Film, Discussion Looks at Zapatista Uprising in Mexico

A Film and Discussion at The DAAC in Downtown Grand Rapids Looked at the Zapatista Uprising

Tuesday night, The Bloom Collective held a showing of Zapatista at the DAAC in downtown Grand Rapids. Zapatista is a 1999 documentary film about the first 4 years of the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, from 1994 to 1998. The film features interviews with Subcomandante Marcos, Noam Chomsky, and many others. It has been much heralded over the past decade for its accurate and moving portrayal of the post-NAFTA struggle in Mexico and the work of the Zapatistas during that time.

Update

Following the film was a discussion led by a college graduate who studied in Mexico through the Mexico Solidarity Network (MSN). To begin, a brief update on the last ten years in Mexico was given: The Zapatistas decided they did not need the government’s permission to be autonomous and began their own municipalities throughout Mexico. Since the filming of the movie, efforts have shifted to focus on schools and health clinics. In 2005 the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) released the Sixth Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle to initiate a new step in their struggle, to united with “workers, farmers, students, teachers, and employees… the workers of the city and the countryside.” During the 2006 presidential election, the Zapatistas ran “The Other Campaign, ” in which they dismissed the candidates from the two major parties (Party of the Democratic Revolution [PRD] and the National Action Party [PAN]) and began their own tour of the nation, talking to people and listening to their needs.

Women and the Zapatistas

Groups such as MSN have become an opportunity for those living in Zapatista communities to sell their artisanry directly to the consumer, thus avoiding the “middle man” and ensuring a fair price. This has been particularly empowering to women, who are then able to work out of the home and avoid being harassed or degraded in public.

Government Harassment and Targeting

The film mentioned that the Zapatistas do not hold bank accounts – this has changed in recent years, and these bank accounts have become a way for the government to target the Zapatistas. When Zapatistas Fair Trade Coffee co-ops were formed, government owned coffee co-ops would spring up nearby, selling the coffee at a cheaper price and thus undercutting the Zapatista’s coffee sales. Government agents have been known to appear at the Zapatista communities, supposedly searching for marijuana plants – a completely unfounded claim, as the Zapatistas do not allow drugs or alcohol in their municipalities.

Discussion

Following the update, questions were asked by various filmgoers. Although a good turnout of about thirty people attended the film showing, only a small handful stayed for the discussion. One person asked if any humanitarian laws applied/were enforced in Mexico. Although United Nations measures have passed over the years, they are not effective as there is no system in place to enforce these (and the United States is a powerful member of the UN). Human rights observers have gone to Mexico and documented the situation, which has resulted in enough pressure to shut down government bases.

Discussion turned to NAFTA’s effect on corn production. As of 2008, there are no tariffs on corn coming in to Mexico, making corn from the U.S. and other countries cheaper to buy in Mexico than Mexican corn (which is a huge industry in the country). Because farmers can no longer sell their corn at the price of production, many have moved to cities to find the legendary NAFTA jobs, that don’t really exist.

The narco industry was brought up next, termed “insane” by the discussion facilitator – “narcos run the state now,” as drug lords have infiltrated PAN. U.S. aid has been given to fund the Mexican army, which helps bring drugs to the U.S. Narcos also buy their weapons from the U.S., due to lax gun laws in Arizona and Texas (the facilitator noted that border patrol does not care what goes in to Mexico.) The contradiction of “fighting the drug war by looking for pot plants in Zapataista communities” while this narco situation continues was noted.

The film gave the historical context, and the discussion was useful to gain an understanding of current events in Chiapas, Oaxaca and other regions of Mexico.

Starbucks Union Discusses Organizing Efforts in Grand Rapids, Twin Cities

Over the weekend, Cole Dorsey of the Grand Rapids Starbucks Workers Union along with Erik Forman and Angel Gardner of the Twin Cities Starbucks Workers Union spoke at The NorthStar Center on organizing at Starbucks and what it means for the future of the labor organizing in the United States:

Thanks to RicoThomasRico.Blogspot.com for recording the event.

