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This is What a Movement Looks Like

by MICHAEL GEORGE SMITH

While much of the left has been bemoaning the demise of the antiwar movement and fighting to reinvigorate the opposition to American warmongering that was so evident before the war began, millions of immigrants and their allies have poured into the streets to fight the racist stench emanating from Congress and demand real justice and dignity for all workers. This incredible movement for immigrants’ rights, which seemed to spring up out of nowhere but actually has its roots in decades of immigrant-bashing, right-wing vigilantes patrolling the border and the continued super-exploitation of millions of undocumented workers, has given us a glimpse of what a real movement against the war could look like.

This raises an obvious question: given the continued unpopularity of both President Bush and his war on Iraq, why is the antiwar movement so unable to produce the kind of numbers, momentum and political depth as its immigrants’ right counterpart? In other words, with Bush’s approval rating at 36%(1) and 57% of Americans now calling the war a mistake,(2) what the hell is wrong with the antiwar movement?

The fight to end the occupation of Iraq is paralyzed by the twin paradoxes of the antiwar movement: as more and more Americans turn against the war, the movement gets smaller and smaller; and as Americans move leftward on the issue of the occupation, much of the leadership of the antiwar movement is actually moving to the right.

These contradictions have played themselves out in numerous ways over the past year and a half, with the most striking aspect being the antiwar leadership’s (near) unanimous support for John Kerry in 2004, a candidate who not only voted for the war and said that he would do it again but who also called for more troops to be sent to Iraq and argued that Bush had not been tough enough on the Iraqi people.

More recently, the third anniversary of the invasion passed with barely a whisper of protest. Amazingly, even with a solid majority of Americans now against the war, there was no national demonstration called on the anniversary against the occupation. Instead, local demonstrations were held in cities large and small around the country, with numbers that can only be called disappointing given the unpopularity of the war.

ANSWER, one of the principal national antiwar organizations, was able to mount regional protests in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle, along with a youth march in New York, but did not attempt a national demonstration in either Washington, DC or New York similar to the ones on previous anniversaries of the war.

Even more significantly, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the other main antiwar group in the country and decidedly to the right of ANSWER, explicitly told people to not attend even the regional demonstrations because of its ongoing feud with ANSWER. Instead, they called for even more fractured local demonstrations on March 18th, and dubbed March 20th, the actual anniversary of the invasion and a Monday, as a day to “call your Congressional representative to keep the pressure on Congress.”

These are problematic strategies on several fronts. To let the anniversary of the war pass without a national expression of opposition can be seen only as a sign of weakness. Many Americans would be hard pressed to know that a majority of their fellow citizens share their antiwar views, simply because there has been no visible expression of that opposition. Local and regional demonstrations have their place, to be sure, but to miss out on such an obvious opportunity to showcase antiwar voices, and thus give confidence to the millions of Americans who want to see the occupation end but feel isolated in that sentiment, is a tragedy.

Moreover, UFPJ’s orientation on Congress is sorely misplaced. It represents a move rightward, from putting people in the streets and building a genuine movement that demands immediate withdrawal to pressuring Congress to pass legislation for “strategic redeployment” or “gradual withdrawal.” This is especially disconcerting given the leftward trend in American public opinion on the question; a recent Gallup poll pegged support for withdrawing troops at 64%,(3) with 28% favoring immediate withdrawal,(4)which is particularly impressive given the lack of any coherent opposition to Bush and the war from either Democrats or the antiwar movement.

You cannot build an antiwar movement by appealing to warmongers, demobilizing the movement to get warmongers elected and then telling people that the best thing they can do is to stay at home and let those same warmongers in Congress sort it out.

The national demonstration that UFPJ did call, set for April 29th in New York, is shaping up to be little more than a pep rally for the Democratic Party. This is not the space to review the sordid history of the Democrats and the Iraq War; needless to say, relying on an avowedly pro-war and pro-imperialism party to end the war and occupation is a sadly mistaken strategy.

UFPJ’s recent endorsement of Rep. John Murtha’s “antiwar” resolution–which is more accurately a shuffling of U.S. troops around the Middle East rather than actually bringing them home, and is meant to bolster U.S. aims in the Middle East, not to curtail them–is equally unfortunate. Murtha, long known as a staunch hawk, is hardly the person to be carrying the banner of the antiwar movement.

Politics is, at heart, what you think is wrong with the world and how you think we should go about fixing it (thanks to Sharon Smith for the formulation). The demise of the antiwar movement shows that it’s not enough to have an arrogant, incompetent and wholly unpopular president, nor is it enough to see a majority of Americans actually turn against the war; in short, politics matter. In this case specifically, the discussion around what should be done to end the war–the liberals’ answer of reliance on the Democratic Party and congressional action vs. the left’s answer of a genuine movement in the streets combined with resistance to the occupation from both Iraqis and American soldiers–is dominated by the liberals, and thus far it has produced exceedingly bad results.

Ultimately, for the antiwar movement to succeed, we need a strategy that doesn’t rely on pro-war politicians to represent the antiwar movement and instead empowers the majority of Americans who are against the war and occupation to take matters into their own hands, build institutions that actually represent them, and use the power of the working class here at home and soldiers resisting in Iraq to bring the troops home.

So how does the immigrants’ rights movement play into all this? First, this incredible turn of events can serve as an example to the antiwar movement, to that 57% of Americans who think the war was a mistake but have been so tragically let down by their “leaders.” Let us see what a real movement looks like, one independent of the party of killing slightly fewer Iraqis and deporting slightly fewer undocumented workers, and from that let us all conclude that, to paraphrase Eugene V. Debs, “There is nothing we cannot do for ourselves.”

Second, let us all realize that the immigrants’ rights movement has been as large, as politically conscious, as effective as it has been precisely because the Democratic Party never saw it coming. The compromises, half-measures and empty rhetoric of the Democrats and their liberal allies have thus far fallen on deaf ears, and it is the refusal of those in the streets to be co-opted and forced into the narrow confines of electoralism that is transforming the debate around immigration.

As Democratic politicians across the country have sickeningly tried to get to the front of this speeding train so they can apply the brakes as quickly as possible, pretending to be friends of immigrants and telling them that yes, really, a new Bracero program is basically the same as amnesty, we can start to get a sense of what it might look like were the politicians in Washington chasing us in the antiwar movement, trying to meet our demands, as opposed to the other way around.

Finally, let this immigrants’ rights movement put to rest any notion that America is a hopelessly right-wing country, that the Democratic Party is the best we can hope for or that the old-fashioned idea that ordinary people can fight for their own emancipation and in the process build their own movements and organizations is somehow quaint or outdated. It is, in fact, the only thing that has ever changed the world, and it is the only thing that ever will.

MICHAEL GEORGE SMITH is a student at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at: michael.smith3@gmail.com.

 

 

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