While the Netroots Nation Convention commands the attention of many who are tuned into activism this weekend, there is another gathering of significance that is happening in Albany, NY–the United National Peace Conference.
The conference, co-sponsored by 31 different peace and justice organizations, is, as Teresa Gutierrez characterized it, a "visionary event" that is filling a vacuum. Activists have gathered to deliberate and come to a meaningful consensus on what can be done "to end the U.S. wars, occupations, bombing attacks, threats and interventions that are taking place in the Middle East and beyond" and to discuss where the U.S. peace movement is today and where it must go from here.
The organizers are united behind the following demands: immediate and total withdrawal of U.S. military forces, mercenaries and contractors from Afghanistan and Iraq; funds for jobs, health care, education, the environment, infrastructure and other human needs; compensation for peoples whose countries have suffered from U.S. attacks and occupation resulting in loss of lives, suffering and massive destruction.
The conference began Friday night with a panel discussion called "Strategies and Tactics in the Struggle to End the Empire’s Wars and Occupations."
Panelists included: Medea Benjamin (CODEPINK), Michael Eisenscher (National Labor Coordinator of U.S. Labor Against the War), Glen Ford (Black Agenda Report), Chris Gauvreau (Administrative Body, National Assembly to End US Wars and Occupations), Teresa Gutierrez (International Action Center), Kathy Kelly (Voices for Creative Nonviolence), Nada Khader (Palestinian-American and Exec. Director of the Westchester Peace Action Coalition Foundation), Bianca Misse (Graduate Student, UC Berkeley), and Debra Sweet (National Director, World Can’t Wait).
Medea Benjamin asked the audience if they had ever been called un-American or unpatriotic for engaging in "antiwar work." She suggested there was a shift going on where that was no longer the attitude. She talked about leaving the halls of Congress to go to a rally where librarians were saying they needed money. She connected that to war and ran back in with a group of activists and, unable to contain themselves, they shouted at Carl Levin for the activity going on in Congress to spend another $30 billion on war and called support for more war funding "downright unpatriotic."
Benjamin spoke of the need to find ways to show the peace movement is behind finding money for librarians and for rebuilding the country and that we need to make that message visible through signs that could say things like "End War, Build America." And, closed by calling for "not just ending money for war but also money for empire" by closing the 800-plus bases the US has around the world. And, she said that the movement needed "to make this month really hot for Democrats and Republican politicians."
Michael Eisenscher talked of the peace movement’s responsibility "to remove the boot of foreign occupation from the necks of the Iraqi people." He recounted how the newly elected government in Iraq continues to suppress union organizing. For example, he mentioned how the Iraq regime "escalated war [on unions] by banning all foreign travel by union leaders" unless they get approval of the government prior to travel. He mentioned how the Iraqi government has filed charges against two top officers of an oil workers federation that has organized in opposition to the privatization of Iraq’s oil resources. And, he shared how the Ministry of Electricity is engaged in the repression of trade union activity and all forms of cooperation with unions in the workplace.
Eisenscher pledged to circulate a letter to Congress asking for opposition to be registered against the Iraq government’s actions against unions (even though this may be happening with the consent of US political leaders). And noted that people suffering aggression need peace movement to be united and that there must be an "effort to find common ground" instead of engaging in "the zealous pursuit of political purity."
Glen Ford talked about the culture of resistance that used to make black people the most dependent antiwar demographic in the U.S. Bu, now, with Obama elected, they have become more confused than anybody else. He cited a poll that indicated blacks are now the largest group who believe they are better off than before the recession, which indicates Obama’s presence has served as a "narcotic" for the black population.
Ford said, "Breaking the Obama spell is the must do task for a renewed movement for social justice and peace" and added, "There is nothing complicated about it. You simply tell the truth. Obama works for Wall Street and the militarists. That is the truth."
Chris Gauvreau highlighted the importance of the April 9th mobilization and talked about utilizing the October 2nd March on Washington being organized for jobs and how the peace movement should utilize it to build the movement. She talked of the value of mass action and how it is possible since hundreds of thousands have shown up to AZ, to march in the National Equality March for LGBT rights, and for immigrant rights in D.C. She encouraged a move away from divisiveness and toward cooperation and encouraged the assembly to stand for political independence and build a movement visibly independent from both major political parties in the country.
