Neither Trade Talks nor Peace Talks: V & VI

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at tao.ca
Fri Jul 4 03:33:44 MDT 2003


V: Analysis by Anecdote: Anti-war, Stopwar.ca and the City of Vancouver


    Solidarity is one of the catchwords of the left, always has been for
everyone, even a right social democrat. When people say 'solidarity' they
mean a multitude of things, but formerly it was said that (in the words of
Ché Guevara) "Solidarity means sharing the same risks", yet now solidarity
now is used to mis-identify "I agree with you." But if it doesn't mean more
than that, it means nothing at all and is a superfluous word. I can only
give an example from my own recent activist life by way of telling
anecdotes. There are anti-war coalitions in every part of the industrialized
world now. They are, much like TUB's in imperialist countries, historically
relevant; nature abhors a vacuum and so do historical processes. It is worth
both the time and the energy to support the existing coalitions, to not
fight against them-especially right now, during a reactionary triumphalism
emanating from Downing Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. However, we need to
have a look at what kind of politics these coalitions are bringing about,
and how they are functioning in terms of raising our own understanding of
what is happening.

Before the bombings began, the coalition had struggled along but maintained
a very healthy basic of four points for political messaging. This, as well
as putting on conferences and teach-ins that would generate a few hundred in
attendance, and marches and rallies that would include tens of thousands
here in Vancouver-up to nearly forty at the height of the pre-war marches.
The points of agreement for that time were:

1)              Whether or not given fig-leaf "legal" cover through the UN,
the coalition opposed the ongoing sanctions and intermittent bombings as
well as the threatened escalation into a war for 'regime change'.

2)              The coalition called for the respect of indigenous
self-determination and sovereignty (ala the Coast Salish in 'Vancouver',
etc);

3)              The coalition opposed all attacks on refugees and immigrants
in Canada and opposed any attacks on democratic rights;

Finally, the most 'controversial'-i.e. contested-position taken by the
antiwar coalition was on the subject of -you guessed it-the colonial-settler
Zionist state.

4)              The coalition called for the immediate withdrawal of Israel
from all illegally occupied lands, Palestinian and Arab and for the
implementation of UN Resolutions (including resolution 194 that includes the
Right of Return for all Arab refugees "wishing to do so").

The last point caused much concern, including the withdrawal from the
coalition (later re-named "Stopwar.ca") of the sympathetic-to-Zionism group,
"Lawyers Against the War". LAW later returned to play a positive role in the
furtherance of the politics of the coalition, including a LAW member
becoming the lawyer of one of my co-defendant comrades jailed on April 1,
2003, the causes of which I will give an account in the next section.

The week that the bombs were about to fall saw a vacuum of planning inside
the coalition and it almost ate Stopwar.ca at the outset of the escalated
aerial slaughter and ground invasion of Iraq. One of the greatest curses of
the antiwar movement is really an extension of the same old generational
divide. This was a plague during the anti-Vietnam war movement often, and it
has become a major split again this time around. Except the main irony is
that those who used to be attacked by 'the old guard' are themselves
attacking the youth of today. Of course, exactly how this breaks down is
very much a matter of perspective and, for those who are wondering, I am
writing this as I creep up towards 28 years of age myself. Nonetheless,
there are some invariables.

There are class forces at work. TUB's and similar minded anti-war strugglers
have what amounts to a middle class consciousness in many ways: Their
jobs/lifestyles[14] and/or housing situation or consumption levels can all
play a part in this. Essentially, their goal is not reformist for the sake
of advance towards an anti-imperialist existence, but rather to reform in
and of itself. In other words, some members of a coalition at this point,
cannot conceive of a world where there is no imperialism, and cannot stomach
or really grasp a situation where anti-war forces come in direct conflict
with war forces. This is not a call to armed struggle: there are members of
these coalitions who cannot perceive of a protracted struggle with
non-violent bodies clogging up the works, or similar direct actions designed
without 'combat' or 'violence' but in open confrontation, defiance and
disruption of the imperialist aggressor's societies ability to function as
normal during a 'hot war'. That might be understandable and defendable on
the basis of personal comfort level, though such is clearly not the main
reason for many who are against such a move. There isn't even a willingness
to confront the city indirectly by marching without a permit. This isn't a
demonstration of a misunderstanding of the class forces at work in North
America- indeed it betrays a deep, pessimistic defeatism and crystal clarity
of those very forces- always a bad combination.

