Report to the Northwest New Jersey Peace Fellowship on the National Assembly Antiwar Conference Held in Cleveland, Ohio, June 28–29, 2008

by Tom Barrett

During the last weekend of June I represented you at an antiwar conference in Cleveland, Ohio, called by an ad hoc network of antiwar activists with the objective of nationally coordinated, united antiwar actions to demand U.S. Out of Iraq Now. The principal organizers of the conference, Jerry Gordon from Cleveland, Jeff Mackler from San Francisco, Marilyn Levin from Boston, are all people with whom I have worked in the past and whom I know well and respect. Those of you who monitor your e-mail regularly will have received their evaluation of the conference, with which I basically agree.

You have heard me report many times in the past on the persistent lack of unity in the antiwar movement. We have frequently signed letters to the ANSWER Coalition and United for Peace and Justice calling on them to put their differences aside for one day and lead a march down the street together. In 2005 that happened. Our Fellowship chartered a bus to Washington and we managed to fill it completely. That was one of our proudest achievements.

In 2006 a group that had been affiliated with ANSWER broke away from it to form the Troops Out Now Coalition, and the lack of unity in the antiwar movement got worse. We made the decision in 2007 to become a member organization of United for Peace and Justice, with the hope that our voice in support of peace movement unity would get a hearing in that coalition. We and many others did make our voices heard — in fact I discussed the issue personally with UFPJ’s national coordinator, Leslie Cagan. Still we have not had a unified call for mass protest action in the streets.

A lot of us around the country have considered this an unacceptable state of affairs. We have more sentiment against the war throughout the country than we have ever had. Bush’s approval rating has been under 30% for over a year now, and the Iraq war has been the biggest contributing factor to his low approval ratings. Still, the antiwar movement has been unable to exert the pressure that it could. To give you an example of what is possible: on May 1, 2008, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which organizes the dockworkers on the West Coast, called a strike to protest the war. They didn’t strike over wages, pensions, health care benefits, or a contract dispute, and because of that they were ordered by an arbitrator not to strike. They struck anyway and shut down all work in the ports from San Diego to Alaska. Can you imagine if that strike had been generalized around the country? By the way, Clarence Thomas (no relation to the Supreme Court Justice), who led the strike, was at the Cleveland conference, and I was honored to meet him.

Clarence Thomas

We also know that there is considerable unrest within the military, especially among the National Guard troops whose deployment in Iraq keeps getting extended. If there were larger and more visible displays of antiwar sentiment in the streets, it would demonstrate to the soldiers and even some Marines who are questioning Bush’s war policies that the people of this country do not support what the administration is doing. It would encourage them to express their opposition to the war, and possibly even to refuse to fight. As we remember, the biggest factor bringing the Vietnam war to an end — aside from the Vietnamese people’s resistance — was the threat that U.S. soldiers would refuse orders and not go into harm’s way. “Search and avoid” was a phrase that soldiers in Vietnam used to describe their missions, and that phrase has entered the vocabulary in Iraq as well.

So we can’t wait. We need unified mass action in the streets now. Actually we needed them last year. We can no longer just beg and plead with ANSWER, TONC, and UFPJ to put the petty issues aside and agree to a single date for either bicoastal or nationally coordinated local demonstrations. So those of us around the country who agree that unity is essential decided to get together and organize ourselves to press for it.

So about 400 or so people got together in Cleveland. It was a one-person-one-vote conference, in which decisions were made by majority vote. The conference organizers submitted their proposal for action, which was basically agreed to, but there were amendments proposed which the conference agreed to, in one case over the objection of the conference organizers. So it was a thoroughly democratic meeting, which did essentially what it set out to do.

