Important Gains Registered at National Antiwar Assembly

by Andy Pollack


[This report, which appeared in the July 2008 issue of Socialist Action newspaper, has been edited for Labor Standard.]

More than 400 antiwar activists from 26 states registered at and attended the June 28–29 antiwar conference in Cleveland, Ohio, sponsored by the National Assembly to End the Iraq War and Occupation. Scores of others participated in the conference’s mass Saturday evening rally.

The Cleveland gathering represented an important advance for the U.S. antiwar movement. It was the first time since the Iraq War began in March 2003 that an open and inclusive conference had been called to discuss and debate the movement’s future.

The conference aimed at the unification of the entire U.S. movement around five simple but radical principles: “Out Now!” (or “Bring the Troops Home Now!”) as the movement’s central political demand on the U.S. government; mass mobilization as its central strategy or method of struggle; unity in action of the broad forces of the movement as well as others who oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; democratic decision-making at open conferences based on one person, one vote; and independence from all political parties.

The overwhelming majority of the attendees were activists and leaders of local antiwar groups from every corner of the country and from Canada. The breadth of organizations present was impressive, including leaders and members of national groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Veterans For Peace, Peace Action, and Progressive Democrats of America. A busload of 44 college-age youth raised $7,000 to attend from Connecticut.

The top officials of the Maryland and South Carolina AFL-CIO, as well as other antiwar trade unionists, played leading roles in chairing conference sessions, presenting keynote speeches, and participating in conference workshops.

The opening session on Saturday morning featured greetings from Harriet Applegate, head of the North Shore Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO (formerly the Cleveland Central Labor Council), followed by Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO.

Then Greg Coleridge of the Cleveland American Friends Service Committee and the Northeast Ohio Antiwar Coalition set the political tone for the Assembly, laying out the five principles around which the Assembly had been convened.

The conference took a major step toward achieving the main goal it had set itself, as laid out in proposals from the 50-person Coordinating Committee (CC) and articulated in the Call to the Assembly signed by 507 endorsers. That goal was to help bring together the entire antiwar movement in united and massive, national bicoastal demonstrations in the spring of 2009 to “Bring the Troops Home Now!” and to build this spring mobilization through coordinated local actions this fall.

The Assembly’s functioning demonstrated the viability of a genuinely democratic conference, with its one-person-one-vote formula, and a combination of wide-open discussions and efficient conduct of the business before it. As a result, attendees left Cleveland excited about what they had been through and with renewed eagerness to build the movement.

Special note should be made of the crucial role of Administrative Committee (AC) member Jerry Gordon, who was among the initiators of the Assembly and served as a lynchpin throughout the discussions leading up to it and in Cleveland. Gordon is a Steering Committee member of U.S. Labor Against the War, and was Co-Coordinator of the Vietnam-era National Peace Action Coalition, in which capacity he learned critical lessons about forging united-front-type actions among forces even larger and more diverse than those yet assembled around the Iraq war.

The other members of the AC were Marilyn Levin, leader of New England United—a regional antiwar coalition that includes antiwar organizations in seven states—and Jeff Mackler, a longtime leader of San Francisco Bay Area and national antiwar coalitions that mobilized against Washington’s wars in Vietnam, Central America, and the Middle East.

Dec. 9–14 local actions

The Assembly approved a nine-point Action Program, which, in addition to its centerpiece—a call for coordinated local actions from Dec. 9 to 14, for which endorsement by the entire spectrum of antiwar groups will be sought—supported a variety of other actions.

These include the demonstrations demanding immediate and total withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan at both the Republican and Democratic Party conventions, the Iraq Moratorium, and local actions planned for Oct. 11—the sixth anniversary of the date on which Congress gave Bush the go-ahead to launch war on Iraq.

The coordinated local actions in December were viewed by the majority of the Coordinating Committee and the conference as a whole as having the greatest potential for uniting the entire movement and beyond. Prior to the conference, agreement had been reached with the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and the Troops Out Now Coalition (TONC), both conference endorsers, to support these December dates.

