What Now? Points on Building the Movement

1. The main task right now is building a movement against US military action in response to the savage attack of 9/11.

Such action promises the death and suffering of men, women and children as innocent as those in the World Trade Center towers. The dying began well before US bombing did! In Afghanistan and bordering areas, millions of the globe's poorest people, already in the midst of a major drought and famine, are on the move, fleeing the expected attack. Further, the pursuit of retaliation against Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other targets will create conditions for further attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on the US, fueling a cycle of violence which further endangers residents of this country more than it insures our safety.

This means that the most important political battle in building activity and coalitions must be to keep opposition to all military action as the basis of unity. One proposed statement discussed in a recent meeting in NYC argued, “Those responsible should be brought to justice through cooperation with the international community, not unilaterally-initiated military action.” There is a big problem with this kind of formulation: whatever the US does will be multi-lateral formally, and probably in practice. That won’t change the essential nature of who is running the show or the dire effects it will have in the world.

When initial levels of rage and fear began easing among the people of this country, our message started getting a hearing. Now, with the start of military action, we have been pushed two steps back. And we are still faced with a real question raised by many folks we are trying to organize against retaliation. “Okay, what do you propose that we do?” One answer the movement has come up with is demands and slogans that prioritize calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, an international tribunal, a new Nuremberg trial, the application of international law, etc.

On the face of it, these demands are perfectly reasonable. Who would not like to see those responsible for the deadly hijackings out of circulation—permanently? Saying so, especially in one-on-one conversations, is a no-brainer. There are, however, two problems here in making it central to the movement we are trying to build.

One is that if we were to focus on the capture and punishment of the hijacking planners, we would wind up undercutting the important argument about the need to break the cycle of retaliatory violence.

The other is that trying to find just the right formulation about justice and international law tends to leave us quibbling over things that we cannot have much real effect on. In doing so, we enter on a slippery slope: well, if there were an international tribunal, why wouldn’t it be okay for US commandos to capture the villains? And if it would be okay then, why is it so bad now? We have to stay clear on what the main issue is—putting the brakes on US actions which will kill thousands more people and worsen the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia, not punishing the planners of the 9/11 attacks.

That said, plenty of honest activists are responding both out of their own outrage at the horrors of 9/11 and out of the conviction that we must express a determination to punish the perpetrators in order to win a hearing among the broadest sections of the American people. We should not split coalitions over such issues (nor be silent when others seek to make them central), but seek to win folks over where possible and minimize the focus on this aspect in the politics of the movement.

2. We need to be as broad as possible, but we’re not going to build a movement without pissing a lot of people off.

We have to avoid isolating ourselves with stale or overheated rhetoric, boring old-school demos, maximum programs or self-indulgent, symbolic acts that make it easy to dismiss our message. For example, we shouldn’t demand that people endorse a wholesale critique of US imperialism to be part of our movement.

But we can’t do our job well in this period and be totally popular. We can’t move from 90% of the US people being in favor of some military response to uniting a big section of them against a military response without an intermediate stage of argument, struggle and polarization. If there’s no polarization, it means we’re not being heard.

When we put forward our message in community and workplace groups, there will be some people who we thought of as conservative who may say, “This is really making me question what the government is doing,” and others we thought were progressive-leaning who want to hear nothing but “go and get the bastards.” We shouldn’t be shocked or deterred by the second response but be ready, psychologically and tactically, to deal with it. It’s a volatile period and people’s reactions will be intense and shifting.

Nor should we kid ourselves that we can avoid some angry reactions through easy formulations or wrapping ourselves in the flag. In fact, people who really believe a US military response is the only patriotic one may find our use of the flag more of a provocation.

3. We couldn’t stop the US government from taking military action, but it is more important than ever to continue building the anti-war movement.

We can, if we do our work well, speak to and draw on the doubts about the wisdom of war and on the reservations about taking more innocent lives that many Americans feel. We can provide a clear voice to help people understand that there are alternatives to a “national unity” that amounts to a blank check for the government to do whatever it wants.

Furthermore, there is a struggle going on in ruling circles and the administration about how to move. One side, identified by the media with Colin Powell, is arguing for careful attacks with limited objectives in order to maintain an ongoing global alliance in support of US policy. Another, evidently based in Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s staff, is pushing for more massive and broadly targeted attacks to overthrow or damage several regimes considered hostile to the US, including not only Afghanistan, but also Iraq, Sudan and Syria. A growing opposition here at home will add to swelling international pressure, at both a state and mass level, that can actually limit the scope of the US response.

