Ashley Smith and Eric Ruder report on the debates at the national
convention of United for Peace and Justice.
December 19, 2008
THE MAIN U.S. antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ),
held its national convention in Chicago on December 12-14.
While the U.S. continues to occupy Iraq and is planning a major
escalation of forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the conference drew
only 248 attendees, fewer than at its convention last year. Such a
low turnout should come as no surprise; UFPJ has not called a major
national antiwar demonstration in close to two years and has invested
the bulk of its forces either directly or indirectly in campaigning
for the Democratic Party.
Obviously, the key question facing UFPJ and indeed the entire antiwar
movement is how to deal with the new challenges and opportunities
under the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama.
At the convention, the majority of UFPJ's leadership and featured
speakers argued forcefully that the antiwar movement should credit
itself for helping get Obama elected and be encouraged that we will
now finally have an ally in the White House.
"We have elected the most progressive mainstream politician
imaginable," declared William McNary, president of
USAction/TrueMajority, at the opening plenary. McNary went on to
describe Obama as our "quarterback"--and say that the movement's task
is to "block" for him.
On the same panel, Antonia Juhasz, an activist and author of The Bush
Agenda, argued, "Barack Obama has a fundamentally different approach
to Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. He has a fundamentally different
approach to imperialism. He has a fundamentally different approach to
the oil industry.
"But there are entrenched interests that surround him and surround
Washington, that surround the White House, that want to see the
agenda of the Bush administration continue...We have to be ready to
address these obstacles...and provide the blocking that Barack needs."
Several attendees noted that talk of Obama appointing a "liaison" to
the progressive community as an encouraging sign that the antiwar
movement will likely enjoy increased "access" to the corridors of
political power. Only Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, who spoke
on the Saturday evening plenary, dissented from the chorus of praise
for the incoming administration.
But other delegates were concerned about this characterization of the
Obama administration. "[We have] been the central peace and justice
force in Pittsburgh for decades," said Paul LeBlanc from the Thomas
Merton Peace Center. "We affiliated with UFPJ from the start, and we
sent a sizable contingent to this conference. I think our delegation
is concerned with what appears to be an uncritical attitude toward
No one would deny the enormous impact that Obama's election has had,
inspiring workers and minority communities (especially African
Americans), raising expectations for change and creating a climate in
which a new movement for gay marriage is taking root.
But the antiwar movement must come to grips with the reality that
Obama's Cabinet appointees and explicit foreign policy proposals are
far from antiwar.
Obama has promised to retain tens of thousands of U.S. troops and
private mercenaries after "withdrawal" from Iraq as a residual force
to "provide security." He has also repeatedly promised to escalate
the war in Afghanistan and continue supporting Israel's occupation of
Palestine. He may conduct U.S. policy with more diplomacy and
humanitarian aid than the Bush administration, but Obama's goals do
not represent a break with decades of U.S. imperial policy.
These realities represent a challenge for the antiwar movement. Yet
the convention marked a turn in UFPJ's past practice of focusing
specifically on the war in Iraq. Now, UFPJ proposes to broaden out to
highlight economic justice, racism and climate change, among a host
of other issues.
"Only a new compact, a real compact with a handshake between social
movements from the bottom up--especially the antiwar, economic
justice and environmental movements--can begin to achieve a better,
safer future and deliver on the truly radical promises of the Obama
presidency," said Tom Hayden, former leader of Students for
Democratic Society and now a Democratic Party activist.
But while it's important for all activists to address the connections
between war and other pressing issues, the central project of the
antiwar movement must continue to be organizing for the immediate end
to the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Otherwise, the
antiwar movement is retreating from its core mission.
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AN AD-hoc caucus within UFPJ presented two amendments to the
coalition's proposed program document for the coming year--one on
Afghanistan and another on spring actions.
The caucus emphasized different reasons to be hopeful about the
incoming Obama administration--chiefly, that voters expect change and
thus can be mobilized on the basis of such raised expectations. "I
don't want to wait for the next Republican administration to complain
about the problems with the war," said Meredith Reese, a member of
the PDX Peace Coalition in Portland, Ore.
Unfortunately, the meeting spent far too much time on procedural
questions and secondary issues in the discussion of the program,
giving short shrift to the most important debate about what the
organization would say about Afghanistan and the anniversary actions.
In the end, the proposal to incorporate opposition to the war in
Afghanistan was approved. "UFPJ demands immediate and unconditional
withdrawal of all occupying forces from Afghanistan," reads the
amendment. "We will make this demand along with immediate withdrawal
from Iraq the central focus of our organizing and actions."
