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Bush Offensive Stalls at City Gates 

Why U.S. cities are going anti-war; how L.A. joined them

Thursday, Feb 27 2003
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

I SUPPOSE YOU COULD CALL IT a desperate measure for a desperate time. After all, the resolution that the City Council passed and Jim Hahn signed last Friday, putting the city on record against a unilateral war in Iraq, will cause no phones to ring at the White House or the Pentagon. “This gives people a false sense that their voices are being heard,” argued Jack Weiss, the Westside councilman who opposed the resolution (it passed on a 9-4 vote). “Their voices were heard by the people who regulate Los Angeles,” Weiss told the Weekly. “But it doesn’t move the ball at all.”

More than one ball is in play, however. The massive and still-building wave of opposition to a war in Iraq is cresting far from D.C. At bottom, the opposition to the war comes from the Democratic base, and it is being registered in the centers of liberal Democratic power — in big cities, college towns and union halls. L.A. joins a long list of heavily Democratic big cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and San Francisco, that have opposed a unilateral war. In a historic reversal of labor’s long-held hawkish tendencies, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has joined British Trades Union Congress general secretary John Monks in a letter to Bush and Blair urging them to work through the U.N. for a peaceful resolution.

If the Democratic peripheries are ablaze, it is partly because the Democratic center is quiet. Ted Kennedy’s call for a second congressional resolution to consider the question of war all but died for lack of a second. Robert Byrd’s cri de coeur for a serious senatorial debate played to an empty chamber. The world has changed since Congress first passed its resolution authorizing war last October: The administration’s attack on international institutions has intensified; its attempts to prove an Iraqi threat have been unconvincing (though its case that Iraq has been evading U.N. mandates is overwhelming); its insistence on a Saddam–bin Laden link has been ludicrous; America’s transformation into an unbound, unanswerable superpower has accelerated; and the estrangement between our nation and the rest of the world has become vast and astonishing. Roughly half of the Democratic candidates for president are now addressing these concerns, but congressional Democrats are determined not to re-enter the fray. So Democratic activists — in what is primarily a revolt against Bush but secondarily a revolt against the Democratic Congress — are raising the issue where they can.

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They know every bit as well as Jack Weiss that they are not being heard where momentous decisions are being made, but they do not agree that the proper response to the truncation of the debate in the capital is the cessation of the debate in the country. “We are debating this issue,” said Harbor-area Councilwoman Janice Hahn, “because those we have elected to debate this issue have abdicated.” And, she might have added, because the debate over the nature of the postwar world order has already begun.

The council’s resolution was not just an important statement of civic sentiment, it was also a triumph for its author, Hollywood-area Councilman Eric Garcetti. Garcetti has labored under a burden of expectation since he took office in 2001 — he’s your basic Mexican-Jewish Rhodes scholar with a famous Italian name, and heir to Jackie Goldberg’s mantle of progressive leadership on the council — and last week he delivered. Speaking in council, Garcetti made an eloquent case that scrapping the system of security alliances that the U.S. erected and has relied upon for over 50 years would make us less secure, and detailed how a U.S.-only war against Iraq would endanger the city and its economy. And then he went fishing for votes.

Getting to eight votes (that is, a majority) on the current council — where individual agendas, byzantine motivations and obscure rages are all in a day’s work — is never easy. Jan Perry, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, spoke seemingly on its behalf when it was first up for a vote last Tuesday, then complained it did nothing for the problem of the homeless (who she’s been trying to sweep from Skid Row), then abruptly announced she’d vote no. Though she’s not yet as regular as Old Faithful, Perry’s eruptions have become the talk of City Hall, where insiders note that she’s had it in for Garcetti ever since he tried to promote a living wage for employees at a factory in her downtown district. Perry’s U-turn left the message one vote shy of passage, and led to a second vote on Friday. By then, after Garcetti had incorporated her amendment calling on the city to get more funding for homeless veterans, Perry decided to switch again and vote yes.

But Perry’s initial switch made life a bit more complicated for Nick Pacheco, embroiled in a tight re-election contest against challenger Antonio Villaraigosa. Though a self-proclaimed opponent of the war, Pacheco was nowhere to be found when the measure came before the council last Tuesday, and if Perry had stayed the course, it would have passed without him. By avoiding the vote, Pacheco could have hoped to win a few more votes from the right-wing geezers of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, to whom the progressive Villaraigosa may be anathema, but who’ve needed an extra zetz to get to the polls ever since Art Snyder’s name stopped appearing on their ballots and they were left with a choice of Mexicans. By betraying Garcetti, however, Perry also confounded Pacheco, who had to show up for the resolution’s second reading, on Friday, and vote for it after all.

The primary argument of the members opposing the measure — Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel particularly — was that the council was not elected to pass resolutions on foreign policy, where it has neither standing nor expertise, especially when so much city business has gone undone. Whatever one makes of this argument, it is particularly hard to square with a resolution Weiss introduced last April, with support from (among others) Greuel, Denny Zine and Alex Padilla — the four members who voted against Garcetti’s resolution last Friday.

The Weiss resolution, titled “End Violence in the Middle East,” notes the historical and ongoing raison d’être for the state of Israel, condemns the acts of terrorism there, calls on the U.S. to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel and to renew our commitment to “the peace process pursued by our respective governments,” and urges Yasir Arafat to use his influence to bring violence in the Middle East to a halt. It is a nuanced resolution, though it might have acknowledged that the peace process pursued by the Bush and Sharon governments is not visible to the naked eye, that solidarity with Israelis need not preclude solidarity with Palestinians, and that Arafat is not the only head of government in Palestine and Israel who needs to be pressured to stop the cycle of violence.

As Weiss sees it, “It is one thing for the City Council to stand in solidarity with a people who have been subjected to a level of terrorist attacks that Americans can only imagine, and another thing to weigh in on the most complex issue in the entire country and to pretend to have lots of clarity on it.” In actuality, however, Weiss’ resolution articulates a politically specific way to stand in solidarity with Israelis; my modest list of alternatives would have been a statement of a somewhat different kind of solidarity. Where Weiss sees only clarity, I see complexity.

In opposing the Garcetti resolution, Weiss went on, “I was objecting that only one moral dimension of the issue was being expressed. And that’s not the case; there is a moral dimension on the other side we should be mindful of.” On that, I agree with Weiss, and I feel the same way about his own Israeli solidarity resolution. Where I disagree is with Weiss’ contention that only one of these resolutions plunges the City Council into murky depths that are tricky to navigate. I think they both do, but that’s no reason why the council — most certainly at a moment of moral and political urgency — isn’t obliged to find its way to shore.

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