The National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations finished its first year of existence with a Pittsburgh conference. And it may very well need a new name in the future: Members agreed that the Assembly needs to assemble more than just anti-war groups -- and it needs to push to end a few more wars as well.
On July 10-12, the gathering of organizations, from progressive Democrats to socialists, drew more than 200 people to La Roche College from as far away as Charleston, S.C., and St. Louis, as well as several Canadian cities. It also attracted a student from Mount Lebanon High School and local veterans of '60s movements. Garfield's social-justice hub, the Thomas Merton Center, sponsored the gathering.
Many in attendance lamented that left-wing organizing has ebbed steadily since the build-up to the Iraq War, and electing Barack Obama had stolen energy from future organizing.
"The wars and occupations are still of great concern to people," said Michael McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace and co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, two prominent national groups. "But home comes first."
Indeed, said conferees, the current economic crisis revealed the country's most obvious needs -- and the group's biggest opportunities. Rebuilding the movement depends on showing people how war funding -- not to mention bank bailouts -- diverted money from more important domestic problems: unemployment, lack of health care, home foreclosures, and the country's educational system and environment.
"We have a very popular president," said Larry Holmes of the New York-based Bailout the People. But "people need to get over the idea that this new wonderful president is going to solve everything."
Obama, Holmes added, "should be able to point out the window and say, 'Mr. Banker, you're not the only pressure I've got. And from what I hear, if I don't do anything, they're going to march on your office.'"
Meanwhile, McPhearson added, the economic travails have left Obama free to conduct foreign policy in a manner hardly distinguishable from George W. Bush -- but without receiving the same criticism. Attendees loudly applauded calls for renewed emphases on withdrawing from Afghanistan, staying out of Iran and Pakistan, and ending Israel's occupation of Palestine. They also cheered efforts to remain non-partisan.
"You broaden [the movement] by deepening it," said Phil Wilayto, an activist in Virginia. "It's a labor group speaking out for an immigrant group. It's a community group speaking out for gay rights -- because they've heard each other."
Added John Harris of several Boston-area anti-war groups: "The period we're in, we only have ourselves to blame if we can't build a mass social movement."
Top on the Assembly's future action agenda, however, was a call to return to Pittsburgh at the end of September to protest the G-20 meeting. Finance officials from 19 countries -- among the world's largest economies -- will visit the city to try to set economic policies. And Assembly presenters charged that those officials will, once again, ignore pressing economic issues in favor of bolstering the interests of the rich.
The most crucial task, attendees agreed, was educating people about the summit.
"What we need to be doing is talking to our neighbors," said Alex Bradley, a member of the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project, which will try to disrupt the summit. In knocking on more than 250 doors in Bloomfield recently, Bradley says, Resistance members found that "90 percent of the people don't know what G-20 is."
"This is a challenge to reach deeper into the oppressed masses," added Larry Holmes. "I don't think we should write them off because it is difficult."
Holmes' group, associated with the Workers' World Party, came under early criticism locally for scheduling a week-long G-20 protest in the Hill District without attempting any coordination with the Merton Center or Resistance group. Now he sat alongside members of both groups. "I think that what everybody realizes is that the G-20 is not a local phenomenon," he said later. "It's an international phenomenon. I hope ... more national organizations commit to mobilize for it."
Organizers also discussed tactics: Some favored officially sanctioned marches against the summit, while others backed a more confrontational approach.
As an organizer against the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last Labor Day, Joe Callahan of the Twin Cities (Minnesota) Iraq Peace Action Coalition Now says he experienced the "fear-mongering" by press and police about potential violence from RNC protesters.
Callahan believes the press, and thus much of the public, missed the political point of his coalition's peaceful, permitted march by focusing on police confrontations. His group chose a nonviolent march, Callahan said, because otherwise "we're handing [the government] license to turn reality upside down and talk about 'those violent protesters,' while they're creating violence on a massive scale in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Several local groups have already signed on to a set of "Pittsburgh Principles" they hope will maintain unity. Under the pledge, each group agrees to talk only about its own tactics, refraining from criticism of anyone else.
While supporting others' permitted efforts, Bradley said that, for his compatriots, seeking state permission to protest the state was not "empowering."
"This moment in history," Bradley added, "does not demand the same thing we have been doing over and over."