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May 2002 • Vol 2, No. 5 •

What we learned and what we can learn from A20


By Martin Schreader

San Francisco Demonstratino 4/20/2002

Tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, came to Washington, DC, on April 20 to participate in a myriad of different demonstrations and actions aimed at giving voice to the increasing mass opposition to the policies and practices of the White House and its Congressional rubber stamp.

The events of “A20” were the culmination of a whole series of events that had been going on for several days. During that week, demonstrations and teach-ins were held throughout the Washington area on a wide range of issues: the continued existence of the School of the Americas, the U.S. government’s “Plan Colombia,” the unfolding revolution in Argentina, challenging capitalist “globalization,” etc.

For several weeks prior to A20, many of the main organizing bodies had been seeking to unify their activity into a single march and rally against Bush and Cheney’s “war without end.” In spite of the on-again, off-again negotiations of the organizing bodies, it was pretty obvious that the participants of the march were intent on forcing the issue.

Estimates on the size of the final march and rally vary greatly; the “official” numbers released by the police and the park service (who traditionally undercount such events) state that 75,000 attended. The chief of police in DC, however, was quoted as admitting that there were “well in excess” of 100,000. On the other hand, some organizers claim the number was at least two to three times that amount—that is, somewhere around 250,000.

There is little dispute among organizers and participants that the character of the A20 events was fundamentally changed by the presence of thousands of Arabs and Muslims who answered the calls issued from mosques, community centers and local demonstrations that had been taking place across the country.

Needless to say, the main organizers of the A20 events were overwhelmed by the response. “I’m just floored by the amount of people here today,” said Mark Rickling, an organizer for the anti-International Monetary Fund march.

“I think it is a tremendous success. So many different people from all over the place stood together in solidarity,” said Roxanne Lawson, a national coordinator for United We March.

“People just kept coming and coming, bus load after bus load,” said Jackie Captain of Fitchburg, Wisconsin. “I met people from Illinois, Minnesota, California—young and old, Palestinians and Midwesterners alike, standing together for peace and justice.”

Steve Gillis, a steelworker from Boston said that he “saw hundreds of buses on the road. The rest stops were jammed all the way down.”


A school of mass action

For most of us who fall into the “twenty-something” category, it is doubtful that we were fully prepared for A20 and what it would teach us.

Most of the people who were in Washington on that day have no direct recollection of the mass movement against the Vietnam War. Most of what we know of the antiwar movement of that time we see on television or read in books and newspapers. So, for us, whose political life began at the same time as, or after, the fall of the Berlin Wall, “mass action” was something we had heard about but never seen in our lives.

But A20 changed all that. Our abstract conceptions finally had flesh and bone. Even those of us who see ourselves as veterans of the revolutionary movement have not seen such numbers at an overtly anti-government demonstration. But it is also clear that we were not the only ones to feel this way.

This was clearly seen as the crowd swelled and the march moved closer to the Capitol, and the stunned look of the police lining the streets betrayed their false arrogance. All the National Guard reserves and police forces from surrounding areas meant very little as the march stretched on and on. At 3 p.m., when the United We March rally began at the Mall, thousands had yet to leave Freedom Plaza, and tens of thousands were still marching.

The power that this march and rally held did not escape anyone’s attention. This could be seen in the mood of the marchers and how it changed from the morning to the afternoon. Most people arrived in Washington with a feeling that A20 was going to be no different than the small protests they had participated in previously.

But, as “bus load after bus load” arrived, as the fleet of 50 buses from New York carrying Arabs and Muslims pulled up in front of the Washington Monument, as youth from as far away as Wyoming and Texas mingled with others from South Carolina, Massachusetts and Michigan, the more or less jaded and defensive approach so many took to the event quickly faded, replaced by an excitement and enthusiasm that often betrayed any emotionally stoic front.


Unity was the key: Freedom Plaza

By far the most exciting place had to be Freedom Plaza at 1 p.m. This was where and when the various “feeder marches” and demonstrations merged into a single group. It was in Freedom Plaza that the breadth and depth of the opposition movement in the United States, the “other America,” was most obvious.

