Report on the 10–12 July Conference of the National Assembly to End the Wars and Occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan

by Tom Bias

To my friends in the Northwest New Jersey Peace Fellowship:

After attending the second annual conference of the National Assembly, I am cautiously optimistic that the antiwar movement has made some progress toward unity. If we community activists in our local areas across the country make it happen, I believe that we have a good opportunity to have successful united demonstrations across the country on the 17 October, as well as on other dates leading up to 17 October. I’ll get into what was actually decided a little later; I’d like to describe the conference itself: who was there, what points of view were represented, and how people got along.

I would estimate between 250 and 300 people attended. The National Assembly rented a college campus — La Roche College in Pittsburgh — which reduced the expense considerably for the participants relative to last year. There are a lot of differences of opinion, very deep ones, among people who oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan war, but everyone, it seems to me, came to this conference with a desire to come to a consensus and to agree on a program of actions. To be sure, a number of dates were suggested. For the most part, however, they were not counterposed to each other, and nearly every action that was suggested was agreed to as part of the overall fall program, to culminate on 17 October.

Conference organizers (left to right): Jeff Mackler of San Francisco, Marilyn Levin of Boston, Jerry Gordon of Cleveland. Behind them is Alan Dale of Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.

So who attended? I don’t think a formal credentials report was given to the conference, but by my observation, it was like most antiwar events these days: most of the people were in their 40s or 50s, with a substantial number older than that. Youth was underrepresented; however, a number of the organizations that sent people have a lot of young people as members, so I’m optimistic that young people will be better represented in future. The attendance was mostly white as well, unfortunately. I have some ideas on changing that, and it starts with us in New Jersey. But that’s for another discussion.

Politically, most of the attendees were quite radical in their political views. A significant number came from groups with a socialist program, though not from any single one predominantly. This year we had participation from people involved with 9/11 Truth, and I’ll discuss that next. A substantial number of the participants were union members, but only a few in an official capacity from their unions; U.S. Labor Against the War did send a staff organizer to the conference. There were also people coming from community-based committees like ours. A good many of them, including myself, were former members of some of the socialist groups who were represented. Consequently, a lot of us have known each other for many years, and have known and worked with the conference organizers for many years. However, a lot of them were not decades-long antiwar veterans, and I was excited to meet people that I had not known in the past, especially activists who are working in small towns and rural areas, and yes, there were a few of us in attendance.

So this was not a terribly pro-Obama crowd. This was a very pro-Arab crowd. There was a lot of cheering when news that the Viva Palestina caravan had made progress towards its goal of taking material aid into Gaza. When the caravan was detained by the Egyptian government at the border, the conference sent a telegram of protest to Egyptian government. Cynthia McKinney, the Green party presidential candidate who is in the caravan and was on the ships that were fired on by the Israeli navy, got a lot of cheers from the participants, even though the Green party was not present in its own right.

At last year’s conference, there was a disagreement about whether to include a demand related to the Palestine conflict in the call for united action. As you will remember, I was opposed to it, as were the conference organizers, and we were outvoted. This year, the actual events in Gaza have changed everything. The barbaric assault on the people of the Gaza Strip and the subsequent conversion of the area into a concentration camp by the state of Israel has shown conclusively the character of the conflict and has exposed the complicity of the U.S. government with these crimes. The National Assembly has no problem raising the demand of an immediate and complete cutoff of aid from the U.S. government to Israel. The National Assembly is supporting the “BDS” campaign, that is, “boycott, divest, sanctions,” and unanimously passed a resolution calling for freedom for Ahmad Sa’adat and all Arab political prisoners held by Israel. So there was complete consensus on the Palestine issue, and it presented no problems whatsoever.

At this year’s conference we had a significant participation by folks who are agitating around the issue of what has become known in political shorthand as “9/11 Truth.” What has surprised me is how little contact there has been between antiwar committees around the country and 9/11 Truth activists. In the Northwest New Jersey Peace Fellowship we have been working together since our committee started, and there has been no distinction or separation. We have differences of opinion on what happened on 9/11, but Bob, Elizabeth, Kate, Diane, and other people who believe that the 9/11 attack was an “inside job” have never been anything but full and equal members of our Fellowship. There’s just no distinction. I don’t like to single anyone out, but I can tell you that without Bob McCafferty’s contribution to our Fellowship, we would not have been able to accomplish nearly as much as we have.

