by Christine Marie
The extrajudicial killing of Osama bin-Laden by U.S. special forces in Pakistan, and the Obama administration’s celebration of it, increase the likelihood that the U.S. government will seek to prolong its wars in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa—and even to launch new wars in the region. We can also expect a rise in Islamophobia and attempts to restrict dissent as part of the U.S. campaign to justify its “war on terror.”
With these dangers before us, the recent upswing in antiwar activity in the United States rises in importance. The April 9 and 10 demonstrations in New York and San Francisco, sponsored by the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC), brought iconic antiwar figures like Col. Ann Wright and Cindy Sheehan, as well as thousands of marchers from highly diverse communities—a large proportion of them youthful—into the streets and into the discussion of what steps should be taken next.
The demonstrations called for all U.S. troops and war dollars to be brought home immediately from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya, along with an end to U.S. aid to Israel and an end to Islamophobia.
The breadth and democratic procedure of last July’s Albany, N.Y., antiwar conference, from which the call for national united bicoastal demonstrations was issued, contributed to making the April actions diverse and politically sophisticated. Because the Albany conference drew in and took seriously the voices and votes of the leaders of Muslim, Palestinian, immigrant rights, and other community organizations on demands and foci, the resulting demonstrations had a special impact on movement building.
In New York on April 9, up to 10,000 people participated in two rallies anchored by the leadership of the Islamic Council of North America, the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, the Muslim Umah of North America, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the organizers of the Muslim Peace Coalition—a group formed to link the fight against Islamophobia to the fight against the U.S. wars. In San Francisco on April 10, 3000 activists heard Iman Zaid Shakir, founder of Zaytuna College, and Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
Perhaps 2000 Muslims marched on the East Coast, and in this way demonstrated their willingness to consider the idea that fighting together with the antiwar movement might be an effective defense against the terror of preemptive prosecution, deportation, and other kinds of victimization.
Nor were the McCarthyite hearings aimed at Muslim Americans the only civil liberties focus of April 9 and 10. Victimized Chicago antiwar activists Hatem Abudayyah and Mick Kelley urged the crowds in New York and San Francisco respectively to embrace their fight against FBI raids and grand jury witch hunts. “I will not submit to government efforts to criminalize Palestine solidarity work,” Abudayyah said. The Committee to Stop FBI Repression organized a spirited contingent to march in the San Francisco demonstration.
The inclusion of the clear demand to end the $3 billion that the U.S. gives annually to Israel resulted in a more youthful and spirited demonstration. Students for Justice for Palestine, one of the most active groups on campus today, organized a contingent in New York City. Contrary to some April 9/10 critics, the demand to cut all U.S. aid to Israel and to end U.S. support to the Israeli occupation of Palestine did not cut across this important bicoastal mobilization.
Endorsements from were secured from more than 600 organizations across the country, including some of New York’s largest or most powerful unions—SEIU Local 1199 and TWU Local 100.
Speakers from the nations under assault by the U.S., or with family ties there, were prominent in both cities’ rallies. In San Francisco, Afghan activist Malalai Joya explained that U.S. intervention had strengthened, rather than weakened, the enemies of women’s rights. Zaineb Alani, an Iraqi-American poet and peace activist, with more than 40 members of her extended family currently living under occupation in Iraq or in refugee status in neighboring countries, opened the rally in New York City. Her message, she said, was inspired by the news that Iraqi activists were bravely sitting in at U.S. military bases around her homeland.
Zohra Ahmed, member of the Pakistan Solidarity Network, addressed the crowd in Manhattan, who were also informed that the Labor Party of Pakistan and other groups had organized April 9 solidarity demonstrations in four cities of the South Asian nation.
“Bring the War Dollars Home!” was another prominent theme of both rallies. New York Transport Workers Union Local 100 Vice President Kevin Harrington demanded an end to the devastating budget cutbacks faced by his membership. The San Francisco rally heard greetings from Tim Paulsen of the Central Labor Council and from Clarence Thomas, executive board member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10—now being sued by the bosses’ Pacific Maritime Association in retaliation for their heroic one-day strike in solidarity with Wisconsin workers.
Nellie Bailey, a leader of Harlem Fights Back Against the War, told of the devastation being wrought on the social services needed by New York’s Black community. Teresa Gutierrez, a leader of the May 1 immigrant rights coalition, linked the war on immigrant workers to the attacks on the unions and working people abroad. Mary Richmond, president of the Capital District (N.Y.) National Organization for Women, stood at the mike with a handmade sign that said, “Class Warfare.”