On the first week of the bombing, the coalition experienced many power moves
from many different sides. Demonstrations were called out of normal
procedure, with some claiming a need for action immediately. These people
fell into a generational and political divide. The people who wanted to
respond immediately were radicals from the Palestinian and other grassroots,
non-union based organizations. They were also mostly in their 20's or 30's.
Others were very disturbed by what they saw as the implications of working
against 'the process'. These folks were more often aligned with Trade Unions
and a generation older. There was a lot of resentment, some coalition
members calling maintaining street response as the most important action,
regardless of procedure. There also had been violations of procedure that
had come through the benefactors again: individuals had taken out
advertisements in newspapers several times-in clear violation of the
official position of the coalition to only take out ads that contained
mention of the position on the entire Middle East: including the position
supporting the rights of Palestine. Meanwhile, "the Outreach Committee" went
over the head of the "Coordinating Committee" when calling the
demonstrations four days in a row after the beginning of the bombing. If
these specifics all sound like a Python-esque routine, they should. The
reactions came down to the following: a non-confrontational approach
demanded holding sparse rallies and song fests, once every few weeks and the
odd teach in and endorsement of other events that were happening here, there
and everywhere. The basic tenor of all of these events would be
humanitarian, legalistic and morbid depression, with people crying in the
streets. We were asked to hear babies bawling during bombing raids, to feel
very sad and bleed for the Iraqi people at this horrible moment in history.
People however were already doing that. Promoting these feelings was
becoming a source of the desperation, the alienation from struggle. In
short, it felt dis-empowering. Such a statement about the emotions of one
(such as myself) is not, in any way, a judgment on what another ally
believes or is personally prepared for. Everyone has their line they can or
cannot cross, and such comfort zones must be respected or else, all will be
lost. The problem lies in having trust levels break wide open and have
solidarity get cut off at the knees.

Too many tears flow for the victims of imperialism but not enough
determination is forged in anger to prevent more. Not violent anger, not
'anger that needs venting', but a disruptful, defiant and wholly belligerent
anger. Friday March 21, 2003, the third day of the full scale bombing and
ground invasion of Iraq. A demonstration, one of the ones called in a sense
of urgency at the start of the war, in violation of the 'normal rules of
procedure' gathered at the Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver. There had been
no plans for where to go on this march and it was decided to ask the crowd
the pick a destination instead of merely haul them around like so much
cattle. When the crowd was asked to choose between two marching routes, one
to a peace camp adjacent to the American Consulate or the other to
symbolically take the Burrard Street Bridge, the crowd made for the bridge.
I must state it was a slanted phrasing of the options, but it was put to the
crowd nonetheless. On the way to the bridge with chants of "US Out!" and "No
justice, no peace, US out of the Middle East" and the like, one of the more
frightening events I have ever been through erupted. A man drove his car
deliberately and with considerable acceleration into the crowd of
demonstrators. A middle-aged woman on her bicycle was hospitalized. Several
others rolled up the hood and were knocked to the pavement, fortunately no
little ones or any others were right in the way of what was attempted murder
by some fascist-minded motorist. The police have refused to investigate and
some have deliberately given false testimony about the acts of this
upstanding loyal motorist. Some officers have stated the woman simply fell
to the ground. We have approximately 30 or so people from all walks of life
who will go on the record otherwise. The issue remains uninvestigated by the
local Vancouver police.

Upon hearing of the incident, coalition members were blamed by other, more
'respectable' coalition members for this act by a homicidal driver. The
coalition has thankfully not permanently ruptured over this, but the
immediate reaction-one of condemning the marchers, i.e. blaming the victims-
is a sign of the belief that some members have that an antiwar movement must
never actively confront the system itself, but only demonstrate passive
rejection of certain policies. This desire to avoid head-on struggle and
collisions seems informed not by a belief in change outside challenging the
system, but an accommodation to power and a desire to merely make a show of
presence. When this was not the limited form of struggle, then those who
dared open up a new possibility for others were condemned as 'adventurous'
and 'irresponsible'. There was an attempt to silence that anything had
happened at all. If it had not been mentioned at the podium by one of the
'undisciplined' MC's during a large demonstration the following day the fact
that there was an attempt to kill anti-war protestors would have gone
unmentioned publicly. But we do need to know the whole story. Yes, in a
circumstance like that spontaneous march inexperience and marshalling can be
a major safety concern- but no, it is never permissible to blame a coalition
partner for the actions of those 'humans' who would step on the gas into a
crowd with children. Especially when the 'provocation' amounts to being held
up without so much as a scowl.

