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Day 17

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An Interview with Jerry Gordon on the State of the Antiwar Movement

Not Dead Yet

by RON JACOBS

GIs and Iraqis still dying in battle in Iraq. An increase in troops and air attacks in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties on the rise. Despite campaign promises to begin bringing US troops home from Iraq in 2009, the number of US troops in Iraq remains virtually unchanged. General Odierno says the US may have to keep soldiers and Marines in Iraqi cities past the July 1, 2009 deadline agreed to in the Status of Forces Agreement signed in December 2008 between Washington and its client regime in Baghdad. In Afghanistan, US intelligence agencies look for ways to ensure that Washington’s man wins the upcoming election, with flashbacks to the fraudulent votes in Vietnam that put Nguyen van Thieu in the palace in Saigon.

Despite the fact that Washington’s imperial adventures in both of these nations are far from over, there has been very little protest in the home country. Indeed, one national antiwar network–United for Peace and Justice–is suffering from financial problems and is losing one of its national coordinators. There is one organization however, that is planning to forge ahead. They are the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations. This group was formed in 2008 by a group of antiwar activists unaffiliated to any party. The group’s founding conference was held in Cleveland and was attended by several hundred individuals, including members of both national antiwar networks and several other organizations including Veterans for Peace, several political organizations and a number of labor and religious groups. I recently received word from one of the group’s founders that the Assembly was holding its second conference this July. What follows is an email exchange he and I had.

Ron: Hi Jerry. To begin, would you mind introducing yourself and explain your role in the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations? Also, can you give the readers a little of your history in the antiwar movement?

My name is Jerry Gordon and I am the secretary of the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations.  I have been actively involved in struggles against U.S. wars, occupations and interventions starting with the Korean War (1950-53) and including Vietnam (as a National Co-Coordinator of the National Peace Action Coalition), Central America, Yugoslavia, the first Iraq War in 1991, and the current war. 

Ron: I’ve provided the readers with a brief history of the founding of the National Assembly in the introduction to this interview. Is there anything you would like to add to that description?

Yes, I would add that the founding conference featured spirited discussion and debate regarding what the antiwar movement should do in the period ahead. The conference was unique in that it was open on a non-exclusionary basis to all activists wishing to attend. Over 400 people did so, reflecting widely different points of views on all kinds of questions. Decisions were made on the basis of one person, one vote.

Ron: Since the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, I’ve noticed a decrease in antiwar activity among even many of the most involved antiwar activists. While it is safe to say that this decrease began well before January 2009, the virtual lack of protest around the occupations and wars seems to indicate a major change of heart among many protesters. Do you agree? If so, to what would attribute this? If not, why?

I don’t believe there has been a major change of heart among the antiwar majority in this country, although the turnout at recent demonstrations has unquestionably been smaller than at previous ones. I believe there are several factors at work here.

Let’s go back to the largest action against the Iraq War which was held September 24, 2005 in Washington D.C., which drew some 700,000 people. Unfortunately, two things of a distinctly negative character happened in the aftermath of that action.

One was the swing against mass action by big chunks of the movement, who advocated electoral politics as the central strategy. The focus was on electing a Democratic Party majority in both Houses of Congress as the way to end the Iraq War. Well, the Democrats got control of both the Senate and House of Representatives as a result of the 2006 elections but the war continued and even escalated. And the Democrats continued voting to fund it.

The other negative development was the split in the antiwar movement. Instead of parlaying the success of the 2005 mobilization, which was co-sponsored by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and the ANSWER Coalition, and concentrating on organizing even larger united actions, the movement fractured, with UFPJ leaders declaring they would have no further collaboration with ANSWER. This severely weakened the movement and it remains a continuing and festering problem.

The current period has ushered in major developments that profoundly affect the antiwar movement. The first, of course, is the very severe economic crisis. For tens of millions of people in this country, the central issue today is survival. Ending the wars and occupations is no loner the priority it once was, especially since U.S. casualties are much less than they were in the previous period. Today we are witnessing increasing numbers of protest actions against budget cuts, denial of essential social services, assaults on workers’ living standard and their right to organize and bargain collectively, mass unemployment, housing foreclosures, lack of health care coverage, breakdown of the infrastructure, environmental issues, etc. In short, American society faces a deep crisis of epidemic proportions which grows worse by the day. The antiwar movement is struggling to connect its issues to the fightback on other fronts and to demonstrate its relevance by arguing, among other things, that the choice is guns or butter, because we can’t have both. So our greatest challenge is to make that connection and that is an ongoing process.

The other major development is the election of Barack Obama to the White House. Elected as an antiwar candidate, Obama has already dashed the hopes of millions by escalating in Afghanistan, which he continues to argue is the “good war,” and by intensifying the drone bombings in Pakistan.  At the same time, he says he will not pull out all U.S. troops from Iraq until 2011.That’s much too long for many in the antiwar movement but since the casualties are down and the direction appears to be to get out, large numbers are prepared to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and no longer feel the same compulsion to take to the streets to demand “Out Now!”

