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BY TOM SANDBORN - Washington DC, April 20, 2002: The police, ominous in dark riot gear, with clubs, automatics and gas masks dangling from heavy leather belts, the uncertain sun glittering off their harness's steel D-rings and rivets, stopped us at 4th and Pennsylvania, just in sight of the Capitol building. The helicopter that had circled above us ever since we began to gather that morning buzzed like some malevolent, surreal wasp overhead. We knew that a smaller demonstration the day before had ended badly, with demonstrators clubbed to the ground and forty arrests, so a small thrill of alarm ran through the crowd as we stopped in front of the police barricades. This time, however, with thousands of us waiting patiently, the cops simply waved us around the corner and into the designated space for protest- no one was beaten that day at that street corner.
Organizers of the five big mobilizations against US foreign policy held in Washington on the 20th said that by the time all the marches had converged at the Mall in late afternoon, we numbered well over 100,000 protesters.
One of the day's most striking moments occurred when a delegation of ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist rabbis from New York were joined on stage by a senior American Muslim cleric and the black Baptist who was MC for the pre-march events. As the men wrapped their arms around each other the MC called out- "Here we are, Jews, Arabs, and black American Baptists, and we are united. We are the peacemakers! Don't expect to see pictures of this on CNN or Fox." He was right- no media outlet I monitored over the next few days took notice of this moving and newsworthy moment.
April 20th saw the biggest set of anti-war rallies held in the United States since the criminal tragedy of September 11th and the orgy of military-industrial enthusiasm that followed. San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Houston all hosted similar protests that day, with the Bay Area crowd estimated at over 30,000. (Hands up, anyone in the room who didn't hear about this landmark day in anti-war organizing. You must have blinked and missed the five seconds of air time and two column inches of print that the mainstream media typically devoted to the day- when it was covered at all.)
Like the crowd I marched with in DC on April 20, I oppose the extension of American and corporate power, and recoil in grief and disgust from the atrocities being committed in the name of "the War on Terrorism". I want an end to the illegal settlements and the creation of a real homeland for the Palestinians. I reject the notion that we can somehow make Israeli citizens, or anyone, for that matter, more secure by the campaigns of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing currently underway in the West Bank and Gaza. Terrorism aimed at children and other civilians, however, is totally unacceptable, whether conducted by Hamas, the Israeli Defense Force or the US Army. True, the terrorists who claim to act in my name (and with my tax money) fly the Stars and Stripes or the Maple Leaf, and as a Canadian peace activist my main efforts need to be focused on trying to stop them. However, I find myself uneasy with some elements of the movement we are building here in North America. The crowds of non-Muslim activists sporting kuffiyehs and "We are all Palestinians" buttons make me both sad and nervous. First of all, they are making a sentimental and potentially self-serving attempt to appropriate an experience that can never really be theirs. Second, they remind me uncomfortably of my experience in the movement against the Vietnam war, and of our frequently uncritical willingness to see the Viet Cong or Mao's Red Guard as wholly positive forces because the American Empire that we knew to be evil was arrayed against them. We were wrong then (just ask the survivors of Tienanmen Square or imprisoned Vietnamese dissidents) and the anti-war activists who are tone deaf to the moral problems posed by terrorist tactics wielded by the oppressed are repeating the mistakes our movement made in the Vietnam era.
We need to be willing to recognize that being oppressed (which is certainly true of the Palestinians and of many other Third World Muslims) does not necessarily mean being noble or without ethical blemish. To pretend that it does is childish, and will lead us into tactical blunders as well as intellectual incoherence. We need to find ways to support forces within oppressed communities that are fighting for democracy and equality, and retain our right to criticize forces that promote sexism, racism and autocracy, wherever we find them. The hard men of Al Qaeda and Hamas are not champions of any vision of the future I'm willing to share; we need, I submit, to build a peace movement that can oppose the American empire and its many atrocities without making excuses for the counter atrocities committed in the names of America's victims.
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