So it was surprising and upsetting to me that there was tension and mistrust between the conference organizers and the people who have been with the National Assembly since the beginning on the one hand and the 9/11 Truth folks on the other. There’s blame for this on both sides: the National Assembly leadership at first seemed to be dismissive of the 9/11  Truth people, acting as though their ideas were off-the-wall and not to be taken seriously. And the 9/11 Truth people, at least some of them, came on really strong in informal discussion with people and were not willing even to concede the possibility that the government’s 9/11 Commission report might be accurate. I remember one discussion I had, in which I said, that “even if…” and I couldn’t get any further. The guy was all over me. “But it’s been proven,” etc., etc. I had to walk away. And my only point would have been that even if the 9/11 Commission were telling the truth, it would not change anything for me: the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are wrong and must be ended now, and our government is (in my opinion) in need of replacement. And my own opinion is that the circumstantial evidence for 9/11 being an “inside job” is sufficient to warrant further investigation and to establish reasonable doubt about the 9/11 Commission’s report. So the tension between the two groups was in my opinion unnecessary and very much avoidable.

The 9/11 Truth people presented an amendment to the conference organizers’ action proposal calling for support to a referendum on the New York City ballot for an independent investigation into 9/11. In my opinion, what the amendment called for was reasonable and did not commit the National Assembly to anything that would divert us from our mission of organizing against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. I voted in favor of it, but unfortunately, I was in the minority. It was narrowly defeated. However, the 9/11 Truth folks continued to participate in the conference and will be supporting the actions to which the conference participants agreed. I’ve been in touch with National Assembly Secretary Jerry Gordon and suggested that based on our experience here in Northwest New Jersey, that I could help the National Assembly overcome the unnecessary misunderstandings about the 9/11 Truth movement. I am hopeful that the relationship will become more than an alliance of two different movements but that the 9/11 Truth activists will become completely integrated into the antiwar movement as they have in our Fellowship. That doesn’t mean that we all will agree, but it does mean that we’ll respect each other’s opinions and work together for Out Now.

Michael McPhearson, Executive Director of Veterans for Peace, also representing United for Peace and Justice

Of course, the National Assembly conference took place in the shadow of the momentous events in Iran. As we all know, the information coming to us from Iran is contradictory, complicated, and sometimes unreliable. Good people are going to come to different conclusions, and the opinions will be strongly felt and forcefully argued. However, the fundamental difference on Iran reflects the fundamental difference that has divided the antiwar movement for nearly twenty years. As you may know, during the first Gulf War, the group which evolved into ANSWER was composed of those who supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; United for Peace and Justice grew out of those who not only opposed the United States’s invasion, but called for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait as well.

We had nonbinding discussion on Iran at the National Assembly, and true to form, the people associated with ANSWER expressed their support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and rejected the idea that the student-led protests have any progressive content. They argued instead that they are part of the U.S.’s attempt to destabilize Iran and to return it to Washington’s control. Those who disagreed with them, not all of whom are associated with UFPJ, argued that whatever Washington’s intentions, the student protestors have legitimate grievances, that the current government of Iran is repressive in the extreme and that people all over the world should act in solidarity with those Iranians who are fighting for democracy in their country. When the protests over the election first began I tended to agree with the folks around ANSWER, but when I got information from my friends who have contact within Iran, and also saw translations of reports from within Iran, I changed my mind completely. I would estimate that a solid majority of participants at the National Assembly agreed with my point of view. However, it would have been a serious mistake for us to take any kind of stand on this issue beyond a consensus position: that is, that we oppose any act of war by the United States on Iran, that we are opposed to any meddling by Washington in Iran’s internal political life. As much as I disagree with Brian Becker of ANSWER and Sara Flounders of the International Action Center concerning Iran, the needs of the antiwar movement demand that we agree to disagree and work together for Out Now from Iraq and Afghanistan and Hands Off Iran. Both sides completely agreed with that perspective.

