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“Stop the war at home and abroad”: US antiwar activists discuss struggle for peace

On June 16-18 a coalition of various antiwar groups and movements held its annual conference in Richmond, Virginia. These groups are known as independent from both mainstream parties dominating in the US politics. It was that common ground which allowed them to form UNAC – the United National Antiwar coalition.

Tyler Hammel, a journalist from Richmond, interviewed the organizers before the conference was open. He asked questions to Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards.

“There are many conferences taking place in the country; this is unique in that it is made up of activists, people who are working on the ground on various issues and not just people who have made a name from their writing or their speaking career” — so says Phil Wilayto, a founding member of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) and coordinator of this weekend’s National Antiwar and Social Justice Conference, being held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Bringing together many social justice and advocacy groups across the globe, the conference is the latest effort by UNAC to advocate for global peace, and the first to be held in the South. Founded in 2010 as a pro-Palestine alternative to the Michigan Emergency Committee to Oppose Wars in the Middle East, UNAC has held conferences over the past five years all across the northern United States, focusing their efforts on educating domestic activists on global issues and wars overseas in which the U.S. is involved. More recently, their focus has shifted specifically to educating young activists who are well aware of domestic issues but less so on war in the Middle East.

“We used to have a very strong anti-war movement in this country, but it has dissipated to a great extent during the Obama years,” says Wilayto. “Young activists have grown up without this understanding of what the U.S. government is doing in their name overseas.”

Wilayto stresses that this conference differs from a lot of other social justice conferences, which, he believes, focus on recruiting activists into the Democratic Party. UNAC strives to create an alternative to the pro-war politics present in both the Democratic and Republican parties, he says.

“While the Democratic Party is better on social issues, certainly, than the Republicans, on the issue of war it is indistinguishable. We are not pro-Democrat; we are trying to offer an alternative to both the neoliberalism of the Democrats and the nationalist populism of the Republicans,” says Wilayto. “We want to project a program that is pro-worker and anti-racist and anti-war. That is not a viable alternative; you couldn’t vote for a candidate that had any chance of winning who projected that type of program.”

While being the first UNAC conference in the South, this conference also holds the distinction of having the largest percentage of participants and organizations of African descent to date. One such organization is the Richmond-based Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, represented in part by speaker and conference organizer Ana Edwards.

A lifelong resident of Richmond, Edwards will be helping to lead a march to the African burial ground in Shockoe Bottom on Sunday afternoon. Edwards has been working for 15 years to raise the profile of black history in Richmond. She is an advocate for the proposed 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park that will encompass the execution site of Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved man who led a revolt, as well as the Lumpkin’s Jail site and the Devil’s Half-acre, where enslaved African men and women were jailed and sold.

“This site is extraordinary, and unique, and significant — not just to Richmonders, but to people across the country who understand that it is the history of black and white people in terms of slavery and the idea of freedom that is at the heart of the contradiction of our founding ideas, and what we continue to aspire to live by,” says Edwards.

The site was the focal point of the Shockoe Bottom stadium controversy, where then Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones had proposed the construction of a baseball stadium. After public outcry the plans were scrapped in late 2014; however, residential development in the area has continued at a pace that alarms Edwards and her organization, who are working to get legal protections placed on the area.

“We think it’s critically urgent to legally protect the footprint of the memorial park in order that we even have those parcels available for incorporation into a historic district going forward,” says Edwards.

Edwards and Wilayto see this conference as the opportunity to connect the domestic with the international. Speakers and groups from as far away as Colombia, Cuba and Palestine will be holding panels educating attendees on wars in their nations, as well as the intersections of racial and other identities.

Representatives from People’s Opposition to War, Imperialism, and Racism (POWIR), a group protesting wars the U.S. is involved in overseas, will be moderating several panels. POWIR member and conference organizer Cassia Laham has traveled from south Florida with other group members to attend.

“We’re going to be meeting people from the Philippines, we’re going to be meeting people from Colombia,” says Laham. “It’s really a very cool international conference where folks who agree on this one principle of doing away with U.S. and Western imperialism can come together, discuss and figure out what we can do collectively to make an impact on the world.”

Later reports proved announces from interviews were real. The conference had offensive rhetoric and was critical to the current US foreign policy. Many delegates criticized its imperialist nature. The conference did not concentrate only at local problems.  Antiwar activists looked all over the world and examine every kind of  the US intervention to the life of other countries regardless it was peaceful or military conducted.

