U.S. Walkout Galvanizes U.S. NGO Delegation

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Posted by on September 07, 2001 at 15:28:45:

U.S. Walkout Galvanizes U.S. NGO Delegation

by Eric Mann

Durban Commentary #3
Thursday, September 6, 2001
Mann's other Durban commentaries: www.thestrategycenter.org

It was the eve of Labor Day and 400 U.S. delegates to the now-concluded NGO Forum filed into the large lecture hall at UNISA (University of South Africa at Durban). We had come, ostensibly, to hear a report to the Non-Governmental Organizations from the shell of the U.S. delegation to the UN Conference. As we entered the room, all hell broke loose. Rumors spread that the U.S. delegation had no intention to report to us. Wade Henderson, from the National Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, announced that last minute negotiations with the U.S had broken down and that it was almost inevitable that the U.S. governmental delegation would walk out.

Almost immediately a group of 200 U.S. NGO delegates worked to transform itself into a viable, functional "ad hoc" force to protest U.S. policies at the conference. Many of the delegates did not know each other at all, many had political disagreements, and many had prior histories of unity and antagonism. Yet we worked successfully in a multiracial, majority-black group led by black women.

Within 15 minutes we had formed an action coalition. In order to move effectively, we worked to clarify political line. Earlier in the conference, more moderate U.S. forces had focused primarily on the question of the attendance of the U.S. delegation. "Where is the U.S.?" they had asked, expressing the view that if the U.S. did not attend, the conference would be compromised. Yet by the end of a week of haggling over resolutions in the NGO Forum, there was now far greater unity of anger against the U.S. government. The U.S., along with other Western countries, had tried to intimidate NGO delegates into meaningless, toothless declarations against racism in general with no mention of specific countries or specific atrocities or specific policies of redress and reparations. There was tremendous anger at the way the U.S. had approached the entire conference, beginning with its early use of threats as a way to bully the many other countries for whom the U.N. is a critical vehicle. One Black woman asserted, "The U.S. withdrawal is the first principled thing that the U.S. has done. There is a profound conflict of interest in that the U.S. is the main source of world racism. How can it come and try to impose its will on a world conference against racism?"

There was widespread agreement that the issue of U.S. reparations to the Third World for the transatlantic slave trade had to be the main focus of our demands. Yet, as in both conferences, the issue of Palestine took center stage for debate. How should we challenge the U.S., in particular, for its use of Israel as a foil to withdraw participation?

Several delegates argued that while they were in support of the Palestinian cause, they felt it was deflecting focus away from the demands for Black reparations. This led to a spirited and somewhat heated debate. Sandra Jaribu Hill, an attorney from Mississippi, argued that she believed the Palestinian issue was not a "diversion" but a central focus in the world struggle against racism and imperialism. She raised the question, "How could blacks in the U.S. isolate themselves from such a front-line struggle in the world, especially one that is under tremendous attack and is in so much need of worldwide support?" Others expressed concern that there was even a tendency in the reparations movement to focus too much on blacks within the U.S. and not seek enough solidarity with the nations of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

Anyone who read my earlier commentary knows that I left the U.S with the intent to demonstrate that there are Jews in the U.S. who care deeply about Palestinian rights, as well as whites in the U.S. who want to challenge the racist policies of our government-as part of a strategy to help coalesce the left, anti-imperialist forces against racism. This is the sentiment I chose to express to the members of our ad-hoc group:

As a Jew, I am very upset about the provocative role that the U.S. and Israel are playing at the conference in trying to make it seem like "anti-Semitism," rather than principled criticisms of U.S. and Israeli policy. I am of course outraged by anti-Semitism, but my focus is on the German holocaust and U.S. complicity with it. Like many Jews who joined the civil rights movement and the black liberation movement, I was moved into action by my experience of anti-Semitism from Christian whites, not blacks. While of course there is anti-Semitism and there are even anti-Semites in all movements, including the Palestinian movement, the Palestinian movement itself is not anti-Semitic. It is a movement for national liberation. The Israelis want to leave the conference because they do not want to subject their policies to an international debate-53 years of occupation of Palestinian lands, the murder of Palestinian civilians in violation of the Nuremberg statutes, the denial of a viable homeland to the Palestinian people, and now the new tactic of targeted missile assassinations of Palestinian leaders. In fact, the U.S., as an anti-Semitic country, does not give a damn about Jews or for that matter about Israel; rather the U.S. government is using Israel as its stalking horse in the Middle East-and at this conference. Moreover, the Israeli government and Zionism itself are not the same as Jews, does not speak for Jews, but rather represent a specific political tendency within the Jews of the world. As we all must make choices in life, I stand with the Palestinians.

