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Three factors made the April 20 rallies and march in Washington unique in the history of U.S. peace activism -- and the movement may never be the same.
The following analysis of the April 20 demonstrations in Washington appears in the May 1, 2002, issued of the Mid-Hudson Activist Newsletter, published in New Paltz, N.Y.


By Jack A. Smith

One of the most extraordinary antiwar manifestations in the long history of peace activism in the United States took place in Washington April 20 when up to 100,000 people participated in different gatherings and then joined for a unified march to a concluding rally in front of the Capitol. The police estimated at least 75,000 demonstrators were in the streets. The numbers alone were not historic, though the crowd was huge by any standard. But three other factors contributed toward the uniqueness of this action:

1. The main political focus of the demonstration as a whole became opposition to the invasion of Palestinian territory by the Israeli army -- an assault that was viewed by most participants as an extension of George Bush’s pretext for aggression known as the war on terrorism. This was the first time since Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories as a consequence of the 1967 war that the major sector of the U.S. antiwar movement and the left in general united in defense of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination and statehood.

There were other political objectives at the demonstrations, of course, including opposition to several of Washington’s initiatives including the continuing war against Afghanistan, the anticipated new war against Iraq, the $48 billion hike in the Pentagon war budget, plans to intensify U.S. involvement in Colombia, and the globalization of inequality as symbolized by the headquarters of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the nation’s capital. But opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s military invasion of the West Bank, which began March 29 (weeks after the demonstrations were first announced) became the predominant political objective of the day. To avoid doing so would have called into question the movement’s reason for existence.

2. For the first time, enormous numbers of Palestinian-Americans of the diaspora, Arab-Americans and the Muslim community -- some say 30,000 or more -- joined with the U.S. antiwar movement and the left in a mass national protest. They were nonviolent, of course, but evidenced exceptional passion and urgency for their cause, and anger toward the Bush administration. The White House is viewed as primarily responsible for Sharon’s calculated attempt to destroy the Palestinian Authority, to wreck its social and economic infrastructure, and to so weaken the Palestinian people that they will agree to onerous terms at the inevitable talks over which Washington, the “peacemaker,” eventually will preside to assure a favorable settlement for its closest ally.

3. This massive outpouring occurred just seven months after the White House declared the United States to be engaged in a long-term, full-scale war against a relatively small, amorphous collection of vaguely defined enemies following the Sept. 11 terror raids in New York and Washington. Despite Bush administration efforts to discourage dissent by ceaselessly stimulating flag-waving hyperpatriotism and the fear of terrorism from demonized “evil ones,” never before has such a large movement coalesced and taken action so quickly.

The tip-off to this phenomenon took place Sept. 29, when the ANSWER coalition (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) conducted the first national protest against Bush’s anticipated declaration of war, and up to 20,000 primarily youthful demonstrators showed up for a militant rally and march in Washington. What underscored the importance of this event just 18 days after the attacks was that large components of the traditional peace movement and the newly emerging movement against corporate globalization had withdrawn from the struggle for the time being in deference to the jingoist national political climate. ANSWER’s decision to move ahead despite abundantly inauspicious circumstances propelled the new coalition, initiated by the International Action Center, to the very center of the antiwar struggle. Inevitably, this development was received with, let us say, a mixed organizational and political response by some groups within the antiwar struggle, not the least reason being that ANSWER obviously represents the anti-imperialist left wing of the peace movement.

A total of 143 regional activists traveled to the demonstration in three buses organized by the Mid-Hudson (N.Y.) National People’s Campaign which left Kingston and New Paltz in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, April 20. This writer realized the protest would be large because only one bus was required to bring Mid-Hudson people to the Sept. 29 demonstration and to the Feb. 2 protest against the meeting of the World Economic Forum. The true size of the impending protest began to dawn on local organizers the evening of April 18 when, after failing to obtain a fourth bus for our waiting list despite contacting 15 charter companies, a frantic telephone caller asked if the Mid-Hudson NPC could supply buses for another 300 people. A few minutes later, an Email arrived from a different source, virtually begging for as many buses as we could acquire for an unspecified number of additional demonstrators. At that point it became clear the Muslim mosques had decided to join with the antiwar movement in Washington. The most activist Palestinian groups had been anticipating April 20 for weeks, but the mosques did not decide to become fully galvanized until after the pro-Israel demonstration a week earlier, which had been supported by the Bush administration and nearly all of Congress and was much ballyhooed by the corporate media.