A coalition such as this one, from my limited direct experience, is
primarily most useful at getting people together in a pre-war period. After
an all out imperialist assault is launched the antiwar movement (as opposed
to 'the' coalition) needs to determine where it is going. There needs to be
a new understanding of how leadership functions in this society. All of the
forms of thinking around leadership-both for and against-seriously need to
be discarded, or at a very minimum open to question. Writing a good pamphlet
combined with 'the right line' amounts to nothing. Functioning through the
continual yelling and re-yelling of great slogans is not 'mobilizing', it is
to de-mobilize, but only if those holding such convergences try to be 'the'
answer. When the moment arises that there are bombs falling on a target
population, the question that no one can answer is "How do we stop this?"
Once the creation of physical space for people to come together and take
part in a movement is seen as one of several tactics, it becomes far
stronger and more useful. When a coalition proclaims itself as the authority
within the anti-war movement, just as when the NGO and Trade Union tactics
try to impose themselves as 'the' answer in resistance to neo-liberal
globalization, their role moves from ally to reactionary.

 Those who would try to hold people to a narrow definition of movement
building and definitions of success will then quickly be the very same who
only weeks before were trying desperately to get more action out of people.
Building towards a revolutionary situation in North America, indeed, any of
the industrialized imperialist countries, cannot come with an assumption of
intellectual property rights on strategy. Not least because of the simple
fact that none of our attempts at overthrowing advanced imperialism in the
heartland have succeeded and we haven't even had a real chance for decades.
Admitting our humility is step one.

It was a combination of this political thinking and emotional desperation
that brought myself and a half dozen other comrades together less than two
weeks into the ground invasion of Iraq. After hearing comrades who had the
energy to do more work be attacked for it by colleagues, after seeing the
out and out fear on the faces of people who wandered through the streets
demanding an end to the war and wondering what good this was doing, and
after watching some members of Stopwar.ca get into arguments with marchers
at the demonstrations for having the gall to march when the coalition hadn't
called a march (the nerve!), a few of us started to feel that the coalition
wasn't where we belonged. The global situation was to our view not in need
of more proof that large numbers of people were opposed to the war; we had a
conversation at a small coffee shop to try and determine another way to try
and raise the agenda a little higher. Those of us felt a real need to
symbolically try and point to a new way, a forceful shut down of those who
would destroy even the pretense of international law, who would use one
invasion as a cover for ethnic cleansing of Palestine, we wanted to use
action to call for more creative actions to disrupt the whole god-damned war
machine. We wanted to make a point about the form that resistance would
take, or rather the creativity that was required for it. We chose an action
and it was decided that this was targeted at the other people who were
already in opposition to this despicable war.

 We talked, and the most refreshing thing about the group was that we began
by listening to each other. We demanded a high level of trust and we built
on that basis. We decided that the best thing to do in the Vancouver
situation to make our point was to lock ourselves to the doors of the
American Consulate downtown, and for this a high level of trust was needed.
We contacted one another based on this-we sought out those who of course had
similar politics about George Bush, but far more importantly how comrades
should interact with one another. As another comrade wrote at the time, he
wanted to work with people who "could laugh and also could cry". This has
since almost been a personal mantra.

Simply building mass convergences has never been able to overcome what to do
when the demands of the mass mobilizing are not met. At this point, having
no answer for why wandering in the mass marches didn't produce the promised
result nor offering new alternatives for tactics, dwindling numbers and
expectations are the result. Again, the mass-mobilizations continue to serve
their purpose and provide an entrance point for many who would not have one
otherwise. The point is that the would-be leaders inside the coalition must
cease trying to represent the anti-war movement itself. Little is more
painful than when large numbers of people want to take on new ideas,
approaches and defiance-and the 'organizers' attempt to suppress such an
outpouring. Imperialist mass murder creates anger. Our job is not to defuse
that righteous anger. If we have any role to play in this (a dubious
proposition), it is to provide focus.

