The United National Antiwar Conference, July 23–25, 2010, Albany, NY
by Thomas Bias
The author is president of the Northwest New Jersey Peace Fellowship and a member of the Coordinating Committee of the National Assembly to End the Wars and Occupations.
Pete Seeger’s song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” ends with the refrain, “When will they ever learn?” I came away from United National Antiwar Conference of July 23–25, 2010, thinking that maybe the answer to that question is: “Now. Finally.” Thirty-one quite disparate organizations came together to plan and put together a meeting which could issue an authoritative call for mass action in the streets in one or a few given locations on one given day to demand immediate, total, and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and end to war threats and sanctions against Iran, and an end to U.S. military and financial aid to the state of Israel. Over 700 people registered and attended the meeting and succeeded in doing exactly what they came to do. That “given day” will be April 9, 2011. Those “few given locations” will be San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, and New York City. Those are not the only activities agreed to by the conference, nor are the demands related to U.S. policy in the Middle East the only demands agreed to by the conference. For example: there was strong consensus that in today’s economic climate the issue of the wars and occupations must be linked to the issue of jobs and social services, and that such slogans as “Health Care, not Warfare” and “Money for Jobs, not War” are vital. Demands related to civil liberties and political victimization were also supported, including a heartfelt and emotional call for the release of the attorney Lynne Stewart, now serving a ten-year (in reality, life imprisonment) sentence for the “crime” of representing a client whom the government labeled a “terrorist.” Had Lynne not been in prison, she would not only have attended the conference but would have been involved in its planning and organization.
It’s not my intention to give you all the minutes of the conference or an extensive chronological account of what happened; however, if you want that, the good news is that the entire conference was videotaped. The videos of the plenary sessions plus highlights from the workshops are available at http://mediasanctuary.tv/crows/. Not everything has been posted yet, but work is in progress.
All of us know that the organized antiwar movement has for several years not succeeded in organizing mass action in the streets that reflects the opposition to continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan within the U.S. population. There are a number of factors which have caused this situation, not the least of which are that the government and corporate media have learned a thing or two since the Vietnam days. The government has taken a much more arrogant and intransigent attitude toward opposition to the war, typified by Dick Cheney’s response of “So?” when asked about the majority of Americans opposing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Additionally, the corporate media, especially the broadcast media, has marched in lockstep with the government, embedding their reporters with the military units and simply passing along to the American people what the senior officers of the Army and Marine Corps want us to hear and see. Obviously, we have no control over what the government and media do, but it does require us to redouble our efforts to counter their lies with the truth and it requires new and creative strategies to cut through the warmakers’ webs of deception.
Another factor—one which is not beyond our control—has been the disunity of the antiwar movement. Since the first actions before the Iraq war started, rival antiwar coalitions have competed for the loyalty of the grassroots activists. Their disagreement dated back to the first Gulf War of 1990–1991: the groups which evolved into International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) at that time gave political support to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The groups which later evolved into United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) demanded Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait as well as U.S. withdrawal. The old grudges and distrust persisted, and attempts to work together—which were welcomed by the overwhelming majority of local peace committees all around the country—were short-lived and ended with each blaming the other for the disunity. The National Assembly to End the Wars and Occupations—the group which originally proposed the United National Antiwar Conference—was formed in 2008 for the purpose of speaking for the grassroots peace activists who so fervently wanted unity in action. The just-concluded United National Antiwar Conference represented a giant leap away from the disunity which has plagued the antiwar movement, but there is still more work to be done.
A third factor, which was only beginning to emerge at the time that the National Assembly was founded was what Glen Ford in his remarks to the opening session of the Antiwar Conference called “the Obama spell.” As we know, from the earliest stages of the Iraq war, the antiwar movement was built as an anti-Bush movement as much as an antiwar movement. Democratic party politicians, such as Howard Dean, as well as Democratic party fund-raising formations, such as MoveOn.org, put energy and money into combining antiwar activity with Democratic party electoral activity. Their efforts were much more subtle and intelligent than Democratic vote hustling had been in the past: these groups put energy into grassroots antiwar educational activity, even local peace vigils and other forms of mass action, in an attempt not to be confrontational with mass-action oriented local antiwar leaders and to earn people’s trust by carrying out concrete activities. Their efforts were entirely successful: in 2006 the Democrats succeeded in winning majorities in both houses of Congress. In 2008 MoveOn.org and its allies were successful in defeating the more openly pro-war Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and winning the nomination for Senator Barack Obama, and of course in the fall peace activists joined young voters, the communities of color, and organized labor in electing Barack Obama the forty-fourth President of the United States. From the point of view of those of us attempting to organize local peace vigils, local educational meetings, and other grassroots antiwar activities, it seemed like the overwhelming majority of antiwar activists thought that their work was done when the Democrat was sworn in.