Arriving in Washington, most Mid-Hudson activists walked one block to the ANSWER Rally Against War and Racism at the Ellipse near the White House. Some attended the United We March coalition’s Stop the War at Home and Abroad rally at the nearby Washington Monument. Groups protesting corporate globalization were holding a simultaneous rally by the IMF-World Bank offices. A small pro-war rally, organized by the far right, was situated between the Ellipse and the Washington Monument.

A huge crowd was already at the Ellipse, and it continued to grow to an estimated 50,000 people, according to ANSWER organizer Monica Moorehead. The majority of participants at this rally were Palestinians, Arab-Americans and Muslims, attracted by ANSWER’s unambiguous opposition to the invasion, the ongoing occupation and the denial of freedom to the Palestinian people. A number of speakers from various Palestinian and Arab-American organizations addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were joined by Tariq Ali, the well-known Pakistani playwright and left intellectual (appearing as the representative of London’s large Stop the War Coalition), who told the crowd that “the real problem in the world is state terrorism -- and the people who organize that terrorism are in Tel Aviv and their backers are in the White House.” Many other speakers, such as former Nobel Prize winner Helen Caldicott, and Larry Adams of the NYC Labor Against the War coalition, discussed a multitude of issues from the war on terrorism to the danger of nuclear weapons, the situation in Colombia, the Navy bombings in Vieques, and so on. A special taped message to the rally from death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was played over the speaker system.

Another large crowd, estimated by organizers as up to 25,000 people, attended the United We March coalition’s morning rally by the Washington Monument’s Sylvan Theater for a more traditional antiwar gathering. Speakers included Amy Goodman of Pacifica radio and the elderly pacifist leader Dan Berrigan, among others. New York State Green Party organizer Mark Dunlea estimated that 1,000 Greens from across the country were at this rally.

The big convergence of all the organizations and demonstrators took place on Pennsylvania Ave. after 2 p.m. -- a result of ANSWER’s non-stop efforts in the weeks leading up to April 20 to convince the other groups, primarily the United We March coalition, to cooperate in a united front march to the Capitol after the separate morning rallies. The avenue was filled, sidewalk to sidewalk, block after block, with up to 100,000 peaceful but obviously determined people. ANSWER distributed many thousands of signs with such messages as “Free Palestine, No War on Iraq,” “Stop Bombing Afghanistan,” “Stop Plan Colombia,” and “Money for Jobs, Not for War.” The front rank of the procession included a few of the several dozen Orthodox rabbis who came down from New York City to join the march, as well as representatives of the Palestinian community and leaders in the antiwar movement. (Rabbi Yisroel Weiss told the Washington Post that “The Palestinians here in the crowd looked at us mistrustfully at first. But then they speak a few words with us, and they show us respect and friendship.)

Palestinian, Arab-American and Muslim adults, teenagers and children were prominent on the march. Frequent contingents of Palestinians passed by chanting “Free, Free Palestine!” or “You can kill, you can lie -- Palestine will never die.” Several Mid-Hudson demonstrators said they were proud to be marching side-by-side with the Palestinian people in their moment of deep travail. A woman from Hudson told us she felt she was part of a historic moment. A man from New Paltz commented, “we just can’t call for peace as though we were unaware there is a serious crisis going on in the Middle East.”

A small number of demonstrators carried signs equating Zionism and Nazism or with the flag of Israel containing a swastika. Some ANSWER organizers went through the crowd suggesting the signs be put away. Some were, but most were not, with one sign-carrying demonstrator saying, “You don’t understand that to us, Sharon is acting like a Nazi. Israeli tanks are crushing our homes, helicopters are firing rockets, troops are invading and killing our people. We don’t even have an army. We think the Israelis are treating us the way Germany treated them.”

Some Jewish progressive activists in our Mid-Hudson contingent likewise sought to discourage such sign-holders, but also displayed a sympathy for the Palestinian plight and a comprehension of the Palestinian point of view, however strongly they may have disagreed with the equation of Zionism and Nazism on the signs. Several others, however, said they were dismayed by the very emphasis upon the Palestinians, as though it would be possible for an antiwar march of such magnitude to ignore Israel’s extension of Bush’s war on terrorism to the Palestinian territories, which was still taking place as we marched up Pennsylvania Ave. One local resident, expressing an extreme view that she said was likewise entertained by several others in the group, commented that “if we had known about this [Palestinian] contingent beforehand, we would not have chosen to participate. We actually did pull out of the march a couple of times when we found ourselves surrounded by offensive signs and people, but it was impossible to stay apart from them.... I feel angry and used.”

