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Posted on Thu, Jan. 16, 2003

As big anti-war protests loom, some political rifts surface

Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT) - In the second big wave of anti-war protests, tens of thousands of people will converge in San Francisco and Washington on Saturday to oppose a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The demonstrations, planned to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the 12th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, are expected to eclipse turnouts in October and be the largest protests since the Vietnam War era.

But as the anti-war mobilization has grown in size and political diversity, intramural tensions have surfaced that some fear could fracture this burgeoning movement. Activists are sharply divided about whether their message should just focus on Iraq or be broadened to include issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the U.S. prison system to Americans' consumption of oil and fossil fuels.

The debates echo those of the 1960s: how radical is too radical, how to address broader economic and class concerns, how to attract - not alienate - the mainstream. One example: Environmentalists have organized a separate march, complete with bicycles and electric vehicles, that will then feed into the main rally Saturday outside City Hall in San Francisco.

At the center of attention is ANSWER, or Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, a coalition that emerged soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The umbrella group, with offices in San Francisco, New York and Washington, worried that the attacks would lead to a major shift in U.S. foreign policy and a rollback of civil liberties and social programs at home.

Many of ANSWER's lead organizers have close ties to the International Action Center, formed by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, and to the Workers World Party, a socialist sect whose politics often are criticized as too left, too doctrinaire, even for Bay Area liberals. Some of the WWP's more controversial positions are its support for the governments of Iraq and North Korea; its backing of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic; its claims that reports of Serb atrocities against Muslims and Croats were overblown; its defense as recently as 2000 of the Chinese government's deadly crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

And yet, despite ideological rifts, many peace activists say that such disagreements - which they accuse the media of exaggerating - are common to any mass movement and that to focus on them is to obscure their unity on Iraq.

"When you get into any anti-war thing you always have some left groups," said California Sen. John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat who will speak at Saturday's demonstration. "The issue is trying to prevent a war that could increase the potential for more attacks in America. That's more important than who the hell is sponsoring the rally. The issue that draws people is not the inner politics, it's the idea of going to war in Iraq. I didn't even know ANSWER was sponsoring it. I ain't got time to worry about who ANSWER is."


For several weeks in a small Mission District office, scores of volunteers have spent days and nights handling the mountain of logistics for Saturday's demonstration. Dozens of people, from war veterans to students to senior citizens, have shown up to volunteer, many for the first time after seeing fliers for ANSWER. Most don't ask about the group's core beliefs.

"Basically, ANSWER is dominated by the IAC, which is largely a front for the Workers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist group that has been around since the 1950s," said Stephen Zunes, chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. "They are very effective at organizing because they are hierarchical. The main problem that I have with them personally is they have been very reluctant to acknowledge the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime.

"But ANSWER is not a reflection of the overall movement," Zunes added. "Some people have said, `Well, bummer that this is the group that's behind it, but let's go to the march anyway.' "

In recent weeks, a virtual slugfest about ANSWER's socialist roots has scorched the pages of The Nation and other left-oriented magazines. Writers David Corn and `60s activist-turned-historian Todd Gitlin have warned that, in the long run, ANSWER's radicalism will prevent the broader anti-war movement from reaching out to the churches, unions, Republicans and moderate voters needed if it's to succeed.

"They are uncritical of anybody that the United States and NATO oppose, from Milosevic to Saddam Hussein," said David Walls, a sociology professor at Sonoma State University. "That's the weakness of their position. They won't acknowledge that there is something despicable about Saddam's regime and violations of human rights; they think it's too much of a concession to the imperialists. But it leaves them without a lot of credibility themselves."

Other prominent radical journalists like Alexander Cockburn have fired back, charging that leftists from the `60s are loathe to admit that they now represent the mainstream liberal establishment and values they once demonstrated against. Communists and socialists have always been involved in social movements, they point out, and have a richer history in the United States than most Americans realize.

One of the biggest divides is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While more moderate anti-war groups like the "Win Without War" coalition have pointedly skirted the contentious issue so as not to alienate mainstream Americans, the World Workers Party, the International Action Center and now ANSWER are staunchly pro-Palestinian.

"In the anti-war movement it's some kind of taboo thing to bring up Palestinians," said Richard Becker, a member of ANSWER's steering committee and a longtime member of the WWP. "But if the United States is arming Israel, that's a war. Some view Israel as a shining example of democracy in the Middle East, and they are worried that liberals will withdraw support from the anti-war movement if we criticize Israel. But we think it's possible to have big, mass actions and support the Palestinian cause at the same time."

Even anarchist journals and independent Web logs have published treatises like "The Mysterious Ramsey Clark: Stalinist Dupe or Ruling-Class Spook?" on the Internet.

Barbara Lubin of the Berkeley-based Middle East Children's Alliance is on the ANSWER steering committee. Like many others who remember Vietnam, she feels that the wrangling is little more than posturing by `60s veterans who are now jockeying to be credible authorities on the "new" movement.

"It's really dangerous when people on the so-called left start red-baiting those who are more to the left then they are," said Lubin. "It's dangerous, and it's destructive. The discussion becomes, `Who is ANSWER?' and not, `How can we get a million people in the street to stop this war?' . . . When we get caught in that conversation, we overlook the fact that these people work their butts off."

Many of the people planning to attend Saturday's march in San Francisco echoed that sentiment. While admitting they know little about ANSWER and its politics, that isn't stopping them from participating.

"I personally don't know much about them," said Jeanelyse Doran, coordinator of the Mount Diablo Peace Center in Walnut Creek, Calif. "If I was going to participate any further I would do more research. But I would do that with any group. I'm just thrilled that they are putting this together."


© 2003, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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