“Shock Doctrine” Author, Naomi Klein Speaks at MSU; Addresses Economic Crisis

Author Naomi Klein Spoke at MSU on Disaster Capitalism, Resistance, and the Current Economic Crisis

Canadian author, activist, and filmmaker Naomi Klein spoke at Michigan State University on Tuesday. Klein is on a tour promoting her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Klein began her talk by saying that what inspired her to write The Shock Doctrine was what she discovered in her reporting from Iraq in 2003-2004. The author said that one of the most grotesque myths about the Bush administration is the idea that they had no plan for Iraq. Klein firmly believes they did and the plan was to remake Iraq’s economy.

Iraq War leads to “The Shock Doctrine”

Restructuring Iraq’s economy was the mandate that Paul Bremer received from the Bush administration, with a particular emphasis with how restructuring the economy would be beneficial to foreign banks and investors. Privatization was the mantra, according to Klein, and what better way to bring this change about than by the 2003 US invasion. Her reporting in Iraq led her to look at “the relationship between the various shock doctrine techniques, both legal and economic, which when resisted led to military shock.” The military shock most often meant the repression of popular dissent by a variety of civil society sectors throughout Iraq.

The problem, Klein said, was using a crisis to get around democracy. Klein then went to New Orleans to continue her research and discovered very similar patterns to policy decisions after Katrina.

“Developers had pre-disaster plans to redevelop New Orleans, so the flooding provided the mechanism to allow this to happen. They decided to not rebuild public schools, but gave parents vouchers to go to private education systems.”

Another recent example of disaster capitalism, according to Klein, was what happened after 9/11. It wasn’t just the Patriot Act and the War on Terror that the Bush administration promoted, but the restructuring of the economy.

“The War on Terror was in a sense a business plan. What happened under Bush wasn’t new, but a process that really began with Reagan as a counter-revolution to the New Deal policies. What Bush has done differently, was to privatize the military and border patrol.”

What about the Current Crisis?

Klein argued that the Obama campaign realized that blaming the crisis on these right-wing policies would give him the edge to win the election, even though Obama supported the Paulson-led bailout. Klein feels that Obama’s victory was a referendum against these economic policies and that there are openings in American society. She said that there is a consensus that there needs to be a shift in the economy. Klein believes that the Obama administration is not applying a shock therapy to the current crisis. However, “they are giving over massive amounts of public money, unlimited access to the public ATM. So, who needs privatization when you have this public trough?” Since the banks and other Wall Street sectors keep coming back to the public, US taxpayers are going to be stuck with a huge debt. Klein said that even though much of the mainstream media is putting the bailout price tag at roughly $3.5 trillion, it is more accurately around $10.5 trillion.

The Shock Doctrine author went on to say that it is interesting that the right is claiming that what the Obama administration is doing with the stimulus is socialism. Klein is amazed at how many people believe that Obama’s policies are socialist, when in fact they are really corporatist in nature. The stimulus is really “public money being transferred to the private sector.” Klein says that when we look at the bailout the numbers are amazing. Citigroup alone has received $45 billion. They are worth $20 billion on paper, according to Klein. “Taxpayers have already given the banks more than the market is able to. The government has voluntarily surrendered the power it could have with the bailout, by not enforcing any accountability.” She went on to say that we all hear about the corporate scandals – AIG’s spa vacation, etc., yet Congress continues to give them money. The banks have been nationalized in a sense, because of the bailout, but in effect, they still operate as private entities.

Klein advocated for the nationalization of US banks, because it would not only mean that the public would have their losses, but also their profits. It would allow the public to have a say in how the money is used and who would get it. Statistically, the bailout is equivalent to being able to pay off every mortgage in the country. “Can you imagine,” Klein said, “if people did not have mortgage payments how much more vibrant the real economy would be?”

What about the Stimulus?

For Klein, the stimulus is just the other side of the coin of the bailout. It is not the green dream that was promised. Money for mass transit was cut in half and funding to states was also cut. Another thing that Klein pointed out is that with the stimulus there will be no breakthrough on health care. The California Nurses Association study shows it makes no sense to provide subsidies to a health care system that doesn’t want to provide health benefits to people who are not insured. A single-payer system would not only provide health care to everyone, it would also create a tremendous amount of jobs.

We can Take our Cue from People Around the World

Klein then shifted the discussion to looking at how the rest of the world has been reacting to the global economic crisis.

