"WCAR's Challenge to the Anti-Racist Left,"by Eric Mann January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race
The World Conference Against Racism was a dress rehearsal for a weak anti-racist movement trying to confront the most powerful common enemy—the U.S. government, the most advanced capitalist state in its imperialist phase, the primary source of racism and national oppression in the world. The U.S. makes a principle of boycotting and wrecking international conferences on anything progressive---boycotting the two previous anti-racist conferences in Geneva, trying to subvert the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, refusing to sign the Kyoto accords, still refusing to sign even the watered-down governmental resolutions at Durban.
I went to WCAR as part of a diverse and spirited delegation, organized by the Applied Research Center, and we joined with 10,000 Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) delegates. For many of us, it was a politically decisive experience. We were given the great gift of conversations, forums, strategic debates, marches and demonstrations with the many forces and factions of the South African Left, which shaped the entire context of WCAR.
The U.S. walks out. The pre-Durban U.S. threats and U.S. governmental walk-out were a slap in the face to WCAR’s South African hosts, to the UN, to anyone even debating Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people and the denial of their right to self-determination. It was an attack on the demands of Africans, Blacks in the U.S. and throughout the world for reparations to atone for the European/U.S. trans-Atlantic slave trade. Obviously, the Bush Administration had already calculated the “costs” of its walk-out, well aware that even before September 11 the U.S. was in the throes of a 30-year white backlash. Durban, however, still exposed a structural weakness in U.S. imperialism—that in any international arena, any arena in which the struggle against racism and colonial domination is taken seriously, the U.S. empire, U.S. imperialism, is singled out, or often self-nominates, as the main cause of organized racism and national oppression in the world. At Durban, a broad united front of U.S. delegates, some rather conservative under other circumstances, sharply criticized the U.S. role in the world and its walk-out—and presaged a new anti-racist coalition.
The challenge after Durban is both political and organizational—is it possible to coalesce an anti-imperialist tendency in the anti-racist movement that can effectively contend with the more establishment civil rights group, as SNCC, CORE, M.L. King and the Panthers once did. New anti-racist formations, youth, among low-income working class communities of color, environmental justice groups and women of color organizations played leadership roles in the protests against U.S. Still, those groups function at very low levels of coordination, let alone strategic collaboration. There are discussions going on nationally to try to develop common approaches to anti-war and anti-racist work among grassroots groups that have built an actual grassroots base—but there is a long way to go before reaching even minimal levels of functional unity of strategy and tactics.
Reparations Takes Center Stage. At Durban, the Reparations Movement demonstrated its historical potential to become the central defining political issue of the 21st century. As several African speakers argued, reparations does not begin, or even end, with a focus on monetary, material and structural economic and political demands on the West (although of course such demands will be essential to the movement’s tactical plan), but rather will be driven by years or even decades of a world “crimes against humanity” tribunal, with European and U.S. imperialist civilization on trial. This campaign would challenge the very legitimacy of the U.S. to exist as a nation state, and call into question its settler state history of genocide against both Indigenous peoples and Blacks. This movement, led by Black peoples throughout the world, would document centuries of transatlantic European capitalist barbarism, and challenge anti-racist whites and Westerners to investigate the genocidal practices and complicity of their nation states, churches, companies, unions, universities and their own families. The threat of the Reparations movement was reflected in the U.S. walk-out and the heavy-handed efforts by European states to suppress strong resolutions on reparations in order to cover up their own role in mass murder and genocide. Still, the resolutions finally passed by the NGO’s, declaring the transatlantic slave trade “crimes against humanity,” and the backlash generated by the U.S. walk-out are positive steps in what will be a very long and tumultuous process.
The nascent movement for reparations offers an historical opportunity to revitalize anti-racist organizing in the U.S., not as an isolated “issue,” but as a conceptual frame to drive many other tactics and shape the entire discussion of Left, anti-imperialist strategy. The Reparations Movement can provide ideological coherence and greater historical possibility for the courageous but often isolated grassroots workplace, community and urban battles in the U.S.
Historically, we have seen that anti-racist movements with a comprehensive and compelling vision can energize actual grassroots resistance. Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement transformed an entire generation of Black consciousness and anti-racist debate; the U.S. Communist Party’s focus on a Black nation in the South drove the work of the Scottsboro boys campaign and the sharecroppers union; SNCC’s demands for Black Power’; Malcolm’s demands that Black people as a people take their demands for human rights to the UN; the Panthers’ demands that Black people hold a plebiscite to determine their relationship to the United States; and King’s proposal that Blacks in the U.S. ally with colonial nations throughout the world won the most concrete and structural civil rights in U.S. history. The Reparations Movement can provide a similar spark—not just for the Black movement, but for all oppressed nationality people inside the U.S. and for a world anti-imperialist Left.