The experience of the Gulf War has several important lessons to teach about the dynamics of a movement like this. Now that actual combat has started, the movement feels a bit smaller already as people who believe that their main duty is to support “our boys,” no matter what they are doing and to whom, step back.

What we are doing now is also about building a foundation for the movement we will need as long as the US government pursues its “war on terrorism,” a movement that can eventually grow, as the anti-Vietnam war movement did, to really challenge the government’s ability to carry the conflict on. It will take time and hard work to build a movement with that kind of strength, and our actions, decisions and determination today will have a great deal to do with what kind of foundation we wind up with.

4. It’s important to treat each other with respect within the movement.

Since the US military response has started, we’ve begun to see—for example, in response to the NYC October 7th demo—that people are more hostile to protestors and more united behind “our troops.” One danger is that, in a period where the stakes are so high for humanity and we’re feeling isolated, powerless and stressed out, activists take our fears and frustrations out on each other though un-constructive criticism and arguing to the death on relatively minor points. We need to re-commit to principles like trying to hear the kernel of truth in what a person is saying even if you disagree; honoring and appreciating people’s work; checking for, challenging and rectifying white or male supremacist tendencies that are mostly unintentional; and trusting that we’re all trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. Each person is precious because we’re all needed to go out and organize other people.

Some particular destructive tendencies are manifested when socialist cadre groups yell and badger to push their line or promote their members as speakers, rather than prioritizing who’s the best speaker for the coalition’s purposes. These behaviors are offensive normally and unbearable now. (This is not to say that socialist cadre organizations don’t have an important role to play: Freedom Road is, after all, a revolutionary socialist cadre organization.)

An equally arrogant converse or response to that approach, feeling that “I’m the only one smart enough to avoid alienating the mainstream so I’ll use any maneuver to silence these left sectarians in the coalition,” is also un-democratic, self-defeating and demoralizing. All our coalitions need clear points of basic agreement, process rules and patience.

5. US progressives must recognize and challenge our own US-centrism and arrogance.

People born and steeped in this culture have to recognize that our government has been wreaking terror on people in places like Vietnam and Iraq, and arming and financially supporting murders of Palestinians for decades. The horrible scale of death of civilians that we experienced in New York is not a new phenomenon. As conscious, progressive people, we have to put our emotions in a context, and figure out how we encourage others in our workplaces and communities to do so—in a way that does not immediately turn them off.

People from Third World countries, who can be an important part of the bloc we need to organize, may well ask us: Where was your horror and your call for justice when our people—people with dark skins—were being murdered by your government? Have we heard you demanding with any passion, that the war criminal living in your midst for all these years, Henry Kissinger, be brought to justice?

6. For activists, this is necessarily a period of testing lines and raps to see what strikes a responsive chord among the people and what doesn’t.

For example, many of us have made a big deal about Osama bin Laden’s ties with the CIA. By itself, this seems to be a big “so what” for many people—okay, the CIA created him, they should kill him. But if this fact is presented as a prime example of the unintended consequences that can be expected from the way the rulers of the US pursue their interests, it is a most valuable point. We can use it to warn against the US government’s new allies in various repressive governments and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, a genuinely unsavory crew. Currently being portrayed as jut-jawed, eagle-eyed freedom fighters, its leaders have an ugly and well-documented record of rape, repression, drug dealing and treachery.

Another example is that more needs to be done to tell people about the scope of the drought and consequent famine and refugee crisis in Afghanistan. The outpouring of sympathy for victims of the explosions has raised the level of consciousness about suffering among ordinary people, and of the desire to do something to help.

There are two approaches which we think are to be avoided in the current situation. One is elaborate conspiracy theories—for instance, that the US government knew this was coming and did nothing so it could get a free hand to reorder the world in the interests of the US ruling class. Obviously people who think along such lines have a right to take part in the movement, but it would risk our efforts to broaden the movement to have this be the message new people get from the speakers stand.

Another is the tendency to narrowly target the President—”Bush’s war,” “Bush’s policies,” and so on. There are two contradictory problems here. One is that he is at a high tide of popularity now and slamming him doesn’t win any additional sympathy for our arguments. More importantly, there is no public opposition to government policies in the ruling class so far, and the Democrats in particular are making it as plain as they can that they will back anything Bush does. Our blow must be aimed at the policies of military retaliation. Any forces that tie themselves to those policies are responsible for their results.

7. The recession the country was already headed towards before September 11 is here—now.

And it’s here under extraordinary circumstances. The administration simply does not have an economic policy. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill is basically acting as a cheerleader who denies what everyone knows. Bush and others are pushing what Robert Reich nailed as “market patriotism,” the idea the main duty of Americans should be to buy falling stocks and max out their credit cards. This seems weird to ordinary citizens and nuts to people who understand how much trouble the economy is in.

