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The Second Superpower? Prospects for the Anti-War Movement

Sasha Wright
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004

On March 20, 2003, I lay on Market Street in San Francisco with my affinity group blocking a major thoroughfare. Two months of frenzied organizing prepared for this moment when about 20,000 people around the Bay Area decided that they would not move one inch to allow business to go on as usual when we knew that bombs were starting to rain down on Baghdad and kill people. Such a visible resistance by US citizens to the start of war reverberated around the world that day.

Over a year later, Iraqi civilians and US troops are dying every day under the on-going US occupation. In response, Iraqis from all backgrounds have developed a powerful intifada that leaves no doubt of the widespread hatred for the US occupation. However the US anti-war movement has faced difficulties in building the necessary strength and breath to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and to challenge the impact of the war at home. How can we build a movement in the US that has the power to bring a defeat for US imperialism as the combined power of the US anti-war movement, GI resistance and Vietcong did during the Vietnam War?

In the build-up to the war there was an explosion of activity, some facilitated by the organized left, much of it spontaneous. Activists from the Vietnam era frequently noted that it took years of war and the deaths of thousands of US soldiers to build a resistance of the size and breath that was displayed in the mass marches in January and February of 2004. Though Bush dismissed protesters as a “focus group,” the New York Times called the millions who marched around the world on February 15 a second “superpower.”

But the war began nonetheless, and the quick fall of Baghdad with little Iraqi resistance visible, the anti-war marches dwindled. Especially among the thousands of newly politicized participants there were feelings of demoralization that such clear global public opposition failed to stop the war. The terrain for building an anti-occupation movement has proved much more challenging, especially in the political context of an election year.

The official end to war coincided with election season and the funneling of layers of the anti-war movement into ensuring the defeat of the Bush administration in the coming presidential elections. MoveOn took their Internet mobilization to raise millions for Dean. Progressives and liberals have moved through an assortment of Democratic candidates with the vision of “electability,” throwing their weight behind several whose status as anti-war is questionable or non-existent, particularly John Kerry. The Green Party decided to run a presidential candidate while other third-party activists are campaigning for an independent Nader run. Meanwhile a broad range of community groups, anti-war coalitions, global justice and direct action activists have begun to mobilize for conferences, marches and direct actions against the Republican National Convention (and to a degree the Democratic National Convention), over a year out.

While the key issue in national politics and the election campaign remains the war in Iraq and its myriad effects on the economy, the predominant cry among progressives has shifted from “no war” to “anybody but Bush.” Many third-party activists have pointed out how the slanted political playing field that supports the two-party system impoverishes electoral democracy. This system also taxes social movements. Anti-war activists can look back to the Vietnam War when the focus on George McGovern’s run for presidency as an anti-war candidate severely cut the size of street protests. This year, the focus on the Democrats has physically shifted energy from mobilizing around issues such as the war to electoral campaigns to get Bush out. In this political sphere the debate starts to the right and the vision of progressives is the lesser evil, not a better world.

This is not to deny that there is some validity behind the sentiment that the Bush administration, a radical section of the ruling class, is too dangerous to permit another term in office. However the focus on Bush and the elections is a short-sided one that doesn’t address how to strengthen the left and how to build real power behind movements over key issues, especially ending the war. The war will certainly not end if Kerry is elected. Social movements need a strategy that won’t demobilize the people if Bush is no longer in the picture.

Perhaps the most successful and sensible anti-war organizing is the mobilizations against the RNC. These protests tie into the energy of ousting Bush, relate to the political space that has been focused on the elections but also simultaneously organize a show of strength around these issues. The organizing and movement-building efforts for the RNC have the potential to continue past November and give a taste of real democratic participation.

Making the link

The elections have not been the only focus of last year’s anti-war activists. Many long term organizers from community organizations or global justice circles have continued to build resistance to the war while linking events in Iraq to their on-going work—struggling for economic and racial justice in the US. For example during the first year of occupation, Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) did actions showing the connection between the war and attacks on workers rights, social services, local environmental injustice, police brutality and the occupation of Palestine. These actions were always co-organized with community groups and unions who run long term campaigns on these issues.

While the left is often accused by liberals and the right of presenting a laundry list of issues, there are certain connections that must be made to build a powerful and broad anti-war movement.

Palestine is not merely one more country that is occupied by a force supported by the US, it is central to US foreign policy for the domination of the Middle East. The war in Iraq cannot be understood without understanding the US’s need for a regime like Israel. Moreover, the actual processes of occupation in Iraq—checkpoints that limit mobility, economic destruction to the livelihoods of occupied people, terrorizing resistance and torturing prisoners—is parallel to the established functioning of the occupation of Palestine. US military forces were even trained in urban warfare and interrogation by the Israeli military.

In the Middle East and within many Arab-American communities in this country, the occupation of Palestine is a key issue. Therefore the anti-war movement has not only a political and moral obligation to oppose the occupation of Palestine alongside the struggle to end the occupation of Iraq, but must necessarily do so to gain credibility with communities in the US who are most directly impacted by this war.