I’m going to append the action proposal to which the conference agreed by majority vote, but first I need to explain what the procedure was, because it was quite effective and contributed to a good working relationship coming out of the conference. At the beginning of the conference, written action proposals submitted by different groups and individuals, including the conference organizers, were distributed to all participants. Once the rules and a presiding committee were agreed to, we immediately took votes on the action proposals, and the one with a plurality became the “working document.” Then that “working document” was thrown open for amendment. So, generally speaking, all the previous action proposals were back on the table and their ideas could be incorporated into the final decision. Some of the amendments that were proposed, actually probably most of them, were voted in. Some were not. But everyone agreed that the process was fair and inclusive. Additionally, there was a lot of informal discussion between the people who submitted action proposals to see where there were real differences and where there were not real differences, in order to come to compromise language. With that kind of give-and-take process, the end result was a program of action that everyone could support. At this conference, there really were no winners or losers.

Cindy Sheehan, addressing the conference on Saturday evening, July 11, 2009

I am cautiously optimistic about the prospect that the antiwar movement can unite in action this fall. Both International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice sent official representatives to the conference. Brian Becker represented ANSWER, and Michael McPhearson represented UFPJ. McPhearson is also the executive director of Veterans for Peace. Additionally, Sara Flounders of the International Action Center was there. Manijeh Saba, an Iranian-American woman who works with New Jersey Peace Action, also was at the conference, and all of them spoke, either Saturday evening or Sunday morning. Probably the biggest applause on Saturday evening was for Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who has been tireless in her work for peace for so many years now. All of them addressed the need for unity, and all of them pledged to work for it. Becker called for action which included ANSWER and UFPJ and a number of other formations that he named, including the National Assembly. We all applauded for that. On Sunday morning, Michael McPhearson gave what I thought was a very thoughtful and important presentation. He addressed the complicated issue of how people feel about President Obama, especially African-Americans. McPhearson is himself African-American. He explained that people who supported Obama, especially African-Americans, have an instinct to come to his defense, especially when there has been such a merciless onslaught from the Right, accusing him of being everything from a Communist to an illegal alien. I have to confess, even as someone who did not vote for Obama, that I have an instinct to come to his defense, too, when I hear the off-the-wall nonsense coming from the tea-baggers. He called on us to be sensitive to that sentiment, even as we have to demand that Obama keep his promise to get out of Iraq and break his promise to stay in Afghanistan.

The next few weeks will show if the action proposal which we adopted in Pittsburgh becomes the basis for united action in the fall. I feel confident that the National Assembly has done its part to make that happen.

Before I append the action proposals which were agreed to, I want to just report on one workshop discussion I had, which was on organizing the antiwar movement in small towns and rural areas. It was essentially me and a couple of guys from northern Wisconsin who are involved with a national initiative called Iraq Moratorium. Iraq Moratorium is calling for people to carry out local demonstrations—including vigils—the third Friday of every month. Well, since we do it every Friday of every month, it would not cost us anything to become a part of Iraq Moratorium, and I want to suggest to everyone that we do just that. It mainly means sending reports on our vigils, including photos, to the Iraq Moratorium for posting on its website, and using the Iraq Moratorium to help publicize our vigil activity. There’s no requirement that we not have a vigil on the first, second, and fourth Fridays of each month!

And lastly, I want to suggest that our group formally affiliate to the National Assembly. That means agreeing to five points: that we agree with the demand for immediate withdrawal, that we are in favor of mass demonstrations, unity of the antiwar movement, democratic decision making in the movement, and independence from all political parties. Obviously, the last thing doesn’t mean that any individual can’t vote for a Democrat, a Republican, a Green (as I do), or anyone else. What that means is that there is room for people who vote in different ways or don’t vote at all. It does not even mean that a constituent group cannot be involved with a political party: it just means that we all agree that the National Assembly as a whole will remain independent of any and all political parties. An explanation of these points is included in the Structure document, a link to which is included below. If we affiliate, we would be entitled to representation on the Continuations Body of the Assembly, and my suggestion would be that I be that representative. It would mean one conference call each month.

I hope we can agree to do that.

Below are links to the texts of resolutions adopted in Pittsburgh this last weekend at the National Assembly conference.

Action Program to Guide the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations in the Period Ahead

Motivation for the Action Program Guiding the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations in the Period Ahead

Resolution Against the Coup in Honduras! U.S. Hands Off!

Resolution in Support of the Campaign to Free Ahmad Sa’adat and All Palestinian Political Prisoners

Resolution Against the U.S./U.N. Occupation of Haiti

National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations