Ending the War in Iraq, Building a Broad Movement for Peace and Justice, And Our Experience with A.N.S.W.E.R.

From the Steering Committee, United for Peace and Justice
December 12, 2005

United for Peace and Justice aims to build the broadest, most diverse movement for an immediate and complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We see this as our immediate priority in the long-term effort to build a durable peace and justice movement that connects domestic and international issues. We are committed to working in a way that makes it possible for the widest array of people to come together around common aims, including communities of color, military families, Iraq war veterans and other veterans, the labor movement, youth, religious community, the women’s and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movements, professional organizations and community groups.

As our coalition moves forward, we try to evaluate our experiences in order to strengthen our efforts and overcome our shortcomings. In recent months, a difficult and controversial aspect of our work has been our engagement with International A.N.S.W.E.R in co-sponsoring the September 24, 2005 Washington, D.C. Rally and March. Following this experience, and after thorough discussion, the national steering committee of United for Peace and Justice has decided not to coordinate work with ANSWER again on a national level. Here we want to share with all UFPJ member groups our summary of this experience and the decisions we have made as a result.  

In spring 2005, based on previous experiences, UFPJ did not believe it would be productive to make coordination with ANSWER a centerpiece of our September 24 efforts. (See memo dated May 23rd – click here: http://www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?id=2853). We had a particular vision for this specific action:

(1) its central demands would hone in on ending the war in Iraq, thus sending a focused message to the U.S. public and providing an entryway into the antiwar movement for the expanding number of people prepared to turn out for a protest demonstration; and
(2) the connections between the Iraq war and Washington’s overall empire building, the U.S. support of the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, racism, repression and injustice at home would be articulated in accessible and creative ways, not only via rally speakers, but also at an interactive two day peace and justice festival, and throughout a 12 hour concert.

We did not believe ANSWER shared this perspective on the September 24 activities. Therefore we decided that working with them would hinder rather than help in maximizing the breadth and impact of such a demonstration at an urgent political moment.

As September 24 came closer and some circumstances changed, we changed our perspective. Regarding the weekend in general, the spotlight Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath put on racism and class inequities led us to highlight the demand for Funding Full and Just Recovery in the Gulf Coast. Regarding our relations with ANSWER, our concerns grew about the potential confusion of having two totally separate demonstrations in the same city on the same day. We seriously considered the thoughtful concerns expressed by some anti-war groups and activists that an agreement for a joint UFPJ-ANSWER action needed to be worked out. As a result, after much reflection and without unanimity among us, we reversed our earlier decision. With the help of mediation by U.S. Labor Against the War, we worked out an agreement with ANSWER for joint sponsorship of the September 24 Rally and March (but not other weekend activities). (See the text of the agreement, click here: http://www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?id=3161).

There were two positive results of this agreement. First, we avoided the problem of two completely separate demonstrations in Washington, DC on September 24. Second, the rancorous public dispute over the whos, hows and whys of September 24 was largely ended for the important period immediately preceding the action.

But there were many negative results as well.

First, ANSWER violated the terms of our agreement in ways that substantially and negatively impacted September 24’s message and impact:

(1) ANSWER did not honor the agreed-upon time limits for its sections of the pre-march Rally, going more than an hour over in one section. The time was to be evenly divided in 30 minutes segments alternating between the two coalitions. Besides the impact in terms of disrespect to other speakers and the attendees in Washington, DC, this meant that the C-SPAN broadcast of the rally presented a one-sided picture of the antiwar movement to the U.S. public. In the extended ANSWER section broadcast on C-SPAN, there was in fact very little focus on, or explanation of, the central demand motivating hundreds of thousands of people to attend the demonstration: U.S. Out of Iraq Now. 