In Iceland, one government has come down because of the crisis. Italy has been cutting back funding for schools and the students have rebelled and are using the slogan, “We won’t pay for your crisis!” Students have been on the frontlines of this crisis in most countries around the world, according to Klein. In France, it was announced that when teachers retired, the President would not replace them. How did the French people respond? There was a massive strike, with massive public support. In Greece, it has been farmers blocking the roads. Klein wrote about this global resistance in a recent Nation magazine article, one that includes great video links to public resistance globally.

Klein then mentioned the Republic Doors and Windows factory strike. She said that one of the reasons that they won is because they were not just picking a fight with the factory owner, but also with Bank of America. Their slogan was, “You got bailed out. We got sold out.” What was also amazing about what these workers did was that they were willing to break the law. Klein said, “We need more of Republic Doors and Windows. If there is going to be a progressive movement, we need a radical labor movement in this country.”

Another point that Klein stressed to the audience was the need to remember what it was that got the New Deal policies put in place. The author said that the popular notion was that FDR devised the New Deal policies because of his liberal orientation. However, Klein’s take on that part of US history is that the New Deal policies were advocated by FDR because he knew that if those reformist policies were not adopted there might have been a revolution. The US labor movement was so big and so well organized that it scared the political establishment into adopting the New Deal policies as a way of preventing serious social upheaval. Klein thinks we need to learn from this history and not wait for politicians to make changes. Instead, she emphasized that we have to build movements to demand changes.

Q & A

There were several questions from the audience, many of which were asking for clarification of comments made during the talk.

One of the more important questions asked was, “Why are we not resisting here?” Klein responded by saying:

“In Europe people don’t treat their politicians like rock stars. They don’t treat them with reverence. Because there is this reverence in the US, we wait for the great man to give us good news. What we do not hear about is the tremendous pressure from the grassroots, the kind that lead to the New Deal. Since we have this distorted understanding of history, we are just waiting for Obama to just deliver us from evil.”

Klein was also asked if she thought that Obama would be as bad as Bush, to which she responded:

“Of course I don’t think that he is as bad as Bush, but the question kind of misses the point. The danger is that we are so relieved from eight years of Bush that we will lie to ourselves about what is really happening. The worst of the economic policies, the one that are haunting us now, were passed under Clinton. Clinton pushed much of the deregulatory policies that Bush just drove home. There is a real price to this kind of intellectual dishonesty, because if we don’t own up to this history we will suffer for it. Look at what MoveOn did. They built their data-base as an anti-war group, but never challenged Obama on his military platform, particularly is financial support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his current push to intensify the war in Afghanistan and probably Pakistan. Those of us on the left need a movement based on principle and truth, not just strategy, if we are going to seriously make any changes.”

Looking to the Left on the Economic Crisis

Over the past few weeks, we’ve provided a fair amount of coverage of the economic stimulus bill, particularly looking at possible benefits to West Michigan and unneccessary tax breaks contained within the bill.

Unfortunately, our coverage has tended to be fairly uncritical of the rest of the bill, not asking big questions about what it means for the economy, what the nature of the economy is, and what other possibilities are to the current economic model. Sadly, this reflects the poverty of leftist thought in the United States–there has been relatively little substantive critique. The crisis–unprecendented in many ways–offers an opportunity to reimagine how the economy functions.

To encourage people to think beyond the simply passing the stimulus and then moving on, we’re posting two interviews with Robert Kuttner about Obama, the economic crisis, and the solutions that have been offered thus far. Kuttner’s ideas certainly aren’t perfect, but he offers some worthwhile comments.

Part 1 – Conservative Solutions to a Radical Crisis

Part 2 – What Obama Should Do

Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba

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On January 1, the Cuban revolution celebrated the fifty year anniversary of its toppling of the Batista regime. The US media coverage of that anniversary was limited and when coverage did appear it either presented the revolution as repressive or centered around the personalities of Fidel or Raul Castro.

This kind of US media coverage has been consistent for decades and was reflected in a six-month study that the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy conducted in 2007 on Latin America. This type of media representation of Cuba has contributed greatly to the lack of understanding amongst those living in the US about the reality of life in that Caribbean nation for the past fifty years.

Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba is an important new book that can serve as a counter to the biased US media coverage. Author and journalist, Reese Erlich, provides readers with an excellent overview of US policy towards Cuba since 1959. Erlich has traveled to Cuba numerous times since his initial visit in 1968, when he went as a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). These visits not only helped the author to develop relationships with Cubans over the past 40 years, it provided him with some insight into the evolution of the revolutionary experiment in Cuba.

Not an Apologist for the Cuban Government

Another important aspect of Dateline Havana is that the author does not act as an apologist for the Cuban government. While Erlich’s investigation of US policy towards Cuba does acknowledge how Washington has punished and marginalized the revolutionary government, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out the many shortcomings. Erlich shares the stories of many Cubans who feel that the Cuban government has not lived up to the stated goals of the revolution, such as providing adequate food, work opportunities, and the right to dissent. Erlich even devotes chapters to the discussion of racism in Cuba, whether or not Cuban women are better off since the revolution, and how the government treats the gay community.

The author’s critique of Cuba is balanced by his ability to present us with information on US policy that will not overwhelm readers. Erlich looks at the harsh realities of US attempts to overthrow the Cuban government, the use of biological warfare, assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, a propaganda war through radio and TV Marti, and the decades long embargo that has attempted to strangle the tiny Caribbean island.

One of the most revealing chapters deals with the issue of artistic expression in Cuba with a focus on the international acclaim of the late 1990’s musical phenomenon known as the Buena Vista Social Club. Erlich interviews several musicians who participated in that project, most of whom have been supporters of the Cuban government. However, the interviews also reveal that many of those same musicians were frustrated with how film maker Wim Wenders depicted Cuba in his highly acclaimed film about the Buena Vista Social Club.

A Good Book for Understanding US-Cuba Relations

Dateline Havana concludes with a look into the future of US/Cuban relations in a post-Castro era. The author raises many questions about the resiliency of the five-decades long revolution and whether or not the US will ever be willing to have open relations with the island nation as long as it maintains a commitment to what was started in 1959. Reese Erlich’s book is an important contribution for anyone who cares about understanding US policy and its future with Cuba.

Reese Erlich, Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba, (Polipoint Press, 2008).

Anti-War Groups Re-Tool for Obama Era; Pressure the New Administration

Code Pink Is Among Anti-war Groups Pressuring Barack Obama Through New Strategies and Tactics

With the inauguration of the Obama administration and a shift in rhetoric–if not substance–around US foreign policy, much of the progressive left in the United States is being forced to rethink how it approaches organizing, understands the US role in the world, and its relationship to those in power.

Nowhere is this more true than in the anti-war movement. Gone are the years of the Bush administration when it was simple to mobilize people. It was easy to turn people out for the frequent protests against “Bush’s war” and to critique the policies of the Bush administration. Dissent was something that was easy to understand in light of Bush’s low approval ratings.

Organizing under the Obama administration–particularly for the anti-war movement–will likely be dramatically different. Obama campaigned on a promise to “End the War” in Iraq. And while his Iraq policy is problematic on a number of levels, there is the popular perception that the US presence in Iraq will end sometime soon. At the same time, Obama has pledged to escalate the war in Afghanistan–an issue that has always been difficult for the anti-war movement to deal with, even under the Bush administration.

In light of this, many national anti-war movements are adjusting their focus, redirecting organizing efforts, and launching new campaigns that respond to the new political context.

Iraq Veterans Against the War

The veterans’ organization Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) greeted the Obama administration with a television ad that aired in several cities on Tuesday just before he was inaugurated:

The well-documented ad called for Obama to “End the War Now” and focused on advancing IVAW’s position in support of an immediate end to the US occupation of Iraq.

Code Pink

Code Pink–a group that has organized extensively against the Iraq War–launched a campaign called “Remind Obama” that is aimed at holding Obama to his commitments to:

  • End the war in Iraq
  • Shut Down Guantanamo
  • Reject the Military Commissions Act
  • Stop Torture
  • Work to eliminate nuclear weapons
  • Hold direct, unconditional talks with Iran.
  • Abide by Senate approved international treaties.