The war also severely impacts immigrant communities in the US. Arabs, South Asians and Muslims in particular have been targeted while the PATRIOT act generally erodes civil liberties and the right to dissent. Within the anti-war movement the linked assaults on immigrants and the war have led to greater consciousness about immigrant issues, says Rayan El-Amine of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). He says that “as a result of the attacks on civil liberties, immigrant groups that had not worked together before like Latinos, South Asians and Arabs began creating alliances. ASATA, the Blue Triangle Network and the ADC started doing events at INS offices especially during special registration.”

The other ties that must be further developed by anti-war activists are to the emerging student movements to defend the right to education and the uproar over loss of healthcare. The billions of dollars that have been spent in Iraq can be directly linked to the huge deficits in communities across the US where in Oregon the state actually considered cutting the school week by a day. These are issues that affect every working class person in this country, and to truly build resistance in the US the anti-war movement must demonstrate that the attacks on Iraqis are also attacks on ordinary Americans.

Belly of the beast

Perhaps some of the confusion and demoralization within the anti-war movement after the invasion came from the lack of immediate resistance as US troops overtook Baghdad. The truth is that the anti-war movement in the US will never be successful without resistance in Iraq, just as the Iraqi intifada needs an anti-imperialist solidarity movement in the US. The New York Times may have been premature in calling world public opinion the world’s second superpower. But public opinion within the US has proven key.

The war began anyway but widespread resistance forced the Bush administration to tone down their plans for a “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad. The limits of the Bush administration’s ability to repress the Iraqi resistance comes primarily from public opinion in the US. Visible protests in the US are also extremely heartening to the international community. Many of those who participated in the large scale anti-war direct actions in San Francisco have heard from people all over the world including Mexico, Nigeria, Spain and Lebanon about how inspired they felt to see resistance to empire building policies from US citizens.

If the apparent victory for US imperialism disheartened mobilizations last spring, why have recent events such as the development of an Iraqi intifada and the corresponding repression against protest and free speech in places such as Fallujah not re-invigorated resistance in the U.S? Walden Bello speculates that “(p)erhaps a major part of the reason is that a significant part of the international peace movement particularly in the United States hesitates to legitimize the Iraqi resistance. Who are they? Can we really support them?”

Such attitudes stem from ignorance and phobia about radical Islamists groups, which vary greatly in class base, tactics and political aims. However this dilemma might best be solved by following in the footsteps of Palestine solidarity activists who recognize that their role is to oppose US imperialism at any costs, not to dictate the terms and tactics of resistance for an occupied people. Bello continues, “until (international peace activists) give up this dream of having an ideal liberation movement tailored to their values and discourse, US peace activists will, like the Democrats they often criticize, continue to be trapped within a paradigm of imposing terms for other people.” Building a solidarity movement with the Iraqi resistance is a responsibility of the US anti-war movement.

The second great responsibility of the anti-war movement is to create spaces for political empowerment for communities within the US who suffer the effects of war. One of the most visible spaces that the anti-war movement has created are the mass marches.

Since the start of the war with Afghanistan the majority of mass marches have been led by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), a coalition many on the left consider a front group for the Workers World Party. As a result of their adherence to authoritarian left politics it is not possible to work within ANSWER, although their name recognition and large resources allow them to continue to dominate march programs, agendas and planning in many parts of the country with no strategic input from other organizations. ANSWER has led some of the largest marches against the war, however, their organizing methods—which fail to facilitate any self-organization on the part of newly radicalized participants—is a block to movement building.

United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) arose as an alternative political space, beginning with a Global Exchange-initiated website and blossoming into a nationwide coalition with hundreds of affiliated groups. In June 2003 UFPJ held a conference with representatives from hundreds of organizations. Delegates voted on a year of campaigns and chose to put UFPJ resources behind ending the war in Iraq while also focusing on the attacks on civil liberties and backing global justice struggles such as the protests against the FTAA ministerial and G8 meetings. Hany Khalil an organizer with UFPJ explains “our goal is to draw together different movements working in these different areas to make a more coherent, more united and therefore more powerful whole. It’s a new experiment in political organizing in the US in that it’s helped in the attempt to bring together these different movements and looks at the intersectionality of oppression at home and abroad, which is a real challenge.”

The UFPJ structure has been most successful as a national network that smaller more isolated organizations can plug into around the country. Generally, UFPJ is a useful body to help pull together large mobilizations, especially in New York where the office is based. However sometimes creating additional campaigns on many of the issues UFPJ agreed to put resources into doesn’t always make sense. Often campaigns like those for civil liberties are another layer of work for organizers already involved on these issues through other groups. UFPJ has been successful in working with and supporting the work of military families. However, chapters in some parts of the country are dominated by white liberal groups and have not become an organizing space for diverse or young groups.

Community level

Some of the most exciting work in broadening the critique and constituency of the anti-war movement has been taken on by smaller grassroots organizations. Community groups have used educational forums with members to discuss the war and its connections to other ongoing campaigns in progress. Since September 11, POWER (a group that organizes low and no wage workers in San Francisco) has hosted discussions with members on topics such as the history of the Middle East and the racial targeting of Arabs.

