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Moving Forward: UFPJ and the Anti-war Movement

AK Gupta
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006
    More than three years after an anti-war movement first took shape, momentum is on the side of those calling for an end to the US occupation of Iraq. President Bush’s approval ratings continue to slide as the number of Americans opposed to his handling of the war approaches two-thirds of the public. Congress has been locked in a rancorous debate over the course of the war and an increasing rate of US casualties indicates that the armed resistance in Iraq is growing in sophistication and capability.

The anti-war movement has made significant strides in forging a broad-based struggle to end the war and occupation. It has largely avoided debilitating splits or political battles and has succeeded in building important ties to military veterans and families—alliances crucial to broadening the opposition. Perhaps most remarkable, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey from September 2005, some 23 percent of Americans consider themselves part of the anti-war movement, which would amount to approximately 56 million Americans above the age of 16. But who is this movement? What groupings make up its ranks and perhaps more importantly, what are its strategies for forcing the US to withdraw from both Iraq and beyond?

Fractured Movement

The US anti-war movement, like any movement, is made up of a variety of components.

There is what can be called the “symbolic component” that draws from groups that tend to be close to the Democratic Party. This component includes the Win Without War coalition that brings together the liberal wing: progressive churches, feminists, environmentalists, MoveOn, NAACP and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Their activities tend to be limited to passing resolutions, signing petitions, and taking out newspaper ads. There is the mainstream labor movement that, after much rank-and-file activism, passed a resolution last July at the AFL-CIO national convention calling for “a commitment from our country's leaders to bring them [US troops] home rapidly.”

Then there is the more traditional peace and social justice movement that is focused on protests, vigils, flyering, tabling, lobbying and—to a lesser degree—civil disobedience. This wing comprises thousands of local groups around the country, many of which are part of United for Peace and Justice, the largest national anti-war coalition. UFPJ has organized most of the massive demonstrations against the Iraq War, starting with the historic Feb. 15, 2003 protest at the United Nations. The most visible face of the anti-war movement, UFPJ formed during the first large anti-war demonstration that took place in Washington, D.C. back in October of 2002.

A third and growing aspect is the counter-recruitment movement. This movement draws heavily from youth and student groups and engages in educational efforts, picketing, and some direct action to deepen the Pentagon’s recruiting crisis. It is a disparate movement, often drawing in youth with little or no previous organizing experience, but who are suffering from cutbacks in social spending while having to face aggressive military recruiters at school.

Some anarchists and direct action activists have been joining the counter recruiting ranks as a way to oppose the war in a hands-on way—eschewing traditional protests that they deride as “marching around in circles.” Many see it as the best way to physically affect the Pentagon by denying it bodies to prosecute the war. Counter-recruitment work is also tailored to the conditions of the current war, wherein a volunteer army has replaced the Vietnam-era draft.

Center Stage

Yet the most serious and broad-based opposition to the war has come from left and progressive forces that make up UFPJ. Its most recent mobilization of more than 300,000 people in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 24, which built on the actions of Cindy Sheehan over the summer, marked the revitalization of the anti-war movement.

In a strategic move in the spring of 2005, UFPJ declined to organize its traditional New York rally, instead focusing on a demonstration in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near the Fort Bragg military base. Hany Khalil, organizing coordinator with UFPJ, says the group decided in December of 2004, “to make Fayetteville a major regional demonstration.” Organized primarily by military families and vets, the Fayetteville protest proved to be the turning of a new leaf for the anti-war movement—the elevation of those directly affected by the Iraq War and support of a nascent but growing anti-war movement in the South.

Cindy Sheehan spoke at the demonstration, just one week after being profiled in The Nation as perhaps the “the new face of protest.”

The decision to prioritize military based dissent paid off that summer. At the July Veterans for Peace convention in Dallas, Sheehan announced that she would make a stand at Bush’s ranch until he met with her. She arrived in Crawford in early August—days after a huge spike in US deaths in Iraq—with 50 supporters, including dozens of vets. The hundreds of media in Crawford got the story they were looking for and Sheehan became a nationwide figure.

