United on A20

Washington's streets were filled by the other America last weekend. Martin Schreader reports on the militant mood in the US capital

It began as a smorgasbord of single-issuism. It ended as the largest pro-Palestine demonstration in US history - and the largest anti-war protest since Vietnam. Upwards of 250,000 workers, youth, Arab Americans and other activists converged on Washington DC on April 20 for a myriad of events, culminating in the 'United we march' anti-war protest. Whilst many were drawn to the federal capital for various events taking place over the week, there was one issue that united and galvanised those in the streets - the ongoing war against the Palestinian people waged by the Israeli regime. There is no question that the presence of tens of thousands of Palestinians, Arab Americans and muslims fundamentally altered the character of what was expected to be little more than a semi-liberal rally for 'peace'. Their presence was so powerful that two of the five scheduled events on 'A20' ended up combining their slogans and banners with those of the Palestinians and their supporters. In the months prior to A20, two rival anti-war coalitions manoeuvred to try and unite their protests. 'A20 Stop the War', politically led by the social democrats and liberals, and 'International Answer' (an acronym for 'Act now to stop war and end racism'), initiated by the Workers World Party and Pastors for Peace (a religious group that makes regular runs of humanitarian supplies across the US blockade of Cuba), had an on-again, off-again series of negotiations to try and merge their two rallies. However, the bad blood between the two leaderships - which has existed since the 1991 Gulf War - meant that mistrust and sectarianism dominated on both sides. Regardless of the duplicitous actions of the respective leaderships, the thousands who responded to the coalitions' calls made their voices heard by demanding a unity of the demonstrations on the ground. During the morning demonstrations, many participants moved from rally to rally, since most of them were within a kilometre of each other. Some more spirited and militant participants also chose to confront the minuscule 'counter-demonstration' called by the 'respectable' fascist front, the Committee for a Free Republic. But the most exciting place had to be Freedom Plaza at 1pm. This was where and when the various marches and demonstrations merged into a single group. It was in Freedom Plaza that the breadth and depth of the opposition movement in the United States was most obvious. Liberal pacifists carrying 'Peace is patriotic' signs stood side by side with anarchists wanting to 'Smash the borders'. 'Radical cheerleaders' performed while muslims and orthodox jews prayed together. Young communists shared smiles and laughs with Mennonite elders. At Freedom Plaza, the first estimates were announced: 35,000 to 50,000, according to the police. As the rally reached the Mall in front of the Capitol, the estimate was again revised: 75,000, according to the US park service (which is the figure used by the bosses' media). At the height of the rally, however, a more sober police chief admitted the unthinkable: in excess of 100,000 people by his estimates. And, given the reputation of the police and park service to grossly undercount attendance at demonstrations (on average they report one-third or one-half the size), the organisers' figure of nearly a quarter-million can be considered nearer the mark. For many in the crowd, the abstract concept of 'mass action' finally had flesh and bone. As the crowd swelled and the march moved closer to the Capitol, the stunned look of the police lining the streets betrayed their false arrogance. All the National Guard reserves and police forces from surrounding areas meant very little as the march stretched on and on. At 3pm, when the 'United we march' rally began at the Mall, thousands had yet to leave Freedom Plaza, and tens of thousands were still marching. It was not only the clouds above that thundered through the streets of Washington that day. As the marches melded together, the varied voices of protest took up one single demand: 'Free Palestine!' At that moment, and continuing on through the end of day, years of isolated single-issuism succumbed to overwhelming demand for unity and common action. Needless to say, the liberal and reformist leaderships were overwhelmed - a point they openly admitted. The immediacy of the Palestine issue was in many respects the glue that held the march together. And that was due to the perspective put forward both from the Arab community and the International Answer coalition. Apart from a few small provocations, the general tone of the demonstration was for Arab-jewish unity against Zionism and occupation. Members of 'Jews against the occupation' carried banners and placards declaring their "shame" over the actions that the war criminal, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, has carried out in the name of 'the jewish people'. Behind them, Palestinian youth carried signs and chanted, 'Jewish people - yes! Zionism - no!' A contingent of lesbian/gay activists carried signs saying, 'From Stonewall to Ramallah, the people fight back'. This theme continued to echo from the stage, as speaker after speaker stressed the need for a united response to the actions of the rightwing Zionist regime in Israel. One speaker expressed a view held by many Palestinian activists, both within and outside the Arab American community, that the struggle is the successor to the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. This was repeated by one Palestinian youth, explaining the situation to an African-American couple watching the event. "It's like the same thing as what the black South Africans were facing under apartheid, man. It's like the same thing" (Independent Media Centre press release, April 21). Drawing comparisons between Palestine today and South Africa of the 1980s is no mere rhetorical flourish. It is a reflection of the view that most Palestinians, and their supporters, have of their fight. As they are quick to explain, their battle is not with the jewish people living in Israel, but with the Israeli government, which perpetuates their status as second-class citizens and something just short of slave labour. Whilst the Palestinian demonstrators stated their rejection of suicide bombings as a means of liberation, they also clearly denounced the Israeli government's use of these bombings as a justification for mass murder. A sign that read 'A suicide bomber is a poor man's F-16' encapsulated this equation of tactics in a 'war situation'. However, the Palestinians did not see themselves fighting for a two-state solution - ie, an independent Palestinian state, existing alongside Israel. The demand of the Palestinians was for a single, democratic and secular state, where both Israelis and Palestinians live together 'as brothers and sisters'. One Palestinian woman who addressed the rally declared that the two-state solution seeks to codify the "Jewish character of the state" of Israel, to the detriment of the thousands of Arabs living inside the country. She emphasised in her speech that preservation of this exclusive 'character' was racist and undemocratic, and allowed for the justification of the 'ethnic-cleansing' being carried out by the Israeli regime. Why such a conclusion? The answer goes to the heart of the issue of self-determination - ie, the will of the people. The Palestinian people, the tens of thousands of them on the streets of Washington during A20 and the tens of thousands more who were not present that day but have made their voices heard many times before, in their overwhelming majority desire a single state where today's citizens of Israel (Jewish and Arab) and today's citizens of the Palestinian Authority, along with the descendants of the Palestinian diaspora, can live together. Communists support the right of self-determination for all oppressed peoples. And self-determination implies that such support is based on the will of those same oppressed peoples. So what can be said of the will of the Palestinian people? If the speeches, signs, banners and demands of the Palestinian participants of the A20 march - and those of the marches that came before - can offer an answer, it appears that the will of the Palestinian people is for a single state, democratic and secular, where all can live together. For many of them, the two-state solution is something they are willing to settle for, but it is not what they want.