After further discussion and debate, a motion to highlight both the struggles of the Palestinians and the slave trade was passed by perhaps 90% of the 200 people still remaining.

Several people proposed that we attempt to seat ourselves as the "real" US delegation, in the spirit of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge of 1964. But others observed that in fact we had no legitimacy to represent U.S. NGOs, let alone any social movements in the U.S.; we had the right and obligation to protest, but to be careful about who we did and did not represent. Still, the idea in microcosm was important. What if at some time in the future, a more unified U.S. anti-racist movement was able to agree upon a united front of delegates representing important constituencies and movements in the U.S.? This discussion shed light on the present state of disunity and disorganization of the movement and challenged us to continue this work at home.

We agreed upon a group of spokespeople that included Adjua Aiyetoro, a well-known and respected activist in the reparations movement, as well as Linda Roots, Thema Bryant, Juana-Majel Dixon, Youmna Chlala, Ai-Jen-Poo and myself. It was time to stop talking and start marching. We took to the streets with the plan to end in a rally in front of the International Convention Center. Others joined us as we chanted, "Stop US Racism-All Over the World" and "The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated." Many Third World delegates, sitting or standing along the streets, cheered us onward-evidently happy to see a U.S. delegation, any delegation, taking on the U.S. government. The militancy and politics of the demonstration attracted international media coverage as we had hoped-with CNN running feed that was seen throughout South Africa and at least as far as Los Angeles.

We reconvened the next morning for a rally that took on a life of its own, with many people speaking to the press. We had a movement of 200 spokespeople, talking into microphones and cameras. Indigenous people took center stage. Meanwhile that morning, the United States UN delegation officially withdrew from the conference, allegedly in protest against "anti-Israeli" statements. Some in the bourgeois press claimed that the Palestinians and Arabs had "hijacked" the conference by not compromising with the "reasonable" European and Israeli powers. Others commented that the U.S. walkout had fatally damaged the chance for a "unity of action" on world racism, essentially sinking all hopes for a successful outcome for the conference. One more thoughtful South African newspaper did tell it like it is, that in fact the U.S. used the struggle over Israeli policy as a pretext to leave the conference because it feared the debate about the transatlantic slave trade, the culpability of the U.S. and Europe in "crimes against humanity," and the inevitable and logical programmatic response of massive reparations to the nations of Africa and black people inside the U.S.

Let me be clear that our press rally represented only one tendency within the broader U.S. NGO arena-a "united front," I would say, between the black nationalist left in its various ideological reflections and the anti-racist, anti-imperialist, socialist left (in this instance, also majority black). Still, given the tremendous lack of unity in the U.S., this group managed to find unity of line and action, agree upon spokespeople, and pull off a spontaneous but effective rally within hours. In a small but significant way, the U.S. delegates with whom I worked offered a counter-hegemonic analysis, conveying successfully to people in the U.S. and in the UN conference itself that there was another voice in the United States. In fact, for a day and a half there was widespread outrage throughout all the U.S. NGOs taking many forms, from virtually every U.S. NGO delegate trying to disassociate from the government's actions to more boldness on the part of many forces in the upcoming UN negotiations.

By noon the anger and energy had dissipated, and we had to reintegrate ourselves into the deadly technicalities of the UN conference or find other things to do. I chose to attend two workshops, which were in fact anything but dull. One addressed the problems of indigenous women, with ten amazing speakers each expressing outrage and first-hand organizing stories of resistance by the more than 400 million indigenous women throughout the world-from Hawaii, Colombia, Nigeria, Sudan. A second workshop of 300 people led by African scholars and activists focused in detail on the transatlantic slave trade. In this workshop I heard the apparent news that as a result of organizing pressure, France would be the first Western power to agree on the terms "crimes against humanity" and acknowledge its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

When I get home I will reflect on my time in Durban and write a more comprehensive overview of the experience; it is just too much to comprehend at this time. I want to put together the interviews I have done and seek out a few other participants to pursue my thinking. Still, two preliminary conclusions of some optimism prevail.