In the lead up to the war on Iraq discussions evolved into a working group, which prepared for direct actions after the war started as part of a broader group, Freedom Uprising. In discussions about direct action, some members expressed concerns about being targeted as people of color and poor people. Yet many in their outrage ended up participating nonetheless. Organizer Marisa Franco says “the day of the war people ended up participating all throughout the day. The city was essentially shut down, the police had basically lost, and people had the streets. I think having that practical material experience to draw from, it changes your consciousness, it changes your conception of what’s possible. So the folks who said, look, we’re not going to be up in that because we’re not going to be cannon fodder were the same people who were part of the grouping who ended up breaking the police line trying to take the bridge.” POWER thus created a powerful political space for members to take militant action and connect that experience with on-going work for economic and racial justice.

Global justice activists have also used civil disobedience as an educational and pressure tool against corporations involved in the war. While these tend to be smaller and less broad actions than the mass marches, they provide more creative space and allow for self-organization and democratic organizing through affinity groups and networks.

Military families

One area of anti-war organizing which has not stalled after the invasion but in fact snowballed is the organizing among military families, often with the support of veterans. As fear and loss disrupts or destroys the lives of military family members, more are willing to speak out against the war, which many opposed or had doubts about from the beginning.

One such group is Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), initiated by a couple whose son was serving in Iraq. To form the first branch they contacted hundreds of families, and only a couple came on board. However since then military families opposed to the war have started chapters around the country. Many family members contact support services and move from there into getting politically involved. Lynn Gonzalez, an organizer with Guerrero Azteca and MFSO says, “I had one of my moms say on camera that she was just in the house crying and crying and desperate, then she started coming out and speaking out and feels much better...Many of them are just stewing in that, trying to find a way to do it and us organizers are so few. We’re just trying to get to them and they need to be gotten to so they can get out and start raising hell.”

Once involved, families become an important voice, having the credibility of clearly representing the troops interests. They also have the ability to communicate with their own children about what is actually happening in Iraq. Sonia Rodriguez of MFSO in San Diego said of her son in Fallujah, “one time he called me and asked what was going on. He says the soldiers are only told what is happening at the moment but they don’t understand what is going on politically in the country. They only receive orders.”

MFSO organizes forums to give voice to military families and returned soldiers. For many mothers, the anti-war marches are the first marches they have participated in. MFSO serves as a space for families who face similar situations to help each other through the depression. They are also figuring out ways to reach others connected to the military who may be emotionally and politically isolated. Rodriguez commented that her group was considering putting out a Spanish language bulletin because all the materials on the war are in English. Another focus of organizers working with military families is counter-recruitment, fighting the poverty draft which targets low-income communities and communities of color.

Little information has come out about anti-war sentiments among troops in Iraq. Evan Medina, who served with the army for six months in Kuwait and stayed through August, explains that morale was low from the beginning, with troops angry about the poor conditions, extended stays and the unclear reasoning for the invasion. “We weren’t too happy that we were going to go to war. A lot of us felt we weren’t going there for the reasons the president said. Lots were saying that it was to finally settle the dispute between the Husseins and the Bushes. For me it was a combination of both. At the end we had a sergeant telling us that this war was really about the oil.”

However despite growing discontent, resistance to army policies is difficult. Medina explains, “the thing is the army itself is really sticking to the rules and if you do something to protest against this war, they will punish you to the extreme extent of the law, of military justice. So a lot of people don’t want to get into incidents with the army because they know in the end they are going to lose.” Families and former soldiers report that many serving in Iraq write them desperate to get out, inquiring about how to receive conscientious objector status.

Gonzalez adds, “the soldiers are also victims—that’s all I want people to understand. We need people to realize they are not the enemy it is the Pentagon and people sending them that are the enemy.” During the Vietnam war, returning soldiers became some of the most outspoken and radical opponents of the war. If anti-war organizations make it a priority, that could happen again.

Turning the tide

In the last year, the anti-war movement in the US has struggled to display the same visibility, breath and power that it did before the invasion. However daily the crisis shows that we urgently need to build the strength of the opposition in this country.

The popularity of Micheal Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 across the country shows people are searching for answers on issues they can’t even find discussions of in the mass media. The polls show that Bush’s popularity is dropping and increasing numbers are turning against the war. These are openings for anti-war organizers. The work of military families is an example—they are organizing resistance among some of the people most affected by death and loss in this war and providing forums to get politicized and speak out. We can all do that in our communities—with students whose classes are cut from lack of funding, with friends who have no healthcare, with immigrants who are under attack.

The anti-war movement in the US also needs to think past the elections. If Kerry is elected, the war will continue—in fact he has spoken about the need to increase the troops. Either way we’ll need to pick up the pieces from the election year and build real power among the people affected by the war to stall the US drive for empire. Lets keep marching and calling for an unconditional withdrawal from Iraq, and an end to any imperialism be it unilateral or led by the UN.