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What the Black Radical Tradition Can Teach Us About Rebuilding the Antiwar Movement

No matter who wins in November, we are going to need a unified mass movement to end wars.

Editor’s note: The author uses the terms “womxn” and “folx” to include all gender orientations. The “x” signifies inclusiveness of transgender people and their experiences.

When CodePink co-founder Jodie Evans contacted me a couple of months ago with the idea of hosting a People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War, my first thought was: we’re still in Iraq? Choosing to hide my ignorance, I listened intently to the concept, even though I had already swept the idea into my mental recycle bin. Following our chat, however, the strangest thing happened. The “Iraq war” began to come up in my everyday conversations, from friends and colleagues to entertainment and news stories. As someone who believes in signs, this was enough for me to take the idea of the project seriously.

In preparation for my role in organizing the People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War, I spent a couple of weeks probing into the past 25 years of this illegal war. I was disappointed by the fact that most of the reporting, journalism and history of the war is centered in the perspective of cisgender white men. Understanding the historical shortcomings of the leadership class retaining power and mobility by making decisions on behalf of marginalized groups, I was curious to know how a movement contextualized by a mostly white paradigm will able to imagine sustainable solutions for the larger society.

Being one of only a handful of people of color and one of only two Black womxn attending my first antiwar conference, I was asked more questions about my experience as both a millennial and as a Black womxn navigating a movement defined by older, wealthy, white people, than on my perspective of war. Troubled by the lack of marginalized groups at the conference and by the limited historical understanding of the Black radical tradition’s role in peace movements, I chose to do a little research.

Despite what our society’s white-supremacist narrative would have you believe, Black people in the United States are historically anti-war and intuitively anti-imperialist. In fact, in a Zogby Poll that was released three weeks before the war in Iraq was declared, Black people within the United States were least likely to support an invasion in Iraq.

The September 2003 poll asked: “Would you be willing to support an invasion of Iraq if it resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraq citizens?” According to its findings, 70% of white males said “yes,” 16% of Latinxs said “yes” and only 7% of Black people said “yes.”

This data shows that, when it comes to invasion and war, Black folx are more likely to oppose US incursion. So why does it appear that the anti-war movement is dominated by white folx? Well, I believe there is no such thing as coincidence.

In a recent conversation with Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, he was able to guide me through the systematic removal of Black perspectives from the US global agenda. One of the oldest and most telling examples of this was around the war in Vietnam. Black opposition to the war was vocalized and visible, but the choice of many organizers to focus their objection to the war on the high casualty rate and treatment of Black servicemen rather than in opposition to US imperialism created a division in the analyses and strategies of social justice movements. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an exception to the rule,” Mr. Ford explained. “He took a moral position against the war both because it was a crime against Vietnamese and because it was also, objectively, a ‘war against the poor,’ with the aggressor country — the United States — sucking up all the resources that could have gone toward eliminating poverty.” And it’s not just about morality. To hold an anti-imperialist stance is to have a principled political position on foreign policy that is constructed by analysis and not simply through subjective understandings of righteousness or virtuosity.

Black people in the United States have been uniquely positioned in this country to be naturally averse to imperialist efforts because of our intimate history with Western invasion, occupation and terrorism that still directly and indirectly affects us to this today.

Following the death of Dr. King, much of the remaining leadership surrendered the movement’s powerful anti-imperialist analysis, allowing for wealthy, white hegemony to reside over national and foreign affairs while Black and marginalized people narrowed our approach to “civil rights.”

This breakdown in the roles of Black and white people in the movement is a mirror of the division of roles in our overall society — determining who gets to talk about what and how they are able to talk about it. As Glen Ford put it, “there is an understanding that white people run the world while Black people are left only to observe the taboo.” The problem is that, even in the struggles for liberation and peace, the leadership class (historically white, wealthy and male) is only interested in its own mobility and not in the system itself. With the leadership class’s ability to speak on behalf of the people, they are able to talk about the world and make decisions in the world without regard for the actual well-being of the people in the world — only for power itself.

The fracturing of the anti-war movement during the Obama administration is no coincidence either. I have found since revealing that I did not know that our troops were still in Iraq that I was not alone.

The strategies of the imperial war industrial complex of the United States shifted after the blowback from the peace movements post-Iraq War invasion. The opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq showed that the US public would not support a large-scale occupation in the region. The US discovered for the first time that it could not use its army any way they liked. This success is often drowned in Obama-related propaganda surrounding the promises of his campaign and through the use of proxy wars in Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan. This in itself is its own story.

In reflection of my first anti-war conference, I would like to offer some suggestions for our movement as we seek to rebuild.

