Tuesday, August 10, 2010

66. United National Antiwar Conference (UNAC), Major Advance for the Antiwar Movement

By Jeff Mackler, Socialist Action

The July 23-25 national antiwar conference in AlbanyN.Y., was an extraordinary advance in the fight against imperialist war and for social justice. To an extent greater than in any other decision-making conference of recent decades, this was a broad, determined, and united political mobilization against all of the ongoing and threatened U.S. wars, interventions, and occupations. And by the same measure, the conference was the most thorough repudiation of the government’s “bail out the banks” antisocial agenda at home.

The United National Antiwar Conference’s (UNAC’s) open and democratic gathering included representatives of virtually every major national antiwar group in the U.S. as well as hundreds of local, state, and regional antiwar organizations. Equally important was the presence and participation of leading representatives and activists from many of the country’s most vital social movements, all of whom aimed to link the fight against U.S. imperialism’s wars to the fight for social justice, democratic rights, and civil liberties.

The conference’s power, scope, program, and unity were a direct response to the world economic crisis, which has directly affected the lives of tens of millions of Americans and driven the nation’s corporate rulers to a series of endless and murderous wars across the globe.

After hours of debate—at times contentious and sharp—the conference unanimously adopted a 24-point Action Plan of antiwar activities culminating in mass demonstrations in New York CitySan Francisco, and Los Angeles on April 9, 2011.

The Action Program represents a critical turning point for the U.S. antiwar and other social movements and an important political break from the widely held illusion that the 2008 presidential election would have ushered in “change we can believe in.” It is a harbinger of the powerful movement that will take to the streets in renewed, massive, and repeated mobilizations to demand a fundamental re-ordering of social priorities and an immediate end to all U.S. wars and occupations. 

At least 776 antiwar and social justice activists from across the country, and including small delegations from Canada and Latin America, registered to participate. Scores of others flooded the giant auditorium without registering—putting the total attendance at well over 800. With the assistance of the Albany-based Sanctuary Media, 17,000 more witnessed the conference and many of its 30-plus workshops via video-streaming (http://mediasanctuary.tv/crows/).

The conference was initiated by the National Assembly to End U.S. Wars and Occupations and sponsored by UNAC, a group representing 31 national antiwar and social justice organizations. The conference adhered throughout the proceedings to an open and democratic, “one-person-one-vote” procedure. The central demands that the conference adopted were:

• Immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops, mercenaries, military contractors, and war dollars from Iraq,Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
• Money for jobs, education, health care, pensions, housing, infrastructure, the environment, and human needs in general—not war.
• End U.S. aid to Israel—military, economic, and diplomatic. End U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the blockade of Gaza.

The third set of demands was incorporated into the Action Program by an overwhelming majority vote, following a long and vigorous debate on the relationship between the antiwar movement and the Palestinian freedom struggle. A comprehensive resolution on Palestine, including support for “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) against Israel was also approved at the concluding session, this time by a unanimous vote.

Varying strategies presented

Renowned social activist, linguist, and historian Noam Chomsky keynoted the conference via a 30-minute video telecast that reviewed the machinations and disinformation campaigns surrounding U.S. imperial policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chomsky presented grave warnings regarding the dangers of recent U.S. preparations for a war against Iran. Also keynoting the conference was South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt, who sharply focused her remarks on the need to broaden and unify the movement to include the wide range of constituencies required to build an effective struggle against U.S. intervention and for social justice.

Muralist Mike Alewitz made a stirring dedication speech for the cloth mural draped behind the conference stage—a memorial to the four students at Kent State University (in Ohio) killed by National Guard troops on May 4, 1970, and to the two students murdered by police at Jackson State College (in Mississippi) 10 days later. Alewitz was a young participant in the Kent Stateantiwar rally that the National Guard fired upon. It had been called in solidarity with nationwide protests against the invasion ofCambodia ordered by President Nixon a few days earlier.

“These young lives,” Alewitz said, “were snuffed out as an example to others to stop the protests. But Nixon had greatly misjudged the mood of the country. Instead of curbing the protests, he provoked a national student strike. For every one of our martyrs, tens of thousands took their place.”

“That spirit lives,” Alewitz declared. He said that the UNAC mural was dedicated to the latest martyrs, “the nine brave activists of the Freedom Flotilla, who said to the world that we will never turn our backs on the Palestinian people.” And the real memorial, he concluded, “is sitting before me—the living movement.”
Two major Friday and Saturday evening panel discussions, with some 12 speakers each, presented a wide range of strategies and tactics to advance the antiwar movement and to highlight the multitude of issues that the organizers deemed essential to building a broad-based, inclusive, and effective fightback.
Representing the National Assembly, Chris Gauvreau reviewed the essential ingredients of the mass movement that needs to be constructed today. Key to the movement’s success, she concluded, was the construction of a united and democratic political movement that operates independent of the Democratic and Republican parties. (Her speech appears in this issue of Socialist Action.)
The conference was not without serious debates over critical issues, the most intensely contested of which were the amendments submitted to the Draft Action Program by a recently formed Palestine Solidarity Caucus. This group of 15-20 Palestine solidarity activists began its deliberations via a series of national conference calls and finalized its proposals and tactics at a well-attended conference caucus meeting of about 75 participants.

Two major plenary sessions discussed and debated some 45 wide-ranging amendments and resolutions that had been submitted prior to the conference, as well as others offered at the conference itself. The amendments expanded the scope of the initial nine-point Draft Action Plan, originally presented unanimously by the 31 co-sponsoring organizations, to about 24 distinct actions over the course of the coming nine months.

Aug. 28 & Oct. 2 labor mobilizations

These activities will begin with UNAC supporting the Aug. 28 Detroit and WashingtonD.C., labor and civil rights groups’ mobilizations “to create jobs and stop moving money out of education and into wars and prisons.” These actions will also commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington. The Aug. 28 actions are also aimed at countering the reactionary, racist, and provocative Tea Party gathering also slated for Aug. 28 in the nation’s capital.
The UNAC conference endorsed and voted to build an antiwar contingent in the Oct. 2 national march for jobs in Washington,D.C., supported by the AFL-CIO and initiated by the NAACP and the SEIU-affiliated Local 1199. The Oct. 2 national mobilization’s inclusion of antiwar themes represents an important opportunity to link labor’s fightback at home with the struggle against the present trillion-dollar corporate war budget aimed at colonial expansion and horrific death and destruction abroad.

A number of conference speakers, including Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report, while expressing support for the Oct. 2 labor mobilization, cautioned that this effort not be turned into a pre-election rally for the Democratic Party. The thunderous applause that greeted Ford’s critique of the policies of the Obama administration was a powerful indication that today’s antiwar and social movements are increasingly looking to independent forms of struggle.

Ford, citing a recent poll, was also critical of the still strong illusions in Obama, especially among Black Americans. Ford talked about the culture of resistance that in past decades made Black people the most dependable antiwar demographic in the U.S. But Obama’s presence, Ford noted, has served as a "narcotic" for the Black population. "Breaking the Obama spell is the must-do task for a renewed movement for social justice and peace," he added. "There is nothing complicated about it. You simply tell the truth. Obama works for Wall Street and the militarists. That is the truth."

Similar concerns were expressed by Albany conference immigration-rights activists who pointed with alarm to the Oct. 2 march organizers’ demand for “comprehensive immigration reform,” a term that has come to be associated with President Obama’s support for the notorious anti-immigrant and punitive bill sponsored by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

The above concerns are certainly legitimate—and especially so in light of labor’s decades-long history of bureaucratic functioning and subordination to the Democratic Party. But the fact that labor and moderate civil rights leaders feel compelled to organize mass protests in the nation’s capital that challenge the government’s war and social policies is new to American politics and reflects the deep disillusionment of the ranks with the status quo of war, racism, and ever deepening attacks on working people.

The decision of the UNAC to actively participate and build the Aug. 28 and Oct. 2 actions and march alongside civil rights and labor activists far outweighs the fact that march officials will undoubtedly use the occasion to advocate support to Obama and his warmongering Democrats while placing the blame for today’s social crises on “obstructionist Republicans.”

Few mass actions of this sort meet the “test” of “political purity.” Tens of thousands of antiwar fighters carrying placards like “Jobs and Justice, Not War: Bring the Troops Home Now!” and “End All U.S. Aid to Israel!” while marching alongside their fellow workers and discussing the critical issues of the day would far outweigh the expected deferential remarks of a bankrupt labor “leadership” that has stood silent in the face of the greatest capitalist offensive against workers since the Great Depression.