At the leadership level, very few were taken in by Obama’s promises—though to be sure MoveOn.org and folks like that did what their name implies and “moved on,” along with their money and organizing resources, to pastures which to them seemed much greener than the grassroots communities where some of us continue to work for peace. But for the hundreds and the thousands of people who oppose the war but who have lives to lead—bills to pay, children to raise, homes to maintain—the wars seemed far away, especially during the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s. Simply surviving in this economy requires extra work and energy, and certainly it is not surprising that people’s anger is most intense when it is directed at events which affect them in their day-to-day struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over one’s head.
Additionally, it must be remembered that Obama kept his promise on Afghanistan: to escalate the war and attempt to win a military victory, but opposition to that war has never reached the level that it has against the Iraq war. Within the trade unions, for example, there are many elected officials who oppose the Iraq war but support Obama’s continuation of the Afghanistan war, as do most Congressional Democrats.
Now nearly two years into the Obama presidency, especially with Congressional elections on the horizon, people are beginning to take stock of what they voted for—and what they got. This is especially true of the people who have from time to time participated in antiwar activity. During the opening session of the United National Antiwar Conference, Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report addressed the issue of what Barack Obama’s presidency has meant to the antiwar movement as well as other movements for social justice. Click here to see the videotape of his speech. Ford represents some of the most advanced leadership within the African-American community, and he is a leader of the Black is Back Coalition, which is dedicated, in its own words, to justice, peace, and reparations to the African-American people. This coalition sponsored a predominantly Black antiwar demonstration in November 2009; it is among the first political formations in the Black community to confront Barack Obama’s false claims to represent the interests of African-Americans.
So, here we were in the first half of 2010, and peace activists were beginning to look at the state of the peace movement and then looking at the course of the wars, especially in Afghanistan, as well as the threat of war against Iran and the Israeli attack on the flotilla bringing nonmilitary aid to the people of Gaza. They are beginning to say to each other that warmakers cannot be given a free pass, no matter who they are or to what political party they belong. It is in this context that last November the Coordinating Committee of the National Assembly to End the Wars and Occupations, of which I am a member, met in San Francisco and agreed to suggest to all antiwar activists throughout the United States and Canada that they gather in the city of Albany, New York, during one weekend during the summer of 2010.
One organizational change occurred which made our task considerably easier. The Veterans for Peace began to play a major leadership role within United for Peace and Justice. Its executive director Mike McPhearson attended the National Assembly conference in Pittsburgh in 2009, and its President Michael Ferner attended the San Francisco meeting to which I just referred. They both recognized the importance of unity in the movement and visible mass action in the streets. They were both more interested in the success of the struggle than in anything else.
Besides the Veterans for Peace, thirty other organizations came to the same conclusion: that our peace movement needed a jump start, and the place to begin was a gathering of the forces in Albany, New York. These groups ranged from National Peace Action to The World Can’t Wait and the Troops Out Now Coalition. It became clear that this conference would be much bigger and represent far broader political forces than the National Assembly. So the conference became the United National Antiwar Conference, and the committee planning it incorporated representatives of the disparate organizations which were coming together to chart a course of action. They began discussing an action proposal to bring to the conference participants, and it became clear from the beginning of the discussion that everyone was basically on the same page. We wanted to march in the streets united on a single day. An action proposal was drawn up and submitted to those who had registered for the conference prior to the opening night, so that people could read it and consider it, and if they had changes to suggest to it, they could write them up and submit them for the participants’ consideration. And that happened. Amendments were suggested, and many were adopted. Others were not. But the fundamental action proposal was agreed to nearly unanimously: we will march in united demonstrations on April 9, 2011, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, for peace, jobs, and justice. We will be demanding immediate, total, and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, an end to sanctions and threats against Iran, and a cut-off of aid to the state of Israel. We are demanding that the money that is today being squandered on war be diverted to creating jobs and social services here at home. When you think about it, what fraction of the price of a Predator Drone could have saved St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City? That’s what we’re talking about.
When the urgency of our situation is presented in that way, it becomes clear that our need for unity and cooperation outweighs any disagreements we might have on secondary issues. Some of those disagreements are important and even relevant to U.S. foreign policy, but the conference participants looked for and found ways to come to compromise and consensus. Just as an example: there is deep disagreement among peace activists on our assessment of what has been called the “Green Revolution” in Iran, that is the student-led opposition to the Iranian government. I won’t go into all the details; they aren’t relevant. But everyone agrees that what’s going on in Iran is none of the U.S. government’s business. We had consensus that we are opposed to any military action against Iran either by the United States or Israel, and that we furthermore oppose the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran. We put our differences aside to agree on the most important things, the things that relate to our government and to peace.
