Eric Mann on US walkout at Durban

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Sep 8 07:26:38 MDT 2001

September 6, 2001

U.S. Walkout Galvanizes U.S. NGO Delegation

By Eric Mann <ericmann at>

It was the eve of Labor Day and 400 U.S. delegates to the
now-concluded NGO Forum filed into the large lecture hall at
UNISA (University of South Africa at Durban). We had come,
ostensibly, to hear a report to the Non-Governmental
Organizations from the shell of the U.S. delegation to the
UN Conference. As we entered the room, all hell broke loose.
Rumors spread that the U.S. delegation had no intention to
report to us. Wade Henderson, from the National Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights, announced that last minute
negotiations with the U.S had broken down and that it was
almost inevitable that the U.S. governmental delegation
would walk out.

Almost immediately a group of 200 U.S. NGO delegates worked
to transform itself into a viable, functional "ad hoc" force
to protest U.S. policies at the conference. Many of the
delegates did not know each other at all, many had political
disagreements, and many had prior histories of unity and
antagonism. Yet we worked successfully in a multiracial,
majority-black group led by black women.

Within 15 minutes we had formed an action coalition. In
order to move effectively, we worked to clarify political
line. Earlier in the conference, more moderate U.S. forces
had focused primarily on the question of the attendance of
the U.S. delegation. "Where is the U.S.?" they had asked,
expressing the view that if the U.S. did not attend, the
conference would be compromised. Yet by the end of a week of
haggling over resolutions in the NGO Forum, there was now
far greater unity of anger against the U.S. government. The
U.S., along with other Western countries, had tried to
intimidate NGO delegates into meaningless, toothless
declarations against racism in general with no mention of
specific countries or specific atrocities or specific
policies of redress and reparations. There was tremendous
anger at the way the U.S. had approached the entire
conference, beginning with its early use of threats as a way
to bully the many other countries for whom the U.N. is a
critical vehicle. One Black woman asserted, "The U.S.
withdrawal is the first principled thing that the U.S. has
done. There is a profound conflict of interest in that the
U.S. is the main source of world racism. How can it come and
try to impose its will on a world conference against

There was widespread agreement that the issue of U.S.
reparations to the Third World for the transatlantic slave
trade had to be the main focus of our demands. Yet, as in
both conferences, the issue of Palestine took center stage
for debate. How should we challenge the U.S., in particular,
for its use of Israel as a foil to withdraw participation?

Several delegates argued that while they were in support of
the Palestinian cause, they felt it was deflecting focus
away from the demands for Black reparations. This led to a
spirited and somewhat heated debate. Sandra Jaribu Hill, an
attorney from Mississippi, argued that she believed the
Palestinian issue was not a "diversion" but a central focus
in the world struggle against racism and imperialism. She
raised the question, "How could blacks in the U.S. isolate
themselves from such a front-line struggle in the world,
especially one that is under tremendous attack and is in so
much need of worldwide support?" Others expressed concern
that there was even a tendency in the reparations movement
to focus too much on blacks within the U.S. and not seek
enough solidarity with the nations of Africa, the Caribbean,
and Latin America.


Anyone who read my earlier commentary knows that I left the
U.S. with the intent to demonstrate that there are Jews in
the U.S. who care deeply about Palestinian rights, as well
as whites in the U.S. who want to challenge the racist
policies of our government -- as part of a strategy to help
coalesce the left, anti-imperialist forces against racism.
This is the sentiment I chose to express to the members of
our ad-hoc group:

"As a Jew, I am very upset about the provocative role that
the U.S. and Israel are playing at the conference in trying
to make it seem like "anti-Semitism," rather than principled
criticisms of U.S. and Israeli policy. I am of course
outraged by anti-Semitism, but my focus is on the German
holocaust and U.S. complicity with it. Like many Jews who
joined the civil rights movement and the black liberation
movement, I was moved into action by my experience of
anti-Semitism from Christian whites, not blacks. While of
course there is anti-Semitism and there are even
anti-Semites in all movements, including the Palestinian
movement, the Palestinian movement itself is not
anti-Semitic. It is a movement for national liberation. The
Israelis want to leave the conference because they do not
want to subject their policies to an international debate --
53 years of occupation of Palestinian lands, the murder of
Palestinian civilians in violation of the Nuremberg
statutes, the denial of a viable homeland to the Palestinian
people, and now the new tactic of targeted missile
assassinations of Palestinian leaders. In fact, the U.S., as
an anti-Semitic country, does not give a damn about Jews or
for that matter about Israel; rather the U.S. government is
using Israel as its stalking horse in the Middle East -- and
at this conference. Moreover, the Israeli government and
Zionism itself are not the same as Jews, does not speak for
Jews, but rather represent a specific political tendency
within the Jews of the world. As we all must make choices in
life, I stand with the Palestinians."