Liberal pacifists carrying “Peace is patriotic” signs stood side-by-side with anarchists calling to “smash the borders.” The Radical Cheerleaders performed while Muslims and Orthodox Jews prayed together. Young communists shared smiles and laughs with Mennonite elders.

It was not only the clouds above that thundered through the streets of Washington that day. As the marches melded together, the varied voices of protest took up one single demand: “Free Palestine!” At that moment, and continuing on through the end of day, years of isolated single-issuism succumbed to overwhelming demand for unity and common action.

Palestine was in many respects the glue that held the march together. And that was due to the perspective put forward both from the Arab community and some of the organizers. Apart from a few small provocations, the general tone of the demonstration was for Arab-Jewish unity against Zionism and occupation.

Members of “Jews Against the Occupation” carried banners and signs declaring their “shame” over the actions that the war criminal Ariel Sharon has carried out in the name of “the Jewish people.” Behind them, Palestinian youth carried signs and chanted, “Jewish people—YES! Zionism—NO!” A contingent of lesbian/gay activists carried signs saying, “From Stonewall to Ramallah, the people fight back.”

This theme continued to echo from the stage, as speaker after speaker stressed the need for a united response to the actions of the right-wing Zionist regime in Israel. One speaker expressed a view held by many Palestinian activists, both within and outside the Arab American community, that this struggle is the successor to the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s.

This view was repeated by one Palestinian youth, explaining the situation to an African American couple watching the event. “It’s like the same thing as what the Black South Africans were facing under apartheid, man. It’s like the same thing.”

Two views on Palestine

Drawing comparisons between Palestine today and South Africa in the 1980s is no mere rhetorical flourish. It is a reflection of the view that most Palestinians, and their supporters, have of their fight. As they are quick to explain, their battle is not with the Jewish people living in Israel, but with the Israeli government, which perpetuates their status as second-class citizens and something just short of slave labor.

While the Palestinian demonstrators stated their rejection of suicide bombings as a means of liberation, they also clearly denounced the Israeli government’s use of these bombings as a justification for mass murder. A sign that read, “a suicide bomber is a poor man’s F-16,” encapsulated this equation of tactics in a “war situation.”

At A20 there were clearly two different views presented as the solution to the conflict in Palestine. The first view, presented by the liberals and some of the left, is that what is needed now is a “two-state” solution, where a democratic and secular Israel exists beside a democratic and secular Palestine. According to the supporters of this solution, while they agree with the need for peace and brotherhood in the region, right now the Israelis are not willing to live in peace with Palestinians in a single state. Thus, for them, the “national rights” of the Israelis necessitate the need for two states until such a time as unification can be achieved.

The demand of the Palestinians, on the other hand, was for a single, democratic and secular state, where Jews and Palestinians live together “as brothers and sisters.” One Palestinian woman who addressed the rally stated that the two-state solution seeks to codify the “Jewish character of the state” of Israel, to the detriment of the thousands of Arabs living inside the country. She emphasized in her speech that preservation of this exclusive “character” was racist and un-democratic, and allowed for the justification of the “ethnic cleansing” being carried out by the Israeli regime.


The dynamics of self-determination

Why such a conclusion? The answer goes to the heart of the issue of self-determination—i.e., the will of the people. The Palestinian people—the tens of thousands of them on the streets of Washington during A20 and the tens of thousands more who were not present that day but have made their voices heard many times before—in their overwhelming majority desire a single state where today’s citizens of Israel (Jewish and Arab) and today’s citizens of the Palestinian Authority, along with the descendants of the Palestinian diaspora, can live together.

Revolutionary Marxists1 support the right of self-determination for all oppressed peoples. And self-determination implies that such support is based on the will of those same oppressed peoples. So what can be said of the will of the Palestinian people? If the speeches, signs, banners and demands of the Palestinian participants in the A20 march—and those of the marches that came before—can offer an answer, it appears that the will of the Palestinian people is for a single state, democratic and secular, where all can live together. For many of them, the two-state solution is something they are willing to settle for, but it is not what they want.

So the question becomes: If supporters of the “two-state solution” also desire Israel to be a democratic and secular state, then why counterpoise this to the views of the Palestinians, who want a single democratic and secular state—and seem to be more than willing to live side-by-side with the Jewish population? Apparently it revolves around the issue of the “national rights” of Israelis and the xenophobia of the oppressor state.