Pre-conference efforts to also secure the support of the United for Peace and Justice coalition (UFPJ) were not successful, although UFPJ’s National Coordinator, Leslie Cagan, participated in the conference’s main rally.

The most important task coming out of the Assembly is to seek the endorsement of these December dates by local antiwar coalitions, as well as by groups from every social movement and constituency, and to begin building local coalitions around these dates wherever possible. As stressed in a post-Cleveland evaluation of the conference by the AC, the Assembly remains a network, not a coalition, and its main task is to continue to build unity around mass actions.

In the discussion that followed the opening plenary session, several activists stressed the necessity for unity in the movement based on mass action. Many pointed out the great potentiality that exists to close the gap between the majority opposition to the war and the still modest numbers who actively participate today.

Most warmly received in the discussion were the many youth from Connecticut who recounted conversations held when they went door-to-door to raise funds for their bus trip—conversations showing the breadth and depth of antiwar sentiment waiting to be mobilized. A typical anecdote was of a woman who told a door-knocker that her elderly father wouldn’t want to hear an antiwar pitch; but before she could finish her comment, the father came to the door with a check to help subsidize the bus!

Action proposals and debates

The main plenary debates began with the presentation of some 30 separate and distinct action proposals that had been submitted by groups across the country prior to the conference and placed on the National Assembly’s website. Copies of each proposal were also available to all conference participants.

Each proposal, including the comprehensive Action Proposal prepared by the Coordinating Committee, was allotted an initial three minutes presentation time before the entire assembly, after which a vote was taken to determine which of the 30 would serve as the assembly’s “working” text. The CC’s proposal received some 80 percent of the over 300 votes cast, with the other proposals each receiving a handful of votes or less.

With this text before it, the body then moved to consider a series of amendments until a final text was approved that represented the views of the majority.

The original CC Action Proposal had expressed opposition to threats of war by the U.S. and Israel against Iran, and encouraged the broader movement to call an immediate conference in the event of such attacks to launch united actions against them. This was strengthened by an amendment opposing U.S. sanctions against Iran as well as opposition to other forms of U.S. intervention.

Similarly, whereas Washington’s war in Afghanistan was condemned by implication in the original proposal, this was strengthened and made explicit by adding the words “and Afghanistan” to all text in which Iraq was mentioned, as well as in the Assembly’s own name. The aim was to stress equal opposition to the U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

A similar debate ensued over the merits of including the issue of U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other proposed measures to express solidarity with the Palestinian people in the form of support to calls within Palestinian civil society for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

In all three instances, a conference majority voted to strengthen the original language proposed in the CC’s Action Proposal by inclusion of the above.

Almost all participants in these spirited debates agreed on the political issues under discussion. The disagreements were over the best way to engage the masses of opponents of the U.S. war in Iraq in united mobilizations against it. Conference organizers, including the majority of the CC, stressed the need to build a broad united-front-type movement focused on the Iraq War, the central issue in world politics. While all of the above issues were included in their original text in one form or another, they were not designed to be central to it.

Proponents of adding stronger language on Palestine were genuinely concerned with the need to express their solidarity with the oppressed, threatened, and beleaguered Palestinian people. But they appeared less concerned with or perhaps less aware of the problems associated with building an action-oriented broad united front.

This dichotomy in the present antiwar movement has long been central to the debates that have divided it. Whether or not to find ways to include the issue of Palestine, for example, has been a major point of controversy, with Socialist Action holding that its inclusion in an important but not dominant or primary manner would help expand rather than narrow the movement.

This was the case with the massive Feb. 16 and 17, 2003, demonstrations that numbered close to one million and in the demonstrations of hundreds of thousands that followed in the years immediately after. The inclusion of the Palestine issue opened the door wide to the Arab and Muslim communities, who were the direct and immediate victims of the government’s “war on terror” witch hunt and who in large measure opposed the U.S. saturation bombing of their homeland.

