Presentation to the Hackney Stop the War Coalition
April 1, 2003
by Michael Letwin, NYCLAW Co-Convener
The antiwar movement in the United States took a huge leap forward on February 15, when hundreds of thousands joined protests across the country.
At least half a million participated in New York City, the largest such protest in the U.S. since a Central Park disarmament rally in 1982. Participants represented an unprecedented diversity of race, ethnicity, nationality and age, many of whom had never protested before; the labor contingent, for example, was the most trade such presence in living memory.
The huge turnout in NYC was despite the federal government’s attempt to dampen attendance through issuance of a high-level terrorist alert, and the city’s parallel refusal to grant a march permit. Tens of thousands took the streets anyway; police responded by viciously beating and/or arresting over three hundred peaceful protesters. Hundreds of thousands also marched in San Francisco, and in scores of other cities and towns.
This massive outpouring has not stopped the Bush administration’s rush to war. But it offered dramatic proof that, just 17 months after 9/11, U.S. public opinion has become increasingly antiwar. For example, the AFL-CIO consistently supported U.S. Cold War policy, including the Vietnam war, as a result of which critics called it the “AFL-CIA.” Today, in sharp contrast, one-third of U.S. union members belong to labor bodies opposed to war on Iraq–and the number grows every day.
Even the media, which has generally sought to marginalize the movement, has been forced to give extensive, positive coverage to February 15 protests. As the New York Times noted on February 17, “[t]he fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Such acknowledgments caused Bush to make the widely-ridiculed comment that protesters are a mere “focus group.”
February 15 also gave the U.S. movement a huge boost of self-confidence and momentum, which activists are now seeking to escalate. Upcoming protests include a February 26 mass e-mail campaign to Bush and Congress, a March 5 moratorium and student strike, a March 15 convergence on the White House, and March 29 Palestine protests. As in other parts of the world, plans are in place for emergency response protests against all-out war.
To effectively stop the war, however, the U.S. movement faces many difficult challenges.
For example, unlike the U.K.’s Stop the War Coalition umbrella, there are at least four different national U.S. antiwar coalitions:
**International ANSWER, which has organized three very large Washington demonstrations since April 20, 2002, and which has been the target of relentless red-baiting–even by some within the antiwar movement.
**Not in Our Name, which is most widely known for having published a statement by the same name in major newspapers.
**United for Peace and Justice, the newest and broadest coalition, which was the main sponsor of the February 15 protests.
**Win Without War, which has focused primarily on lobbying efforts, such as that scheduled for February 26.
In addition to these organizations are scores, if not hundreds of others, including the recently-formed U.S. Labor Against the War.
This plethora of organizations is a two-edged sword. Diverse efforts can help build a dynamic movement. But too often, competing coalitions work at cross-purposes–an unaffordable indulgence at this critical moment. Moreover, none of these coalitions are sufficiently democratic or representative of communities of color and labor.
Such shortcomings are not easily overcome. For example, despite unprecedented trade union participation, U.S. labor is far weaker than that of any industrialized country. Unions are, at best, barely able to defend their members’ most immediate interests, let alone contemplate the antiwar strikes now threatened in the U.K., Italy or Australia.
Notwithstanding these difficult challenges, the U.S. antiwar movement has made tremendous strides that were hard to imagine in the immediate wake of 9/11, and holds out badly-needed promise to oppose what Martin Luther King, Jr. accurately identified as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government.”