On the morning of April 20, in the nation’s capital, activists held two anti-war rallies, each of which drew thousands, almost within sight of one another. One, organized by ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), was on the Ellipse, near the White House. The other, sponsored by the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC) and other groups, was held at the Washington Monument. (At the same time, the Committee for Palestinian Solidarity protested the meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at the Washington Hilton, while the Mobilization for Global Justice and numerous anarchists protested the IMF/World Bank meetings.)
At first glance, the morning seemed like a depressing case study in that old left affliction: the narcissism of small differences. But there was a history behind it. ANSWER had originally planned a march for April 27, while students were planning one for April 14, and groups opposing the IMF had, of course, long been planning a show of opposition at its meeting this weekend. Both ANSWER and the student coalition moved their events to April 20 to avoid the turnout disaster of conflicting marches in one month. Why not, then, hold one big rally and march? Organizers of the student coalition cited many reasons for their desire to maintain independence from ANSWER, which is closely related to the Workers World Party, including the coalition’s politics and its undemocratic structure, as well as its reputation for taking credit for work done by other groups and other bad behavior.
Jessie Duvall, a recent Wesleyan graduate who was organizing the NYSPC rally, said diplomatically that the separation of the two rallies were “important for the integrity of both coalitions.” ANSWER’s rally – and pre-rally publicity — focused entirely on Palestinian solidarity. As a result, to ANSWER’s credit, that event drew thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants (fifty buses came from New Jersey mosques alone, according to ANSWER’s Tony Murphy). By contrast, while most speakers at the NYSPC rally addressed the plight of the Palestinians, the pre-rally publicity had emphasized the coalition’s major concerns: Bush’s “war on the world” and its effects at home, particularly on students and young people. Student organizers cited military recruitment on campus and in high schools, and government targeting of immigrant students. Thus the event drew mainly students, youth and crunchy-looking peaceniks. While the NYSPC rally did not draw nearly as many immigrants as ANSWER’s did, the youth arm of the Black Radical Congress, as well as the Muslim Student Association, had played a significant role in the organizing. As a result it was hardly a white-bread event. Speakers included Martin Luther King III of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rania Masri of the Iraqi Action Network, Erica Smiley of the Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus and Hussein Ibish of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.
In addition to the folky entertainment more typical of peace rallies, performances included a rap group, Division X, whose lead rapper, Lordstar, said from the stage that as a black man in America, he sympathized with immigrants enduring government persecution here and Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The protest, he said, “is about racial profiling. I can relate to that. It’s all about not ducking from 41 shots, whether in New York or Palestine. It’s about being afraid the authorities are going to come into our house and kill us. I can relate to that.”
In the afternoon, all the morning rallies converged in a march, ending in a rally by the Capitol of roughly 75,000 protesters, more than were in Seattle in 1999, and what was being called the largest pro-Palestinian gathering ever in the United States. Middle Eastern families — women in headscarves, strollers in tow — marched alongside pink-haired, pierced 19-year-olds.
And while the separation of the morning anti-war rallies may have looked petty and sectarian from the outside, it made complete sense to me once I witnessed the thuggish behavior of ANSWER organizers at the Capitol rally. “I’ll make a deal with you,” said one ANSWER organizer to Terra Lawson-Remer of Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC), who was coordinating media outreach for the NSYPC event. “We won’t play the Mumia tape again” – ANSWER had already broadcast a taped speech by Mumia at the Ellipse – “if you’ll tell the press we had 150,000 people here.” Lawson-Remer was in a bind; she clearly didn’t want them to carry out this threat (torture by Mumia!) but, she said, “I’m an honest woman. I think there are 50-75,000 people here and I’m going to say that.” The ANSWER organizers pressed the point, arguing that whatever they said, the media would report fewer. This was not a difference of opinion about the truth. “It’s not about accuracy. It’s about politics. It’s not about counting,” said ANSWER’s Tony Murphy. “It’s us vs. them. [The pro-Israeli] demonstrators had 100,000 here last week.” (ANSWER always wildly inflates its rally numbers, claiming 20,000 at a September 29 rally of less than 10,000.)
Clearly ANSWER are a gang of liars who don’t play well with others. Yet they are also very good at calling a rally on the right issue at the right time, and publicizing it widely. Both coalitions played an essential role in attracting very different constituencies, and turnout far exceeded organizers’ expectations. Organizers on both sides of the ANSWER/NSYPC divide acknowledge that working together was difficult, and neither looks forward to doing it again. Yet the numbers and diversity of the Capitol rally represented an incredible step forward for the anti-war movement. The day’s events dealt a lethal blow to the notion – stoked by media and government alike — that all Americans uncritically support Bush’s policies, and value Israeli lives over those of Palestinians. NSYPC’s Lawson-Remer says “It’s a demonstration that the consensus is not what they say it is.”