UFPJ's leadership clearly didn't want to come out for immediate
withdrawal, which puts the coalition explicitly at odds with the
Obama administration's plans. But sensing that this was broadly
popular among the delegates, the program committee decided to accept
the caucus' language as a friendly amendment, and thus avoid a vote
on the issue directly.
Next followed the other critical debate at the assembly--plans for
spring actions around the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war.
Initially, UFPJ had called for mobilizations during the week of the
anniversary of the Iraq war. Two other antiwar formations--the
National Assembly that met in Cleveland this past summer and
International ANSWER--put out a call for an ad hoc coalition of all
antiwar groups for a national demonstration on March 21 in Washington, D.C.
UFPJ's leadership didn't respond to this call for unity, and instead
proposed local actions on March 19 and a spring national mobilization
in New York City on April 4. Asserting that the antiwar movement
alone isn't capable of mobilizing sufficient forces and would risk
alienating the Black community if it directly confronted Obama, the
New York City march will have a slogan "Yes we can...End the
war"--but will emphasize a broad range of issues, such as corporate
crime on Wall Street, the financial crisis, health care and
environmental justice, among other issues.
The caucus argued for the two calls for national mobilizations not to
be counterposed, and instead be viewed as complementary, but lost the
vote for them to be considered separately. UFPJ's leadership insisted
on voting on the proposals in a way that forced delegates to choose
one or the other.
In the debate, two Iraqis rose to speak in favor of a united
anniversary action in Washington, but were met with lukewarm support
from the audience. As Zaineb Alani, an Iraqi antiwar activist now
living in Ohio, said:
Local actions are not loud enough. The media will not cover them, and
so the message will be silence. I am for mass action this spring in
Washington where all the decisions are made with regard to economic
and foreign policy.
With all this talk of change in Washington, the Iraqi people do not
see any change. They're not going to see any change in the next three
years because they will still be under occupation. The SOFA [status
of forces agreement] is full of loopholes. We do not know what is
coming. All the Iraqi people can hear is silence in Washington.
To counter this argument, supporters of UFPJ's leadership spoke of
the importance of broadening the constituency and agenda of UFPJ. But
the logic of their position was to insist that no antiwar
demonstration take place in Washington. They invoked Martin Luther
King's legacy to justify their call for April 4 in New York, the date
and site of King's famous antiwar speech "Beyond Vietnam" in 1967.
But their arguments turned the meaning of King's speech on its head.
In April 1967, King broke his silence on the U.S. war on Vietnam and
called for protest against the administration of Democrat Lyndon
Johnson. King was making the case for directly taking on the
questions of war and militarism. UFPJ's leadership is using King as a
vehicle to do the exact opposite--deflect attention from the
Democratic Party's plan for endless occupation in Iraq and escalation
In the vote, UFPJ's leadership prevailed, 148 delegates to 50. But
this crucial debate was given far too little time, with each side
given three speakers for 90 seconds each before attendees were asked
to make their decisions.
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MANY IN the ranks of UFPJ are far from happy about the direction of
the coalition. "If there were more Iraqis present, and they observed
this reaction, the one message it sends is 'we don't care,'" said Zaineb Alani.
One expression of the discontent was the opposition many felt to the
leadership proposal for the reorganization of the steering committee
and the election of the committee itself. Some UFPJ leaders proposed
reserving spots on the steering committee for NGOs and significant
funders. This would have created a permanent bureaucracy of
established groups with similar outlooks, and further diminished the
opportunity for grassroots activists to influence UFPJ.
After some delegates argued against the proposal from the floor, the
attendees struck it down with only two voting in favor of the
proposal. Even the bulk of the steering committee ended up voting
against its own proposal once the sentiment in the room was clear.
Thus, many questions about the future of the antiwar movement remain.
Now that UFPJ's leaders, in our view, unnecessarily juxtaposed two
proposed actions--the March 21 action and the April 4 action--what
should be done?
Joe Lombardo of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace in Albany, N.Y.,
summarized the feelings of many as the convention drew to a close:
Antiwar sentiment is very strong, but the leadership seems to be
moving away from antiwar positions. I don't think UFPJ will say what
they have done very clearly. I think they will obfuscate a little
bit, but I think in the long run, they are moving away from an
antiwar position, and they are going to be losing a lot of people who
are interested in building an antiwar movement.
We need to build an antiwar movement, even in the difficulty of a
honeymoon period. In the long run, it's the right thing to do, and it
will lay the foundations for a much larger movement in the future.
Unfortunately, UFPJ has created artificial obstacles to building a
united movement this spring. But given the new political climate in
the U.S., this is hardly the time for inactivity. Antiwar activists
should support and mobilize both for the March 21 demonstration in
Washington, D.C., as well as UFPJ's multi-issue April 4 demonstration
in New York City.
A shorter version of this article appears in the new issue of the
International Socialist Review.