The group produced a video outlining these promises:

Code Pink has declared that it intends to “be the string around his [Obama] finger that reminds him to practice what he preaches and deliver the change our country so desperately needs.” To that end, the group had a low-key presence at the inauguration with people wearing pink ribbons to inaugural events that said “Obama, keep your Promises for Peace” and is organizing further actions.

Military Families Speak Out

MFSO Is Pressuring Obama For An Immediate End to the Iraq War

Military Families Speak Out is organizing a four-day event in February to “Demand ‘The Change WE Need‘” by calling on Obama to support an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq. The group is highly critical of Obama’s withdrawal plan:

“President Elect Obama opposed the war in Iraq before it started, calling it a “dumb war.” But he and his advisors have also said that they plan to spread the return of combat troops from that “dumb war” out over sixteen months and to keep tens of thousands of other troops on the ground in Iraq indefinitely.”

In February, the group is planning a teach-in involving the voices of military families, veterans, and Iraqis, a march from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House, and lobbying focusing on members of Congress.

United for Peace and Justice

UFPJ Has Launched An Effort To Expand The Anti-war Movement To Include Racial And Economic Justice

United for Peace and Justice–the largest anti-war group in the United States–has launched a campaign called “Beyond War, A New Economy is Possible: Yes We Can!” that seeks to expand anti-war work and take advantage of the energy of the Obama campaign

“This campaign seeks to mobilize a new base of people who have been inspired by Obama and want to see an end to war with that money going to fund housing, healthcare, education, jobs and a radically different environmental policy. So much hope and inspiration despite the most challenging of economic and environmental times needs to be nurtured with lots of opportunities to learn and grow.”

It hopes to do this through an initial phase that includes organizing in local communities that began on Martin Luther King Day and culminating in an anti-war march in New York City. The group hopes to expand the analysis of the anti-war movement to place more of a focus on economic and racial justice, to work on alliance and coalition building around these issues, and to do base-building work to improve the strength of anti-war organizations and to talk.

Anarchism For Beginners

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Anarchism is a political ideology that has been largely forgotten among the political mainstream and has been largely forgotten by the institutionalized left. While a number of socialist and communist newspapers continue to be published across the United States, anarchism has considerable less public visibility. However, as Marcos Mayer shows in Anarchism For Beginners, despite its lack of visibility since the Second World War, anarchism remains a popular political philosophy. Unlike many mainstream histories of the topic that treat anarchism as a distinctly 19th and 20th century phenomenon, Mayer argues that anarchism continues to have influence on society, particularly after the Soviet experience discredited the socialist and communist left.

A Brief Overview of Anarchist History

Mayer begins his short, illustrated introduction to anarchism by talking anarchism’s resurgence in the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He cites contemporary thinkers such as Noam Chomsky who identify as anarchist–along with a renewed interest in the topic–as being key in keeping the philosophy alive. From this introduction, Mayer segues into an overview of anarchist theory and action over the past 200 years. He gives short overviews of the major theorists Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman, while looking at the historical successes and failures of the movement, including the Spanish Civil War, the terrorist campaigns of the late 1800s, and its contribution to women’s rights. Whereas many histories confine their discussions to one continent, Mayer gives a global overview of anarchism, looking at the movement in Europe, the United States, and South America.

Expected Shortcomings

As would be expected in such a short book (169 pages with illustrations on every page), Mayer’s book has to leave out some topics. Unfortunately, while it goes further than many books in that it recognizes the continued relevance of anarchism, it comes up short in offering examples beyond the anti-globalization movement. In the discussion of anarchism after World War II, Mayer talks only of its influence on artistic movements such as Dadaism, the French Situationists and May 1968, and punk rock. Of all these, the discussion on punk rock could have been greatly improved, as Mayer focuses only on the more commercialized sections of the punk scene, rather than the anarcho-punk movement that has fostered an underground network of publications, collective houses, and music labels, all of which are often intimately tied with political action. Similarly, while he touches on it briefly in his discussion of Murray Bookchin, Mayer misses the opportunity to look at anarchism’s role in the radical environmental movement. Contributions to the animal rights movement are also overlooked.

