The numbers and diversity of the April 20 protests in Washington represented a giant step forward for the antiwar movement. The weekend’s events dealt a lethal blow to the notion–stoked by media and government alike–that all Americans uncritically support George W. Bush’s policies and value Israeli lives more than those of Palestinians.
That morning activists held two antiwar rallies, each of which drew thousands, almost within sight of each other. 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), among others, and perhaps misnamed “United We March,” was held at the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, the Committee in Solidarity for the People of Palestine 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.
In the afternoon, all the morning rallies converged in a march. “In the end,” said Erica Smiley of the Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus, “we realized we were all fighting the same thing.” That march ended in a rally by the Capitol of 50,000 to 80,000 protesters by several organizers’ estimates, 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. Samir Haleem, a Palestinian-American veteran who wore a Palestinian kaffiyeh and carried an American flag, said, “We have never seen so much support for Palestine in this country. Today is a beautiful day.”
The afternoon’s unity was a triumph over deep divisions, which at first glance looked like symptoms of that old left affliction, the narcissism of small differences. While the various groups had originally been planning events on different days in April, ANSWER moved its event to April 20 to avoid the turnout disaster of competing marches. Why not, then, hold one big rally and march? Student organizers cited many reasons for their desire to maintain independence from ANSWER, including the group’s politics (it is closely related to the Workers World Party), its undemocratic structure and its reputation for unattractive behavior, including taking credit for work done by others. ANSWER organizers, for their part, felt the student coalition was too slow to take up the Palestinian cause.
Jessie Duvall, a recent Wesleyan graduate who was organizing the NYSPC rally, said diplomatically that the separation of the two rallies was “important for the integrity of both coalitions.” ANSWER’s rally–and pre-rally publicity–focused entirely on Palestinian solidarity, and it drew thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants, many of whom came on buses sponsored by their mosques. By contrast, while most speakers at United We March addressed the plight of the Palestinians, the pre-rally publicity emphasized the coalition’s founding concerns: Bush’s “war on the world” and its effects at home, particularly on students and young people, who dominated the crowd.
The students’ fears about ANSWER turned out to have been well founded. “I’ll make a deal with you,” said an ANSWER organizer at the Capitol rally 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 didn’t want them to carry out this threat, but she believed the turnout was in the 50,000 to 75,000 range. 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 condescendingly. “It’s us against them. [The pro-Israel] demonstrators had 100,000 here last week.” (Responding to a web version of this article, ANSWER’s legal counsel called this account a “disgusting fabrication,” but I can attest to its accuracy because I was there.)
ANSWER is notorious for inflating its demonstration numbers–and clearly, its organizers 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 expectations. Organizers on both sides acknowledge that working together was difficult, and neither looks forward to doing it again. But to build on April 20’s momentum, activists may have to live with such alliances and, of course, enter into others.
Organized labor’s absence from the weekend’s events was hardly surprising; most of the events were antiwar in focus, and the mainstream labor movement supports George W. Bush’s foreign policies. But in September, when anti-IMF/World Bank activists plan a large-scale protest around those institutions’ meetings, labor and globalization radicals will have to work together.
The weekend also highlighted the growing Palestinian solidarity movement’s need to distance itself from the anti-Semitism of its most ignorant adherents. STARC’s Lawson-Remer, who is Jewish, says of some pro-Palestinian activists: “Their attitude toward me makes them as bad as Bush.” In the middle of our conversation, I looked up and saw a sign that said “Chosen People”: It’s Payback Time. Some demonstrators’ signs bore swastikas and SS symbols–intended to draw parallels between Hitler and Sharon, but easily construed as pro-Nazi.
Given these problems, the presence of Jewish protesters who stressed their own identity was all the more important. On Monday evening, when some 4,000 people gathered to protest the AIPAC meeting (addressed by Sharon via satellite), many carried signs with messages like Jews Against the Occupation and I Am Jewish and AIPAC Does Not Speak for Me.
Despite the squabbling and the dearth of media coverage, the success of A20 should be heartening to the antiwar movement. Lawson-Remer says, “This is such a demonstration that the consensus is not what they say it is.” Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Latifa Hamad, a middle-aged Palestinian woman wearing traditional head-to-toe coverings agreed, saying simply, “We needed something good.”