Support soon mushroomed and UFPJ member groups such as Code Pink offered organizing resources and other assistance to Sheehan. The vigil was immediately followed by the “Bring Them Home Now Tour” led by military families and vets from organizations such as Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Veterans for Peace—the last three of which are part of UFPJ’s national steering committee. The tour ended with Sheehan headlining the Sept. 24 protest in Washington, D.C.

The success of the September protests—which included nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House on Sept. 26—was followed up by more than 1,300 candlelight vigils in late October to mark the 2,000th death of a US soldier in Iraq. Then on Nov. 17, the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (which also serves on UFPJ’s Steering Committee) held a national day of action that included dozens of protests and informational events at schools and universities around the country, under the slogan “Not Your Soldier.”

Episodic movement

While UFPJ’s steady diet of protest activity shows its maturation as a national coalition, it also reveals what historian Barbara Epstein terms “an episodic anti-war movement.” Epstein argues that the US does not have an anti-war movement, “because a democratic and vital movement with momentum has to be an ongoing movement. Otherwise it is simply a series of intermittent events.”

Epstein points out that, “The problems of the anti-war movement are in many respects very much like the problems of the left as a whole.” One of those problems is that the left has virtually no national presence at the moment other than UFPJ, so the anti-war coalition gets saddled with the responsibility of fixing many of the left's shortcomings. And perhaps the most persistent shortcoming is racial representation, which is all too evident within the anti-war movement.

According to a Gallup Poll taken in mid-November an astonishing 95 percent of blacks say the war as a mistake, yet one finds relatively few African Americans in attendance at the major demonstrations. Kamau Karl Franklin of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement argues that “Black people as a racial group are against the war more than any other group, but they’re not out there marching. Their priorities is issues in their community —housing, jobs.” Franklin says, “Unless anti-war organizers can connect those issues to the war you’ll never get Black people out there in a meaningful way.”

Epstein, somewhat unintentionally, highlights a key contradiction over race within the anti-war movement. She says one of the things “going very well” within UFPJ is that “the role of both women and people of color is improving dramatically. There are now a lot of people of color in the leadership of the organization.” But then she admits that “the number of people of color involved” is lacking.

Key contradictions

One former steering committee member with UFPJ contends the group tends toward tokenization. The member, who wished to remain anonymous, says there are a fair number of people of color on the steering committee, but “not many of them have ties to actual communities.” With quotas for various categories—people of color, women, LGBT—there’s also a tendency in UFPJ to engage in “counting,” seeing whether people fit diversity categories rather than if they are really rooted in the communities and the struggles they’re supposed to represent.

Franklin says the reality of a white and middle-class movement is a reflection of “racism in organizing communities and US racism and who has access to resources. You have certain groups and individuals who have access to resources over others. Even in left forces, power concedes nothing. If you have someone in power … they don’t take to kindly to being told where the resources should go.”

To remedy this, Franklin argues for a “long-term strategic approach” by the anti-war movement of putting resources into “the building of organizations on the ground doing work in people of color communities that would help in building the movement in general. ... To expect people to join [the anti-war movement] just because they’re oppressed is not strategic thinking.” Franklin says this would pay off in two ways: one, “by helping oppressed nationalities with their own human rights violations,” and two, by helping people to address issues affecting them it would “politicize them and create connections,” and as a result, “more people would turn out for anti-war organizing.”

It’s a tall order for a group such as UFPJ, which for a national organization has relatively few resources—an annual budget in the range of $1 million and approximately 10 full-time staff members. Yet since Racial Justice 911—the national people of color anti-war coalition that came together following September 11th—disbanded, the need for anti-racist organizing on a national scale has only grown. UFPJ leadership has indeed missed out on some major opportunities to improve its anti-racist analysis and work.

Hurricane Katrina provided an important opening, as its similarities with the Iraq War are many: the lack of initial planning, the abandonment of civilians once government collapsed, the use of mercenaries, the imposition of military rule, and the doling out of reconstruction contracts to corrupt cronies. While UFPJ quickly recognized the parallels and publicized relief and community-based reconstruction efforts, it has yet to connect the two issues and build on them in a way that would strengthen the anti-war movement in the long run.