In this vacuum, different blocs of capital, different economic interests, are forced to pursue their own sectoral concerns in the most naked way to try and shape whatever framework comes into being. The airlines were first out of the blocks, with a furious lobbying campaign that got them $15 billion from congress within days of the explosions. Now the insurance companies, hotel chains, travel agents and others have their hands out. Meanwhile other interests are repackaging their programs as anti-terrorist. The oil companies intent on drilling in federal wilderness areas have said that doing so now is a question of national security. The free-trade advocates, so battered by the new movement for global justice since Seattle, now claim that the touchstone of patriotism is giving George Bush “fast track” authority to negotiate new NAFTA-type agreements.

It is crucial for us to take advantage of this naked jockeying for position and profit to expose the giant fraud of national unity that is being urged on the residents of this country. The sharpest example so far has been American Airlines, which announced two days after Congress passed the $15 billion bailout for the airline industry that it was not going to pay contractual severance and health insurance benefits to the 20,000 workers it is laying off. Outrage from workers, the trade unions and other citizens has been so great that American and Northwest, which tried the same thing, have had to back off.

There is plenty more of this on the way. Representative Dick Armey of Texas, who was happy to vote for billions for the airlines, says calls for extending unemployment benefits and health insurance to workers laid off in the current crisis are not “commensurate with the American spirit here.”

The practical implications of Armey’s “American spirit” and all the calls for national unity are on display right now in Minnesota, where state workers are on strike after going over a year without a contract. They are being beaten up by Governor Jesse Ventura, the media and too many regular folks who’ve bought into the idea that it’s unpatriotic for working people to defend their interests.

8. The assault on civil liberties and democratic rights is underway now.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is driving to push through Congress an anti-terrorism bill which will strip away rights for immigrants, greatly expanding the government’s ability to hold people in indefinite detention without legal recourse. Expanded wiretapping and Internet surveillance authority is another piece of the package. An interesting bloc of right wing anti- big government organizations, cyber-libertarian types and liberal civil liberties advocates is trying to stop this. It’s good they are taking this up now because we on the left cannot afford to make it a top priority.

A chilling first product of this repressive push came with the news that world-wide web hosting companies have been threatened by the new Office of Homeland Security that their assets are subject to seizure unless they take down sites which the government deems linked to terrorism. Among the first victims is the archives of Radio Free Eireann, a progressive Irish radio program which has featured IRA guests along with the likes of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. A grim omen.

9. The effects on immigration are particularly dire.

First, there are the direct vigilante attacks on Arabs, Muslims, and people thought to be, like Sikhs, other South Asians, Philipinos and Chicanos. These have been noisily condemned by all levels of government and self-righteous types in the media. This sudden concern for victims of racist attacks has everything to do with the US government’s attempt to frame the bombings as an attack on freedom and tolerance. Of course, such racist attacks are spurred directly by official policies of racial profiling aimed at exactly the same people the vigilantes have targeted. Many Arabs have been detained and then released days or weeks later without so much as an “oops” from the authorities.

As a BRC activist from Boston points out, lot of immigrants have felt compelled to take up the American flag in a big way. In these cases it signifies not so much deeply held patriotism, as a plea to mainstream America—”Please, don’t hit me.”
More serious still is the overall reversal of the general political tide in favor of immigrants. This had been signaled by the near collapse in the late ’90s of the Republican Party in California as punishment for their anti-immigrant stand and by the AFL-CIO’s reversing its traditional nativist stand to call for organizing and normalizing the legal status of undocumented workers. Now there are massive tighten-ups at airports and the Mexican and Canadian borders, and new repressive anti-immigrant legislation is being pushed through Congress. The gravity of this is shown by Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the big beneficiaries of the huge immigrant vote in California, who has now proposed a six-month total moratorium on issuing visas to foreign students. Out of many tens of thousands of women and men holding student visas, one (that’s 1) hijacker seems to have held such a visa.

10. The newborn anti-war movement has drawn its early strength from several important social movements.

One of the core forces is the traditional peace movement, which has responded admirably. On September 10, its main attention was on building an October day of local demonstrations against the revival of “Star Wars” missile defense programs. Peace groups immediately began to direct their entire attention to the current crisis and, along with progressive clergy, were the first to organize meetings, discussions and vigils in most places in the country. They will stay a central component of the resistance in days to come.

As a result of their crucial role and the very nature of the crisis, the ideology of the peace movement has been the predominant current in the new anti-war movement. We see this in things like the songs, the peace sign, and the widespread use of Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye” quote.