Teresa Gutierrez talked of the revival of May Day in the country and how immigrant rights could play a role in the building of a peace movement. She condemned the militarization of the border, the breaking up of families by authorities, and the mass incarceration of worker "whose only crime is that they were trying to survive." She highlighted the continued saber-rattling against Iran that the U.S. is engaged in and talked of how the 7,000 troops in Costa Rica are there to challenge the symbol of revolution that is Cuba, the people of Honduras who continue to resist the coup that has been imposed upon them, and the country of Bolivia, which has become a symbol of resistance.
Kathy Kelly said it’s "very difficult to find actions commensurate to crimes being committed." But, she explained in many cases members of the peace movement need to continually "displace" themselves from the comforts of the world. They have to get down to the nitty-gritty and update that database, send that press release, make the phone call, etc. And, spoke of how being a peace activists forces you to change your priorities in life.
Nadia Khader talked more about immigrants and made the distinction that many of the people being criminalized are not illegal immigrants but rather "economic refugees," who have fled their countries due to trade union policies that have connect to the movement and suggested that leaders who have traditionally enjoyed privilege (whites) "know when to step back" and let those who have internalized racial suppression speak up and share their views in a safe space.
Khader urged the movement to take up the issue of Palestine and make it central to the movement. And, she spoke of a resolution the Palestine Solidarity Caucus would be attempting to pass at the assembly.
Kevin Martin suggested that the "empire is dying." He said he thought the tide was turning on Afghanistan and on the Palestinian issue especially as more and more boycott, divestment & sanctions (BDS) actions take place. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and Pete Seeger in his speech and highlighted the success of peace activists in shutting down an Army Experience Center.
Michael McPhearson talked about the past and how the progressive left and peace & antiwar movements had the energy sucked out of them by Obama’s presidential campaign. He said he believed it is now clear the Obama Administration will not bring the change this country needs and that the peace movement needed to work to pull elected officials to the left. He also spoke about a "new left configuration" emerging that likely would take on the new reality that has come about as a result of the Tea Party in this country.
Blanca Misse, who had helped to organize on March 4th in a national day of action to defend education, spoke of building a "grassroots activist independent movement for mass action." She talked about shutting down UC Berkeley and unfurling a banner that said, "Money for Jobs and Education, Not for War & Incarceration." She said the movements of the country need to bring their issues together and work with each other and understand this is about the future of generations, the future of children in this country, and about taking on unemployment, foreclosures, lack of public services, the need for union rights and workers’ rights, and, of course, peace.
Debra Sweet responded to all the speakers of the night urging them to understand that the Democrats are not the peace movement’s friends because "they know what we think" and "their job is to keep [peace movement] shut up and quiet." She noted the incident with Shirley Sherrod this week and said, "What about if the Democratic Party said look we’re not going to stand for this Tea Party racism? You all come into the streets right now."
Sweet cited the escalation of war in Afghanistan and the constant voting for war funding in Congress. She stated, "Democrats are here to channel your anger into meaningless worry about legislation polling and voting what I call bullshit when we ought to be out in the streets" and then unfurled a poster ad that had been published in various print media that read, "Crimes Are Crimes No Matter Who Commits Them," a call to people to consider how Obama’s continuation of Bush policies should be opposed as much as Bush’s war policies were opposed when he was president.
There will likely be a debate among peace movement organizers at the assembly on how much of a role the issue of the economy and jobs should play in the organization of future actions supported and led by peace organizations in this country. Also, "political purity" and when to compromise will likely become a contentious issue as well.
After two days of deliberation, movement leaders hope to have a resolution that will help set an agenda for the peace movement to move forward and take on the Obama Administration’s continued support and escalation of war.
Here’s a video of Glen Ford speaking on the panel (for more videos, go to MediaSanctuary.TV. (Media Sanctuary will be live streaming from the event all weekend if you would like to hear more about what peace movement leaders and organizers are talking about.) —