The United National Anti-War Conference had the following workshops:

Modern Warfare: The expansion of NATO and the Anti-War Movement, Our Path to National Improved Medicare for All, Black Alliance for Peace, Skills and Strategies for being in the Streets: Tactics & Organising Defence Security Against Trump Forces, Building an Effective Anti-War Movement in the US, Canada and Beyond, What is the Way Forward for the Peace Movement, Drone Warfare and the Cyborg Soldier: Margins of Masculinities, Environmental Jutice & Exclusion in Prisons, Venezuela-Syria-Ukraine-Iran: What’s Behind the Colour Revolutions?, Abolishing the Institution of War, Even Bernie Wants to Bomb Syria; Challenges to Anti- Imperialist & Anti-War Organising Today, Youth and the US Education Crisis & the Anti-War Movement, How to Provide Support to the “Peace Process” in Colombia, Pivot to Asia: The Next Battlefield, Resisting Imperial Terrorism.

Margaret Kimberley, a journalist from Eurasia review, enters us to the main issues put at the conference.

Virginia is an ironic location for a group whose goal was to unite anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberalism and anti-racist forces. If the United States is the belly of the beast, Virginia must be the inner lining. It is the place where the settler colonial project began. Romanticized tales of Pocahantas hide an ugly story of genocide committed against the indigenous population. Virginia was the place where the first enslaved Africans arrived in 1619. In time it became known as the slave breeding state and Richmond was the capital of the confederacy. Yet in 2017 three hundred people gathered there to fight against this legacy that brings so much suffering to humanity.

Black Agenda Report is a UNAC member organization and this columnist is an Administrative Committee member. The connection between the two groups is a natural one. While other so-called peace groups are tied to the Democrats and ebb and flow with that party’s fortunes, UNAC is independent of the duopoly. It does not change its organizing principles based on who controls Congress or who sits in the White House Oval Office. Those distinctions are artificial and the system is no less rapacious if there is a change in Republican or Democratic party control.

The nature of the American capitalist system requires that every country become either a vassal or an enemy. It gives us the rule of billionaires. The U.S created a mass incarceration system for the sole purpose of crushing the black liberation movement while also creating a profit center in the process.

All of the oppressions are intertwined. Millions of Americans toil under wage slavery or prison slavery and make fortunes for other people. But the contradictions of capitalism are growing more acute, and imperialist war is the outcome of a system trying to maintain itself. The fight for a living minimum wage and the fight against interventions abroad must therefore be addressed together because they are in fact part of a whole.

The UNAC conference also presented an opportunity to renew the African American-centered peace movement. The newly formed Black Alliance for Peace was very much present with leadership such as Black Agenda Report editor Ajamu Baraka playing key roles. Charo Mina-Rojas spoke about the struggle waged by black Colombians in the Buenaventura region of that country. Lawrence Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress linked the history of mass rebellion with the fight against police violence.

Barack Obama’s presidency created a rupture in the black American radical tradition. The end of his administration creates an opportunity to rekindle that proud legacy, and to reject the politics of intervention and mass death that emanates from every American presidential administration.

UNAC organizations know that the imperialist project is bipartisan. Barack Obama began the war for regime change in Syria and Donald Trump, despite making claims to the contrary, continues it. The need to expose the American effort to dominate the world continued even as UNAC members met. While speakers pointed to the dangers that America inflicts upon the world, the United States government shot down a Syrian jet and increased the risk of conflict with Russia.

Attendees came from 29 states and from Hungary, Colombia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Serbia, Syria, Palestine and Canada. Every region of the world has been impacted by the drive for American hegemony. The fight against aggression must therefore be waged internationally. Foreign policy is not some rarified realm that can only be addressed by the self-appointed experts who have brought the world to the brink. The people who fight for a living wage or against police murder in this country must also speak to this government’s assaults on human rights and sovereignty around the world.

The unity of all these struggles was made clear on the last morning of the conference. Ana Edwards led a march to Shockoe Bottom, the location of a cemetery for enslaved people and the site of one of the largest slave markets in the country. She and other activists from the Virginia Defenders for Peace, Justice and Equality have struggled to preserve the site as a memorial park and protect it from commercial so-called development.

The trip to Shockoe Bottom brought the conference full circle. Racism, supremacist war and predatory capitalism were perfected in Virginia and the people who want to change it paid homage to the first victims. We say, “Power to the people” but if we mean it we must say clearly who our enemies are and confront them at every opportunity.

The time is ripe for change. Some of that change will be forced upon us, but some of it must be created. That is why UNAC is so important. It is committed to creating the conditions which may make the beast and its belly a thing of the past.

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