One of the largest forces to come forward in the first days after 9/11 was a wave of activists from the new movement against corporate globalization. In practice, the US section of what is truly a global movement shaped by struggles of the Third World has largely dissolved itself for the moment into the anti-war struggle. The implications for the global justice movement are not clear. The organized forms this movement has developed, like the Direct Action Network, are some of the main organized voices of a new generation of activists. They bring in methods of work and of organizing which may not be familiar to older activists, but which deserve the most respectful attention. These are, after all, the folks who brought us Seattle and Quebec and changed the political landscape in the US over the last couple of years.

An important question here is what the future of the global justice movement will be. It is neither a single-issue movement nor a movement based in a particular class or community. It may be that as the new anti-war movement seems to absorb these forces, the anti-war movement will in turn be transformed by them into a new incarnation of the global justice movement aimed more directly at imperialism, targeting its political and military as well as social and economic manifestations.

At the same time, perhaps the major strength of the emerging global justice movement up until now has been its character as a real united front, a bloc of different social forces. Right now, that front is very tenuous—the trade unions which played a key role up to now are by and large not involving themselves in the anti-war struggle. The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which provided the new movement with many resources, funded in large part by big wealthy foundations like Ford and Rockefeller, are backing off too.

The student movement is also shaping and being shaped by the new struggle as well. Already on the upswing the last few years, it built on that foundation to create a firestorm of anti-war activism on hundreds of campuses within days of the disaster. It is very important for older anti-war activists to remember to treat student organizers with respect as the leading elements they are and not merely lay out plans for them and expect them to tag along. Having so much activism develop on college and high school campuses can only mean good things for the future of progressive organizing. Most of the formations developing on campuses are single-issue in character. As with the overall anti-war movement, the direction these groups will take is not at all clear.

11. The potential for resistance in communities of color is largely untapped so far.

Few nationally known leaders in these communities have come forward to emulate the courageous Barbara Lee and speak against the beating of the war drums. This failure to lead sells short, sells out, the Black community, the Chicano people and other Latinos, Asian Americans, folks from the First Nations and others who are key to building a movement strong enough to start to challenge and affect US policy.

There is definitely a divided consciousness among the masses. As one Black secretary from Brooklyn said, “I feel for the people who died. I cry every day about it, but I’m just not down with this flag, rah-rah America stuff. What did this flag ever do for me? When I was pregnant and I was broke, they wouldn’t even give me WIC.” But the lure of national unity can also be very strong in communities which never get offered a slice of the pie. Mike B, a rising comic, also from Brooklyn, runs a riff these days that goes, “This is the first time I feel like an American, not just a Black American. America’s like a little gang now. It’s like, ‘Yo, G., we got to go get these dudes.'”

A further complication lies in the contradictions between these communities. For instance, folks in Sacramento working to oppose anti-Arab activity find themselves starting at square one—there are few feelings of commonality and a good deal of resentment in the Black community for the largely professional Arab immigrants who tend to avoid living in communities with a lot of African Americans.

In this situation, it is imperative that those of us who are based in communities of color speak out. A model for this is being developed by the Black Radical Congress, an organization conceived as a pole for the revival of radical politics in the African American community. At a National Council meeting held just weeks after the 9/11 explosions, the BRC took up a national campaign around the theme: No to War, Racism and Repression! Yes to Peace, Reparations and Justice!

Similar forces in all the movements of oppressed nationalities have a dual task. First and most important, they must try and provide the leadership that has not been forthcoming from other quarters in the spirit of SNCC, Cesar Chavez and Dr. King in the Vietnam era. The recent Durban Conference on racism has helped to inspire many US activists of color by showing the global breadth of the struggle against white domination and the need for an internationalist perspective.

Yet the task at hand remains a difficult one. It will require boldness to take a controversial stand, patience to find allies, some surely in the church, and a willingness to start small. Some groups based among young people, like STORM in the Bay Area and the Brown Collective based in Philadelphia, have already taken big steps in this direction.

The other task is to bring the voice and concerns of our oppressed-nationality communities into the larger movement. An overwhelmingly white anti-war movement cannot know how to bridge the gap between its own limited base and the huge potential for this struggle that communities of color embody. Someone has to be there to represent.

12. Activists have a special responsibility to reach out to working class youth, especially oppressed-nationality youth.

The present patriotic, flag-waving and militaristic ideological onslaught is relentless and bound to have an impact on young folks. Already, military recruiters have had a welcome mat at most US public schools, but now their presence is bolstered by a virtually non-stop media campaign for military action against terrorism to protect “our way of life.” Progressive youth and student organizations have a strong role to play in reaching out to ordinary young people, to engage them in discussions about the current situation, and to promote the idea that their future should hold the opportunity for education and a good job, not to serve as cannon fodder for the US empire in Central Asia.

