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What's going on with the national anti-war movement?

The activists who organized this year's protests debate the issues they should address, and whether they should focus on President Bush in 2004

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One block east of Union Square, in the crumbling Washington Irving High School, 800 activists gathered last month to discuss the direction of the anti-war movement. The event was the most recent national gathering since the April demonstrations in Washington, D.C., that drew upward of 30,000 people, and organizers intended it to be an opportunity for attending activists to establish a new, national strategy.

The anti-war, anti-American Empire movement was a central part of the discussion. But so was the organizing group, ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). Activists debated whether the movement should cover a variety of issues important to different parts of the left, or focus on anti-war, anti-empire efforts and defeating President Bush in 2004.

ANSWER is by no means the only national anti-war group. Scholars identify them as radically left wing. But even their critics acknowledge they are successful at organizing massive protests. Hence, ANSWER's proposals resonate as important because they are the group most likely to call for national demonstrations. The questions raised at the conference suggest that the anti-war movement is regrouping for a new phase of issues and protests.

One of those questions regarded the role of the far left in the peace movement. ANSWER has reeled recently from critics who point out that the organization evolved from the International Action Center, a group with historic ties to the Soviet Union and the old left. Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and past president of the Students for a Democratic Society, said ANSWER consists of marginal radicals unfit to lead a national peace movement.

"Their steering committee is made up of various left-wing factions," he said in an interview on National Public Radio, "very far left factions, that probably total a hundred members in America. The best known of them is something called the International Action Center, which is represented by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who's a supporter of Slobodan Milosevic, who's a supporter of Saddam Hussein, a supporter of the Chinese government at Tiananmen Square. These are people with very, I would say, freakish and wrong headed positions."

Gitlin argued that ANSWER's relationship with such groups provides right-wing critics with evidence with which to condemn the entire peace movement.

ANSWER steering committee member Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, visibly distraught over Gitlin's accusation, argued that such criticisms are divisive and harmful to the entire peace movement. "The government used to have to pay people to break up dissenting movements," she said. "We are now fortunate to have a number of volunteers."

Andre Powell, an activist from Baltimore, concurred that the liberal infighting serves to distract energies from the more important task of ending the U.S. occupation in Iraq. "We should be coming together to figure out how to strengthen the anti-war movement. Time is wasted saying, 'We don't like this particular aspect; we don't like that particular aspect.' To the people who are being killed in Iraq, the particular aspects don't mean a thing."

ANSWER's leaders started the weekend meetings May 17 and 18 by proposing a multi-issued plan with international and domestic components. Their plan calls for protests against the U.S. occupation in Iraq, as well as demonstrations against U.S. military involvement (possible or under way) in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, the occupied West Bank, Zimbabwe, North Korea, the Philippines and Cuba. The domestic component calls for activists to fight social injustices in the United States. Examples include fighting the Patriot Acts, the detention of Arab-Americans and the trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

That raised the question whether the movement should advance a broad or narrow range of issues. The ANSWER coalition, which is directed by 11 groups on a steering committee, promotes united front organizing, or building a movement from small group alliances. For example, they support the Palestinian cause, the retrial of Mumia Abu-Jamal, fighting the Patriot Acts, defending defense lawyer Lynne Stewart, protesting the occupation in Iraq and directing attention to U.S. military intervention in Cuba, the Philippines, and other countries.

Ron Ali, an activist from Washington, D.C., criticized this broad approach. "We've got to reduce all of these beautiful ideas down to a few that we have common ground on," he said. "We can't deal with all of the issues and ideas that might be resurrected by the various people thinking and planning."

Verheyden-Hilliard defended the coalition's broad platform by saying it contains voices from politically marginalized groups, who are allied together. "All these folks are merging and supporting each other's struggles," she said.

Verheyden-Hilliard also argued that ANSWER's campaigns are intricately linked, as in the case of racism and war. "Racism is a tool of militaristic war," she said. "You use racism to divide people. It's an issue of division and dehumanization to carry out war. So in many ways ANSWER has made the peace movement acknowledge that it must also be an anti-racist movement."

Albert Cahm, an activist from New York City, endorsed the narrow issue approach, arguing the group must insistently advance one issue to affect the public. "It is very important to stay connected as the movement and have one simple message," he said. "Since we are fighting this Goliath, we have to make sure our message is unified. We have to make sure our points are the same and whenever people see ANSWER they are seeing the same thing."

That led to discussion of the 2004 presidential campaign. Ali, the Washington, D.C., activist, said the anti-war energy should be applied to defeating President Bush. "I can't think of another important thing to do at this juncture than for us all to work diligently to defeat George Bush," he said.

International Action Center leader Brian Becker suggested that defeating Bush would not lead to significant political change. "The idea that you can just replace George Bush and get someone who will take the system in a different direction is false," he said. "The Congress and the Democratic Party leadership is part of the same empire. Did the slaves of the Roman Empire think, 'Gee, if we could only get a new Caesar?'"

Verheyden-Hilliard agreed that fighting via the election would be fruitless. She promoted a strategy of building a people's movement that petitions U.S. expansion, regardless of who is president. "Even in 2004, if you choose from the available options, it's not going to change the system of empire," she said. "That's going to come when the people of the United States stand up and say that this empire, this conquest of lands around the world, doesn't help any of us."

Ali was not persuaded and suggested that defeating Bush would send a message to other leaders to listen to dissenting voices. "If we did that," he said of ousting Bush, "then nobody, but nobody, would go up against that kind of force. They would be afraid of the People's Party, if you will."

Conference members also debated the new slogans, and terms, that activists will use in the next phase of the movement. Many words, with their own historical baggage, were applied to the current situation--empire, colonialism, imperialism, the military-industrial complex, U.S. propaganda machine, the elite, the people, the people as the new superpower, solidarity, redbaiting, disappeared-in-America and McCarthyism, among others.

Two words--empire and imperialism--reappeared as front-runners to interpret Bush's foreign policy. Powell, the Baltimore activist, said what is going on looks like imperialism. "Imperialism is really one country reaching out and taking over other countries in order to dominate those countries politically and economically," he said.

ANSWER organizer Sarah Sloan said the movement should now focus on fighting empire. "Bush has turned the anti-war movement into an anti-empire movement," she said. Becker likewise emphasized that, "This is not a quest for empire; it is empire."

Conference attendees agreed that the movement has shown enormous power over the last 18 months. Many acknowledged that this was the first time in history that global movements coordinated together. Attendees also agreed that, strategies withstanding, the movement depends on people entering the streets with their opinions. "When you're at home, and you're against the war, the world doesn't know your opinion," Powell said. "But when you come out, in mass, the world looks up and pays attention." EndBlock

Upcoming protests
ANSWER is planning two national events this summer. One, in Philadelphia on July 4, will protest Bush's speech at the opening of the National Constitution Center. The other event, international in scope, will take place on Sept. 27 in Washington, D.C., and New York City, in support of people fighting the U.S. presence in their countries.

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