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April 20


When I got home at midnight Saturday from Washington I was dead tired – as were tens of thousands of others across they country.To catch the 6 a.m. bus from the War Resisters League office in lower Manhattan I had skipped sleep Friday night. But I had enough energy left when I got home that I almost typed this up last night. Almost . . .but not quite. I fell asleep with good intentions. So let me get this off this Sunday afternoon.

 

By now you know what we didn’t know in DC, since it was almost impossible to make a crowd estimate “on the ground” – except that the demonstration was very large, much larger than we had expected or dared to hope for. (Some of the organizers privately feared we wouldn’t get as many as 10,000 – the Washington Post has estimated 75,000).

 

We were lucky in the weather. I’d brought an umbrella, thunderstorms having been promised. But all that materialized, late in the march, was a smattering of rain, which ended long before the march did.

 

First – hello to the many people I met whom I knew personally over decades of marching to DC. It felt like old home week. (Or old peoples’ home week. A long time ago a kid named Seth Foldy from Ohio had first made contact with the War Resisters League and gotten active. Seth’s mother was there yesterday, along with Seth’s son, older than Seth had been when I first met him. Seth has gone on to work for the city of Milwaukee). Venerables present included George Houser, Ralph DiGia and a host of others too numerous to name (or remember), reminding us that the current youth movement of protest and affirmation had “healthy parents” of men who served prison terms in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, fought McCarthyism in the 1950’s, and worked against Jim Crow and racism before most of the Saturday marchers were born.

 

But what was important was not the gathering of the old clan, but the gathering of a new clan. Youth. In their thousands. War Resisters League had gotten two busloads down from New York (on one of which was Jason Schulman of DSA and a young woman friend of his from Boston – good to see some of DSA active). The Socialist Party folks were scattered through the crowd but tried to gather under the SP banner – gathering anyone was very hard!! I saw SP members from New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and thanks to Greg Pason, the SP National Secretary, they did, from time to time rally around the red banner.

 

Other groups with which we work – Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Solidarity, etc. – were also present and had put in hard work on building the rally. However the largest political contingent was the Green Party – several hundred folks with their banners. In their numbers they dwarfed all the little sectlets with the usual leaflets trying to simplify the problems of the world in a few weary slogans.

 

This afternoon I saw a press release from ANSWER, largely run by Workers World (a key giveway was that the statement’s main quote was from Larry Holmes, a long time activist and leader in WW, as “co-director of the International Action Center“). I mention the ANSWER release because it failed to begin to do justice to the demonstration. Under the headline “100,000 March For Palestine”, it went on to speak of the demonstration as being primarily a pro-Palestine, anti-Israel demonstration.

 

This misrepresents what this demonstration meant. And if I discuss this bluntly, it was because Workers World, for all their enormously hard work, continues to be a problem for the broader movement because they are so determined to control or dominate a mass movement. When the April 20th rally was first called – months ago – the Middle East had not exploded. The original organizers were students, their demands were rather vague. Later, Workers World set their own date for April 27th (focused then mainly on Afghanistan, not Palestine) but when they saw their support weak and most people opposed to two rallies a week apart, they changed their date for the 20th – so in some ways there were two rallies on the same day.

 

By April 20th the Middle East had indeed take over as the most immediate problem. It wasn’t that Afghanistan was forgotten, the danger of war with Iraq ignored, the danger of a police state (The Patriot Act) avoided. Given the horrors of Jenin, Palestine leaped to the head of the list of demands.

 

Yes, the Muslim community was there in a way I had never seen before. Thousands and thousands and thousands of Muslims, most young, (but some very old, helped through the long march by younger people). Mothers with their babies in carriages. The PLO flag was everywhere. On the way back, when our buses stopped for food, the Muslim men took time for their prayers to Mecca.

 

No one should for an instant underrate the importance of the Muslim participation. But for Workers World to term the rally only, or primarily a pro-Palestinian event, is to discredit the power of so massive a rally in protest against Bush and his backers.

 

This was the first loud, clear voice from a nation which had been told by the media that there was no protest. In the words of Cokie Roberts, one of those air-headed talking heads, if there were any protests against the war in Afghanistan they were not important, not from “anyone one who counted”. But yesterday even she could have counted. And we DO count.