A broad plan of protest action

The 24-point Action Program included endorsement of an Oct. 7 national day of student-led protests against education cutbacks, demanding “Money for Education, Not for Occupation;” a mid-October week of actions to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan; support to the Nov. 15-19 “Remember Fallujah” week to mark the horrific and virtual leveling of this Iraqi city by U.S. troops; and a national effort to initiate various city council, town, and village antiwar meetings and antiwar voter referenda/ballot initiatives as well as lobbying efforts.

The Action Program also included nationally coordinated teach-ins in mid-March 2011 to mark the eighth year of the Iraq War and to prepare for the culminating April 9 bi-coastal mass demonstrations in New YorkSan Francisco, and Los Angeles. A full-scale national effort was approved to begin immediately to gather broad endorsements for the April 9 bi-coastal mobilizations.

Additional actions approved include a week of local antiwar lobbying in April, national speaking tours, and the mounting of  “rapid, broad and nationally coordinated protests by antiwar and social justice activists” in the event of a U.S. or Israeli attack onIran.

The Action Program also called for support to actions to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and for protests in the event of U.S.-backed military action by Israel against Palestinians, aid activists attempting to end the blockade of Gaza, or attacks on other countries such as LebanonSyria, or Iran.

The program called for solidarity with Iraqi trade-union leaders who are under attack by the puppet Iraqi regime. In fact, just days after conference attendees returned home, it was announced that the Iraqi government had raided and closed all offices of the electrical workers' union, underlining the importance of heightened solidarity. 

The program urged support to actions aimed at dismantling the Cold War nuclear, biological, radiological, and chemical weapons and delivery systems. It called for solidarity with GIs, veterans, and military families and support for their campaigns and calls for action. And it called for actions against war profiteers, including oil and energy companies, weapons manufacturers, and engineering firms whose contractors are working to insure U.S. economic control of Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s resources.

The Action Program noted the necessity to link the antiwar movement with mass actions demanding urgent social needs such as jobs, health care, housing, education, and immigrant rights.

A Continuations Committee was approved, consisting of one representative of each of the 31 co-sponsoring conference organizations. This committee was empowered to expand its membership with additional forces in agreement with the conference’s adopted program. It is expected that the expansion will result in the broadest unified antiwar effort in decades.

Workshop discussions draw crowds

Two-dozen conference workshops provided critical spaces for movement activists to discuss and debate many of the movement’s most hotly contested subjects. This was the case with a workshop that attracted 120 participants entitled, “The Rise of Right Wing Populism and the Tea Party: Do We Need a Right-Left Coalition?” Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin and Kevin Zeese of Voters for Peace argued that the idea had merit in attracting some of the forces who have been inadvertently attracted to right-wing solutions. Chris Gauvreau and Glen Ford rejected such an alliance, arguing that it would only serve to drive away the very forces that are a prerequisite to the antiwar movement’s success.

A workshop entitled “Israel and the Palestinian Struggle: Is a Two-State Solution Possible or Desirable?” drew some 80 participants, most of whom rejected a “two-state solution,” a far cry from previous conferences where mere mention of a Democratic Secular Palestine was considered anathema to any serious discussion. The panelists detailed the historic conditions that led to the formation of the Zionist Israeli state and its constant expansion as well as the dramatic impact of the murderous blockade and siege of Gaza and the Israeli army killings aboard the flotilla boats carrying humanitarian relief to Gaza.

There was also a workshop featuring Palestinian activists speaking on boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel and other strategies. It was more than evident from the workshop discussions and the overall UNAC deliberations that this conference marked the sea change in politics that has deeply permeated the consciousness of the broad antiwar movement.

The July 23-25 UNAC conference opened the door wide to a return to the streets of a reinvigorated antiwar movement. Nine months of coordinated actions have been placed on the movement’s agenda. The fulfillment of the conference’s promise depends now on the capacity of the hitherto divided movement to come together to reach and exceed its immediate potential.

Unity in the antiwar movement, not to mention in the radical and socialist left, has never come easy. Divisions remain deep and profound. But mass-action united-front politics and practice have always proved decisive in bringing together the broadest layers on the basis of widely held principles. Today these principles boil down to the key slogans, “Bring the troops home now!” “Money for jobs and all associated human needs, not war,” and “End to all U.S. aid to Israel!”—chief agency of U.S. and world imperialism in the Middle EastThe stakes are high. The future of humanity could well depend on the outcome.

