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Commentary :: Globalization & Capitalism : Peace & War : Resistance & Tactics

An Open Letter to United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ)

Dear friends in United for Peace and Justice,

Congratulations on organizing a very large demonstration in Washington, D.C. the weekend of September 24-25. The numbers and the resulting media coverage and visibility were indeed impressive.

Having said that, we would like to share with you some fundamental political concerns of ours with:
• the manner in which the mobilization was called,
• what was and what was not included in the political message,
• and how that was reflected in the way in which the organizing for the demonstrations happened on the ground.

You might be surprised that we have issued an open letter rather than trying to communicate with your organization privately. We have, however, tried private, direct channels of communication both in the recent past and earlier, and found them to be ineffective.

Our intent in writing this open letter is not to generate conflict, but to voice constructive criticism and generate debate, which is sorely needed in the wider peace and justice movement in the U.S. We hope for a constructive response.

The Issues
Three days before hundreds of thousands marched in Washington, D.C. to demand an end to the occupation of Iraq – with parallel demands to end the economic occupation of the global South, a crowd of several hundred marched in the capital of Lesotho, a small landlocked country in Southern Africa. (By the standards of a small country like Lesotho, this was a large turnout.)

The focus of this march was to demand fair resettlement and rehabilitation for the thousands displaced by the Lesotho Highlands Project, a series of dams financed by the World Bank. These dams were built to collect water for export to neighboring South Africa, even while Lesotho is afflicted with drought. The dams have displaced thousands, and destroyed the farmlands and fisheries that tens of thousands depend on for their survival. The contracts for building the dams were riddled with corruption benefiting foreign contractors, a fact that the World Bank tried for years to cover up.

The situation in Lesotho is a microcosm of how the World Bank and its sister institution the International Monetary Fund (IMF) operate worldwide. To highlight a few recent developments:
• The IMF and World Bank compelled Niger and Mali to deregulate food prices and privatize surplus food reserves, moves which led to the current famine in these countries, endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands. Similar subsidy eliminations are now taking place in Iraq, where 60% of the population depends on food subsidies for survival.
• The World Bank is funding an immensely destructive gold mining project in Guatemala that will exacerbate poverty among indigenous Maya people while despoiling the environment.
• Through the Policy Support Instrument (PSI), the IMF is expanding and tightening its control over countries which either do not need IMF loans or are poised to escape its economic dictatorship through debt cancellation. The PSI will expand the IMF’s leverage over these countries, and allow the institution to continue to impose devastating “economic reform? programs.

Why do we mention all of this? A fact that was very well known to the national leadership of UFPJ – though they may deny it – is that the IMF and World Bank were meeting in Washington, D.C. the very same weekend that they called the anti-war march. MGJ had brought this fact to the attention of UFPJ through a letter, a few days before they issued their Call to Action for the weekend. We also raised this issue publicly at the Unity Meeting in Washington, D.C., organized by longtime Washington, D.C. community leader Rev. Graylan Hagler, as well as other community activists. UFPJ knew about the IMF-World Bank meetings before they issued their call for protests that weekend, in good time to change course and modify their protest plans to take the meetings into account.

By bringing attention to the IMF and World Bank meetings, we do not wish to make the claim that resisting the policies of these institutions is “more important? than demanding an end to the occupation of Iraq (and the occupations of Afghanistan, Haiti, and Palestine). On the contrary, we recognize and give a great deal of importance to the grave violations of human dignity and to the loss of life that these occupations entail.

We have reason to believe, though, that some persons in the leadership of UFPJ do not give any importance to the social, economic, and ecological devastation caused by the IMF and World Bank across Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and other impoverished regions of the world. If that is true, it is a major problem. It shows a lack of vision, analysis, and understanding of the political economy of the contemporary world.

