Up and down the road to a big anti-war movement
- Up and down the road to a big anti-war movement
By Fred Sanderson
Numerous coalitions and organizations have sprung up to do anti-war
work in the Bay Area. Most of them have had similar politics, calling
for an end to US military action, the defense of the Arab, Muslim,
and immigrant communities from hate crimes and racist scapegoating,
and defending civil liberties from government attack in the wake of
the horrific acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001.
These coalitions have done okay. They have put on more teach-ins than
one could count, let alone attend, all over the Bay Area. A couple of
decent sized rallies were held in San Francisco. Over 5,000 antiwar
activists met at Dolores Park on September 29. 3,000 marched on the
streets of SF when the bombing started on October 7. 3,500 marched in
downtown San Francisco on October 20. So far, San Francisco has
produced the only demonstration anywhere in the country defending
immigrants, particularly Arabs and Muslims from scapegoating and
racism. This demonstration was held on October 13.
However, some left organizations, most notably the International
Socialist Organization (ISO) and the Workers' World Party (WWP), have
a tendency to create front groups for their own organizations and
call them "coalitions." At the same time, each have a number of
satellites who operate in agreement with one, the other, or both. One
must ask why they aren't all in the same group.
Among the satellites are the so-called Committees of Correspondence
(a group of a few people exchanging business cards at each event),
Socialist Action (and its recent split, the Socialist Workers
Organization), and a number of what is known as "rubber stamps."
Competition between these two blocks repeatedly program different
actions on the same day (if not the same action on different days),
even though both blocks very often use the same rhetoric and bring
the same speakers to "preach to the choir." This method of movement
building is very divisive, and has led to a lot of wasted time and
competing events over the course of the war drive and the war itself.
Further, Bush's war on terrorism has netted some early military
successes, avoiding inflicting as heavy damage as originally expected
to the population of Afghanistan. Polls released just after the
November 6 elections also showed that more than 54% of Bay Area
residents view George Bush as their "Commander-in-Chief," shattering
the illusion that this typically progressive and liberal region of
the country was a hotbed of anti-war sentiment, as in the 1960s.
Better than Kansas City, to be sure, but far from an anti-imperialist
headquarters. This political reality, coupled with the common
politics and methodology of the different "coalitions," has led to
common results over the last couple of weeks: they are all shrinking.
But there is another reality going on. President Bush is now trying
to use the "momentum" built up over Afghanistan to continue waging
war. Maybe Somalia, Sudan or even Iraq, who knows? Meanwhile, there
has been a high casualty rate among civil liberties right here in the
US. This includes the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Executive
Order allowing Bush to try non-citizens who he thinks might be
terrorists in secret military tribunals with the power to use the
death penalty against defendants and in which hearsay is admitted as
evidence, and the new draconian quarantine laws.
All of these laws are likely to remain on the books, even after the
present crisis passes. And there are still over 1,000 detainees who,
for the most part, have not been charged with any crime related to
terrorism. This certainly has the potential to change the minds of
many Americans who today support the War on Terrorism. The movement
could emerge anew around any of these issues.
So now is the time to fix the glitches of the antiwar movement and
get prepared to the new wave ahead. This hiatus in movement should be
used to prepare better tools for tomorrow.
Fighting for survival
The Town Hall Committee to Stop War and Hate (THC, mostly a front
group for the ISO and some other minor league leftists) understood
some of these realities pragmatically and tried to bring together all
of the, "diverse organizations and coalitions doing critical anti-war
organizing work in various communities throughout the Bay Area with
the objective of collaborating on a United Day of Action." This is an
entirely appropriate response to the situation described: movement
shrinking, band existing forces together to try to keep it going, for
the war is likely to continue in the new year, possibly with some
renewed opposition to it.