After spending a couple hundred dollars on chains and locks and hours of
practice runs, we met up with one another the night before our action (which
took place April 01, 2003). The little group was to be called MOAB
(Mobilization Opposed to Aggression on Baghdad) and our statement conveyed
the issues of Iraq, Palestine, civil liberties, international law and
indigenous sovereignty here. We finished with a call to other activists to
take up an initiative to create further forms of resistance in opposition to
imperialist wars and illegal occupations and for a just society. With ended
with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. The arrests were not all that
exciting, we had shown up at before 8:00am, in order to be locked down to
the front doors when the Consulate went to open for the day of business. The
actual arrests were anti-climactic; neither the doors nor chains (3/8 inch
thick) were cut with the jaws-of-life; a small little Allen key took the
door handle off and voila, into the paddy wagon with but a few claps and
shouts later.

Aside from strip searches, police wisecracks about ruining the relations
between Canada and the United States and two of us being locked in the
washroom for a half an hour, not much eventful took place while in custody.
We were released 12 hours later with conditions against being near the
consulate before our trial, which has since been set for May 2004. The
following day, three of us went to a meeting of Stopwar.ca and had an
opportunity to speak. In my remarks I suggested that the purpose had been to
send a message not so much to the larger population but to raise questions
among existing anti-war activists. It seemed to me that some of these things
were starting to be discussed when the Republican Guard surrendered both
Baghdad and their own dignity without a fight a week and a half later. Only
a few days after our action, two women blockaded the Canada-US border
crossing[15]. We read out our statement to the gathered anti-war activists.
The MLK quote we had finished our statement with was "A time comes when
silence is betrayal. That time is now".

We were kindly given very warm applause, sincere support and a member of
Lawyers Against the War mentioned earlier got us in touch with a man who
ended up being legal counsel for one of the women from our group. The
co-chair of Stopwar.ca also volunteered his pro-bono counsel contacts.
Finally, we were able to recover more than we spent on our action by passing
a hat (or rather, an empty pizza box).

            The reason that the relations went so well between our
action -once completed- and the same coalition members who only days before
had been panicking as demonstrators demonstrated 'without a permit' is
simple. We didn't try to challenge the way that the coalition itself was
organizing. Our targets were all anti-war individuals both in and out of the
coalition, not the coalition itself. Though we never wrote up a MOAB
position on the matter, none of us seemed to believe that the coalition
would ever morph into something else. We wanted to change the dialogue
around how to stop the war, to challenge the thinking of those trying to
oppose it and to make it possible to try and take the struggle to the
American government ourselves.

            The two women who blockaded the economic corridor linking
Seattle and Vancouver at the border crossing were at the same time my
greatest source of hope and a cause for great despair. They were arrested
and immediately released without charge. A little over a week later, one of
the two women was to speak at the large demonstration called for April 12,
just after the Ba'ath Party seemed to be missing in action in Iraq. I was
happy at the opportunity to speak to her privately before she spoke to the
crowd of a couple thousand. After discussing a few other things, I mentioned
that it was interesting that they had not been charged with anything for
their act, while we had charges and conditions and were held in prison for a
longer time. I then stated that I didn't know if such an argument could be
made (I'm no lawyer), but that I wanted to make mention in court of the
precedent set when they received release without incident or condition after
3 hours. This woman had been to Iraq before, and I had both respect for her
act and the hope it provided within me. To my shock, her friend replied "But
if you do that, they might come down harder on her and make life for her
more miserable," to which she agreed, following with more concern at the
idea of us mentioning their situation. I am seldom speechless, but I was at
this. What can you say to that? As it turns out, none of this mattered from
a legal standpoint- it cannot be brought into our trial. Why I could say
very little in response was that I have seen very few people ever exhibit a
greater disdain for solidarity amongst comrades for a better world. If this
is the thinking of those who put themselves in the precarious position of
possible prison, how shallow is our general understanding of what solidarity
means? If we look at one another as liabilities, are we going to be very
hard to divide and conquer?

