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It is fair to say that the antiwar movement in the US is moribund. A movement that put a million people in the streets a month before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has drawn as many as half-a-million protesters to protests as recently as January 2007 has failed to mobilize anything even near those numbers since then. Part of this is because of differences among the leadership of the two primary antiwar organizations, part of it is because many people opposed to the war have put their energies—however misplaced– into working for Barack Obama, and part of it is attributable to the belief that there is nothing one can do to stop the bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The most recent example of this occurred during the week of March 15th, 2008. Despite the announced intentions of both antiwar organizations to organize some kind of national march marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, there was no such protest. Instead, hundreds of cities and towns around the country held smaller observances.
In the wake of the failure to organize a national protest, some folks from the US who had formed a coalition following a 2007 international antiwar conference in London decided to step outside the existing organizational stasis. They formed a steering committee with the intention of reigniting the national movement against the war in the United States. The primary movers behind this effort include members of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), US Labor Against the War (USLAW), military veterans and individuals with decades of experience organizing against imperial war, and representatives of numerous local antiwar committees. Characterizing themselves as the mass action wing of the antiwar movement, the steering committee in early spring 2008 put out a call for a national meeting of antiwar activists and citizens in late June of this year —a call which has been answered by hundreds of organizations and individuals from across the US. Organizing under the name The National Assembly to End the Iraq War and Occupation, the steering committee has garnered the endorsement of several labor organizations and individuals like Cindy Sheehan, Howard Zinn and Mumia Abu Jamal. In addition, a multitude of local peace and justice organizations, church groups and student organizations have signed on.
When I asked AFSC organizer and coordinator of the Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition Greg Coleridge, who along with Marilyn Levin of Greater Boston United for Justice with Peace, is one of the national spokespeople for the National Assembly, why this conference should be held now, he responded this way.
The ever-increasing human carnage, economic costs, and desire for US military conquest connected to the Iraq war and occupation demand effective resistance. There is an urgent need for greater coordination, collaboration and cohesion among US anti-war organizations without giving up their own missions and identities. The upcoming elections provide ample opportunities to distract attention from the current permanent nature of the war and occupation. Now is the time for anti-war activists and concerned citizens to come together and call on the anti-war movement to organize mass actions which communicate to the public and pressure elected officials that US troops, bases and contractors must leave Iraq immediately.
It is important to note that there is not a call for a withdrawal timetable here. As Coordinating Committee member Jerry Gordon told me in a conversation, the only correct demand for the U.S. antiwar movement is for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. Furthermore, it is assumed that the best way to make this demand is through mass action and a unified antiwar movement that utilizes democratic decision-making and remains independent of any and all political parties and organizations. It is not the intention of those on the steering committee to supersede UFPJ or ANSWER. Indeed, they have the utmost respect for the two organizations and the work they have done to this point. This respect is evident in the fact that both organizations have members from their coordinating committees on the speakers list for the Assembly.
The Assembly, which will take place on June 27th and 28th 2008 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northeast Cleveland, is open to all. A five-point action plan will be discussed and voted on during the weekend. Although there are several speakers slated for the podium and a number of workshops scheduled, there will be ample time for anyone to speak and it is hoped that those who have serious ideas on how to organize a movement that will stop this war will attend and speak up. As Greg Coleridge put it in an email to me, “I see the Assembly as a collective facilitator — enabling the many different voices against the war to coalesce and create a massive roar to force an immediate end to the war and occupation.” He continued, hoping that a “greater trust” can be developed among those working to end the war. As for concrete outcomes, he said the organizers “ hope that Assembly attendees will agree to urge that the broad antiwar movement unite in calling for mass actions this year and next.”
Reminding me that the vast majority of people in the US oppose the war and occupation, Coleridge explained why he believes mass action is not only important but essential. “Unfortunately,” he wrote in an email. “the US Constitution doesn’t permit national initiatives or referendums.” If it did, he “believe(s) most people today would vote for a federal initiative calling to end the Iraq war, bring US troops home, close military bases, and end funding beyond required to transport the troops back.” Coleridge continued, explaining that “Organized mass street actions have played a historically important role in producing social change in this country. A government that ignores public opinion and mass mobilizations loses credibility, authenticity, and legitimacy. No government can effectively govern without support from the majority of its citizens. A vast majority of people oppose the war and occupation. The anti-war movement has a responsibility to provide forums where those feelings can be expressed. National and coordinated mass action is certainly not the only strategy required to end the Iraq war and occupation. Over the last couple of years, however, it is a strategy that has not been utilized for maximum effect. That must change.”
Conference speakers include Jonathan Hutto, Navy Petty Officer, author of Anti-War Soldier and Co-Founder of Appeal for Redress; Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO; Cindy Sheehan (by satellite); Colia Clark, long time civil rights activist; Fred Mason, President of the Maryland AFL-CIO and National Co-Convenor of USLAW; Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army; and Clarence Thomas, Executive BoarD member, ILWU Local 10, the trade union that initiated the May 1 one day strike that closed all U.S. West Coast ports from Canada to Mexico.
For information and to register for the National Assembly, please go to their website at www.natassembly.org or call 216-736-4704.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org