First, I think it is useful to see the U.S. withdrawal as a sign of weakness not strength. The countries of the world put the question the table-What is racism? And the U.S. is by definition put on the defensive. The U.S. walked into South Africa not to a U.S. Security Council meeting that it could control, but to a conference against racism. The U.S. cannot lead a world-wide anti-racist, anti-imperialist movement. This was a Third World conference filled with Third World people. Even the U.S. NGO delegations were people of color. Rather, the U.S. is and has been the target of much of the work here. While country after country talked about stopping "unchallenged hegemony," U.S. bullying didn't work. It was infuriating to the U.S., as one delegate told me, to have the delegation hold up its card to speak and be preempted by Gambia or Malaysia or Brazil. "Don't you know who we are?" the U.S. conveys, and the response time and again was "We certainly do!" The U.S. decision to send a low-level delegation was given the "low level" treatment it deserved. The two things the U.S. didn't want the UN to do, it did: support Palestine and interrogate the Transatlantic slave trade. Since the basis of hegemony is domination by consent, U.S. hegemony suffered a blow. While U.S. imperialism's economic and military strength is unchallenged, in this battle it was defeated politically and diplomatically by the Third World.

Second, you have to have been here to see the profound role that the Cubans played. Fidel Castro arrived in Durban with the reminder that Africa is the ancestral motherland of most of the 11 million people of Cuba. Castro swept through the city, speaking before the ANC, the UN Conference, and, unexpectedly, before the final session of the NGO Forum! There can be no doubt that Castro's statement at the UN conference has galvanized a weak and often dispirited Third World. Some delegates may be comprador bourgeoisie, or Western identified, or complete sell outs. Some may be moderates, others revolutionaries. But they are all Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. In their hearts, and souls, even if they don't have the courage, they want to see the U.S. get its ass kicked. To see Fidel Castro walk into the convention with such confidence and the ability to speak his own mind-the leader of a tiny nation-state constantly in grave danger of U.S. invasion-is a world event hard to comprehend. And in that brief moment, the power of an anti-imperialist socialism gives Fidel-not the U.S.-the real title of "leader of the free world."

I leave you with an excerpt from Fidel's WCAR speech:

Nobody has the right to sabotage this conference which, in some way, is attempting to alleviate the terrible suffering and enormous injustice that these deeds have signified and still signify for the overwhelming majority of humanity. Far less does anybody have the right to impose conditions, and demand that the issue of historical responsibility and just reparations are not even mentioned, or the way in which we decide to qualify the horrific genocide at this very minute being committed against our sister nation of Palestine (applause) on the part of extreme-right leaders who, in alliance with the hegemonic superpower, are currently acting in the name of another people which, over close to 2000 years, was the victim of the greatest persecution, discrimination and injustice committed in history. (Applause)

When Cuba talks of compensation and supports this idea as an ineludible moral duty to the victims of racism, it has an important precedent in the compensation being received by the descendents of those very Jewish peoples who, right in the heart of Europe, suffered an odious and brutal racist holocaust. However, it is not with the intent of attempting the impossible search for direct family members or concrete countries of origin of the victims in terms of deeds that occurred over centuries. The real and irrefutable fact is that tens of millions of Africans were captured, sold like merchandise and dispatched to the other side of the Atlantic to work as slaves, and that 70 million native Indians died in the western hemisphere as a consequence of European conquest and colonization. (Applause)

The inhuman exploitation to which people of the three continents, including Asia, were subjected, has affected the destiny and present-day life of over 4.5 billion persons inhabiting the Third World nations, and whose indices of poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, life prospects and other disasters impossible to enumerate in a brief speech, are both shocking and horrifying. These are the current victims of that barbarity that lasted for centuries, and the unmistakable creditors of reparations for the horrendous crimes committed against their ancestors and peoples. (Applause)

For full text of Fidel Castro's WCAR speech see the following sites:

Spanish language http://www.cubagov.cu/marquesina/sep31discurso.htm

English language translation http://www.granma.cu/ingles/septiem1/36compen-i.html


Eric Mann has been an anti-racist, civil rights, environmental, and labor organizer for 35 years. He is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and spent ten years as a United Auto Workers assembly line worker. He is presently a member of the Planning Committee of the L.A. Bus Riders Union and the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Responses are welcome at ericmann@mindspring.com.

His dispatches from Durban, as well as other articles, can be found at www.thestrategycenter.org

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