To pose the issue concretely; if Israel were to shed its exclusively “Jewish character” and become a democratic and secular state, granting Arabs equal rights and representation in the government, and allowing the right of return for the Palestinian diaspora, then many Palestinians would be more than willing to live inside that state.

The problems that face those who advocate a democratic “two-state” solution are the same as those who put forward the “one-state” view—the racism and xenophobia of Zionism and its hegemony over the Israeli people. For those advocating the democratic “two-state” solution, the defeat of this ideology is as necessary to the victory of their program as it is for those seeking a single democratic and secular state.

But the insurmountable problem for the two-state advocates is the role of U.S. imperialism as the real power behind the exclusively Jewish state. A democratic Israel, an Israel that could become majority Palestinian, an Israel which would have to stop giving Palestinian lands to Jewish immigrants from all over the world, is not a state which U.S. imperialism would support as its bulwark against the Arab peoples’ struggle to control their own lands and resources, namely oil. And without U.S. support, Israel, as a clerical state, would collapse.


Lessons for the “other America”

What are the lessons revolutionary-minded workers and all those opposed to the policies of the government must draw from the A20 events? First and foremost, the most important lesson is that the much-ballyhooed “national unity” of Bush and company has been exposed as a total sham and media fabrication.

The fact that tens of thousands of workers and oppressed people marched on Washington against Bush’s “war on terror,” only seven months after the events of September 11, attests to the truth behind one sign seen at the march: “United We Stand, Mr. Bush? Be careful what you wish for…” In other words, the class struggle continues, even in times of war.

Flowing directly from this, another important lesson for revolutionaries today is the need for a greater political approach to today’s events. Yes, the economic recession has shared headlines with the “war on terror,” but the economic crisis is as much a political crisis.

That is, the recession—the mass unemployment, shredding of social services, elimination of what remains of welfare programs, the “Enronization” of American business, etc.—cannot be solved on a purely economic level. The capitalists are using their control of the economy to further a political agenda aimed at marginalizing democratic rights—i.e., replacing the traditional bourgeois-democratic structures of the U.S. with a more or less open police state.

The third lesson, no less important than the first two, is the need for revolutionaries to build stronger ties with the working class and oppressed communities in the U.S., and seek to bring the masses of working people into a common dialogue and debate over the character and content of the communist program. A program is only as powerful as the numbers who support it.

The revolutionary party

Finally, the most important weapon that we as revolutionary-minded workers have is summed up in one word: organization. If anything, A20 showed us what mass action could accomplish. But in order to build on that victory, further organization, and the formation of a revolutionary working class leadership, is needed.

The refoundation of a revolutionary socialist party in the United States, even as a small organization geared toward revolutionary propaganda, would be a tremendous step forward in the struggle against imperialist war and police-state repression. The unity of revolutionary-minded workers and militants into such a party, armed with a revolutionary theory and a program of action, could provide an alternative to the existing liberal and pacifist leaderships while at the same time working alongside them to build a united response to capitalism and its program.

Currently, no single organization fits this bill. Today the revolutionary socialist movement is spread across a myriad of groups divided by tactical disagreements and principled differences. Some call themselves “Trotskyists;” others reject any specific label. Nevertheless, these brothers and sisters—these comrades—must draw themselves together into a political party of the working class that can make the unity we saw on A20 something more than a single event.

The movement of the class struggle is more powerful than the bureaucratic apparatus; and, there is little doubt that events will help some to draw the necessary conclusions. The forms taken during this learning process will likely be as varied as the shades of revolutionary political thought that exist in the U.S. today.

A20 was a glimpse of the power of the “other America.” What we do with what we have seen and learned will, as much as anything else, determine if, as the slogan goes, “another world is possible.”

1. There is essentially no difference in the scientific meaning of the words socialism and communism—except that socialism refers to a lower stage and communism a higher stage of society in the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. But it has come to have different meanings because of the degeneration of the Socialist Parties and the Communist Parties around the world. Therefore the editorial policy of this magazine is to use the term “revolutionary socialist” to distinguish our political outlook from the reformist socialists of the Socialist Parties around the world and the Stalinist reformists of the Communist Parties, likewise. . . . Editors





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