and fully united action against the war on February 15.

[The following article from the New York Times of Jan. 24, 2003, is reprinted for the information of readers.]

Some War Protesters Uneasy With Others

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23—After a weekend of antiwar protests that many participants say signaled an expansion of public opposition to military action against Iraq, some organizers are facing criticism, much of it from within the movement, about the role played by their group, International Answer.

Attendance at rallies in Washington and San Francisco last Saturday was in the tens of thousands, and reflected a mix of views that spanned the social and political spectrums. Many protest organizers say the presence of labor unions, religious groups, business people and soccer moms showed a growing mainstream opposition to the war.

But behind the scenes, some of the protesters have questioned whether the message of opposing war with Iraq is being tainted or at least diluted by other causes of International Answer, which sponsored both the Washington and San Francisco rallies.

Answer, whose name stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, was formed a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, by activists who had already begun coming together to protest policies of the International MonetaryFund and the World Bank. Some of the group’s chief organizers are active in the Workers World Party, a radical Socialist group with roots in the Stalin-era Soviet Union. The party has taken positions that include defense of the Iraqi and North Korean governments and support for Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugolav president being tried on war crimes charges.

The positions of some of Answer’s members have caused rifts in past antiwar movements as well. In January 1991, at the onset of the Persian Gulf war, two coalitions of protesters marched separately, on consecutive weekends, because one refused to align itself with the other, whose members included current Answer officers who would not criticize the Iraqi government or support economic sanctions against it.

In an interview today, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a spokeswoman for Answer, said questions raised about the group’s role were “classic McCarthy-era Red-baiting.”

“When you select out the Socialists or Marxists,” she said, “the point is to demonize and divide and diminish a massive, growing movement.”

But Answer’s critics say they simply wish that when it sponsors antiwar rallies, it would confine its message to opposition to war. At the rally in Washington, the group’s speakers advocated causes like better treatment of American Indians and release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the radical activist long imprisoned for killing a Philadelphia police officer.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun, which sent protesters to the rally despite concerns about pro-Palestinian speeches planned there, said: “There are good reasons to oppose the war, and Saddam. Still, it feels that we are being manipulated when subjected to mindless speeches and slogans whose knee-jerk anti-imperialism rarely articulates the deep reasons we should oppose corporate globalization.”

Karen Guberman helped organize a small protest in her neighborhood in Northwest Washington last weekend, in part to provide an outlet for those who felt uncomfortable attending the Answer-sponsored rally.

“I felt like it was important just to go and be counted,” Ms. Guberman said, “but many of my friends felt they couldn’t count on what was going to be said, and so we did this very specific thing.”

In fact, some of the newer antiwar coalitions were formed precisely to create a forum for protesters with views different from Answer’s. Leaders of those groups have carefully avoided criticizing Answer, for fear that doing so would undercut their movement.

Still, the more mainstream voices in the antiwar movement may be trying to focus the message. The next national rally is scheduled for Feb. 15 in New York, and it is being sponsored by United for Peace, a coalition of more than 120 groups, most of them less radical than Answer.

Answer has signed on as a supporter of the New York rally, but it is not yet clear what role it will play in shaping the tone. Leslie Cagan, a coordinator with United for Peace, said her organization would welcome a wide variety of perspectives. But she added, “We want our speakers making a clear link to the issue.”