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Macdonald Stainsby © 2003

 

 
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[This is an excerpt -- lightly edited -- from a longer essay, "Neither Trade Talks Nor Peace Talks", which can be found in full elsewhere on the internet.]

Section 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 Che Guevara) "Solidarity means sharing the same risks", yet now solidarity 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 Trade Union Bureaucrats -- or TUBs for short -- 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 ( la 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[1] 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 [2]. 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.

NOTES

[1] I use the term "lifestyles" here to mean class based habits indicative of a petty-bourgeois consciousness such as SUV driving, gasoline consumption or vacationing in time share condos in the South Pacific in the same places as the old white families who own our living space. In Greater Vancouver, many TUB's live in what's called the North Shore area such as Jack Munro, who after selling out the move towards a general strike by grassroots organizations in BC to the Socred government for less than mere crumbs stated, "What did you want, a revolution?" betraying a deep allegiance to a system that had built him up. Munro lives in the West Vancouver neighborhood that is among the wealthiest territory in the entire country. I speak of this house because I have been to it while working as a canvasser. His is not the only person in West Van from a Canadian TUB background. For more on the Solidarity Movement in BC, check the excellently written: Solidarity: The Rise And Fall Of An Opposition In British Columbia by Bryan D. Palmer, New Star Books, 1987, Vancouver.

[2] Knowing they were in all likelihood to be strip-searched, these women painted anti-war slogans on their private parts. I wish we had thought of that ourselves.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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