A potential model for including more communities of color and community-based organizations would be how UFPJ reached out to military vets and families. It prioritized their inclusion and gave time and resources to developing relations and recruiting multiple groups for leading positions. There are important differences to be sure. The war is the number one concern for progressive military groups, while it is one pressing concern among many for Black communities. Additionally, while espousing “anti-racism”, in practice many white progressives have a poor track record of dealing with issues of race and racism within their own ranks. Yet these issues must be confronted and seriously addressed if there is ever to be rooted representation in the national anti-war scene.

Sectarian maneuverings

The failure to address racial issues also leaves an opening for groups like International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and Racism), a front group for Workers World Party, to bedevil UFPJ. Journalist Sarah Ferguson writes that ANSWER tries to “strong arm the movement with race baiting.” She quotes one peace activist from North Carolina as stating of ANSWER, “They're just a little group of Stalinists who specialize in being divisive and co-opting other people's work.”

In late 2004, ANSWER split from Workers World and set up a new parent organization, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, while Workers World inaugurated a new front group, the Troops Out Now Coalition (TONC), in December 2004. Despite these new formations, Workers World’s track record of supporting any opponent of the US, no matter how unsavory, gains them little credibility.

A major aspect of sectarian groups like ANSWER and TONC is to create “coalitions” that they ultimately control, which include small Black and Latino community groups to provide them with appearance of diversity. Kamau Karl Franklin says that within some anti-war groups, “It’s kind of like a dog-and-pony show. [They say] ‘We have all these people of color,’ but the decision-making and leadership lie elsewhere.”

But it is important to make a distinction between ANSWER and UFPJ on this issue. UFPJ has people of color in leadership roles, they often aren’t rooted in the communities they are held to represent, whereas ANSWER promotes activists from directly affected communities, but they have little or no actual power.

Another distinction between UFPJ and ANSWER is the organizations’ politics around Palestine. UFPJ has left itself open to attack because its Palestine/Israel working group takes an “agree to disagree position” on the substantive issues of the conflict, such as the mechanism for ending the Israeli occupation and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Some UFPJ member organizations such as Tikkun, are pro-Zionist, rendering the larger group incapable of dealing with the US support for the Israeli occupation in a meaningful way—beyond sloganeering and watered down human rights campaigning. Therefore, with a loud call for the right of return and other statements, ANSWER has been effective in using Palestine as a wedge issue. Journalist Bill Weinberg, a longtime observer of the peace movement, also points out that, “ANSWER has proved itself adept at building coalitions with Arab and Muslim groups.”

In March 2004, prior to a rally in New York City cosponsored by ANSWER and UFPJ, ANSWER demanded that the ending the occupation of Palestine be a core demand. UFPJ balked and ANSWER subsequently circulated a letter signed by more than 40 Arab and Muslim groups calling the exclusion “racist.”

Despite being a much smaller organization, ANSWER’s maneuvering and well-disciplined cadre have forced UFPJ to deal with its presence. For instance, ANSWER has an uncanny knack to secure permits well in advance. It held the rally permits for the Sept. 24 demonstration and the two groups nearly held dueling events until other groups pressured them to co-sponsor.

Left critique

Among independent communists, anarchists, Marxists, global justice activists, socialists, etc., there is almost complete disdain for the politics of ANSWER. But many are also uneasy with UFPJ. A lot of activists say UFPJ plays a vital role by organizing the large demonstrations, but is too liberal. One critic describes it as leading from “position, not politics,” meaning that because of the prominent individuals involved, such as Leslie Cagan as its national coordinator, paid staff, and significant resources (relative to the rest of the left), it exerts undue influence.

Additionally, UFPJ seems to argue privately for political “concessions” to prevent isolating the left in a “corner”—namely its abandonment of anti-imperialist politics. If discussed publicly, this would cause tremendous controversy on the left. Stanley Aronowitz, a labor historian, says precisely the reason such issues are not discussed openly is because if UFPJ leaders had to defend their positions they might very well lose. So, he argues, UFPJ takes a political position of not debating politics.

One longtime volunteer with UFPJ present in Washington in September disagrees with the notion that the group doesn’t grapple with politics. He contends the leadership wrestles with and agonizes over political decisions all the time, but he admits that the group’s decision-making process is not transparent to the broader anti-war movement.

One group that has been noticeably less prominent within the anti-war movement is the global justice movement. Eric Laursen, a veteran direct action activist, says, “I think there was a lot of annoyance and discouragement among anti-authoritarians that UFPJ and ANSWER emerged so quickly and were so conservative in their style of organizing as opposed to the Direct Action Network.” DAN, as it was known, gained considerable prominence and support after its role in 1999 Seattle protests, but collapsed after the Sept. 11th attacks.

Since the start of the war, the creative street actions that came out of the global justice movement have been largely absent from the anti-war movement. In the Bay Area, Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) mobilized an impressive 20,000 people and shut down San Francisco in March 2003. While this showed the possibilities of applying affinity group and direct action strategy to the more traditional protest-oriented anti-war movement, DASW was not able to maintain the infrastructure that it had built up after war began, and eventually disintegrated.

Once it was clear that the war was becoming a prolonged occupation, it became much harder to organize a specific mass action against it. While various pockets of the former “Direct Action Network” have stayed involved, there have been more critiques leveled at the “liberal anti-war movement” than attempts to actually self-organize and build alternatives on the national level.

Max Uhlenbeck, a former organizer with UFPJ, points to a fear of “strategic militancy” within UFPJ as part of the problem. He argues that on two critical occasions UFPJ had “support for mass direct action and blinked,” referring to Feb. 15, 2003 and the massive Republican National Convention protest on Aug. 29, 2004. Both times “UFPJ took the legal route” by letting lawyers negotiate with the city over march routes and plans, and both times the city strung UFPJ along and quashed their desired protest plans.

While it was clear that UFPJ had the widespread support of its base, it chose not to employ a call for mass direct action or rely on a more “people powered strategy,” instead haggling with various city bureaucracies. Uhlenbeck adds that on the evening before the historic Feb 15th, 2003 rally a UFPJ staffer told him privately that “they did not want to see a front-page story about how thousands of young people were arrested in the paper the next morning.”

Laursen adds that, “at best” direct action proponents “get friendly toleration from UFPJ. It’s an attitude of ‘Please don’t do anything embarrassing.’” He also says that in some ways, having such dominant anti-war groups can be a hindrance. “The Vietnam-era movement had less centralized leadership than now, which was a good thing because it led to more creativity. There was no UFPJ or even ANSWER.”

Dangerous terrain

Going forward, the political terrain has become dangerous for the anti-war movement. The tide seems to be turning in favor of withdrawal. More and more politicians are calling for withdrawal. Even some congressional hawks, like John P. Murtha (D-Penn.) are calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops. But it’s not because of sudden epiphany on the futility of war. Many Democrats and Republicans are calling for withdrawal because they want to save empire from the Bush administration’s follies.

The buzzword is “strategic redeployment."

Writing for Newsday on Nov. 17, Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, argued “… the United States needs to pursue a plan of strategic redeployment—a threat-based strategy to target US efforts against global terrorist networks and bring greater stability to Iraq and its neighborhood.”

Korb serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank that is calling for troops in Iraq to be redeployed by the end of 2007 to Kuwait, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and the Horn of Africa, in the hopes of “preserving our all-volunteer Army and refocusing all elements of American power on the real threats our country faces.” In other words, forgoing Iraq to continue the broader “war on terror” by invading and attacking other countries around the world.

The great challenge for the anti-war movement is to avoid having a movement to end the Iraq War transformed into a movement to save Empire. For better and worse, this task is up to UFPJ because of its central role. The role radicals, anti-authoritarians and anti-imperialists can play is to force UFPJ to seriously take up anti-imperialism. Not as an abstraction, but as a concrete issue that broadens the movement’s focus to include other countries besieged by the United States’ economic and military might, and linking the war to neoliberal economic policies. Simultaneously, radicals have important roles to play in arenas like counter-recruitment work which can be done independently of large coalition politics and still have an important impact.

An exclusive focus on the Iraq War means that the vast majority of protesters will probably pack up their bags and go home once an agreement for withdrawal—even a flawed one—is reached. This will leave the left powerless to confront the next war. However, by broadening the struggle while keeping a focus on the Iraq War, the anti-war movement can not only revitalize but also sustain the larger fight for peace and justice.