A Worthy Introduction

Overall, Anarchism for Beginners is a worthwhile starting point for someone looking for a quick overview of anarchism. Its short length and cartoon style make it a worthy introduction to a complex topic, and its brief descriptions of different anarchists and movements offer a good jumping off point for further exploration. Moreover, unlike a lot of primers on anarchism–this one was actually written in this century. After reading this book, interested readers might consider moving onto No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism or An Anarchist FAQ: Volume 1, both of which will expand on the concepts introduced in Anarchism for Beginners.

Marcos Mayer, Anarchism For Beginners, (For Beginners, 2008).

Afghanistan War Protestors were Right: The War has Failed

Afghanistan Invasion Protestors were Basically Right

As the country gets ready to inaugurate President-Elect Barack Obama and say goodbye to the Bush years, a coalition of progressive bloggers are drawing attention the Afghanistan War. Obama has announced that he plans to send 30,000 troops to the country as part of an effort–albeit under a kinder rhetorical guise than Bush–to quash the persistent insurgency in the country.

For someone who has been involved in anti-war organizing since 9/11, it’s refreshing to see some critical attention placed on Afghanistan, especially when so many people on the left continue to see it as a “good war” that has noble aims, unlike Iraq which is seen as “Bush’s mistake” or some other variation.

A Look Back

However, it’s important for us to remember that Afghanistan is not a “good war” gone “bad,” but what has happened in Afghanistan since the October 2001 invasion was the predictable consequence of a flawed policy decision.

To be sure, much of the country supported the invasion of Afghanistan. However, there was a strong minority of people who were highly critical of the war. I’d argue that this group was a mix of folks from the 1960s left, the solidarity movements of the 1980s, the groups organizing against President Bill Clinton’s Iraq policy, and the anti-globalization movement that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which was at its peek around the time of September 11). In September and October of 2001, the Internet was still in its infancy as a progressive news source, but a wealth of pieces critical of the US invasion of Afghanistan were published on sites such as Alternet.org and Zmag.org.

Looking back on these articles, it’s striking how right many of them were. While a fair number included in their talking points the fact that the United States had no clear proof that Osama Bin Laden was behind the attacks (which was true at the time), many of the other points came to fruition. The war did become a lengthy occupation characterized by an unsuccessful counter-insurgency campaign, the war did not dramatically improve the lives of Afghanistan citizens (although some predicted humanitarian disasters did not come to fruition), and civilians bared the brunt of the assault both as direct casualties (a number which continues to grow) and as a result of the disruption of the country. At the same time, bombing Afghanistan failed to destroy either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and both have been able to attack the US and its allies in the years since the 2001 invasion. News out of the country continues to be dismal, with an almost constant stream of stories on civilians deaths by the Taliban and related insurgent groups or the US.

For those who are interested, links to some articles from September/Early October of 2001 critical of the invasion of Afghanistan appear at the end of this article.

Organizing Against the Invasion of Afghanistan

However, it wasn’t just written pieces that were being published–people did take to the streets to oppose the US invasion of Afghanistan. An antiwar group reported at the time:

“Before the bombs fell, 20,000 people in Washington D.C. and San Francisco each, as well as thousands in Los Angeles, rallied on September 29 under the slogan Act Now To Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER).

On October 7, the first day of the bombing, 10,000 New Yorkers marched from Union Square some 30 blocks to Times Square, stopping traffic and shouting “U.S. Hands Off Afghanistan!” Five thousand jammed San Francisco’s central cable car stop, and over the next 48 hours, thousands more collectively rallied again in New York, Buffalo, Washington, D.C., Boston, Princeton, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, Denver, Boulder, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Oakland, San Diego; and dozens of other cities, including students from American University, Princeton University, MIT, Harvard, Vassar College, the University of Michigan, Wesleyan University, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, Mission High School, and others.”

Other efforts also took place across the country in the wake of the bombing. Protests have continued over the years, but by mid-2002 anti-war organizing shift its focus to the impending Iraq War.

Protesting the Afghanistan War in Grand Rapids

Even here in Grand Rapids, a relatively conservative Midwestern town, there was visible opposition to the US invasion of Afghanistan. Shortly after the attacks, a group formed out of the Institute for Global Education (IGE) to organize a “Peace Presence“–weekly vigils held outside the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building–to voice opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan. Those vigils–albeit shifting in focus and location–have continued to this day.