It is simply a fact that some antiwar activists evidently support Israel to the extent that they cannot in good conscience participate in the movement when it is critical of Sharon’s suppression of the Palestinians. This matter will no doubt be debated within a section of the movement for some time. However, it does not appear likely the post-April 20 antiwar movement will once again be able to ignore the aspirations of these colonized and desperate people.

Most of the others in our contingent, including those of Jewish affiliation, were primarily opposed to the Sharon-Bush war, and were pleased to see such extensive participation by Palestinians, regardless of their view concerning the occasional use of a Nazi symbol in relation to Israel. This writer, too, is critical of such symbolism because it is thoroughly counterproductive and a provocative contradiction in terms. At the same time, we regard the emphasis upon Palestinian freedom as entirely appropriate, especially at a time when Israeli tanks are creating mayhem on Palestinian streets, and interpret the large participation from the Arab-American community as a triumph for the peace movement.

The concluding unity rally on the Mall opposite the Capitol boasted a wide variety of excellent speakers chosen equally by ANSWER and the United We March coalition. The co-chairs were Amy Goodman from Pacifica and Randa Jamal, a Palestinian activist. The crowd was so large that only those within several hundred feet of the stage were able to see or hear clearly. The mall was filled for several long blocks, and there were a few mini-rallies and one rousing musical event taking place throughout the throng.

Speaking for ANSWER, organizer Larry Holmes argued that the events in Palestine “aren’t about Jews; they are about colonialism. This movement is anti-colonialist and anti-racist; it is not against Jewish people.” He continued, pointing to one of the day’s historic accomplishments, “Finally the antiwar movement has merged with the Palestinian and Arab and Muslim community and embraced the Palestinian cause.” Rev. Lucius Walker, whose IFCO/Pastors for Peace organization is part of the ANSWER coalition, noted that “We didn’t come here today because we are anti-Israel. We came because we are against the Israel government’s terrorism against Palestinians.” He went on to criticize “U.S. complicity with the genocide of the Palestinian people.” Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) was the only congressperson to address the audience. We missed the moment when several of the Orthodox rabbis appeared on the stage as their statement was read. Fred Nagel, a Dutchess county Green organizer who traveled on the Mid-Hudson bus, reported that “the statement said that their religion would never condone or even tolerate what was being done to the Palestinian people. Immediately and unexpectedly, Muslim men started coming forward and embracing the rabbis. Those who witnessed the event were barely able to retell it; the symbol was that powerful.” Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El-Saadawi argued that “all the people of the world are exploited by the same government and by capitalism.” Fadia Rafeedi, representing the Free Palestine Coalition, declared that “the fate of Palestinians is linked to the fate of Iraq, of Venezuela, of Colombia. We have to end the criminal partnership between the U.S. and the state of Israel.”

At day’s end, our 143 weary Mid-Hudsoners scattered throughout the crowd all managed to find their buses on time along Independence Ave., amidst scores of out-of-town charters departing with demonstrators bound for Michigan, Vermont, the deep South, Midwest and points even further away. The buses got back to New Paltz and Kingston by midnight.

Clearly, for most of those in our contingent it was an exciting, motivating demonstration which augmented their antiwar, anti-colonial views. The day’s events provided a lot of reflect upon, especially the intimate relationship between George Bush’s war on terrorism and Ariel Sharon’s war on the Palestinians. Several local people were disturbed because they continue to view the Palestinian struggle as a threat to Israel, rather than grasp the reality that the biggest threat to Israel is the suppression of Palestinian aspirations for national liberation and a home of their own. The slogan “Free, Free Palestine!” -- which, if fulfilled, will bring peace to the region for the first time -- may also be construed to mean, “Free, Free Israel!”

This day had to come, finally -- the day when the U.S. antiwar and left movements united massively to oppose Sharon’s invasion and to support a fair deal for the Palestinian people. It was obviously not easy for ANSWER to bring this about. There was sharp resistance by certain left and peace groups which didn’t want to emphasize support for the Palestinian people for fear of hampering efforts to attract “broad forces” to the event. Also, some others wish to isolate the upstart ANSWER because they cannot countenance a strong anti-imperialist organization in a prominent position within the movement. Historically, peace movement politics has never been a picnic. But ANSWER prevailed this time -- and the accomplishment of April 20 will make all our progressive movements stronger and enhance the struggle against the warmakers at home and abroad.


address: address: New Paltz, NY