13. The crisis may have its most problematic effects in the labor movement.

Even before it hit, the struggle between the Sweeney forces and more right-wing labor bureaucrats was intensifying. Now the labor bureaucracy has by and large taken up the American flag and the cause of military action. Why? Partly it is a reflection of the deeply rooted patriotic feelings in the working class, especially in its white section. Partly it is a result of the social role of the trade union bureaucracy, whose job is to get a better deal for their members within the context of the existing system. We are in danger of turning back to the days of the Vietnam War, when union leaders were slow to rally to the anti-war cause, and only a minority of them ever did. (The various stands taken by different international union presidents are instructive. They are available at <http://aflcio.org>.)

At the same time, this will be no time of plenty for the unions, like the Vietnam era when President Lyndon Johnson felt forced to run a guns-and-butter policy which raised the standard of living for working people. The economy doesn’t have the slack it did then. Unions and their leaders will be facing redoubled attacks from management at a time when they are already on the defensive. (Though it was little noted in the aftermath of the bombings, Oklahoma on September 25 became the 22nd state in the US and the first in fifteen years to pass an anti-union “right to work” law.)

The AFL-CIO leadership will try and build a resistance struggle to economic and political attacks while keeping it at arm’s length from the struggle against retaliation and war. To fight back against these attacks while saddled by demands for moderation and sacrifice in the interests of national unity and the war effort will be almost impossible.

Activists on the labor left thus face a difficult situation. The opening for radical and progressive officials, staffers and rank and file activists which appeared in the AFL-CIO with the election of John Sweeney’s New Voices team may well be narrowing.

At the same time, activists have stepped to the task, coming out forthrightly against military action. Local 1199 in New York and the San Francisco Central Labor Council quickly took stands against military action. A group of activists in NYC started Labor Against War and within a few days had hundreds of endorsers, including presidents of nine locals. Such activities create a pole for like-minded unionists to rally around and provide a little cover for those in more dicey environments. Some folks may only be in a position to raise sharp questions and resist efforts to turn their unions into cheerleading squads for retaliation. Certainly all of us in labor can move to get our unions mobilized against anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attacks here at home.

14. We must be careful to maintain perspective about the present situation.

Some things have changed, but others haven’t. The US is still the big gorilla on the world stage, but it doesn’t have unlimited power. After the first days of showboating about “ending states that support terrorism,” the administration has been facing the reality that it will have to make big concessions and changes in policy to pull off even a limited effort to curb Islamic fundamentalism. The big loser here could be Israel, as the spell of oil (and the planned pipeline route from central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean) makes itself felt.

The 9/11 events have made the US more a part of the world in the eyes of its population than it has been in a long while. In its first eight months, the Bush administration took one unilateralist stand after another, from Star Wars to global warming. Now that’s all changed. The US arrears to the UN, which had been dragging on and accumulating for years, are suddenly being paid up.

Regular Americans are now thinking a lot more about global questions as well, partly due to the excellent groundwork that has been done by the global justice movement. As much as the US government would like to keep things narrowly focused on “terrorism,” questions of global inequality, western cultural hegemony, and so on keep coming up.

A Boston trade union leader says, “I believe that, incredible as it may seem, the terrorist attacks have presented us with an unparalleled ‘teachable moment.’ For example, I find a huge audience for education about bin Laden. There is little challenge to the argument that the US has to stop supporting the bin Ladens, Noriegas, Saddam Husseins, Shahs, etc., and that the US is to some degree at least reaping what the US sowed. Ditto on the question, ‘Why the fuck do you think so many people hate the US?’ which I thought would open up more slowly.”

In the largest sense, people are thinking about what kind of a world we’re trying to get to, and there’s not much in the present situation to drive them toward the conclusion that it should be ’90s style laissez-faire capitalism.

A final word. The situation is still incredibly volatile. Anything could change the dynamics. US combat troops on the ground in Afghanistan, a new terror attack, a renewed crash in the stock market, a concerted assault on the anti-war movement. We must continue to maintain maximum flexibility in our tactics and openness in our analysis while going after the immediate goal of building the strongest possible movement against retaliation and war. The better the job we do now, the better positioned we will be for the challenges of the coming months and years.

National Executive Committee,
Freedom Road Socialist Organization /
Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad
October 7, 2001 (updated October 8, 2001)
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