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Palestine Has Reignited US Left Internationalism. Can We Keep the Fire Alive?

Today’s ceasefire movement builds on the internationalism of the 1960s and ’70s.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags and chant on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House during a demonstration against the genocide in Gaza on June 8, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

Part of the Series

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, I often attended rallies for political prisoners — the campaign to free Angela Davis and the Soledad brothers, support for veterans of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, mobilizations for women like Inez Garcia and Joan Little who had slain their assailants.

In participating in those events, I could be almost certain most of the crowd had taken part in antiwar demonstrations. Internationalism was a core part of our political identity. People on the left, from Marxists to revolutionary nationalists to radical feminists, paid serious attention to freedom struggles around the globe. Vietnam, where a United States military invasion had dropped 5 million tons of bombs on an area the size of Montana and claimed the lives of 2 million people in Southeast Asia, was central to our international vision.

Fast forward to 2009, the year of my release from prison. After six-and-a-half years behind bars, my connection to international struggles had seriously diminished. I quickly launched into doing work against mass incarceration and in pursuit of prison abolition. Activists in those circles were tracking the latest criminal justice reform bills or imagining the U.S. without prisons. What was happening in Haiti, South Africa or even Palestine was not on their radar in a major way. On a personal level, I immersed myself in fighting against the construction of a local jail, researching electronic monitoring and building a radical reentry program in my community. Despite having lived in southern Africa for 18 years, my own internationalism was likewise receding to the wings.

Now, Israel’s latest iteration of genocide against the Palestinian people has ignited an international solidarity consciousness across the U.S. and beyond — and reawakened my own spirit of internationalism. Modeling the uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd, for the first time in decades, thousands of people have poured into the streets of the U.S. to demonstrate mass solidarity with a struggle outside our borders. People have been connecting the dots of the system in new, important ways, not only highlighting the links between U.S. imperialism and Zionist oppression, but also making note of how major pillars of capitalism — hedge funds, Big Tech, universities and the military-industrial complex — are drivers and beneficiaries of war and genocide. These actions have also exposed the complicity of the Democratic Party in mass murder.

This incredible awakening prompts many questions. We have seen flashes of internationalism in recent years, such as expressions of Palestinian solidarity from those who rose up in the streets of Ferguson as well as the worldwide mobilizations in reaction to the murder of Floyd. Still to understand where we are today, it is crucial to look at how internationalism became central to left circles in the ‘60s and ‘70s, why it subsequently declined in importance, and explore steps we can take to maintain the momentum that has emerged from the support for Palestinian freedom. In particular, we need to consider how left mass organizations operated, the role of communication systems in pre-internet days, and why Palestine has prompted such a massive response when conflicts involving Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ukraine have not elicited similar reactions.

Alt-Media in the ’60s and ’70s

International solidarity with Vietnam took place in the pre-internet era, when mass communication was more challenging. We kept informed, though we had only a handful of TV stations and a 20-minute “long-distance” phone call from New York to Los Angeles cost $11.65. Our internet was alternative radio and most importantly, the underground press — a collection of over 200 newspapers from cities and towns around the country: Berkeley Tribe, Chicago Seed, RAT Subterranean News (New York), The Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta), the Fifth Estate (Detroit). Black newspapers were the most politically potent, especially The Black Panther and Muhammad Speaks (the voice of the Nation of Islam).

Up-to-date information on key issues came from a variety of sources, like Akwesasne Notes and Palante, a network of publications focused on developments in the Chicano/Mexicano community. Journals advancing women’s and gay liberation were in abundance: Off Our Backs, Women: A Journal of Liberation Publications, Fag Rag, Gay Sunshine. Much of the international content came from the alternative news syndicates, Liberation News Service and the Underground Press Syndicate. By launching a media with its own alternative views, interpretations and values, the underground press aimed at nothing less than the creation of a “revolutionary consciousness across the land,” as one person who worked in the syndicates boasted.

Sustaining and growing these international connections are absolutely essential if we are to halt the advance of fascism and other far right agendas, and rebuild support for transforming our world.

Internationalism was about more than being informed. Activists scoured international experiences for models, heroes, ideas, philosophy, along with strategic options and historical analysis. While we reveled to the sounds of rock icons, Motown stars and rhythm and blues shows, it was global revolutionaries who captured our souls. For many people on the left, the freedom fighters in Vietnam and China showed what it meant to sacrifice for liberation. Epic events like China’s Long March, the Cubans’ attack on the Moncada Barracks and the Vietnamese people’s digging of hundreds of miles of tunnels to avoid U.S. bombs inspired leftists in the U.S. Leaders of the Black freedom struggle, Malcolm X, Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), Elaine Brown and Martin Luther King Jr., traveled the world to meet with anti-imperialist forces. We believed there was no building a revolutionary movement without connecting the dots of global struggles for freedom. Palestine was also on the map of left solidarity actions, though there was considerable disagreement over the guerrilla actions of Black September, especially regarding the killings of athletes during the 1972 Olympics and the plane hijackings of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The Meaning of Solidarity

For the past few months, I have been interviewing activists from across generations about the implications of the current moment, in Palestine and elsewhere, for the internationalist movement, where internationalism stands, and why it had often faded into the background in the previous two decades.