Another group organized a “teach-in” to expose US policy in the region, emphasizing that if people were going to understand both the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan, they would need to understand the historical context of US foreign policy. The teach-in–dubbed “September 11th: Causes and Just Responses”–was well attended.

Out of the teach-in came a number of related organizing efforts. A group of activists put together a “reader” collecting a wealth of articles critical of the US response to the 9/11 attacks and plans to invade Afghanistan. The reader was distributed around town and filled important gaps left by the local media’s jingoistic coverage of war. Another group organized a public protest against the Afghanistan War. The protest featured a march from Veteran’s Park to the most watched local television station, WOOD TV 8, to highlight its role in supporting the war. Following the march, activists held a 24-hour vigil on the corner of Division and Fulton to draw attention to the war.

Limited Local Media Coverage of Dissent

Media coverage of such dissent was limited, both locally and nationally. the Grand Rapids Press ran one article in 2001 on protests against the invasion (“We don’t believe in bombing’ – Peace activists with roots in the Vietnam War protests know they are a vocal minority in opposing Afghanistan attacks,” October 30, 2001). Its decision to place the article on the front page generated a large number of calls and letters according to The Press (“Press’ coverage of war protesters draws readers’ ire”, November 4, 2001), prompting The Press to defend its decision:

“After the complaints, Andy [News Editor Andy Angelo] checked our A-1 pattern for October. No other photo could be described as a directly critical view of U.S policy. And 21 days out of 31, we ran page-dominant news photographs that would have to be characterized as supportive of the war effort or displays of patriotic emotion.”

Even in its defense of running a front page photo of a protestor, the Grand Rapids Press didn’t hesitate to admit that it had a heavy pro-military bias.

A study the period after the bombing started by the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) showed that the local media’s coverage of the Afghanistan War overwhelmingly relied on government and military sources.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

It’s impossible to say what organizing against the Afghanistan War would have looked like had it continued along at its late-2001 pace. Instead, the build-up for the invasion of Iraq started and much of the nascent anti-war movement turned its sights to stopping that invasion. A number of conclusions could be drawn about this decision–among them that much of the progressive left supported the Afghanistan War–but that’s a discussion for another day.

Rather, the important lesson to draw from the short-lived resistance to the Afghanistan War is that those protesting the war were basically right. The invasion of Afghanistan did not succeed in dismantling the Al-Qaeda network, it did not eradicate the Taliban, it has not led to stability in the country, and it has not helped improve the collective lot of the Afghan people. Instead, the war has become a long-term occupation that has no clear ends, no clear goal, and no clear victory.

As we consider how best to deal with the Afghanistan War and build the opposition necessary to end it, we’d do well to remember that those of us who opposed it from the start were right.

Articles Critical of the Afghanistan War from September and October of 2001

Riots Continue in Greece

Widespread riots and protests continue across Greece. While it’s still difficult to assess what is happening, there are three new pieces out–including an interview with a Greek anarchist–that provide essential background reading on the rebellion.

122908-ford_fire_greece.jpg

Since writing about them earlier this month, riots have continued in Greece through the holidays. At the same time, solidarity actions took place across the world and estimates are that thousands of actions have happened around the country. As a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz writes, “These are no single-issue protests or vague grievances. This is full-blooded revolutionary anarchism.”

Writing from the US, it’s hard to determine how we should relate to what is happening in Greece. To be sure, there is a long legacy in Europe of militant left movements–whether they be student, trade union, or immigrant-based–winning major victories and changes in their respective countries. This legacy of militancy and willingness to fight to protect gains won by social movements have created a vastly different political and social climate than what we find in the US. Whereas the left in the US is often rendered ineffective and irrelevant, the left in much of Europe–including the anarchists in Greece–is a force to be reckoned with. Hence, the struggle in Greece and the reports that the French president is backing off plans to pass controversial legislation out of fear of a backlash from the left. Other European leaders reportedly share Sarkozy’s concern.

To help us understand what is happening in Greece, the following recently published articles have been immensely helpful:

You might also check out our earlier piece on the Greek situation.