After further discussion and debate, a motion to highlight
both the struggles of the Palestinians and the slave trade
was passed by perhaps 90% of the 200 people still remaining.

Several people proposed that we attempt to seat ourselves as
the "real" US delegation, in the spirit of the Mississippi
Freedom Democratic Party challenge of 1964. But others
observed that in fact we had no legitimacy to represent U.S.
NGOs, let alone any social movements in the U.S.; we had the
right and obligation to protest, but to be careful about who
we did and did not represent. Still, the idea in microcosm
was important. What if at some time in the future, a more
unified U.S. anti-racist movement was able to agree upon a
united front of delegates representing important
constituencies and movements in the U.S.? This discussion
shed light on the present state of disunity and
disorganization of the movement and challenged us to
continue this work at home.

We agreed upon a group of spokespeople that included Adjoa
Aiyetoro, a well-known and respected activist in the
reparations movement, as well as Linda Roots, Thema Bryant,
Juana-Majel Dixon, Youmna Chlala, Ai-Jen-Poo and myself. It
was time to stop talking and start marching. We took to the
streets with the plan to end in a rally in front of the
International Convention Center. Others joined us as we
chanted, "Stop US Racism -- All Over the World" and "The
People, United, Will Never Be Defeated." Many Third World
delegates, sitting or standing along the streets, cheered us
onward -- evidently happy to see a U.S. delegation, any
delegation, taking on the U.S. government. The militancy and
politics of the demonstration attracted international media
coverage as we had hoped -- with CNN running feed that was
seen throughout South Africa and at least as far as Los

We reconvened the next morning for a rally that took on a
life of its own, with many people speaking to the press. We
had a movement of 200 spokespeople, talking into microphones
and cameras. Indigenous people took center stage. Meanwhile
that morning, the United States UN delegation officially
withdrew from the conference, allegedly in protest against
"anti-Israeli" statements. Some in the bourgeois press
claimed that the Palestinians and Arabs had "hijacked" the
conference by not compromising with the "reasonable"
European and Israeli powers. Others commented that the U.S.
walkout had fatally damaged the chance for a "unity of
action" on world racism, essentially sinking all hopes for a
successful outcome for the conference. One more thoughtful
South African newspaper did tell it like it is, that in fact
the U.S. used the struggle over Israeli policy as a pretext
to leave the conference because it feared the debate about
the transatlantic slave trade, the culpability of the U.S.
and Europe in "crimes against humanity," and the inevitable
and logical programmatic response of massive reparations to
the nations of Africa and black people inside the U.S.

Let me be clear that our press rally represented only one
tendency within the broader U.S. NGO arena -- a "united
front," I would say, between the black nationalist left in
its various ideological reflections and the anti-racist,
anti-imperialist, socialist left (in this instance, also
majority black). Still, given the tremendous lack of unity
in the U.S., this group managed to find unity of line and
action, agree upon spokespeople, and pull off a spontaneous
but effective rally within hours. In a small but significant
way, the U.S. delegates with whom I worked offered a
counter-hegemonic analysis, conveying successfully to people
in the U.S. and in the UN conference itself that there was
another voice in the United States. In fact, for a day and a
half there was widespread outrage throughout all the U.S.
NGOs taking many forms, from virtually every U.S. NGO
delegate trying to disassociate from the government's
actions to more boldness on the part of many forces in the
upcoming UN negotiations.

By noon the anger and energy had dissipated, and we had to
reintegrate ourselves into the deadly technicalities of the
UN conference or find other things to do. I chose to attend
two workshops, which were in fact anything but dull. One
addressed the problems of indigenous women, with ten amazing
speakers each expressing outrage and first-hand organizing
stories of resistance by the more than 400 million
indigenous women throughout the world -- from Hawaii,
Colombia, Nigeria, Sudan. A second workshop of 300 people
led by African scholars and activists focused in detail on
the transatlantic slave trade. In this workshop I heard the
apparent news that as a result of organizing pressure,
France would be the first Western power to agree on the
terms "crimes against humanity" and acknowledge its role in
the transatlantic slave trade.

When I get home I will reflect on my time in Durban and
write a more comprehensive overview of the experience; it is
just too much to comprehend at this time. I want to put
together the interviews I have done and seek out a few other
participants to pursue my thinking. Still, two preliminary
conclusions of some optimism prevail.

