April 20th: Unity-Building and Youth Leadership

(This piece was written after the April 20th, 2002 national march on Washington of 80,000 or so people protesting the militaristic and repressive response of the Bush administration to the 9-11 attacks.)

by Ted Glick

Brian Becker, co-director of the International Action Center and steering committee member of the ANSWER coalition, recently circulated a piece, “Why the April 20 Protest Can Be Called ‘Historic.'” In it he puts forward one perspective on April 20th and the lead-up to it. As someone on the Steering Committee of the April 20th/United We march Mobilization, and as a participant in the grueling negotiations which eventually led to an agreement on April 14th for a unified march down Pennsylvania Avenue and a concluding rally at the Capitol, some additional perspective is called for.

I agree with Becker that one of the reasons why April 20th was an historic event was the massive participation by the Palestinian and Arab-American communities and the solidarity and welcoming of these communities by the vast bulk of the rest of the demonstrators. Without question, this participation and this welcoming is important and must be built upon. The issue of Palestine, of the withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state, must be one of the top priorities of the new peace and justice movement that had its coming-out manifestation April 20th.

But there are two other reasons for April 20th’s importance that Becker completely misses.

One is the coming together for the April 19-22 activities of five different national coalitions. Here is the history:

In December of 2001 the groups which made up the April 20th Mobilization/United We March became aware that the Colombia Mobilization was planning actions over the 19th-22nd weekend. We had been thinking that we would be calling for our action on April 14th, but there was concern that if we did so either or both of our mobilization efforts would suffer because of the closeness of the dates and the travel conflict this would pose for some of the people who would want to come to both. This led to several weeks of serious dialogue within both the Colombia Mobilization and the A20 Mobilization and between these two coalitions which led to, by about January 22nd, a consensus agreement that we would join forces and work together for unified actions on the 19th-22nd. It was at this point, following this national dialogue process, that a public call was issued for A20.

Around the same time there were contacts being made with the Mobilization for Global Justice. We knew that the IMF and World Bank were going to be having their spring meetings sometime in mid-April. When it was announced in February that they would be happening on April 20th and 21st, discussions began to take place among all three national coalitions about how to coordinate our activities to be jointly supportive.

Soon after this, toward the end of February, International ANSWER decided to move their planned April 27th anti-war demonstration to April 20th. ANSWER did so in a less-than-desirable way; as distinct from the respectful discussion process which characterized the interaction among the other three national coalitions, ANSWER made their decision essentially unilaterally. Despite a specific request, in writing, that they let the A20 Mobilization steering committee know their thinking on some possible ways we had put forward that unity might happen on April 20th, they instead put out a “unity statement” that was no such thing but, instead, an ANSWER statement falsely claiming a “unity” that had not been reached. This caused a great deal of anger within the April 20th Mobilization, including the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition.

Nevertheless, we decided to make the best of a bad situation, believing that the objective of the largest and broadest mobilization to D.C. on April 20th was a critical objective. And for the next seven weeks all four groups worked together as well as we could, joined in mid-March by the newly-formed Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

It was historic that these five groups, with differing focuses and differing histories, were able to find a way to put forward a unified message to the broader movement and to the press. Despite tensions, and periods of time when the unity was severely tested, we held it together, culminating in an actual unity agreement between ANSWER and the A20 Mobilization on April 14th and a generally successful series of morning rallies and a unified afternoon march and rally on the 20th.

This was historic, and it should be acknowledged as such.

The other aspect of April 20th that Becker completely misses, indeed, that he distorts and attempts to undermine, is the important leadership given to this mobilization by young people, specifically the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition.

The NYSPC was formed in late September, after 9-11. 18 national student and youth groups came together to form it, groups such as the Muslim Student Association of the US and Canada, Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus, Campus Greens, U.S. Student Association, United Students Against Sweatshops, JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice, STARC, SEAC, SPAN and more. In late October they took the initiative to begin organizing for a national demonstration in April. And they continued to play a leading role in the mobilizing up to and including on April 20th. With the notable exception of the Palestinian and Arab-American communities, young people were the largest group present on April 20th in D.C.

The April 20th Mobilization consciously prioritized youth/student leadership in our coalition. We did this, first, in recognition and appreciation of the specific leadership role they played for this mobilization. We also did it because of a belief that young people must be major players, must be an absolutely critical part of any new peace and justice movement that develops in this country. History is very clear on the importance of this question for movements that wish to be successful.

Becker is right that it took some time for the NYSPC, a newly-formed coalition, to work through its position on the Palestinian question as that question came to the fore in mid-March. But work it through they did, and the fact is, as Becker acknowledges, that both the NYSPC and the A20 Mobilization did end up agreeing to the ANSWER proposal for a Palestinian co-chair for the concluding rally at the Capitol. Prior to this we sent emails out widely and posted on our web site our position in support of the Palestinian people. It was the A20 Mobilization that drafted a proposed unity statement brought to the April 14th meeting with ANSWER where a unity agreement was finally reached, a proposed unity statement which included an up-front paragraph prioritizing the Palestinian struggle. And throughout the rally at the Washington Monument, as Becker acknowledges, many of the speakers specifically addressed this question.

So why does Becker try to imply that NYSPC and the A20 Mobilization are essentially backwards on the issue of Palestine? Part of the answer, if not a large part, seems to lie in his concluding “analysis” of what he calls “the decisive factor. . . the strategic orientation of some sectors in the progressive movement who are looking to forge a left-center coalition, sometimes called a coalition of ‘broad forces’ and the like. The goal is to reform the Democratic Party, to rebuild its so-called liberal wing in the national leadership.”

This is quite a jump, a leap that falls way short of even approaching the truth.

It is possible that there are some organizations within the A20 Mobilization that might somewhat fit Becker’s description. But to try to leave the impression, as he clearly does, that the NYSPC and the A20 Mobilization are, in his words, about “limit(ing) its political program in a way that is acceptable or non-threatening to the liberal wing of the capitalist establishment” is truly incredible (and that is a generous way to describe it). There are any number of participating organizations, mine among them, which are forthright and clear in our rejection of both the Republican and Democratic parties, which are consciously building an independent political movement outside the control or influence of either one. I am aware of no organized discussions ever taking place within either NYSPC or the A20 Mobilization along the lines of Becker’s description.

The fact is that the A20 Mobilization brought together, yes, “broad forces,” united behind six demands and the belief that it was critical that we bring as many people as possible to D.C. in support of those demands, as well as other related issues such as Palestine, the need to cut the military budget and to repeal the Patriot Act. Those three issues were added to our agenda in early April as a result of a conscious decision processed internally within our coalition. This is why we were able to put out an outreach email about a week and a half before April 20th in which not just the six demands but these three additional demands, as well as the demands of the Colombia Mobilization and the Mobilization for Global Justice, were put forward as part of a call for a maximum mobilization effort in the final ten days.

In might be more favorable for Becker and the IAC to attempt to distort the reality of the NYSPC and the groups which formed the April 20th Mobilization, but it is not in the interests of building, yes, a broad movement involving not just tens of thousands, a hundred thousand or more, but millions of people in political activity of some kind. Narrow approaches are a dead-end for our movement. Such approaches will ensure a continuation of U.S. actions that are deadly for the world’s struggling peoples and destructive of our seriously wounded natural environment.

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.