Bringing an End to the Rhetoric
NEAR THE END of the Student Mobilization Committee's antiwar conference in Washington last month, Michael Finley, a black student at New York's Manhattan Community College, said. "You people have been sitting here bullshitting about Leninism. Trotskyism, and all that for three day. People are dying in Southeast Asia, and World War III is just around the corner, and all you people can do is talk."
There was plenty of talking when the tribes gathered in Washington again, but unlike Finley, who was booed off the podium, most of the people there thought it was important. It's gotten to be kind of a regular thing: every six months or so, a bunch of anti-war types get together to plan the spring offensive against the war, or the fall offensive against the war. They come and talk about the new horrors of the war, and renew acquaintances with other activists they haven't seen since the last conference. And then they go home to mobilize their communities. But the communities don't seem so awesomely mobilized, and we are letting Nixon get away with his own particular brand of terrorism in Southeast Asia.
It was an interesting spectacle. The conference room was the gymnasium of Catholic University, its pictures of former basketball greats temporarily taken down in favor of large red on white signs demanding immediate withdrawal from Southeast Asia. In the back of the room, on the right, you could get a slice of baloney or American cheese between two pieces of bread for thirty-five cents, or get a coke for a quarter. People were starting to get pissed. "Shit, in Ann Arbor, they had all this stuff free, they didn't try to rip you off. That was a real people's conference.
And the people sat in groups, by delegation. Toward the front of the room, on the right side, was the Workers' League, deadly-eyed, unsmiling voting in unison for labor strikes and labor strikes only. A small group from PL was in the back on the left side of the room. The Revolutionary Marxist Caucus sat in front, on the left. The Leninists were on the right. Scattered throughout the crowd were a few independents who just wanted to end the war.
THE OSTENSIBLE purpose of the conference was to determine a spring strategy for the antiwar movement, but the issue had pretty much been decided by the time the conference started. Entering the gymnasium Friday evening, one was greeted by huge banners proclaiming the march on Washington April 24 as the central focus of the spring actions, and the hawkers were pushing buttons and posters with the big 24 on them. SMC had already decided that April 24 was going to be the day when the American people would rise up and force the government to withdraw from Southeast Asia. Like we did November 15. And October 15.
For despite its billing as an attempt to decide on a spring strategy, the conference wasn't really concerned with that at all. The strategy had already been decided. One more time, we're going to pack our knapsacks and head to Washington. One more time we're going to march past the White House. One more time we're going to confront the police, and end up running in a cloud of tear gas and flying billy clubs.
"There'll be a million people in Washington in April," one SMC organizer chirped. "We've really got Nixon on the run now," another chimed in.
Well, we had a million people in Washington fifteen months ago, and since then Nixon's invaded Cambodia and Laos, as well as drastically increased the air war over all of Indochina. We've had thousands in the streets of the Capital many times. We've confronted the police and been gassed and trashed windows, and just what have we accomplished? If Nixon has been scared by this, if he is frightened now, he certainly has a peculiar way of demonstrating it.
The most serious question of all was ignored at the antiwar conference, much as it has been by almost everyone in the antiwar movement. No one questioned whether large, effusive outpourings of antiwar sentiment every six months or year have any effect on governmental policy. No one suggested the possibility that antiwar activists might better spend their time digging in for a long-term, daily fight against the war in every city and town in this country. No one seriously raised the idea that maybe massive demonstrations are stale, an old idea that hasn't worked. The most serious question of all-how to make the 73 per cent of the American people who want our troops out of Indochina take concrete, dramatic action to prevent this war from going on-was not even a cause for debate.
ALL THAT the conference produced was rhetoric, division, and a tired strategy for a tired movement. Happily, last weekend, the People's Coalition for Peace and Justice dropped plans for its own antiwar march in Washington May 2, and agreed to co-sponsor with SMC the April 24 action, so that at least there won't be two marches in the same city by two groups with the same purpose. Nevertheless, we have not moved past the talking stage. As at the February 22 teach-in here, speakers told the crowd how and why the war is a bad thing. We know that now, know it too well. We don't need to spend a weekend, or an evening, being told by various big shots that the war is savage and morally repulsive. The time for moral witness is long gone. What we do need is to spend time figuring out new ways to make our feelings affect the government-to actually force an unwilling government to obey the will of the people.
The war is not going to be stopped by glamorous, one-shot marches or demonstrations. We're not going to force the government to change its policies by getting a lot of people to mill around in the streets every now and then. What we are going to have to do is commit ourselves to a day-to-day, person-to-person struggle against this war. It won't be glamorous and it won't be fun. But we have to decide that once the banners in the Catholic U. gym go down and the basketball pictures go back up, there will still be something left of the antiwar movement.