Before going further, we would like to point out that this is not about MGJ. The more important issue at stake here is the fundamental lack of solidarity of the leadership of important sections of the U.S. peace and justice movement with billions of poor people worldwide, overwhelmingly of color. It is imperative for that section of the U.S. peace and justice movement that works mainly on foreign policy issues to recognize that the damaging foreign policies of the U.S. are not solely about who this country bombs and occupies, but equally about who this country starves and exploits for the profit of multinational corporations. It is equally important that we recognize that exploitation extends to the environment, and that forests are clearcut, air and water polluted, and ecosystems destroyed every day to extend economic control.

The economic control of the planet for corporate profit is a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. A failure to recognize this reality is also a serious analytical failure on the part of the peace and justice movement.

We believe that this lack of vision is also self-defeating. If the U.S. peace and justice movement is serious about ending the occupation of Iraq (and of Afghanistan, Haiti, and Palestine), the movement needs to develop and internalize an understanding of the motivations for and the roots of war and occupation. The drive for imperial control of natural resources, cheap labor, and markets has been a key part of the motivation for U.S. wars and interventions for decades (some would argue, centuries), and a peace and justice movement that has a strategic goal of not merely ending this latest war but undermining the U.S. war machine in the longer term, needs to build this understanding into its actions.

What is more, these linkages are common sense across much of the world. In most countries, the organizations fighting neoliberal economic policies and the organizations resisting U.S. military aggression are the very same organizations. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the very same organizations who are resisting IMF and World Bank-imposed policies such as water privatization, export of natural gas, and destructive gold mining, are also involved in struggles against the proliferation of U.S. bases and the militarized U.S.-backed war on drugs. The Freedom from Debt Coalition in the Philippines, who resist IMF and World Bank loan conditions, also played a major role in the coalition that pressured the Philippines government to withdraw its forces from Iraq. Why do we compartmentalize issues to our own detriment here in the U.S., and why do we always prioritize getting a few more column inches in the New York Times, or several thousand more people at tomorrow’s demonstration, over building a genuinely broad-based movement over the next five or ten years?

None of which is to say that there should not be a protest against the Iraq war on the weekend of the IMF and World Bank meetings. There should be protests against the illegitimate U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq 365 days of the year. But when these protests coincide with the IMF and World Bank meetings in the same city in which the meetings are taking place, it is perfectly reasonable and legitimate to expect that there be a serious effort on the part of all concerned to integrate the message of fighting U.S.-sponsored wars and occupations with the message of resisting the economic dictatorship and ecological warfare of the IMF and World Bank. These messages are not hard to integrate at all – just ask us, we have done so already in ways that are clear, concise, and convincing!

And we are certainly not the only ones doing this analysis either. You don’t need to take our word for anything – just read recent writings by Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South, or freelance writer Naomi Klein, or Antonia Juhasz, or Abu Khaleel’s blog from Baghdad (, or decades of writing by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano about Latin America.

The lead-up to the September 24-25 weekend
There was much in the lead-up to the weekend that we had deep misgivings about, but we’ll confine ourselves to observations about one particularly disturbing event.

First, as we mentioned earlier, MGJ had sent a letter to members of the UFPJ national steering committee a few days before they issued their Call to Action for the weekend, with an open offer of working together with them to integrate an antiwar and an economic justice message for the weekend’s actions, taking advantage of a historic opportunity to link these issues together. With the U.S. imposing an IMF-style structural adjustment program on Iraq at gunpoint, and with Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank, this is the right time to be making these connections.

Unfortunately, the national leadership of UFPJ reacted to our letter as if it were a threat. Three members of the steering committee came to Washington, D.C. a few days later, and set up a meeting with representatives from MGJ. It is a measure of the importance they give to the issue of U.S. economic hegemony that they were 45 minutes late to their 1-hour meeting with us, but were not willing to delay the start of their next meeting to give enough time to meet with us. For the 15 minutes or so that they did meet with us, they said repeatedly that their demonstration was going to be about the single-issue message of “U.S. troops out of Iraq.?