As long as Obama’s maintains his credibility and popularity in the conduct of foreign policy, and as long as illusions persist that the Iraq War is winding down and that the U.S. will indeed withdraw all of its forces, and as long as the rationale for continuing the war against Afghanistan and Pakistan is not challenged more assertively, the antiwar movement will not likely draw the kind of crowds it did in the past. But everything changes and that will certainly be the case here as the economic meltdown accelerates, the number of casualties in Afghanistan climbs, and new flareups and conflicts erupt in Iraq. The National Assembly believes that these and other developments will result in our antiwar message resonating more broadly, as we proceed and persist in the struggle to strengthen, rebuild and unite the antiwar movement.  

Ron: The National Assembly is having a national conference in Pittsburgh on July 10th and 11th this year. Can you tell us why the conference is being held now? What are your hopes for this conference?

The conference has been called primarily to assess the current situation and to plan actions in the period ahead. The antiwar movement critically needs continuity, meaning it has to constantly stay active planning and organizing periodic mobilizations in the streets – however large or small – to build the movement, win new activists to its ranks, demonstrate visibility, and educate masses of people. Reflecting this last priority, we look to the Pittsburgh conference to combine an educational/activist program which will revitalize the movement and make it a more powerful force in the struggle to end the wars and occupations. We are convinced that the best way to arrive at such a program is by convening a national conference open to all peace activists who will have the opportunity to share their ideas and proposals.

We also hope that the Pittsburgh conference will further promote the cause of unity of the antiwar movement. There are a number of positive signs reflecting broad and growing support for the National Assembly’s unity campaign. Top leaders of the movement – such as Michael T. McPhearson, UFPJ’s Co-Chair and Executive Director of Veterans for Peace, and Brian Becker, ANSWER’s National Coordinator — are scheduled to address the conference and this bodes well. All of us in the movement need each other and it is high time to put aside past grievances and move forward together. This would certainly be in the interest of the larger struggle to end the wars and occupations, and the tens of millions of people subjected to foreign occupations and the killing and destruction that goes with it would enthusiastically welcome such a development. Our responsibility is to help make that happen.

Ron: The National Assembly has been against the occupation and war in Afghanistan since the Assembly was formed. Other national antiwar networks have been less pointed on this matter, focusing mostly on the situation in Iraq instead. Why has the National Assembly been as opposed to the war in Afghanistan as it is to the occupation (and war) in Iraq?

One of the highlights of the June 2008 conference was the proposal from the floor that the National Assembly expand its agenda to include the demand for immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. Proponents of this proposal argued convincingly that the same government waging war and occupying Iraq was doing the same thing in Afghanistan. The proposal was debated and approved by a majority. In retrospect, it is clear to all of us that we arrived at the correct decision. This was a classic example of democracy in action as practiced by the National Assembly.

The war against Afghanistan violates the right of self-determination; is resulting in more and more deaths and casualties of Afghanis, Americans, and other nationals; is unwinnable; and is costing taxpayers a fortune that is needed to feed, clothe and house people, not slaughter them. These are all good reasons to oppose the war’s continuation.

Ron: Back to Obama for a minute. What do you think it will take to get him to withdraw US troops from Iraq before 2011? When I look at his record so far, especially in regards to his action (or lack thereof) on the use of torture, illegal eavesdropping and the closing of Gitmo and other torture chambers, I am less hopeful than I was in January. What kind of strategy do you hope to see develop that will end these occupations and the accompanying activities?

We believe in the strategy of mass action as the principal way to end the wars and occupations. What is critical to achieving success in this struggle is not who is sitting in the White House but who is marching in the streets. After all, the Vietnam War was ended during the Nixon and Ford Republican administrations, not under the Democrats. Electoral politics and other forms of protest all have a role, but masses of people in motion are what brings about fundamental change. This includes forcing changes in government as shown by the ouster of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos seven years later in the Philippines, despite the history of his being propped up by Washington.

Ron: I read recently that there are tens of thousands of security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan in addition to the troops. How does one go about insuring their withdrawal as well?

The presence of so many private contractors in Iraq is undoubtedly a gigantic problem. They play a mercenary role and do a lot of the occupying power’s dirty work, which, as we now know, includes torturing prisoners and detainees. Private contractors outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq, and more than 180,000 civilians, including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis, are under U.S. contracts.  All must be sent packing and when we call for “Out Now!” we include contractors with an exclamation point.  The same mass movement that will sooner or later force Washington to withdraw U.S. troops and equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan and shut down U.S. military bases in both countries is the same movement that must insure that the contractors leave as well.

Ron: Thanks. Anything else?

Yes, we urge readers of this article and other antiwar activists to register for and attend the July 10-12 conference. It will be held at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. Please visit our website at www.natassembly.org  or call 216-736-4704 or email natassembly@aol.com for more information. You can register online or via regular mail. We will be glad to send you upon request a brochure containing a registration form. Write National Assembly, P.O. Box 21008, Cleveland, OH 44121.

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: rjacobs3625@charter.net