Next Steps for Our Movement

Almost four weeks after the September 11th attacks, the United States government has still not engaged in military action, as far as we know, to any significant degree. Why is this?

There seem to be at least four reasons.

Perhaps the main one is the on-the-ground reality of Afghanistan. The mountainous and rugged terrain of this country has frustrated many outsiders down through history who have attempted to take it over by force, the Soviet Union being the latest example. It appears as if there are powerful players within Bush Administration circles who understand this and, so far, have been able to hold off Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others who have been pushing hard for strong military action.

Bush and company also seem to be having trouble lining up enough concrete support among the countries closest to Afghanistan, those who stand to be most affected by whatever the United States does. And despite Tony Blair’s tough rhetoric and commitment of British military forces, there do not seem to be many other nations, at this point in time, willing to respond in the same way.

There are clearly internal divisions within the Bush Administration.
Many reports indicate that Secretary of State Colin Powell and at least some of the military leadership are emphasizing diplomacy, economic sanctions, and support of the Northern Alliance, the former king of Afghanistan and other opposition to the Taliban as at least as important as military action. They seem to see this as more of a priority at this early stage of the “war on terrorism.”

Finally, there is the domestic pressure for peace and/or a much more measured response. There have been local demonstrations in roughly 200 localities over the last three weeks, possibly more. At least 15,000 people attended one or more of the two demonstrations in Washington, D.C. the weekend of September 29-30. As this is written, organizers of a major demonstration in New York City on October 7th anticipate as many as 10,000 at this action. Among progressive farm organizations, women’s groups, students, Blacks and Latinos, Arab-Americans, Jews, the religious community, labor, veterans groups, community organizations, legal groups and others, there are organized discussions, meetings, public statements, forums and more. The progressive movement in this country has much to be proud of; we are rising to the occasion.

But as we continue to stay active and visible, speaking out, talking with others, wearing our buttons and showing our concern, we also need to come together in broadly-based groupings and there, not only in our smaller, primary groups, think together about how to strengthen and broaden our efforts, for the short-term and the long-term. In Bush’s September 20th, warlike speech to Congress he said, “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign.” The same must be true on our part.

What will this mean concretely? We can’t know for sure, because what we do will be impacted significantly by how the government acts, not just in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East but here at home. We may be facing an extremely difficult time ahead: military strikes overseas, acts of terrorism in this country and elsewhere in response, repression against those of us who are speaking up and calling for non-militaristic action consistent with international law, rising anti-immigrant victimization, and a potentially deep and long-term economic recession.

Indeed, all of these things are likely; some are already happening. The real questions are ones of degree, of intensity, of scope.

We need, as soon as possible, a vehicle both to counter and limit these negative developments and to make it possible that within the next period of time, some number of months, we will be able to show the country and the world that there is widespread rejection of the government’s path of war, racism and repression. We need a broad national coalition with similar local coalitions capable of undertaking coordinated, visible, consistent and effective mass action.

What stands in the way of this development?

There’s the usual problem of sectarianism, narrowness and turf battles that have plagued progressive movements in this country and elsewhere forever, it seems. However, I think there has been a process of maturation on the part of many of us over the most recent period of time. One example is the ability of the mix of groups that make up the movement against corporate globalization to find ways of working together despite real political and tactical differences. Those of us who understand the negative consequences of sectarianism have to be vocal when it surfaces.

Another is racism. Indeed, if there is one obstacle that I would single out as the most potentially problematic, this is it. We clearly need a multi-cultural movement with significant leadership from people of color, those who are being and who will be most affected by Bush Administration policies. In order to create such a movement those of us who are white and consciously anti-racist need to be forthright in dealing with internal racism within this movement and supportive, without being paternalistic, of our brothers and sisters of color who are part of it. Indeed, we need to structure anti-racist training into the work of and development of this movement.