We publicly confronted UFPJ with our concerns at the Unity Meeting convened by Rev. Graylan Hagler and other community activists a few weeks later. After that, there was a sudden interest on the part of UFPJ in talking with us. We took that interest at face value and attempted to engage with UFPJ to try to develop and disseminate a unified message of resisting U.S. domination, through bombs and occupation as well as through loans and trade. We thought (mistakenly) that we had crossed a bridge to a better relationship.

The events of the weekend
We’ll start with a brief run-down of what happened at the opening rally for the antiwar march. It is significant that only two of a very large number of speakers at the rally were slated to talk about the IMF and World Bank meetings; none of the other speakers even mentioned the fact that the IMF and World Bank were meeting only a few blocks away that weekend.

One of the two was Virginia Setshedi, a phenomenal Black activist from South Africa, who was treated by UFPJ in a manner bordering racism. She is a truly visionary activist and a dynamic speaker, and yet was given only three minutes to speak after a long procession of well-known U.S. speakers who were given five minutes each – and often took longer than that. Far from being honored that Virginia had come all the way from South Africa and was willing to speak at the rally, the organizers acted as if they were doing her a favor by giving her a platform. The way she was treated was incredibly patronizing, and we feel very strongly that UFPJ owes her an apology.

The other was one of our own members, Basav Sen, who did not in the end get a chance to speak. We understand that technically, this was because of the preceding program taking too long, and we do not mean to imply that there was a conspiracy to keep him from speaking. It is significant, though, that both Virginia and Basav were scheduled towards the end of the program, and given only 3 minutes each, out of a very large number of speakers.

We want the leadership of UFPJ to appreciate that this was far more than a slap in the face for Virginia, Basav, or MGJ – it was a slight to people fighting World Bank-funded water privatization, to people organizing against IMF-imposed public spending cuts, and to millions worldwide who are engaged in life-and-death struggles against the economic policies imposed by U.S.-controlled institutions – including in Iraq. The least that they can expect of those of us who are in the U.S. is some basic solidarity!

The logistical preparations
Besides their lack of political vision, the UFPJ leadership also made serious errors in logistical planning and preparation.

Though they had planned several days of action and were expecting 100,000 participants, UFPJ did not adequately prioritize housing. They did ask a local DC group to help find housing, but did not provide any resources or respond to frequent requests to coordinate efforts. This group and others, including MGJ, formed an ad hoc committee which did manage to secure some housing, but as the mobilization approached there was still a shortage. UFPJ expressed great concern about the lack of housing but still did not provide resources or coordination. At the same time they were claiming poverty when it came to funding housing, UFPJ was running a million dollar ad campaign and pouring a lot of money into the Operation Ceasefire concert. As an example of poor coordination by UFPJ, they ignored the ad hoc committee’s repeated offers to link the two web-based housing boards where people in Washington DC could offer housing to out-of-town activists, and out-of-town activists could request housing. It made perfect sense to link the two websites, so that people who were looking for housing would need to access only one website for complete information. Despite a few conversations with UFPJ on this issue, nothing came of it. Fortunately due to the hard work of the ad hoc committee, there was not a housing crisis. However we will never know how many activists chose not to stay for the full weekend or did not even come to Washington because the housing situation was not more secure.

UFPJ’s treatment of the Direct Action Medic Network (DAMN) was extremely unfair as well. DAMN is a small collective working tirelessly – and for free – to keep protesters healthy and safe during demonstrations in Washington, D.C. UFPJ initially refused to reimburse DAMN for providing water and medical supplies for demonstrators, and expected them to staff a medical tent at the festival even though they are not licensed medics and it would be illegal for them to do so. There were only a few health and safety volunteers outside of DAMN. Thus, on the largest day of action, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators had only a small overstretched band of volunteer street medics to rely on. In the event of an accident or simply of hotter weather, this inadequate preparation might have resulted in serious medical problems.