According to David Gilbert, the “basis of internationalism in the ’60s and ’70s” was a big antiwar movement whose main demand was “peace” — a movement exemplified in the slogan of the day (and the title of a megahit song by Freda Payne) “Bring the Boys Home.” The early days were about consciousness raising. Craig Gilmore, who was active in the antiwar movement in Los Angeles from early on, recalls mobilizations as educational events. “I would go to a teach-in and come away with the names of three books I had to read next week written on my palm,” he told Truthout. Activists wanted an end to the military draft which conscripted young men into the fighting force. (Women were allowed in the military but were not subject to the draft.) The predominantly white, relatively privileged, student sector of the antiwar movement drove this demand as they became eligible for the draft once they graduated from college.

As more young men returned home with horrific battlefield tales, some activists began to frame the conflict as a war driven by U.S. imperialism. Bill Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground and a present-day abolitionist, said the role of the people he associated with within the antiwar movement was to “build an anti-imperialist wing.” He noted that internationalism is “hard fought,” because “everything in the U.S. runs away from internationalism … white supremacy and American exceptionalism are in the air we breathe.”

Similar sentiments arose within the ranks of the U.S. military, particularly among Black GIs. Many Black men on the fighting front closely identified with the spirit of Black Power and the urban rebellions that were taking place in Detroit, Newark, Watts, New York, and several other cities. They began to see parallels between their oppression and the imperialist attacks on the people of Southeast Asia. Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the military. Ali explained his decision to the media, “Why should me and other Negros go 10,000 miles from home here in America and drop bombs and bullets on other innocent Brown people who’s never bothered us?” Authorities stripped him of his boxing title, and in 1967 the courts convicted him of refusing induction into the Army and sentenced him to prison. Luckily for him, he managed to avoid the prison sentence.

By the late ‘60s, massive antiwar demonstrations had taken place in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, and other cities, bringing millions onto the streets. Similar mobilizations occurred in many European capitals. An increasing portion of those protesting translated their anti-imperialist framework into supporting the “enemy”: the fighting forces of Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) working in tandem with the Communist Party-led government of North Vietnam. This radicalized wing of the movement jettisoned the gentle chant of “Bring the Boys Home,” instead intoning “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win” (Ho Chi Minh was the president of North Vietnam.)

At the height of the war, prominent U.S. antiwar activists such as actor Jane Fonda, student movement founder Tom Hayden, renowned historian Howard Zinn, and Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver and Elaine Brown traveled to North Vietnam in an act of solidarity. The media lambasted these trips, labelling those who visited “the enemy” traitors. Fonda became known as “Hanoi Jane,” after the North Vietnamese capital.

Meanwhile the clandestine Weather Underground, an outgrowth of the Students for a Democratic Society, followed the slogan “Bring the War Home” and set off bombs at more than two dozen war-related targets, including a 1972 blast that exploded inside the U.S. Capitol. The Weather Underground was not alone. According to sociologist Todd Gitlin, between September 1969 and May 1970, anonymous individuals set off over 250 bombs across the U.S. They aimed at military targets, draft board offices, ROTC programs on college campuses and companies that supplied goods to the military.

By the early ’70s, the intensive guerrilla campaigns of the NLF, combined with international support, forced the tide to turn in favor of the NLF and the North Vietnamese forces. Within the U.S., popular support for the war began to wane. In the words of Ayers, the antiwar movement had “limited the options for the war machine.” Moreover, the armed forces themselves were in revolt. By 1971, Colonel Robert Heinl of the U.S. Marine Corps claimed, “Our army that now remains in Vietnam is near a state of collapse with individual units having avoided or having refused combat, murdering their officers or non-commissioned officers, drug ridden and dispirited when not near mutinous.” Military records showed 503,026 cases of desertion and some 800 fraggings (violent attacks on officers by soldiers, some of which were fatal). By 1973, the U.S. was driven to the negotiating table, culminating with the Paris Peace Accords that ended the combat presence of the U.S. military in the Southeast Asian theater. The guerrilla actions in the U.S. began to scale down, with many movement leaders being captured or killed.

While U.S. troops had demobilized, the North Vietnamese continued their military offensive and by 1975, had conquered the entire country, forcing the U.S. to pack up its remaining diplomatic staff and stage a hurried departure.

During this period the focus of international solidarity efforts also extended beyond Southeast Asia. Supporting other struggles became part of the left agenda, the Black Panther Party splintered, and Cleaver set up the international wing of the party in Algeria in 1971. Anti-imperialists were also active in defense of an elected socialist government in Chile in 1970. International socialist activist Joel Geier told Truthout that his organization sent 36 people to Portugal to support worker control of factories and land seizures when the progressive forces in the Portuguese military overthrew the dictatorship in 1974, and after the Soweto uprising in South Africa in 1976, campaigning for the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa intensified briefly.

But with the end of the conflicts in Southeast Asia, by the late ’70s, the upheaval of the liberation struggles of people of color in the U.S., along with the parallel network of international solidarity that had emerged, had receded. Although resurgence of internationalist movements would emerge episodically, particularly in response to political struggles in Central America and South Africa, hope for a coordinated global revolution largely dissipated. Political prisoners remained on the radar, but no longer were the majority of people on the U.S. left consistently looking beyond their borders for ideas and guidance.

Still internationalism did not completely disappear. In the late ’70s and ’80s many younger activists, especially Black feminists, traveled overseas to learn from their counterparts in places such as Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and South Africa. While these sparked sets of global connections and drew attention to political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and later Assata Shakur, few sustained international networks of political formations emerged.

The current solidarity actions across the globe in support of Palestinians have rekindled considerable hope that internationalism will once again find an important place on left agendas. Sustaining and growing these international connections is absolutely essential if we are to halt the advance of fascism and other far right agendas, and rebuild support for transforming our world.

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