First, I think it is useful to see the U.S. withdrawal as a
sign of weakness not strength. The countries of the world
put the question on the table -- What is racism? And the
U.S. is by definition put on the defensive. The U.S. walked
into South Africa not to a U.S. Security Council meeting
that it could control, but to a conference against racism.
The U.S. cannot lead a world-wide anti-racist,
anti-imperialist movement. This was a Third World conference
filled with Third World people. Even the U.S. NGO
delegations were people of color. Rather, the U.S. is and
has been the target of much of the work here. While country
after country talked about stopping "unchallenged hegemony,"
U.S. bullying didn't work. It was infuriating to the U.S.,
as one delegate told me, to have the delegation hold up its
card to speak and be preempted by Gambia or Malaysia or
Brazil. "Don't you know who we are?" the U.S. conveys, and
the response time and again was "We certainly do!" The U.S.
decision to send a low-level delegation was given the "low
level" treatment it deserved. The two things the U.S. didn't
want the UN to do, it did: support Palestine and interrogate
the Transatlantic slave trade. Since the basis of hegemony
is domination by consent, U.S. hegemony suffered a blow.
While U.S. imperialism's economic and military strength is
unchallenged, in this battle it was defeated politically and
diplomatically by the Third World.

Second, you have to have been here to see the profound role
that the Cubans played. Fidel Castro arrived in Durban with
the reminder that Africa is the ancestral motherland of most
of the 11 million people of Cuba. Castro swept through the
city, speaking before the ANC, the UN Conference, and,
unexpectedly, before the final session of the NGO Forum!
There can be no doubt that Castro's statement at the UN
conference has galvanized a weak and often dispirited Third
World. Some delegates may be comprador bourgeoisie, or
Western identified, or complete sell outs. Some may be
moderates, others revolutionaries. But they are all
Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. In their hearts, and
souls, even if they don't have the courage, they want to see
the U.S. get its ass kicked. To see Fidel Castro walk into
the convention with such confidence and the ability to speak
his own mind -- the leader of a tiny nation-state constantly
in grave danger of U.S. invasion -- is a world event hard to
comprehend. And in that brief moment, the power of an
anti-imperialist socialism gives Fidel -- not the U.S. --
the real title of "leader of the free world."

I leave you with an excerpt from Fidel's WCAR speech:

"Nobody has the right to sabotage this conference which, in
some way, is attempting to alleviate the terrible suffering
and enormous injustice that these deeds have signified and
still signify for the overwhelming majority of humanity. Far
less does anybody have the right to impose conditions, and
demand that the issue of historical responsibility and just
reparations are not even mentioned, or the way in which we
decide to qualify the horrific genocide at this very minute
being committed against our sister nation of Palestine
(applause) on the part of extreme-right leaders who, in
alliance with the hegemonic superpower, are currently acting
in the name of another people which, over close to 2000
years, was the victim of the greatest persecution,
discrimination and injustice committed in history."

"When Cuba talks of compensation and supports this idea as
an ineludible moral duty to the victims of racism, it has an
important precedent in the compensation being received by
the descendents of those very Jewish peoples who, right in
the heart of Europe, suffered an odious and brutal racist
holocaust. However, it is not with the intent of attempting
the impossible search for direct family members or concrete
countries of origin of the victims in terms of deeds that
occurred over centuries. The real and irrefutable fact is
that tens of millions of Africans were captured, sold like
merchandise and dispatched to the other side of the Atlantic
to work as slaves, and that 70 million native Indians died
in the western hemisphere as a consequence of European
conquest and colonization." (Applause)

"The inhuman exploitation to which people of the three
continents, including Asia, were subjected, has affected the
destiny and present-day life of over 4.5 billion persons
inhabiting the Third World nations, and whose indices of
poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, life prospects and
other disasters impossible to enumerate in a brief speech,
are both shocking and horrifying. These are the current
victims of that barbarity that lasted for centuries, and the
unmistakable creditors of reparations for the horrendous
crimes committed against their ancestors and peoples."


For full text of Fidel Castro's WCAR speech see the
following sites:

Spanish language

English language translation


Eric Mann has been an anti-racist, civil rights,
environmental, and labor organizer for 35 years. He is a
veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a
Democratic Society, and spent ten years as a United Auto
Workers assembly line worker. He is presently a member of
the Planning Committee of the L.A. Bus Riders Union and the
director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The views
expressed in this article are his own.

Copyright (c) 2001 Eric Mann. All Rights Reserved.

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