Finding a balance in this discussion occupied a considerable portion of the CC’s deliberations in the months preceding the Cleveland conference, with the final proposed text seeking to resolve this important matter with a compromise, a formulation that urged the antiwar movement in its literature, speakers, and educational materials to “raise the legitimacy” [that is, raise the question of the legitimacy] of U.S. support to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

But the conference majority rejected this formulation in favor of “challenging” the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation. It strengthened the Action Program’s emphasis on the Palestine issue more generally.

In all of the above disputes a number of the real issues confronting the antiwar movement today were addressed, at least in part, clearly and directly, with a decision arrived at that will now be afforded the test of life itself, the ultimate arbitrator of important ideas in contention.

The vast majority of the conference participants were more than willing to accept the conference results and move forward in building a united movement.

“Jewish and Christian Zionists”

But there was one critical issue where this was not the case. The supporters of the Palestine amendment, offered by the Connecticut-based Middle East Crisis Committee (MECC), included in its language the notion that the Iraq War is spurred on by “the interests of the military industrial complex and the influence of the lobbies of Jewish and Christian Zionists.”

In the waning hours of the conference, this language was approved by a vote of 101–99. In the view of the newly elected 13-member National Assembly Administrative Body it was unacceptable. At its first meeting following the Cleveland conference, the AB voted unanimously to conduct a referendum of all registered conference participants with the objective of eliminating this wording from the adopted Action Program.

The section of the Action Proposal adopted by the assembly, if adopted by a referendum vote, would then read: “The war and occupation of Iraq is motivated by the drive to control that country’s gigantic oil wealth and access to the energy resources of the entire Middle East. It is a war in which working class youth, especially from oppressed nationalities, are victims of the ‘economic draft’ and pay the ultimate price. It is a war that in the name of combating terror uses legislation like the Patriot Act and Executive Orders to violate constitutional rights, particularly habeas corpus, in order to increase surveillance, stifle dissent, and scapegoat immigrants.

“It is a war costing trillions of dollars needed to solve pressing social problems at home, rebuild the destruction in Iraq, and relieve hunger and poverty around the globe. It is a war spurred on by the corporate interests behind the military-industrial complex and the influence of powerful lobbies supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We oppose all funding for unjust wars and occupations.”

(Language in italics is the proposed wording by the Administrative Body of the National Assembly.)

In a letter to MECC leader Stan Heller, informing him that theAdministrative Body would be conducting a referendum vote and allotting equal space for the MECC viewpoint, the AB noted: “There are several reasons why the AB concluded that a referendum is essential in this matter…

“Naming ‘Jewish and Christian Zionists’ is sure to draw charges of anti-Semitism and anti-religious prejudice. Use of such language will be offensive to many of the broader forces the Assembly is trying to win to its cause—including labor and faith-based groups—not to mention the bulk of the present movement. To our knowledge, none of the existing antiwar coalitions have ever used the phrase, ‘Jewish and Christian Zionists.’

“Second, many people who voted on your amendment did not know that it contained the words ‘Jewish and Christian Zionists.’ That includes several members of the AB: Lynne Stewart, Zaineb Alani, Greg Coleridge, Donna Dewitt, Jerry Gordon, and Jonathan Hutto, all of whom oppose the inclusion of these words and who favor the alternative wording cited above. Many other conference attendees, a number of whom voted for the amendment, also have informed us that they did not know the exact content of what was being voted upon. Unfortunately, out of the 200 people in the room, only two were given the amendment in writing.”

Socialist Action considers the elimination of the “lobbies of Jewish and Christian Zionism” formulation to be essential to the future existence of the National Assembly. The phrase lends itself to the absurd and anti-Semitic proposition that Jews determine U.S. foreign policy.

