Building Unity at a Time of Possibility

“Narrow approaches are a dead-end for our movement. . . What is needed is an approach that can appeal to millions of people, that connects with and draws strength from the deep-seated traditions of struggle for justice among the peoples who make up this country. This is what we need to fight against the sham ‘war on terrorism,’ U.S. support of Israeli occupation, attacks on our civil liberties and civil rights, racism in all its forms, and the economic terrorism experienced by people from Watts to the Mississippi Delta to Harlem to Colombia, Africa, Argentina, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world.”

I wrote these words in a column, “On Leftist Parties,” in January of 2003. They’re still very relevant.

Since that time there have been a number of changes as far as the make-up of the national peace and justice movement. Back then United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) was just getting off the ground, and International ANSWER was the predominant national coalition mobilizing anti-war demonstrations. But today, following a split about a year ago within the Workers World Party—a group with significant influence within ANSWER–there is now a Workers World Party-less ANSWER, and there is a newly-formed Troops Out Now Coalition (TONC) within which WWP and its International Action Center play a major role. Both coalitions are significantly weaker, even taken together, than they used to be before the WWP split.

UFPJ, on the other hand, has become the major national peace and justice coalition. It has more than 1,000 member groups and a million dollar budget. 10 months ago it organized a demonstration of ½ million people outside the Republican National Convention, and on May 1st of this year it organized an anti-nuke, anti-war demonstration in New York City of approximately 30,000. On the same day in NYC, the Troops Out Now Coalition organized a demonstration of around 1,000.

UFPJ is also undergoing some qualitative changes. One example is the election a couple of months of ago of three national co-chairs of color, George Friday, George Martin and Judith LeBlanc. At its national assembly in St. Louis in February, it adopted as one of its top priorities a Grassroots Education Campaign “to reach potential new allies and expand our base. . . An education working group will be created to develop the long-term educational strategy to reach new constituencies.” This decision was made, and there has been follow-up since, in response to internal criticism that UFPJ was not taking seriously enough the importance of outreach to communities of color and a linking of international and domestic issues as they are experienced by people at the grassroots.

It is within this context that, once again, there is contention over UFPJ and ANSWER/TONC calls for a massive demonstration on September 24th in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

There’s a lot of “déjà vu all over again” to this contention. It reminds me of an extremely difficult and problematic political process in the first part of 2002 as various groups struggled to organize a united mass action on April 20th of that year. We ended up doing so, with great difficulty, but two aspects to the way ANSWER, supported by TONC, are attempting to build support for their approach are very similar to what they did then.

It is troubling that ANSWER/TONC is, ostensibly, conducting what it calls a quest for “unity” via the internet. So far this spring I’ve received at least five emails from one or the other group trumpeting how committed they are to achieving “unity” with UFPJ as they put forward the correctness of their approach to making it happen. Three and a half years ago, following some initial contact between reps of ANSWER and reps of the April 20th Mobilization coalition (the predecessor of UFPJ), ANSWER sent out an email announcing that a “unity statement” had been adopted. This false email was issued rather than ANSWER responding to the April 20th Mobilization’s putting forward of several ideas on a possible way to have a unified day of action on April 20th. These ideas were given with an explicit request/understanding that ANSWER would respond to them so that we could further process this question within our coalition. And up until two weeks before April 20th, ANSWER continued to use the internet to attempt to force a “unity” on terms most favorable to them.

This is most definitely not the way to build principled and effective unity, if that is truly the objective.

It is also troubling that ANSWER has put forward the demand, “Support the Palestinian People’s Right of Return” as a major demand. TONC held a conference earlier this month on the topic, “Building a United Front to Stop the War,” and the first bulleted point that they made in their website report of that conference was that “Support for the Right of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes and property in all of historic Palestine is not negotiable.”

I personally understand and support the right of Palestinian organizations to put this demand forward as they struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. When the state of Israel has been aggressively acting upon the position that any Jew anywhere in the world has the right to emigrate to Israel and take up residence there, creating “facts on the ground” that lead to more land grabs and building of settlements to accommodate these immigrants, no one can legitimately deny this just demand of the Palestinians. It must be dealt with as part of the process of serious negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli government representatives, leading to an end to the Israeli occupation.

But to put this particular demand forward rather than, say, a demand to end U.S. support for Israeli occupation, can only have the effect of confusing, alienating or turning away potential participants in and organizers of September 24th, and not just in the white community. It is not a demand broadly understood or supported within the United States, even within the U.S. progressive movement. In the context of the movement to force the United States to pull its military troops and military bases out of Iraq and end its neo-colonial plans to control Iraqi oil, this is a demand that will weaken and narrow that movement. It is just plain strategically wrong for ANSWER/TONC to put this forward in the way that they are.

This is a very key political moment for our movement to get the U.S. out of Iraq. The conservative North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones, who got “French fries” in the Congressional cafeteria changed to “freedom fries,” has joined with another Republican and two Democrats to put forward a bill calling for a plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops next year. John Conyers has just convened a very successful public hearing in Congress calling attention to the Downing Street memo which has led to widespread media coverage about that memo and has helped to strengthen the peace movement. Public opinion polls report that almost 60% of the U.S. American people are against the war and want to begin bringing troops home. Amnesty International is standing up to Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld and their ilk and calling them out for the systematic torture and abuse in their gulag of prisons at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. The Bush/Cheney gang is on the defensive.

The last thing any group on the left which purports to be against the war should be doing right now is conducting itself in such a way that it divides, not unites, the broad range of people of all colors and cultures who are prepared to come out in massive numbers to demand an end to this war.