Harvey Wasserman, a longtime anti-nuke activist and the author of “Solartopia,” made the case for spending war dollars on wind and solar power technologies that could slow down the climate crisis. Luis Cotto, a Hartford, Conn., city councilor, encouraged others to pass “Bring the War Dollars Home” resolutions, as his colleagues had done. While the challenge remains to firmly connect the antiwar movement and the growing struggle against government cutbacks and the attacks on the unions, the seed was surely sown on April 9 and 10.
U.S. ramps up war machine
Without a movement in the streets mobilizing greater and greater parts of the population for an end to Washington’s project, the wars abroad and at home can only become more brutal.
According to analyst Ray McGovern, at the end of April the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan passed the 6000 mark, “with 43,184 the official figure for the number wounded. An additional 54,592 have required medical evacuation from combat. Thus, about 104,000 U.S. troops—a conservative minimum not including the walking wounded, those with traumatic brain injury, attempted or successful suicides, and civilian contractors—are casualties of these long wars.”
While the White House would have the populace believe that these numbers are going to go down, projected military spending gives no reason for such optimism. Gareth Porter, deconstructing the Obama Pentagon budget, argues that the president’s war expenditures from 2012-2020 will result in an average base military expenditure 40% higher than similar budgets from the 1990s.
The NATO bombing of Libya suggests the kind of deadly operations the Pentagon has in mind in response to the threat posed to U.S. interests by the Arab Spring. Tom Dispatch editor Nick Turse explains that the Huey helicopters being deployed against the democracy demonstrators in Yemen are likely aircraft sent by the U.S. in response to the outbreak of the movement against the Sanah regime. This deal was just a small element of the $1.3 billion in military equipment that has been sent to Yemen to maintain “stability.”
In fact, the White House is streamlining the process by which the U.S. goes to war in response to challenges to the Middle East status quo. The precedent of the undeclared war on Libya is clearly not good enough for the war makers. According to the former congressman and director of Win Without War, Tom Andrews, legislation expected to become part of the Defense Authorization Bill has been introduced in both the House and Senate (H.R. 968 and S. 551) that will, he claims, authorize the president and the secretary of defense to take military action anywhere, anytime, against anyone they claim is associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
This legislation seemingly further codifies the right of the president to detain anyone he suspects of links to terrorism, make them available for a military tribunal, or hold them indefinitely with no provisions for any kind of review.
What is the road ahead?
Despite the relative success of the April antiwar actions, there is no doubt that the size of recent U.S. antiwar mobilizations pales before the massive turnouts of almost a decade ago when hundreds of thousands took to the streets against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the smaller turnouts are less a product of a decline in antiwar sentiment than they are of other critical factors that have served to undermine all social movements.
Indeed, polls taken by a dozen mainstream newspapers and polling organizations over the last month indicate a majority opposition to all U.S. wars. But the gap between consciousness and action has yet to be bridged.
Working people have likewise absorbed body blows to their standard of living to a degree that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. But with the exception of the impressive mobilizations in Wisconsin and perhaps a few other places, the hidebound and class-collaborationist trade-union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party have succeeded in channeling mass protests into “lesser-evil” electoral politics and futile lobbying campaigns.
Unless confronted by a counterforce of historic proportions, there will be no victories today. Only the force of millions in massive and united actions that challenge every aspect of the capitalist offensive can begin to reverse the present trend of one defeat after another. Growing understanding of this fact was revealed when a youthful working-class protester in Wisconsin carried a placard that was widely reproduced. It read, “Fight like an Egyptian!”
What seemed impossible yesterday in Egypt, ruled by a brutal U.S.-backed dictator, is now on the order of the day. We can and should expect no less from U.S. workers—who have some lessons of their own to teach, based on their proud history and traditions. But to carry out these tasks, new grassroots movements of labor and political activists, with true democratic leaderships, will have to be built.
Based on the success of the April 9 and 10 demonstrations, the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC) Coordinating Committee has issued a call for coordinated Oct. 15 local antiwar actions across the country and internationally. In addition, UNAC is urging antiwar activists to embrace the call by Black is Back for local activities on Aug. 20. This is the date set for action protesting U.S.-backed wars against African people on the continent, in Haiti, and in the Black community here at home.
UNAC has also begun organizing for a second antiwar conference. UNAC’s example of democratic organization, mass open conferences, unity with all the oppressed, and linking the wars abroad with the wars at home is an example to all social movements. It is indeed the same strategic path that the broader working class will follow in the months and years ahead to change the present relationship of forces and launch an offensive that will shake the world.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.