AB member, and co-founder of Appeal for Redress, Navy Petty Officer Jonathan Hutto was on the mark when he told the AB in the course of its discussion on the need for a referendum to remove this wording that, “if all the lobbies on this issue closed down tomorrow, there would be no change in U.S. foreign policy.” Hutto succinctly explained that U.S. foreign policy is the product of the decisions of the U.S. corporate ruling elite as opposed to the lobbies of any group, religious or otherwise.

Unfortunately, the MECC amendment was not distributed to the conference participants, a fact that in significant part, in this author’s view, explained the conference participants’ lapse in approving this language.

National Assembly leaders expressed confidence that the planned referendum will correct this error and that the National Assembly will move forward unimpeded by this unfortunate mishap.

Speakers and workshops

The conference’s flexibility and respect for diversity was especially highlighted in the process of planning and soliciting topics and speakers for workshops, plenary sessions, and the Saturday night public forum.

Some 18 workshops made connections between the war and such issues as the economy, immigration, racism, and sexism. Other workshop topics were: common issues facing U.S and Iraqi workers, the lessons of the Vietnam War, students and counter-recruitment, attacks on civil liberties, Palestine, Iran, veterans and military families, Latin America and the Caribbean, AFRICOM and U.S. military intervention in Africa, lobbying, the Iraq Moratorium, nonviolent direct action, Blackwater, the St. Paul Republican National Convention protest, and media work.

At a special afternoon session, Jonathan Hutto brought the house down repeatedly with his eloquent, militant, and wide-ranging speech on the Iraq war and how to fight it.

The opening speaker at the evening public forum was Marilyn Levin of Boston United for Justice with Peace and New England United, who spoke of the lessons for the national antiwar movement in NEU’s success in joint work by divergent forces. Levin cited NEU’s successful decision-making conferences as proof of the need for periodic, democratic gatherings.

Josh Davidson of Cleveland’s SDS spoke of the importance of building a base at the grassroots through intensive, patient, person-to-person work. Beth Lerman, Coordinator of Military Families Speak Out in Ohio, spoke of the economic forces pushing youth into the military. She reminded the audience that “military families stand to lose more out of this war than anyone—except the Iraqis, whose losses go unnoticed.”

Donna Dewitt introduced her friend Elaine Johnson, of Orangeburg, S.C., whose son, Darius Jennings, was killed in Iraq, cutting short a promising life already dedicated to mentoring youth. She spoke of the importance of getting unions involved, and said that when we hold our next big national demonstrations in the spring, “everyone needs to invite along an African American friend. We need to be united; that’s the only way we’re going to bring this thing to an end.”

Brian Becker, national coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition, reinforced the need for unity: “We are trying to do something complicated but not impossible. There could be, should be, must be, a way to unify the movement even if our banners are different.”

A similar appeal for unity was heard from Larry Holmes of the Troops Out Now Coalition. Both ANSWER and TONC announced before the conference their support for the December dates, and discussions are under way about possible unified spring mobilization dates to be proposed to other groups, including UFPJ.

Clarence Thomas of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union spoke about his union’s one-day strike against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on May Day 2008, and the years of preparatory activities leading up to it. The ILWU action closed down all West Coast ports from Canada to Mexico.

Jorge Mujica of Chicago’s March 10 Coalition, which called out millions into the streets in the spring of 2006 against racist immigration legislation, spoke of parallel problems of disunity and failure to mobilize faced by his movement. Like the National Assembly, said Mujica, his coalition and its allies are trying to call actions with diverse sponsorship based on principled but limited agendas, rather than a laundry list of demands on the one hand or support for “compromise” legislation on the other. Mujica also called for a “100 days countdown” of continual action by all social movements from Jan. 20, 2009 (Inauguration Day) to next May Day.

In contrast to the inspiring calls for action and unity of the other speakers, Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of UFPJ, tried to defend her group’s track record. To the claim that “our movement is not as active as it once was,” she responded by citing a variety of local actions or lobbying efforts by various groups.

Cagan criticized those who proposed “mass national actions as a way of dealing with the movement’s problems,” claiming that mass action is just one of many important tactics. She listed a variety of other types of actions as equally important, ignoring the fact that all these other tactics had in fact already been endorsed by the Assembly as complementary to mass action.