Between fifty and sixty people, representing some 28 different
organizations, responded to the THC's invitation by turning up at the
auditorium at New College on Thursday, November 29, at 7PM. Most in
attendance were organizations or activists commonly associated with
THC. Most of them had known each other on a first name basis for a
A few students and faculty from City College of San Francisco were
there, ditto for SF State, members of the Committees of
Correspondence going by the name of Latinos Against War for the
occasion, as well as those already mentioned. Two representatives
from the International ANSWER Coalition, which is also known as the
International Action Center, which is a front group for the WWP
showed up. Maybe fifteen aging red-diaper babies from the Marin
County Coalition for Peace and Justice were present. After about
twenty minutes of settling down, signing in, and making nametags, the
A representative from THC (who is also a member of ISO, who was also
co-chairing the meeting) then delivered a welcoming speech,
recognizing the "excellent and critical work that the different
organizations in the room were doing in their respective
constituencies," and emphasizing the importance of uniting. She then
made a 180-degree turn, carefully explaining that the meeting was not
called for the purpose of forming a coalition, but merely to see if
any of these organizations could do anything together. The welcomer
then called on those present at the meeting to endorse a five-point
agenda, including introductions, creating a decision-making process,
action proposals (with time set aside for discussion and voting), and
making a plan for the next meeting.
At this point, a member of Socialist Alternative, an organization to
the left of the ISO and WWP that is also promoting a broader form of
anti-war movement, pointed out that elaborating a decision-making
process and planning actions was a step perhaps best taken after
constituting a coalition, and asked what the hold up to forming such
an organization might be. This was clearly a diplomatic call to
recognize reality and unite every group, putting aside petty turf
The representative of the UC Berkeley Stop the War Coalition
considered the fact that he was representing another coalition that
had not granted him the authority to join another coalition in the
name of all of the organizations within his coalition of origin as a
hold up. A representative from the Labor Committee for Peace and
Justice mentioned that he, also, did not possess the authority to
join another coalition, that he was only there to report back to his
coalition on what happened at the meeting, and they would take a
decision then. Finally, someone from a Marin County organization
whose name is too long to remember drove it home: she may not WANT
to "coalesce" with some of the other organizations in the room.
Back and forth
The meeting moved into introductions. The chair encouraged everyone
to include a bit of rhetoric explaining why he or she came to the
meeting with his or her introduction, and most indulged themselves.
The meeting here made its second 180-degree turn of the evening. It
turned out that most everyone there wants to build a big united anti-
war movement, even if the format of a coalition may not suit their
needs. Translation: "We should keep our own shrinking little turfs to
ourselves, but we should agree to call a common action, some time in
the future. This will help us maintain the illusion that we are all
united when we are not."
And so the discussion moved into what decision-making processes this
gathering, which is not yet a coalition, should use. It was
determined that any participating organization should be entitled to
one vote. However, organizations that had done a substantial amount
of their organizing as part of a coalition were encouraged to defer
their vote to the representative of their coalition, thus fostering
an atmosphere of "trust." Following this principle, most of the left
organizations at the meeting gave up their votes to representatives
of one of their front "coalitions," except for the WWP, who only
brought WWPers to represent their "coalition," although they voted in
the name of ANSWER.
Translation: Left groups like the WWP and the ISO pass as activists
without affiliation and try to form "coalitions," not with already-
established organizations to which independent activists could join,
but by dissolving their members into a general body of people through
which they can maneuver towards organizational control and keep the
periphery unaware of their own group. Cadres of their organizations
are surreptitiously sent to chair committees. Bitter, low intensity
and low profile battles are conducted from the go over control of
phone and mailing lists collected at meetings. They call this
a "coalition." In reality, they are no more than amorphous
collections of left activists, or organized factions of protesters.
It was also proposed that the discussion on action proposals be
conducted with timed rounds, with the chairs taking speakers lists
and checking at twenty-minute intervals to see if the discussion need
continue. Now, the strange thing is that many of those who opposed
forming coalitions because they lacked "authority" from their front
groups (sorry, coalitions) cast votes on program, forms of voting and
even dates and type of action as if they HAD the authority they
claimed to lack.
The chair from the ISO opened the first round by proposing a
coordinated mass march and rally. Some proposed a United Day of
Action only with each group organizing on their home turf. By the end
of the first discussion round, it was clear that everyone wanted to
do a united action of some kind, perhaps a mass rally with smaller,
more local actions building up to it. The chair proposed for the
second round of discussion that speakers try to focus in on securing
a date for said action. The WWP proposed that this new non-coalition
call its action for a date they were already organizing another
event, their typical way of controlling the mike at a given rally.
People declined to bite, and voted the proposal down.