One immediate political issue that must be faced is what might be called the “justice, not vengeance” issue. In several places that I have heard about, this has surfaced as a problematic issue as coalitions work to put together unity principles.

On one side, and what seems to me to be the majority side, are those who are calling for some form of action done in cooperation with other nations and/or through the United Nations, to find, prosecute and punish those responsible for the 9-11 attacks. On the other side are those who distrust the United Nations, for good historical reasons, seeing it as a tool of the United States, and who are concerned that the call for justice will be used to go after not just the perpetrators of these crimes but many others who had nothing to do with them but who are engaged in historically legitimate armed (or unarmed) struggle against repressive regimes.

It seems to me that we must take several positions, all at the same time, to deal with these understandable concerns.

First, we must call for action to be taken within the framework of international law to bring to justice those responsible. Personally, I hope that the organization responsible for the deaths of the 6,000 or so people on 9-11, virtually all innocent civilians, is put on the defensive to such a degree that it can never pull off such an action again. If it is Taliban-supporting, Islamic fundamentalists who organized this action, as seems to be the case, we should be clear their agenda is not ours and that we want them isolated and rendered ineffective.

Secondly, we must be outspoken and active in opposition to all forms of racism and anti-immigrant victimization, particularly against Arab, Islamic and South Asian people right now.

Third, we must defend the right to speak up and organize for change, both here and elsewhere in the world, including the right to use arms if forced to by a repressive government. Some of us are pacifists or are committed to non-violence, but that cannot mean we agree with a definition that defines as terrorists all those who take up arms or use force and who are critical of the U.S. government, We must struggle against allowing Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft to define and act upon their definition of what is a terrorist. We must point out that the ANC was a terrorist organization in the eyes of Bush’s father during the 1980s, and it is now the government of South Africa. Yasir Arafat and the PLO were “terrorists” for decades up until the 90s; they are now U.S.
government partners. And looking at it from a different angle, Ariel Sharon, now head of Israel and U.S. ally, is widely believed to be responsible for the deliberate massacre of many hundreds of innocent Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982.
As the saying goes, one government’s terrorist is another government’s freedom fighter.

Finally, we must articulate and defend our vision of a country and a world based upon social and economic justice, the cleaning up and care of our natural environment, respect for different cultures and religions, and the raising of the living standards of all people, especially those in the countries of the Global South. Poverty and hopelessness are breeding grounds for terrorism.

This is an anti-corporate agenda. It opposes “free trade,” fast track, the FTAA, IMF, World Bank and the WTO. These positions must be thoroughly integrated into this movement against war, racism and repression.

A final obstacle we cannot forget is efforts by the government to divide and disrupt our coalitions. They will do this (they are already doing
it) by sending informers and agent provocateurs into our midst to gather information, sow division and/or encourage violence. Our best defenses against these efforts are as open a political process as possible, a refusal to become defensive or uptight, the building of a loving and comradely movement, and an explicit, stated commitment to non-violent tactics.

What should be our medium-term and longer-term goals and objectives?

For the last three weeks we’ve been scrambling, and we’re going to have to continue to do so. But medium-term there are some possible foci for nationally-coordinated activity.

If veterans’ organizations took the lead, the Veteran’s Day holiday weekend of November 10-12 could be a time for a remembrance of the reality of war and a call for peace.

The Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa period, beginning December 10th
(Hanukkah) and going through January 6th (Three Kings Day), seems to be a natural time for Americans to be encouraged through different ways to meditate on what is going to have to change with U.S. foreign policy if we are to move towards a peaceful world.

And what if we begin to talk now about a huge, national demonstration in support of our agenda in the spring, a demonstration that could include hundreds of thousands of people if we do our work well and with intelligence between now and then? That is a realizable and needed goal.

Such a success would put us in a position for on-going work throughout 2002, a Congressional election year, to have an impact on the positions that candidates running for office take and who gets elected. It is possible that a decidedly more progressive Congress could be the result.

We have done much over the last three weeks. Let’s keep it going.