There was a smaller-group workshop discussion on Iran. I attended it and heard several very thoughtful presentations from knowledgeable people. Another workshop discussion considered whether it is a good idea for the antiwar movement to attempt to make an alliance with far-right forces, such as those associated with Congressman Ron Paul and commentator Patrick Buchanan. Still another one debated whether the “two-state” solution to the Palestine conflict is realistic or desirable. None of the disagreements expressed in these discussions stood in the way of overall unity around the agreed-upon action proposal. Other workshop discussions took up different aspects of antiwar organizing, including different ways to reach out to different constituencies, such as trade unions, religious congregations, communities of color, student youth, and so forth. One workshop was devoted to counter-recruitment, an important tactic in the effort to stop war.
I want to finish with a comment on a debate which did not take place at this conference, but which has been an issue for the entire forty years that I have been involved in antiwar activism. It’s in many ways a false debate, and I speak of the question of coalition-building around a “single issue” or a “multi-issue” program. Why do I say it is a false debate? I say this because the proponents of “single issue” organizing were never able to restrict their coalition building strictly to a single issue, nor should they have. During the Vietnam period, for example, some coalitions welcomed everyone who opposed the Vietnam war, as they should have. However, that did not stop them from calling for nuclear disarmament—especially when Nixon was asking Congress for funding for the anti-ballistic missile program or when his administration carried out a nuclear test on the island of Amchitka, near Alaska. “Single issue” coalitions did not hesitate to demand the release of Angela Davis and other victims of government repression when they were arrested. On the other hand, “multi-issue” coalitions often left some important things out. I remember arguing with the proponents of “multi-issue” organizing in the early 1970s that if they were going to include demands about many things that they should include a demand for justice for the Arab people of Palestine. Additionally, “multi-issue” coalitions have sometimes been uncomfortable with demands for rights for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender people.
It is my opinion that the false debate between “single-” and “multi-” issue masked the debaters’ real agendas, and it serves no purpose today to try to analyze it. What was clear in Albany is that no one had any desire to rehash old and stale arguments. Clearly, strict “single-issue” coalition-building cannot work: we found that out in our Northwest New Jersey Peace Fellowship when someone speaking for a strict single-issue orientation argued against taking a stand for repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act. Additionally, when we in New Jersey were building a coalition that brought together organizations based in the African-American community and suburban-based peace committees, along with the Industrial Union Council, National Organization for Women, and other statewide organizations, we had to “re-learn” some things. In the civil rights movement it was never about “issues”: one did not march against job discrimination and ignore the problem of school segregation. No one ever suggested sitting in at a lunch counter but keeping quiet about voting rights. And when civil rights organizations—whether in 1967 or 2007—decided that peace was a civil-rights issue, they were absolutely right. The demand to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are absolutely appropriate demands for the African-American community to be raising. For organized labor it is the same. One does not march for jobs and ignore the issue of health care. One does not march for health and safety on the job and then keep silent about the problem of the right to organize and employee free choice. These are all labor issues, and when labor goes into the streets, they are fighting for working people, not for “issues.” And, make no mistake about it, peace is a labor issue, too.
For the people who got together at the United National Antiwar Conference, there was a consensus that U.S. Middle East policy is all of a piece. The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan—and increasingly Pakistan—along with U.S. support to Israel and the threat to make war on Iran, are all connected and politically inseparable. That is the political reality, and the demands coming out of the conference reflect that. Furthermore, it is impossible to separate the demands for peace in the Middle East with the lack of jobs and social services here at home.
On the other hand, the conference participants used common sense: we did not put every problem on the agenda. The Middle Eastern wars and threats of war are front-and-center. Yes, they are being connected to the economy and social justice issues here at home, as well they should be. Yes, we are able to take a stand against government violations of civil liberties, especially when they affect us directly, as in the case of National Assembly leader Lynne Stewart. But we are not going to let anyone change the subject in our conversation with President Obama, Secretaries Clinton and Gates, and Generals Petraeus and Mattis: these wars must stop, and they must stop now, with no conditions, no excuses, no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes. And unless and until the President sees fit to bring the troops home, we are going to stay in the streets, and we’re not going to shut up. The International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, which carried out a one-day strike against the war in 2008 and is refusing to unload the cargo of an Israeli ship right now, is giving the government and the multinational corporations a preview of what will happen if they keep their war policies in effect.
I have been going to antiwar conferences since February 1970, and I have lost count of how many I have attended. Some were historic successes; some marked time. A few were complete disasters. I am not sure that any were more successful in every way than the just-concluded United National Antiwar Conference. The people who were there acted seriously, cooperatively, and intelligently. They acted like brothers and sisters who came together to get a job done. The months ahead will show, I believe, that the peace movement is turning the corner. The work to bring millions of people into the streets on April 9 starts now.