By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The peace movement failed at first to strike a responsive chord in the U.S. public at large up through the attack on Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime that harbored al Qaeda. Democrats in Congress rallied around Bush and generally won the support of Americans who backed the concept of rooting out terrorist strongholds. But the mood had shifted by the fall of 2002, and ANSWER was ready.
As President Bush called for the forced ouster of Saddam Hussein and prepared to ask Congress to give him authority to wage war, ANSWER steered clear of any possible opposition festering among congressional Democrats. The group focused instead on organizing an October demonstration in Washington and left it to others — activists in labor and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — to press Congress to reject a blank check for the invasion of Iraq.
“We were anticipating that the administration was going to launch the war, and we were anticipating that Congress would succumb,” said ANSWER’s Brian Becker. “Other people in the peace movement spent their resources lobbying Congress. We said going to Congress was a waste of time. Other people said, ‘That’s nice, you go ahead and have your little demonstration.’ So we went on our divergent paths.”
Becker’s predictions about Congress proved correct, and the October 26, 2002, protest that ANSWER staged in Washington was one of the biggest the capital city had seen since the Vietnam era. The tens of thousands of people who marched came to D.C. not because they necessarily shared the political views of the protest organizers, but because they opposed an attack on Iraq, and because there was at the time only one place in the nation to join in a massive shout of dissent.
The march came too late to change anyone’s mind in Washington, since the vote had taken place, much of Congress had gone home and Bush was out of town. But Becker said he never expected to change anyone’s mind in D.C. The idea was to have a protest that was so large that Bush doubters around the country could not help but notice that there was a movement afoot.
“People saluted us then,” Becker said. “You were really going against the tide at that point. It gave us a lot of traction.”
But if ANSWER gained traction by rejecting the political process and opting for street protests, it had already begun losing traction in squabbles over direction and doctrine.
The most publicized rift came the following February, when supporters of Rabbi Michael Lerner — who puts out Tikkun, a magazine for leftist Jewish thinkers — said ANSWER banned him from speaking at a San Francisco rally because of his stance on Israel (he supports the existence of the Jewish state). Not so, said leaders of ANSWER and its partners, United for Peace and Justice and Not in Our Name. A pre-demonstration agreement barred speakers who had publicly criticized any of the groups, and Lerner had criticized ANSWER for its stance on Israel. And besides, Lerner had not asked to speak. But whoever’s version of the story was true, the result was the same. Lerner would not be speaking at the protest, and activists were seeing in ANSWER a doctrinal roadblock to a broader peace movement.
“At a time when the anti-war movement needs as broad a platform and as broad an appeal as possible,” the petition read, “ANSWER has chosen instead to put the interests of sectarianism ahead of the interests of all those who oppose this foolish and unnecessary war. We believe this is a serious mistake, and that it exemplifies ANSWER’s unfitness to lead mass mobilizations against war in Iraq.”
The incident put ANSWER in the headlines of newspapers that up to then had ignored the background of peace-movement leaders, if they covered the peace movement at all.
As ANSWER’s opponents on the left had long known, many of the group’s leaders were connected with the Workers World Party (WWP), an offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party that went its own way in the 1950s to support the Soviet bloc’s suppression of the 1956 revolt in Hungary. The WWP’s positions have included support for North Korea, for former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic (currently in the midst of an apparently interminable war-crimes trial), and for Saddam Hussein, all in the name of anti-imperialism. The party supported China’s crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square.
The Not in Our Name coalition is labeled by some peace activists as a front for the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist organization founded in 1975 as the Revolutionary Union. United for Peace and Justice leaders have acknowledged their socialist stance, while their detractors accuse them of being the heirs to the Communist Party USA.
Marxists? Maoists? Stalinists? Trotskyites? Do you have to march behind Stone Age communist groups in order to protest pre-emptive war? Not in our name, indeed. For small churches, labor groups and individuals that were considering signing on to anti-war mobilizations, the question may well have been whether groups like ANSWER were too dangerous to join, or just too ridiculous.