Published in the November 1-7, 2002 issue of LA Weekly
Behind the Placards
The Odd and Troubling Origins of Today’s Anti-War Movement
by David Corn
FREE MUMIA. FREE THE CUBAN 5. FREE JAMIL AL-AMIN (that’s H. Rap Brown, the former Black Panther convicted in March of killing a sheriff’s deputy in 2000). And free Leonard Peltier. Also, defeat Zionism. And, while we’re at it, let’s bring the capitalist system to a halt.
When tens of thousands of people gathered near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for an anti-war rally and march in Washington last Saturday, the demands hurled by the speakers extended far beyond the call for no war against Iraq. Opponents of the war can be heartened by the sight of people coming together in Washington and other cities for pre-emptive protests. But demonstrations such as these are not necessarily strategic advances, for the crowds are still relatively small and, more importantly, the message is designed by the far left for consumption by those already in their choir.
In a telling sign of the organizers’ priorities, the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the taxi driver/radical journalist sentenced to death two decades ago for killing a policeman, drew greater attention than the idea that revived and unfettered weapons inspections should occur in Iraq before George W. Bush launches a war. Few of the dozens of speakers, if any, bothered suggesting a policy option regarding Saddam Hussein other than a simplistic leave-Iraq-alone. Jesse Jackson may have been the only major figure to acknowledge Saddam’s brutality, noting that the Iraqi dictator “should be held accountable for his crimes.” What to do about Iraq? Most speakers had nothing to say about that. Instead, the Washington rally was a pander fest for the hard left.
If public-opinion polls are correct, 33 percent to 40 percent of the public opposes an Iraq war; even more are against a unilateral action. This means the burgeoning anti-war movement has a large recruiting pool, yet the demo was not intended to persuade doubters. Nor did it speak to Americans who oppose the war but who don’t consider the United States a force of unequaled imperialist evil and who don’t yearn to smash global capitalism.
This was no accident, for the demonstration was essentially organized by the Workers World Party, a small political sect that years ago split from the Socialist Workers Party to support the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The party advocates socialist revolution and abolishing private property. It is a fan of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, and it hails North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il for preserving his country’s “socialist system,” which, according to the party’s newspaper, has kept North Korea “from falling under the sway of the transnational banks and corporations that dictate to most of the world.” The WWP has campaigned against the war-crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. A recent Workers World editorial declared, “Iraq has done absolutely nothing wrong.”
Officially, the organizer of the Washington demonstration was International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism). But ANSWER is run by WWP activists, to such an extent that it seems fair to dub it a WWP front. Several key ANSWER officials — including spokesperson Brian Becker — are WWP members. Many local offices for ANSWER’s protest were housed in WWP offices. Earlier this year, when ANSWER conducted a press briefing, at least five of the 13 speakers were WWP activists. They were each identified, though, in other ways, including as members of the International Action Center.
The IAC, another WWP offshoot, was a key partner with ANSWER in promoting the protest. It was founded by Ramsey Clark, attorney general for President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. For years, Clark has been on a bizarre political odyssey, much of the time in sync with the Workers World Party. As an attorney, he has represented Lyndon LaRouche, the leader of a political cult. He has defended Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic and Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, who was accused of participating in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Clark is also a member of the International Committee To Defend Slobodan Milosevic. The international war-crimes tribunal, he explains, “is war by other means” — that is, a tool of the West to crush those who stand in the way of U.S. imperialism, like Milosevic. A critic of the ongoing sanctions against Iraq, Clark has appeared on talking-head shows and refused to concede any wrongdoing on Saddam’s part. There is no reason to send weapons inspectors to Iraq, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “After 12 years of brutalization with sanctions and bombing they’d like to be a country again. They’d like to have sovereignty again. They’d like to be left alone.”
It is not redbaiting to note the WWP’s not-too-hidden hand in the nascent anti-war movement. It explains the tone and message of Saturday’s rally. Take the question of inspections. According to Workers World, at a party conference in September, Sara Flounders, a WWP activist, reported war opponents were using the slogan “inspections, not war.” Flounders, the paper says, “pointed out that ‘inspections ARE war’ in another form,” and that she had “prepared party activists to struggle within the movement on this question.” Translation: The WWP would do whatever it could to smother the “inspections, not war” cry. Inspections-before-invasion is an effective argument against the dash to war. But it conflicts with WWP support for opponents of U.S. imperialism. At the Washington event, the WWP succeeded in blocking out that line — while promoting anti-war messages more simpatico with its dogma.
WWP shaped the demonstration’s content by loading the speakers’ list with its own people. None, though, were identified as belonging to the WWP. Larry Holmes, who emceed much of the rally from a stage dominated by ANSWER posters, was introduced as a representative of the ANSWER Steering Committee and the International Action Center. The audience was not told that he is also a member of the secretariat of the Workers World Party. When Leslie Feinberg spoke and accused Bush of concocting a war to cover up “the capitalist economic crisis,” she informed the crowd that she is “a Jewish revolutionary” dedicated to the “fight against Zionism.” When I asked her what groups she worked with, she replied that she was a “lesbian-gay-bi-transgender movement activist.” Yet a May issue of Workers World describes Feinberg as a “lesbian and transgendered communist and a managing editor of Workers World.” The WWP’s Sara Flounders, who urged the crowd to resist “colonial subjugation,” was presented as an IAC rep. Shortly after she spoke, Holmes introduced one of the event’s big-name speakers: Ramsey Clark. He declared that the Bush administration aims to “end the idea of individual freedom.”
