National Antiwar Conference Does the Right Thing

By Carole Seligman

The National Assembly to End the War in Iraq held on June 28 and 29 in Cleveland, Ohio, was successful in advancing the antiwar cause. Over 300 people participated in decision making, listened to educational speeches from a cross section of the leadership of the various national antiwar organizations, and participated in many workshops. The purpose of the conference—to bring the existing antiwar organizations together for stronger, united demonstrations for the U.S. to get out of Iraq (and Afghanistan)—was achieved.

Inspiring and moving speeches were presented to the crowd by Gold Star mother, Cindy Sheehan (by video); Antiwar soldier, Navy Petty Officer Jonathan Hutto, Sr.; Elaine Johnson, who for the first time in public told exactly how her son died (and all his grievous wounds) when his helicopter was shot down in Iraq; Lynn Stewart, the attorney on trial for her own work as a committed defense lawyer. Clarence Thomas, representing the International Long Shore and Warehouse Union inspired the attendees with his report of the May 1 West Coast Long Shore coast-wide work stoppage to protest both the Iraq and Afghan wars.

The moving force in calling and organizing this conference was the venerable Jerry Gordon, 79 years old, who many of the participants remembered and respected as a key leader in building the coalitions and mass actions against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. Several labor leaders, such as Donna DeWitt, of the South Carolina AFL-CIO and Fred Mason, of the Maryland and Washington, D.C. AFL-CIO participated.

Two pressing and controversial issues at the conference could have prevented participants from making a meaningful contribution to the antiwar movement. These were the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the Israeli attack on the Palestinians. The conference organizers wanted to focus solely on the war on Iraq. Pre-conference meetings and written resolutions specifically avoided calling for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, even in the face of the recent Congressional vote to continue the massive funding for both wars, the U.S. bombing attacks on Afghan civilians, and the escalating U.S. casualties. They avoided the issue of Israel and Palestine although Israel’s assault on the Palestinians and their violation of Palestinian self-determination could not happen without U.S. military and financial support; despite the multiple links of Israel to U.S. plans to dominate the Middle East, and despite U.S. and Israel’s threats against Iran.

The conference leadership’s reasoning was their intention to make the conference decisions appeal to labor officials in the antiwar movement at a time when these leaders are heavily involved in the presidential elections and especially unwilling to adopt positions that oppose or differ with the Democratic Party politicians they support. This was an accommodation to Senator Obama, Congresswoman Pelosi, and other Democratic Party candidates and office holders who have spoken out against the Iraq war, but continue to fund it; who support the war against Afghanistan; and who compete with each other to be the most uncritical, adulatory supporters of the state of Israel. In this regard, Jonathan Hutto, Sr., the Navy petty officer, author of Anti-War Soldier, and co-founder of Appeal for Redress—the petition to the U.S. Congress by active duty soldiers to redress grievances—called Senator Obama “the greatest threat to the movement.” The conference participants rejected this accommodation.

A high point of the conference was a speech by Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He presented in rapid-fire fashion how the U.S. is contracting out many aspects of the wars to private contractors, who are reaping huge profits, are completely unaccountable for the atrocities they commit, and enjoy immunity from the U.S. and Iraqi governments from prosecution for their crimes.

Blackwater is an armed wing of the Bush administration, said Scahill, who called the private military contracts the “greatest transfer of public funds to the private sector,” and said that 70 percent of U.S. intelligence gathering is now done by private contractors. He also said that the military industrial corporations are giving more money to Democrats in this election period than they are giving to the Republicans and that Barack Obama, when elected President, will “bring more business to them.” Obama, said Scahill, “has no intention of ending the occupation of Iraq by 2009, or even by the end of his first term,” and he wants to send 7,000 more troops into Afghanistan! Obama now has “all the old hands of war from the Clinton regime” working as advisors, said Scahill.

A Saturday evening rally featured speakers from several of the most effective and largest antiwar organizations including antiwar mom and independent candidate for Congress, Cindy Sheehan; Brian Becker, of A.N.S.W.E.R.; Clarence Thomas of the ILWU; Jorge Mujica of the Chicago area immigrant rights movement; Leslie Cagan, of United for Peace and Justice; and Larry Holmes, a National Coordinator of the Troops Out Now Coalition. All of these speakers were very positive toward the National Assembly and its call for all the groups to work productively together on common actions in the Fall of this year and in Spring of 2009. Holmes put forward a wonderful slogan, “Foreclose the war, Not our homes!” which was enthusiastically received by the conference participants. Most of the speakers spoke against the war on Afghanistan.

Sunday morning the conference was addressed by Veterans for Peace President, Elliott Adams; attorney Lynne Stewart, who compared the current attack on immigrants to the Jim Crow era, calling their recruitment to fight the U.S. wars “Juan Crow;” and Jesse Diaz, Co-founder of the Los Angeles March 25 Coalition and facilitator of the 2006 immigrant rights demonstration in Los Angeles of over one million people, who advocated collaboration of the antiwar and immigrant rights movement, saying “Imagine if all of us stopped for one day [May 1, 2009]!”

The conference adopted a stronger position of opposition to Israel’s assault on the Palestinians than the conference organizers proposed. The organizers wanted only to say that the issues of Israel and Palestine are “interrelated” to the U.S. war on Iraq, but the conference majority took a stronger stand in opposition to Zionism and U.S. support of Israel.

A strong conference majority voted to add Afghanistan to the call for U.S. Out Now, adding opposition to the Afghanistan war to the name of the National Assembly group and to the action resolution. This was a vindication for those who had pushed for the conference to represent the real desires of the antiwar movement’s activist majority, who see the two wars as prongs of the War on Terror—both illegal, both immoral, both based on lies of the Bush administration, and both completely indefensible.

The conference took a strong stand to oppose any steps toward a war against Iran. This was not a controversial issue at the conference and there was a lot of interest in adding a statement strengthening the organizers’ resolution with respect to Iran.

A proposal to elect a 9-person coordinating committee was expanded to a 13-member committee and several people who had supported adding Afghanistan and Palestine to opposition to the Iraq war were voted onto the committee as well as the nine recommended by the conference organizers.

Hopefully, the National Assembly conference will mean that the antiwar movement, which has been badly sidetracked by the elections and false hopes of many antiwar people in Senator Obama’s rhetoric about ending the Iraq war, will come roaring back onto the streets, at least after the election is over. That will be long overdue, but most necessary.