 The conference ended with Jerry Gordon, national secretary of both the National Assembly and UNAC, reviewing the accomplishments of the conference and noting the importance of forging a lasting unity in the movement.

Gordon humorously awarded Marilyn Levin of New England United and Joe Lombardo, representing the Albany area peace and justice community, the title of "the conference's Most Valuable Players (MVPs)." Marilyn headed a team that solicited and organized some 128 speakers into various workshops and panel presentations, the effect of which was to provide participants with a well-rounded and broadly representative spectrum of the movement's political views. Lombardo headed an on-site logistics team of some 40 activists who for several months had meticulously planned and organized almost every aspect of the conference's functioning.

Gordon noted the important role of the conference's four co-chairs—Jim Lafferty, executive director, Los Angeles National Lawyers Guild; Michael McPherson, co-chair United for Peace and Justice and past executive director of Veterans for Peace; Kathy Black, national co-convener, US Labor Against the War and leader of the Philadelphia-area Coalition of Labor Union Women; and this writer, national co-coordinator of the National Assembly.

Special mention was also given to the conference's broadly representative presiding committee—Kathy Kelly, Center for Creative Nonviolence; Michael Eisenscher, national coordinator, USLAW; Blanca Misse, UC Berkeley student leader and central organizer of the March 4 statewide anti-budget-cuts strike; Mary Nichols-Rhodes, Ohio state coordinator of Progressive Democrats of America; and Marilyn Levin, co-national coordinator, National Assembly.
Gordon concluded with a statement of his personal appreciation for the collaboration, advice, and meticulous attention to detail of USLAW’s Michael Eisenscher in a wide range of endeavors critical to the conference's functioning.
Following Gordon's remarks, conference participant Adam Shils from Chicago rose for a special point to unanimously affirm the key role of Jerry Gordon in the conference's success. The meeting ended with a standing ovation for Gordon's leadership and tireless efforts and for the unity he had so effectively fostered.

*     *     *

UNAC promotes solidarity with political prisoners

A special Saturday box-lunch session allowed the Albany antiwar conference time to counter the government’s broadside attacks on civil liberties and to express the antiwar movement’s active solidarity with the Arab and Muslim communities. The victims of the government’s post-9/11 “anti-terrorism” raids, mass incarcerations, and “pre-emptive persecutions” were properly seen as key components of the new antiwar movement.

Leaders of the Project Salaam (Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims), a national organization formed to defend Arab and Muslim victims of government persecution and a co-sponsor of the conference, were joined by representatives of CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations), as well as friends and family members of Arab and Muslim political prisoners who have been incarcerated under false charges. This critical issue was prominently featured throughout the event—from plenary sessions and workshops to the one-mile march that concluded the conference.

Conference participants were joined by local Muslim community activists in a display of solidarity that began at the Crowne Plaza Hotel conference site and proceeded to a brief rally at the New York State Capitol Building. From there the march continued along a route through Black and Muslim communities and concluded at the Masjid-As Salaam (House of Peace) mosque, where two years ago an FBI raid seized two Muslim worshippers without any evidence of wrongdoing. Typical of the times, the government, citing “national security” concerns, found no incriminating evidence and has to this day refused to specify charges against these alleged terrorists.

The mosque’s imam welcomed the demonstrators to a rally, where the daughter of one of the Albany detainees as well as a family member of the similarly detained Fort Dix Five from the Philadelphia area recounted their terrifying experiences at the hands of government witch hunters. Ralph Poynter, husband of imprisoned civil-liberties attorney Lynne Stewart and leader of her defense committee, and Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin also addressed the crowd of some 250 conference and community activists.

The luncheon session at the UNAC conference also featured talks by representatives of the defense committees of innocent political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Lynne Stewart as well as Guantanamo detainee representative and Center for Constitutional Rights attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei. Ralph Poynter read a powerful statement to the conference from Lynne Stewart, whose original 28-month sentence on frame-up charges of “conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism” was a week earlier increased in a vindictive Federal District Court re-sentencing hearing to 10 years in prison.

This writer, speaking as the West Coast coordinator of the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee and as a national co-coordinator of the National Assembly, announced that the National Assembly had decided to retain the imprisoned Stewart on its Administrative Committee despite her 10-year jail sentence. Also featured was a resounding pre-recorded antiwar address to the conference from Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row in Pennsylvania. Chants of “Free Mumia!” and “Free Lynne Stewart!” rocked the jam-packed rally.

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