(2) ANSWER delayed the start of the March for an hour past the agreed upon time. We learned that morning that while our agreement with ANSWER was to begin the march at 12:30, the permit ANSWER had negotiated with the police had the march starting at 1:30. This led to confusion, which in turn prevented the agreed-upon lead contingent carrying the agreed-upon lead banner (“End the War in Iraq, Bring the Troops Home Now, Justice for Hurricane Victims”) from actually leading the March. This diluted the March’s message – especially in terms of media images of the March’s front rank. It also jeopardized relationships between UFPJ and the representatives of several organizations whom we asked be part of the lead contingent of the March. An antiwar movement still not as strong as we need to be when compared to the tasks before us, in which developing relationships of mutual trust and accountability is of vital importance, can ill afford such short-sighted and narrow-minded practice.

(3) ANSWER did not turn out many volunteers to provide for fundraising, security and media operations for the March and Rally. UFPJ was also short of volunteers, but the much smaller numbers from ANSWER meant that many of the practical burdens of attending to the needs of the crowd fell on UFPJ, while ANSWER concentrated its attention on extending the time their speakers were on the stage.  

In our view, it was because we had insisted (against ANSWER’s objections) that the terms of our agreement be made public; and through the costly expenditure of time and energy to deal with one issue after another in the weeks just before September 24, that additional problems were avoided. However, the interactions required to accomplish this were tremendously difficult and stressful, taking a major human toll on the UFPJ representatives participating in meetings with ANSWER. UFPJ has made our share of mistakes and no doubt some of us may have made intemperate and inappropriate remarks in the heat of political difficulty. We also see that while our agreement with ANSWER did not require us to do so, the fact that we did not inform them about the plans to include speakers during the late afternoon/evening concert might have contributed to the tension. But the souring of the political atmosphere is largely due to ANSWER, which, in our experience, consistently substitutes labels (“racist”, “anti-unity”) and mischaracterization of others’ views for substantive political debate or problem solving – both in written polemics and direct face-to-face interactions. 

Beyond all this, the priority given to negotiating and then trying to carry out an agreement with ANSWER hurt rather than helped galvanize the participation of many other groups and individuals in the September 24 activities. In part this is simply a question of where time and resources were directed. But it also stems from the bridges ANSWER has burned over the years with other broader forces in the progressive movement. Many longtime antiwar and social movement activists – and many groups only recently embracing mass action against the war - have had the same kind of negative experiences with ANSWER that we did in the run-up to, and on September 24. Some people, and some UFPJ member groups, believe this stems from ANSWER’s political and strategic perspectives. Others attribute the problems to what is often called style of work, or to issues about democracy, decision making and control. Whatever the case on this level, co-sponsorship with ANSWER on September 24 was welcomed by some in the antiwar movement but limited or prevented completely the participation of others.

This is not surprising: “unity in the movement” doesn’t happen in the abstract. Especially when up-close coordination is involved, unity takes place between specifics groups and individuals, and choices to work in close cooperation with certain groups with certain approaches simultaneously means choosing not to work in the same fashion with other groups. Of course we all dream of a situation where everyone gets together as one cooperative movement family. But we still must deal with politics as they are, not as we wish them to be. Sometimes it is necessary for groups with extremely bitter relations to cooperate for a common aim. But there are many circumstances when effective movement building and the long-range process of developing unity is better served by different groups pursuing different courses, until conditions change or the groups themselves evolve and transform.   

In terms of UFPJ’s relationship with ANSWER, our national steering committee has concluded that the latter path is best for the foreseeable future. We did not have consensus. But by a more than two thirds supermajority we voted on December 4 not to coordinate work with ANSWER again on a national level. We simultaneously recognized that other settings and situations may be different. We make no recommendations or mandates on this issue to UFPJ member groups in local or constituency-based areas, who will continue to decide whether and/or how much to coordinate efforts with ANSWER based on their own experiences, conditions and judgments.

The tasks in front of the anti-Iraq war movement and all of us who are struggling for peace and justice are immense. Yet this is a moment of great opportunity, as popular anger at Bush’s wars against people abroad and at home grows, and as an expanding number of organizations – many with massive constituencies among poor, working and oppressed peoples – are willing to consider taking up aggressive protest mobilizations. United for Peace and Justice will redouble our efforts to push forward the antiwar movement and to bring the broadest and most diverse array of people and groups into the struggle for peace and justice.