There were a number of proposals for action at specific events and on special dates, none of which unfortunately have the potential for mobilizing the hundreds of thousands which are needed. However, these actions can contribute positively, and the conference voted to support all of them. Included are protests at both major party conventions: the DNC in Denver and the RNC in St. Paul. October 11 is the anniversary of the congressional authorization for the war. We already are planning a benefit concert for Iraqi refugees on that date, which I will report on later in the agenda. There is a group called “Iraq Moratorium” which calls on everyone to take action against the war on the third Friday of every month. Well, we take action every Friday of every month, so we are ahead of what Iraq Moratorium is suggesting. The conference organizers merged Iraq Moratorium’s proposals into their own. The conference called for nationally coordinated local demonstrations during the week of December 9–14. It also called on the principal antiwar coalitions to agree to bicoastal united demonstrations in the spring.

The conference did not seek to create a new antiwar coalition that would replace or compete with UFPJ, TONC, or ANSWER. Its purpose was to bring together those activists who would like to see all the coalitions unite in action: all of us walking down a given street on a given day for “OUT NOW!” We are coming out with those folks communicating together as a network and with assurances from the leaders of the three principal coalitions that they also are in favor of united mass action. This was the right goal for the conference to set for itself. What we did in Cleveland was to insist that antiwar activists from all coalitions engage in a conversation about unified action, and we are insisting that the conversation is not closed until we have a date in the spring that we’ll walk down a single street in Washington or New York and a single street in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Brian Becker, Larry Holmes, and Leslie Cagan were all there, and all engaged in the discussion. Larry and Brian gave rather predictable antiwar pep talks, which were fine as far as they went; Leslie went a little further into political discussion. She spoke frankly and straightforwardly, and in my opinion contributed to knocking down obstacles to unity. As you know, our Fellowship is affiliated to UFPJ, both on its own and as a member organization of New Jersey Peace Action. From what I have observed, UFPJ is far more in touch with the community-based antiwar committees like ours than anyone else, and it certainly seems to me that there is two-way dialogue between the grassroots groups like ours and the coalition staff.

A national conference to which a lot of people have to travel a long distance at some considerable expense is necessarily going to be weighted in favor of the committed veteran activists, and this one was no exception. And when you put people into a single meeting room—it doesn’t matter if it’s a political party convention or an office staff meeting—there are “meeting dynamics” that get unleashed. People forget that whatever they decide has to be carried out in real life after the meeting is adjourned, or maybe in some cases they have no intention of carrying it out. And when emotional rhetoric gets mixed in, it just accelerates the process. Get a few hundred people together, and they can pass a resolution for anything. But that doesn’t mean it can be implemented.

The conference voted to add language concerning the issue of Palestine which demonstrates how people in a relatively large meeting can lose their bearings. Here it is:

Palestine and the Anti-War Movement

The oppression of Palestinians is not just another cause to be occasionally mentioned by the anti-war movement. It is integral to what is causing the so-called “War Against Terror,” what is in reality a war to subdue and impoverish the Middle East and Islamic countries. It is intertwined because of Israeli designs on the Middle East, Al-Qaeda Islamist attempts to hijack the Palestinian cause, and the influence of the Zionist lobbies (Christian and Jewish) on U.S. politics.

Because Israel is an apartheid state that oppresses Palestinians and because it has expelled most of the Palestinians of Palestine to neighboring countries and refuses to let them return, it finds itself necessarily in conflict with Middle Eastern countries whose populace sympathizes with Palestinians. If Israel can’t join with the US to bring collaborationist regimes to power in the Middle East it seeks to have independent minded countries invaded or rendered helpless or divided.

US Neo-cons politicians advocate a “War of Civilizations” against Arab and Muslim peoples as a way of enriching themselves and maintaining the military-industrial complex now that they can’t exploit Cold War fears and use sympathy for Israel to further their ends. While the lust for oil remains the bedrock of US interest in the Middle East the importance of Israel in US-European imperial motivations cannot be ignored. Considering that a peaceful and just resolution would advance security and economic interests of the US and people in Western Asia (The Middle East).