 

For the supporters of Israel it was a warning shot that they have lost the American Left, lock, stock and barrel. And that includes losing a great many American Jews who were there at the protest and had helped organize it. The issue of Jenin isn’t one of Jews against Muslims. It is one of Sharon against the world, against the United Nations, against a very large number of American Jews and against a great many Israelis.

 

There were moments surreal, as when early in the march a small group of orthodox rabbis, with their fur hats and long coats, were led through our march by escorts. No problem, no shouts. and no idea where the rabbis had come from or where they were going, except that, being the Sabbath, they had to go there on foot. And there were moments of utter frustration, as when I found I had not brought down any extra rolls of film as I had thought and had to hunt down a supply from a street vender.

 

Some of those from the more traditional peace movement talked to me of their dissapointment that some issues seem to have vanished – Afghanistan was barely mentioned. But this misses the point – and one can be sure that Congress and the White House will not miss it. I doubt if one person in that whole vast mass of people supported Bush’s illegal actions against Afghanistan, or bought into the rhetoric of his “war on terror”, a war which has become a terror in itself, reminding us that war and terrorism are intimately linked and often, as in the Middle East, become one and the same thing.

 

What was important, in my view as an old veteran at these events, was that where the media had assumed silence, the world now saw public dissent – in far greater numbers than even we had hoped for. (It got excellent coverage on the BBC). For the “internal movement” it was noteworthy that Workers World had their bluff called, was forced to cancel their original demonstration date, and MAY (though I am skeptical) be prepared to work more honestly with the broad range of peace and justice groups. The loose coalition of peace and justice groups, from the Black Radical Congress to the War Resisters League, from the American Friends Service Committee to Peace Action, from the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism to the Greens, have shown that they can pull off a national demonstration and provide leadership.

 

The problems of such a coalition are enormous – it is vastly easier for a group such as Workers World, a very small Marxist/Leninist formation with strong central leadership, to set up fronts, and through those fronts to give the impression of a mass movement. (They have been greatly helped by the willingness of Ramsey Clark to give his name to their formations). The broader movement lived through such splits before, during the Vietnam War and during the Gulf War. What is important for us, internally, is to have faith in our ability to work together through the slower process of compromise, dialogue, and coalition.

 

What is essential for older radicals to see is that a new generation took part in the largest single peaceful protest of this century. This does NOT discount the importance of all the anti-Globalization actions, which helped build to where we are. Nor does it mean that mass peaceful civil disobedience will not be needed. But it does mean that just as Workers World is more marginal than it has seemed, the “Black Bloc” does not command the support of all the youth. Whatever is to be built will need democratic involvement of many, not the vanguard tactics or the “smash and run” tactics of the smaller groups.

 

April 20th was a major victory for the forces of democracy, of dissent, of the peace and justice movement, and of the possibility of broad coalitons involving black and white – and Muslim and Jew. At a very difficult time in our history, this is an enormous victory indeed.

 

No, I didn’t hear the speakers. I don’t think many did. Rarely are the speakers important. (An exception would be the great march in August of 1963 – I can always be glad that I was able to heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his great “I Have A Dream” speech). After all the usual long debates about who was to speak, in the end what mattered were the sheer numbers that turned out. I was happy War Resisters League was there with our “End War” tags – one way I got a chance to meet to so many old friends was in handing these out. The WRL tags have become so much a part of these demonstrations that almost everyone wants them and by the end of the day almost everyone seemed to be wearing one. The first ones were handed out in the harsh days of the Vietnam protest period, when some sought to provoke the police, and our tags said “Practice Nonviolence”, with a now classic design by Markley Morris. We may have some tags left over – if you want one check the WRL web page, which I’ll give in a moment.

 

Something else new, free, and important was War Times, put together by a coaliton of radicals on the West Coast, with almost half the text in Spanish.

 

If you want informaiton about War Times, go to: www.war-times.org

 

If you want one of the WRL “End War” tags (or if you are interested in an analysis of my own titled “War Without End”) go to: http://warresisters.org

 

And if you want to know that there are many in Israel who deeply oppose Sharon, subscribe to Gush-Shalom by sending a post to: Gush-Shalom-subscribe@t…

 

To the many others of you who demonstrated on the West Coast, or in your own towns – we all did well. April 20th is a day which may stiffen the spine of the weak left within the Democratic Party – and give us all the strength to stop Bush’s next move – his long-promised attack on Iraq.

 

Peace, justice, and solidarity,

 

David McReynolds staff emeritus, War Resisters League member, National Committee, Socialist Party USA

 

 

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