But wait! Not everyone had said his or her piece about what kind of
action was needed. That meant the discussion from the first timed
round had no choice but to carry over, much to the chagrin of the
The representative from Socialist Alternative began his contribution
by stating the date he supported and why, and then explained that he
had had his hand up during the previous timed round, and began to say
his piece. He pointed out that the anti-war movement in the US had
thus far failed to break out of the left organizations and their
immediate peripheries and continued to "preach to the converted."
Therefore, anti-war organizers needed to seriously consider changing
the outreach methods that they use. First, it may be proper to
emphasize the point in our platform relating to the defense of civil
liberties in our outreach and at the United Day of Action, due to the
fact that there are many people in the US who are against losing
them, even if they support other aspects of the war on terrorism. He
also pointed out that rather than giving every left group two minutes
to speak, why not find speakers important enough, courageous enough,
articulate enough, diverse enough and famous enough to be quoted by
the media and give them more time to make their points in a way that
people outside of the left will respond to.
Just as he was finishing, the chair interrupted to inform him that he
was no longer speaking on the topic of the date. The representative
from Socialist Alternative informed the chair that if he would avoid
interrupting him, he could finish his point, and the meeting could
proceed. The chair relented and the meeting continued. The chairs
were not prepared to listen to anyone suggesting ways in which they
could be more effective. That could divide the turf they had carved
The chairs' insistence on keeping people from diverting from a rather
dry discussion about what date to have a big demonstration on almost
caused the meeting to break down just a few minutes later. The
representative from the Immigrant Rights Movement (MDI), one of the
few women of color at the event, expressed what date she supported
and then began to speak to the character of the action, and how those
present in the room's reticence to call a coalition in order to go
back to their coalitions or organizations of origin was a poor use of
time that could be spent outreaching to other organizations to make
an even broader coalition.
This time, two of the chairs began to demand that she be quiet. A
member of the obscure SWO grouping heckled his support for the chairs
from the back of the room. The meeting agreed to call a day of action
for February 23, and to reconvene the organizations present on
December 14, location TBA. Topics of discussion are sure to include
whether or not to form a coalition, making it clear that the
discussion that evening was just a maneuver to win some time.
For one, big, democratic anti-war movement
It is apparent that despite the necessity of combining forces in
order to continue building an anti-war movement and their expressed
desire to team up and kick ass, these organizations are extremely
reluctant to do so, even for an objective as limited as a United Day
of Action a couple of months away. It seems as though there is a good
deal of fright at the notion of losing control of a small and
shrinking periphery of anti-war activists, particularly on the part
of the ISO and the WWP. They subscribe to the conventional "wisdom"
of the left: that normal, working class folks outside their circles
cannot be won over to understanding and confronting the Bush's war
drive neither at home nor abroad.
Of course, when a real anti-war sentiment develops, this petty
maneuvering by tiny organizations will be overwhelmed by the sheer
numbers of people who feel the urge to confront the government's
manipulations. So, people opposed to the war should not be
discouraged if they stumble into this surreal, parallel universe of
organizational stinginess and pettiness. Just participate and raise
hell. We'll get what we need.
What we need is one, united, democratically-run antiwar movement to
confront Bush both at home and abroad. A movement that will reach
out to a broad spectrum of organizations and communities,
particularly communities of color and immigrants. A coalition that
will raise the issue at workplaces and union halls. A coalition in
which every organization can put forward their proposals at meetings
free of undemocratic rules. A coalition that will speak on the issues
to workers, youth and people of color NOT yet involved, rather than
those already convinced.
Is there any doubt that the defeat of Bush's war drive gingerly
supported by the Democrats requires as much?
�You could not have defined exactly what goes on at almost every meeting that I have participated in�better. I was working with the THC when they first started and at the initial meeting it seemed as if we might be on to something.� People were concerned with the�war and the actions needed to stop it.� Then, like always, hidden agendas ceased to be hidden, people's problems with each other seeped into the meetings, and I realized that most of them knew each other and had issues with one another for years having had to "work together".� My frustration at meetings would increase, and people started to walk out in the middle of them, angry and feeling like they hadn't been heard.� So in the beginning I was giving speeches, and now I refuse to follow front groups and "coalitions" which already have their agends set up, yet continue to state how they need our opinions and ideas on what the next move should be.�I am interested only in real work against the government, direct actions� against major corporations, and educating as many�people as�possible,and mobilizing them. Thank you for your accurate assesment of the situation.
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