“In the runup to the Iraq invasion AIPAC was a prime supporter of the murderous sanctions on Iraq. Israeli officials repeatedly urged a military attack on Iraq both to the Administration and in the U.S. media. Israel's paper of record, Haaretz, wrote on Nov. 14, 2002 that ‘Israel is the only country to absolutely support the American decision [to attack Iraq], and has urged it to act, and quickly.’ ”

Resolved that the anti-war movement should • Integrate the issue of Palestine in the broader anti-war struggle • Build solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli human rights activists • Actively support the call of the Palestine Civil Society Movement for boycotts, divestments and sanctions until Israel complies with international law and respects human rights.

The language itself was not unreasonable at all. And the members of our Fellowship would for the most part agree with it—we have one of the most pro-Arab committees in the New Jersey peace movement, and I’m very proud of that. What I see as a problem, however, is thinking out how our committee can reach out beyond our dozen-and-a-half committed core group and our hundred and twenty-odd people who come to this event or that event. Our group has strictly maintained that our unity is based on opposition to the war in Iraq; even so, we have held educational events about Palestine, and some of our members have done remarkable work for the Arab people of Palestine. David has done admirable work within the Presbytery of Newton to defend the Presbyterian Church’s decision to divest from Israel. Litsa has held fund-raising events in her home, which have raised thousands of dollars to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes. So we have a certain pro-Arab reputation. Even this much has caused a certain distrust of us in some circles. We have to strike a balance: to do what we can and must do for simple justice for the Arab people of Palestine and at the same time reach out to those who are coming to agree with us about the war in Iraq but who do not yet know that the government and media are lying to them about Palestine. The language of the presiding committee that was presented to the Cleveland conference did exactly that. Here’s what it suggested:

The National Assembly urges the antiwar movement to include in its educational work, literature and leaflets raising the issue of the legitimacy and justice of U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The inclusion of speakers addressing this issue on the antiwar movement’s platforms helps to encourage the active participation of Arab and Muslim communities in the united mass mobilizations we seek.

As you can see, it’s rather remarkable how much it parallels exactly what we’re doing right here in Sussex County. However, the majority of conference participants chose to reject it. A number of the floor interventions in favor of the alternative language were quite emotional, speaking to the issue of the oppression of the Palestinian people rather than to the practical considerations of intervening in North American political life. However, those realities will impose themselves harshly on anyone who seriously tries to implement the amendment adopted by a majority.

The larger body also overruled the presiding committee on two other issues. It insisted on adding the words “and Afghanistan” to all references to the war in Iraq. I understand why the leadership group was concerned about adding Afghanistan to our demands for “Out Now,” but I nevertheless voted to add those words. The United States is involved in a shooting war in Afghanistan, and if it were really about getting Usama bin Ladin, he’d have been captured a long time ago. Last month more U.S. GIs were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq, and there is no justification for the devastation that U.S. forces have caused in that long-suffering country. “Out Now” has to apply to Afghanistan as well, in my opinion.

There was also language added concerning Iran, calling for action demanding that the United States stop its threat of war against Iran whether directly or through Israel as a proxy. This was not exactly an overrule, because the presiding committee essentially agreed that the language being proposed concerning Iran was an improvement on what it had originally proposed, and there was virtually no opposition to including it.

Getting a conference like the one in Cleveland to represent better the community-, campus-, and workplace-based committees is a challenge, but unless that challenge is met, there will be a permanent disconnect between the sophisticated activist leadership and the folks organizing the monthly or weekly peace vigils and bringing their neighbors together to talk about the Iraq war, promoting dialogue between members of churches, mosques, and synagogues, and, yes, even talking about how there can be peace and trade with Cuba, Iran, and a just and peaceful end to the conflict in Palestine.

But if anybody thought that the 400 or so people who met in that hotel ballroom were in anybody’s pocket, they have now been disabused of that notion. And in some ways that gives this new network added credibility in its conversation with the broader antiwar movement. These contentious folks came together so that the entire movement for peace can come together, and we are showing that people who have disagreements can work for a common goal, such as the immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and the immediate cessation of threats of war against Iran. This was the success of the Cleveland conference, and it is, I believe, significant indeed.