The clear intent of her speech was to tell attendees that the national UFPJ leadership does not as yet see the need for unified mass actions. But given the large number of Assembly attendees who work with, or are leading activists of, local UFPJ affiliates, and who left enthused with a spirit of unity, it is obvious that our work in coming months could yet pressure the national UFPJ leadership to agree to unified actions.

In his speech, Jeff Mackler drew a parallel between the antiwar movement and a trade union. A union, he said, is a “united front in the classical sense. Its members have diverse views on every conceivable issue. But when a union goes on strike against the boss class, there is only one issue involved—whether the plant will remain closed until workers’ demands are met.”

“Power in the Streets”

By way of relating this point to the fight against the Iraq War, Mackler pointedly asked the audience if they would have condemned the ILWU had it decided to strike against the Iraq war only and had not included their opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan in their educational literature.

“Would we demand of the multi-million member AFL-CIO, if they chose to close down the country to demand an end to the war in Iraq, that they add the issue of Afghanistan or any other issue?” Mackler queried.

“Did anyone condemn the five million immigrant workers who closed down the country in the largest political strike in the nation’s history on May Day 2006 for not including a demand on the Iraq War?” Mackler continued. “These workers focused their demands on a reactionary government move to further criminalize immigrant workers and anyone who supported them.

“The point is to find in each instance the clear politics that mobilize masses to defend their own class interests, to use the power they have to win.

“The sheer exercise of that power,” said Mackler, “is what we are looking for in our efforts to end the war in Iraq. If we win on this issue, the door is opened to win on all others. That’s why unions, when properly led, use mass action, a working-class or collective method of struggle, around a limited set of commonly-agreed upon demands.

“History shows that social change achieved through mass independent action, the exercise of power in the streets, is not just another tactic,” Mackler concluded. “It’s the decisive tactic; indeed, an indispensable strategy for social change.”

Other prominent Saturday night speakers or at other plenary sessions included Liam Madden, board member of IVAW and co-founder of the Appeal for Redress; Fred Mason, president, Maryland AFL-CIO and co-convenor, U.S. Labor Against the War; Cindy Sheehan, Gold Star Families for Peace (by video); Elliott Adams, president, Veterans for Peace; Jesse Diaz, organizer of the May 1, 2006, immigrant rights boycott.

Also speakng were Colia Clark, Power to the People Committee; Mike Carano of PDA; Jeremy Scahill, author of a highly-praised book on Blackwater; Riham Barghouti, Adalah-NY: Coalition for Justice in the Middle East; and Lynne Stewart, persecuted attorney framed-up on charges of conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism and 30-year veteran of civil liberties and civil rights defense work.

Concluding the Saturday night panel was a performance by hip hop artist and political activist Son of Nun.

As its last order of business the Assembly elected a strong 13-member Administrative Body. In addition, a Continuations Body will continue the work of the pre-Assembly Coordinating Committee and is open to representatives from any group agreeing to the Assembly’s principles.

For the great majority present, the Cleveland conference was their first opportunity to directly participate in the antiwar movement’s deliberations. Since the Assembly, activists both new and old and from a variety of political perspectives have posted positive assessments of the Assembly’s deliberations on numerous lists and websites.

Among the priorities after Cleveland, said the AC’s formal evaluation, are circulating the action proposal widely; securing endorsements and building for the December actions; and encouraging groups to elect representatives to the Continuations Body.

The evaluation stated correctly that the ultimate measure of the conference’s success “will be determined less by what we discussed and voted upon and more by what attendees do in the aftermath. If those who went through the experience of the conference are assertive in [demanding] united actions and if, as a result, our fractured antiwar movement at last comes together in the streets and stays there until the U.S. stops waging war on the peoples of the Middle East, [including] Afghanistan, then it may truly be said that the conference was, indeed, an historic event.”