The U.N. and International Anti-racist Work. For those who are guided by an internationalist, anti-imperialist strategy for U.S. anti-racist work, the United Nations offers an important structural arena. It provides opportunity for U.S. anti-racists to meet with Third World revolutionaries and progressives from Europe and the West, and for individual organizations to learn the intricacies of the UN -- joining with other human rights, environmental justice, women’s liberation and anti-racist organizations that have made the UN a key arena of their organizing work. The forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and UN conferences on women’s rights in Uganda and Sweden are important arenas in which anti-racist organizers in the U.S. can meet beforehand to try to hammer out concrete proposals that tie women’s liberation and environmental justice to an explicit anti-imperialist program—a program that will of necessity, again, place us on a collision course with the U.S. government, Republicans and Democrats alike
Anti-War Organizing and Grassroots Movements. The Bush Administration has made it clear that it intends to move the U.S. into a permanent war footing—dropping massive bombs on Afghanistan that are human rights and ecological assaults, demanding nothing less than unconditional surrender, attacking civil rights and civil liberties at home, and now issuing unprovoked threats against the Iraqis, against whom the U.S. is already carrying out a brutal blockade. There is no chance to build a successful anti-racist movement without making anti-war organizing an integral component, and again, placing that work in an anti-imperialist framework. Just as many civil rights groups felt, at first, that they could “sit out” the Vietnam War, only to understand, to their credit, that Vietnam had become the central focus of the world anti-racist, anti-imperialist movement, it is becoming clear that there is a similar moral and strategic imperative to directly challenge the U.S. war machine. Right wing forces in both parties have seized upon the September 11 events as a pretense for accelerating a pre-existing plan to escalate U.S. world domination. If we don’t confront the clear and present danger of permanent war, there is no chance for any progressive/Left, strategy.
A week after the end of WCAR and the September 11 events, we had an open mike discussion at the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union monthly membership meeting—in English, Spanish and Korean. We began with a motion to oppose U.S. government policies attacking immigrants, cutting social programs, and restricting civil rights and civil liberties in the name of the war against terrorism. But our main goal was to let the members speak openly about the war. A Salvadorean member told of how she was raped and tortured by the right wing forces in her country and how the CIA organized the murders and mutilations. A Guatemalan woman yelled that to this day she is outraged at the U.S. for overthrowing the democratically elected Arbenz government and how much murder, torture and genocide has been brought to her nation and the Indigenous peoples and revolutionaries by U.S.-supported dictators. A Korean grandmother told how the discussion had brought up repressed memories of her torture by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. Several Black members angrily denounced how the U.S. government has opportunistically seized upon the unique and symbolic value of the 5,000 people who lost their lives tragically in the World Trade Center when the government doesn’t give a damn about 2 million mainly Black and Latino men and women locked up, many for the rest of their lives, in U.S. prisons. In this real life movement of L.A. bus riders fighting “transit racism,” we saw that the U.S. government’s assertion that the “American people” support its barbaric attacks on Afghanistan really refers to a far smaller sub-set of the population, mainly the white middle and upper classes. There is great possibility to organize an effective anti-war movement if it is rooted in the lower-income, working class of color, and tied to a progressive anti-racist internationalism in opposition to U.S. great power chauvinism and xenophobia.
WCAR, with its many internal weaknesses reflective of the actual state of the world progressive movements, provided an opportunity for U.S. groups to learn about U.N. structures, to meet great intellectuals, revolutionaries and mass leaders from the Third World, and ironically to meet many new people in the U.S. movements and to spend more time with each other than we had to in the U.S. There is no way that U.S. anti-racists can go to Johannesburg, Durban, Beijing and Rio and see the world suffering caused by our own government, and then come back to fight for “democratic rights” inside the U.S. without the most explicit strategic commitment to a world movement against racism, national oppression, world war and imperialism. From the stealing of an election to defiance of international law to the bold assertion of a state of permanent war, the Bush Administration and its willing Democratic accomplices is threatening to crush even the last remnants of progressive politics in the U.S. The international united front we got a brief glimpse of in Durban offers our only hope. The historical challenge is whether we can reconstruct a viable “we” before the Right moves to suppress all of us.
Eric Mann has served as organizer with CORE, the Newark Community Union Project, SDS and United Auto Workers Local 645 in Los Angeles. He is presently the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and a member of the Planning Committee of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Mann (email@example.com) has been a movement organizer for more than 35 years, with the Congress of Racial Equality, SDS, and for ten years, as a shop floor worker in the United Auto Workers. He is presently director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and a member of the Planning Committee of the L.A. Bus Riders Union. He has recently completed a longer analysis of the conference—WCAR: A Strategic Sum-Up as part of his Dispatches from Durban, available at www.thestrategycenter.org.
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