We believe there is a connection between the failures of political analysis on the part of UFPJ, and their logistical failures. The connection lies in an elitist mode of organizing that treats the grassroots as a resource to exploit rather than as a source of leadership. The grassroots has no role in determining the political vision of the coalition; the vision and message are driven by the needs of getting on CNN and the New York Times. Yet, the grassroots is expected to do the “grunt work? of arranging for housing, medical support, and legal support, without any help from the so-called “leadership?.

Conclusion – what do we want?
We seek open debate and discussion on analysis as well as dynamics within the U.S. peace and justice movement. We know that fracturing and factionalism weaken the movement – and that is not what we seek – but it is equally true that conformity, unwillingness to engage in real debate, and a refusal to air real differences when they exist can stifle and eventually kill a movement.

Recent events have provided a great opportunity to engage the wider public on the profound injustice of U.S. policies and politics, both domestic and foreign. Without a wide dialogue about what exactly these opportunities are, and how we can make the most of these opportunities in a way that is respectful of the people affected by recent tragedies, we as a movement will have failed.

In our own public education around the September 24-25 weekend, MGJ made every effort to link the disaster in Louisiana, the global economy, and the occupation of Iraq in a way that is meaningful and not merely a laundry list of complaints. We do not claim to have been perfect in how we have done so. The point to bear in mind is that we have tried sincerely to make these connections, not merely to advance any particular campaign that we are working on, but to serve what we see as the broader objective of building a movement that connects the local with the global, and connects the war on the poor being waged with F16s with the equally vicious war on the poor being waged with privatization, budget cuts for social services, gentrification, displacement, and environmental racism and classism.

We hope that this letter provokes the leadership of large national peace and justice organizations to engage in some reflection about how not to sacrifice longer term goals to advance short term interests. We hope this letter gets them to think about building a movement towards a more just U.S. foreign (and domestic) policy, and not merely a campaign to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. We hope this letter sparks a dialogue about how we in the U.S. can organize in a way that is more respectful of, and more in tune with, the rest of the world.

At the very least, we hope that this letter gets the leadership of peace and justice organizations to organize in a manner that is respectful of all progressive causes. It would not be acceptable for a peace and justice group to organize a demonstration on Martin Luther King Day without making the ongoing civil rights struggles of African Americans a central part of the political message. It would not be acceptable to organize a demonstration on Columbus Day without incorporating Native American struggles for land rights and environmental justice into the core demands.

It is equally unacceptable to organize a demonstration during the IMF and World Bank meetings without acknowledging the struggle of people across Africa, Asia, and Latin America against these imperialistic institutions. Nor is it acceptable to call for a demonstration in another city without consulting with local activists first and not as an afterthought. Finally, it should not be expected that the locals do the “dirty work? of logistics without having a central role in shaping the political message.

We end with the observation that it would be breathtakingly arrogant on the part of the “leadership? of so-called progressive organizations to imagine that “the masses? are not ready for a sophisticated and nuanced analysis, and can think only in soundbytes and bumper sticker slogans. We talk to our neighbors, to people we meet in the subway, to cashiers at our neighborhood grocery stores, to cab-drivers, and to other folks. Grassroots constituencies have a far greater degree of political sophistication than the so-called leaders of the progressive movement give them credit for.

“The people? are ready for a political message that links fundamental racial, economic, and gender inequalities in the U.S. with similar inequalities on a global scale, and the role of U.S. military power in maintaining these inequalities. They are ready for a political message that links economic deprivation and war with global climate change and environmental destruction. They are ready to question the role of the U.S. political and economic system in creating and perpetuating these injustices. Particularly after Hurricane Katrina, people are eager for such a message. Are the “leaders? listening?

*The Mobilization for Global Justice is a Washington, D.C. based group that works on issues of global economic and social justice and sustainability. We believe another world is possible and necessary. We envision a world free of corporate domination and crushing debt, particularly in communities of color. We act to expose and change the institutionalized violence wrought by international financial and trade institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization.

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