This was only the most glaring example of how we need to rediscover what
solidarity means, a microcosm of my firm belief that one of the greatest
problems we face in the first world social justice movements are horrible
misunderstanding of where our class lines get drawn. Where we must stand
together. This, perhaps, is due to our lack of a real sense of our own
history. If we don't know about the picket-lines of yesterday it shouldn't
be surprising that we exhibit scab-like thinking about today. We must stand
together, and we will. And it will be from all tendencies of the movements
and across the globe. Solidarity will be learned by living it, not preaching
it. We must have leaders by example through actions here, too.


VI: On The Question Of Leadership


          Whether your inspiration comes from the early twentieth century
Wobblies or the CIO's formation here in North America, or whether it is the
Chinese or Cuban peasant revolutions, the Anarchists in Spain or even Hugo
Chávez in Venezuela, it is the historical conditions combined with an idea
that makes for incredible passion and people who act -not pontificate-to
show a way forward: such is the de facto existence of leadership. All of the
ideological explanations of these matters do not come from pronouncements or
theory in isolation from practice. People who lead by the strength of their
example are those who capture imaginations. There will need to be altogether
new thinking to tackle the depth of the problem we face currently. We have a
society whose wealth is based on imperialist exploitation that no radical
movement has ever even threatened, with a class composition that is
technically the same but has produced an altogether different consciousness.
This matters-and so does the fate of the people on the whole planet, being
quickly driven towards the oil energy Armageddon of this exterminist
imperialism. We all state our knowledge about the war being driven by the
high needs of oil, but seldom do we deal with this in the manner that this
'exterminist stage' of imperialism effectively leaves at our feet, should we
accept such a role or not. We cannot afford to simply continue with our long
held beliefs about the nature of struggle and progress therein. None of them
have produced anything but a reformist movement that has never demonstrated
any real ability to morph into something more-something that speaks to the
need to fundamentally challenge the whole bloody order.

The 'anti-globalization' movement has not succeeded in making the adjustment
in North America since the events of September 11, 2001. The ideals of the
movement have taken a strong hit along the way: A constant visible
manifestation of something beyond sentiment and for a new vision of
democracy, to expose the repressive nature of the society and the hypocrisy
of those who would speak for democracy. More importantly was an
understanding of using actions as a form of leadership. The lack of
ideological understanding of imperialism - particularly, the role of
sovereignty and the state, a problem still shared by official social
democracy across the continent- left the young movement paralyzed in the
headlights of US imperialism in its bared teeth variant.

Across Europe, the praxis has taken less of a beating. The connection
between American McDonnell Douglas fighter planes and McDonald's restaurant
chain[16] is perfectly clear to most. Throughout the old continent, demands
for people's sovereignty have been made in the form of demands for referenda
on admittance to the EU. Socialism in the Third World is often sold
differently than it is here. In the First World, we need to have a guiding
principle, an ideal that captures a basic trap for us. In other words, we
have to be sneaky as Hell. Make a reformist demand that cannot be matched. I
'm a stodgy old revolutionary for a young guy, in that I believe the Junta
and their cohorts who run the world are simply incapable of putting their
real agenda up for debate. If for no other reason than the entropic nature
of the system demands the very path we are being forced to go down at
Wolfowitz's gunpoint. But what demand could be more spectacularly suited for
a social democrat? After all, if we the polity are the 'other superpower', I
would imagine it's time for some high level talks. A movement that has the
demand for sovereignty in the people and a direct challenge to the
imperialist countries claim to the mantle of democracy can both unify the
differing tendencies across the imperialist world and expose the
anti-democratic nature of the imperialist order itself. Their arguments will
be against 'too much democracy', and ours will correctly be for more. These
demands of ours cannot be heeded yet appear to be the logical extension of a
society based on the supposed rule of the majority. In other words, if we
are mobilized behind this and the idea spreads, we have a checkmate.

            People overwhelmingly know there is something fundamentally
flawed in the way the current society is ordered. Nonetheless, in our
continued fixations, we have dispersed our creativity into telling people
what more of the population already knows than we usually seem willing to
believe.


(Continued)





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