Most of the protesters, I assume, were oblivious to the WWP’s role in the event. They merely wanted to gather with other foes of the war and express their collective opposition. They waved signs (“We need an Axis of Sanity,” “Draft Perle,” “Collateral Damage = Civilian Deaths,” “Fuck Bush”). They cheered on rappers who sang, “No blood for oil.” They laughed when Medea Benjamin, the head of Global Exchange, said, “We need to stop the testosterone-poisoning of our globe.” They filled red ANSWER donation buckets with coins and bills. But how might they have reacted if Holmes and his comrades had asked them to stand with Saddam, Milosevic and Kim? Or to oppose further inspections in Iraq?
One man in the crowd was wise to the behind-the-scenes politics. When Brian Becker, a WWP member introduced (of course) as an ANSWER activist, hit the stage, Paul Donahue, a middle-aged fellow who works with the Thomas Merton Peace and Social Justice Center in Pittsburgh, shouted, “Stalinist!” Donahue and his colleagues at the Merton Center, upset that WWP activists were in charge of this demonstration, had debated whether to attend. “Some of us tried to convince others to come,” Donahue recalled. “We figured we could dilute the [WWP] part of the message. But in the end most didn’t come. People were saying, ‘They’re Maoists.’ But they’re the only game in town, and I’ve got to admit they’re good organizers. They remembered everything but the Porta-Johns.” Rock singer Patti Smith, though, was not troubled by the organizers. “My main concern now is the anti-war movement,” she said before playing for the crowd. “I’m for a nonpartisan, globalist movement. I don’t care who it is as long as they feel the same.”
The WWP does have the shock troops and talent needed to construct a quasi mass demonstration. But the bodies have to come from elsewhere. So WWPers create fronts and trim their message, and anti-war Americans, who presumably don’t share WWP sentiments, have an opportunity to assemble and register their stand against the war. At the same time, WWP activists, hiding their true colors, gain a forum where thousands of people listen to their exhortations. Is this a good deal — or a dangerous one? Who’s using whom?
“Organizing against the silence is important,” Bob Borosage, executive director of Campaign for America’s Future, a leading progressive policy shop in Washington, said backstage at the rally: “This [rally] is easy to dismiss as the radical fringe, but it holds the potential for a larger movement down the road.” Borosage did add that the WWP “puts a slant on the speakers and that limits the appeal to others. But history shows that protests are organized first by militant, radical fringe parties and then get taken over by more centrist voices as the movement grows. They provide a vessel for people who want to protest.”
That’s the vessel-half-filled view. The other argument is that WWP’s involvement will prevent the anti-war movement from growing. Sure, the commies can rent buses and obtain parade permits, but if they have a say in the message, as they have had, the anti-war movement is going to have a tough time signing up non-lefties. When the organizers tried and failed to play a recorded message from Al-Amin, Lorena Stackpole, a 20-year-old New York University student, said, “This is not what I came for.” And an organizer for a non-revolutionary peace group that participated in the event remarked, “The rhetoric here is not useful if we want to expand.” After all, how does urging the release of Cubans accused of committing espionage in the United States — a pet project of the WWP — help draw more people into the anti-war movement? (In a similar reds-take-control situation, the “Not in My Name” campaign — which pushes an anti-war statement signed by scores of prominent and celebrity lefties, including Jane Fonda, Martin Luther King III, Marisa Tomei, Kurt Vonnegut and Oliver Stone — has been directed, in part, by C. Clark Kissinger, a longtime Maoist activist and member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.)
Let’s be real: A Washington demonstration involving tens of thousands of people will not yield much political impact — especially when held while Congress is out of town and the relevant legislation has already been rubber-stamped. (The organizers claimed 200,000 showed, but that seemed a pumped-up guesstimate, perhaps three or four times the real number.) The anti-war movement won’t have a chance of applying pressure on the political system unless it becomes much larger and able to squeeze elected officials at home and in Washington.
To reach that stage, the new peace movement will need the involvement of labor unions and churches. That’s where the troops are — in the pews, in the union halls. How probable is it, though, that mainstream churches and unions will join a coalition led by the we-love-North-Korea set? Moreover, is it appropriate for groups and churches that care about human rights and worker rights abroad and at home to make common cause with those who champion socialist tyrants?
At the rally, speaker after speaker declared, “We are the real Americans.” But most “real Americans” do not see a direct connection between Mumia, the Cuban Five and the war against Iraq. Jackson, for one, exclaimed, “This time the silent majority is on our side.” If the goal is to bring the silent majority into the anti-war movement, it’s not going to be achieved by people carrying pictures of Kim Jong-Il — even if they keep them hidden in their wallets.
As yet another WWP-in-disguise speaker addressed the crowd, Steve Cobble, a progressive political consultant, gazed out at the swarm of protesters and observed, “People are looking for something to do.” Good for them. But they ought to also look at the leaders they are following and wonder if those individuals will guide them toward a broader, more effective movement or toward the fringe irrelevance the WWPers know so well.Jonathan H. Miller contributed to this report.
Copyright 2002 LA Weekly