1. Marginalized people in the anti-war movement have an analysis and understanding of war beyond basic neo-liberal identity politics. Your knowing glances, nudges and winks everytime someone remarks on the absence of marginalized groups in antiwar spaces aren’t getting us anywhere. However disheartened I felt by the shortage of people of color (particularly womxn), it was nowhere near the vexation I felt when the only panels that featured womxwn and people of color were in relation to patriarchy, anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. The antiwar movement is made up of highly informed and well-researched people. I think it is time to allow for womxn and people of color to focus our efforts in the antiwar movement toward actually ending war, and not solely as teachers or sounding boards for white guilt and adulation.

2. Stop shaming people who enlisted in the military or who participate in the war economy. The United States has a long history of targeting and recruiting people of color into the war industrial complex. The Buffalo Soldiers engaged in the settler projects from 1866 to the early 1890s in the southwest and Great Plains regions of the United States are a good example of this. Bill Fletcher defines the “racial settler state” as the removal of an indigenous population in order to introduce the racial, hierarchal system of social organization of the West. Wars justify a validation of racial hierarchy. Enlisting in the military for people of color with limited mobility has held a promise of social and economic advancement. This is also true for people of lower economic status with barriers to higher education and job placement. Military recruiters prey on students in high school with the Junior Reserves Officer Training Corps (JROTC), on college campuses and with offices in poor communities. According to the American Friends Service Committee, the Pentagon spends $2.5 billion a year targeting high-achieving poor youth with commercials, video games, personal visits and brochures. Instead of chastising our military families for their engagement with the imperial ambitions of the West, let’s find solutions to ending systemic poverty and our society’s obsession with conquest and occupation.

3. Your cynicism isn’t amusing, it’s lazy. One of the most disappointing experiences I had during the conference was with a hero of mine. After waiting all day for the final panel he was speaking on, I asked him to reflect of the history of the Black radical tradition and the lessons our current movement should take from it to use today. Instead of answering my question, he took the opportunity to make a joke about young people being anti-intellectual and living on Twitter before dryly telling me to read more. Had I been less grounded, his comments might have conjured an outburst, or worse, I might have chosen to shut down and removed myself from the room or the movement in its entirety.

4. If we are serious about ending war, we need to be organizing. Signing up for newsletter updates from and making donations to organizations is helpful but not the whole of your commitment to the movement. The great James Baldwin told us that “If I love you, I will make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” One of the most annoying and repeated comments I heard during the conference was how frustrating it is that “people aren’t paying attention.” People are paying attention — more and more every day as the young, the queer, the impoverished, and people of color are being gunned down and locked up in this racist, settler-colonial country.

5. Don’t call it a comeback, we’ve been here for years. You don’t have to discover new ways to make the antiwar movement attractive to organizers in the current iteration of the freedom struggles in the United States. Those of us who understand the necessity of Black Lives Matter are the descendants of the Black radical tradition. We are the inheritors of liberation struggles. The Movement for Black Lives policy platform is considerably the most powerful antiwar document the United States has seen in a long time. With demands to “end the war on Black people” and a call to divest from war and invest in our communities, there are clear paths to organize and coordinate our strategies. If we are to truly ground ourselves in peace and live in our freedom-seeking values, we must reject the capitalist notion of scarcity. There is justice awaiting all of us who choose to resist the empire, and there must be room for and decision-making power given to those most affected by these struggles.

It isn’t all bad though. One of the most important features of the antiwar movement is that there are so many people who are still active and have survived through many iterations of tactics, strategies and wars of the west. The collective passion, wisdom and experience within this movement is paramount and must be shared with the emerging leadership of youth, womxn and communities of color so that we may continue the fight alongside our heroes.

With the presidential election looming and the continued war in Iraq and now Syria, Yemen and beyond, it is imperative that the left prepares for the next imperialist to take office. The potential for expanding the peace movement is evident in the non-violent strategies employed by the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as immigrant rights, queer rights and economic justice campaigns. The necessity for unified intergenerational, multiracial and all-inclusive movements has never felt so urgent. If we want to win together, we must join hands and struggle together. The tribunal is an offering to all movements as a tool to use to organize and build for 2017.

Join me in rebuilding a movement with the People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War, scheduled for December 1-2 in Washington DC with a live feed on the Real News. The purpose of this tribunal is to expose the lies and cost of this illegal war and demand that President Obama take action in exposing the harmful chain of events and fallout by creating a Commission for Truth and Accountability.

Sign up to call on Obama, to use as a tool to build your organizations stand against war, to share your art that speaks to war and costs, or to deliver testimony about the cost to your community, life and dreams. Globally we are all paying the costs of these lies.

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