Merton Center Activists Engage the National Antiwar Movement

By Paul LeBlanc and Pete Shell, Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center Antiwar Committee

The national convention of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a major antiwar coalition, took place in Chicago on December 12-14. A five-member delegation of the Thomas Merton Center Antiwar Committee (AWC)—Jessica Benner, Paul Le Blanc, Jonah McAllister-Erickson, Pete Shell, and Carole Wiedmann—plus Francine Porter representing Pittsburgh Code Pink and David Meieran representing De-Militarize Pittsburgh—joined with 241 others who attended.

The delegation went to Chicago to connect with other antiwar forces in the country and get a sense of the current state of UFPJ, and these goals were accomplished. The AWC delegation had additional goals: 1) to work with like-minded UFPJ groups (the “Unity Caucus”) to promote a mass mobilization of all antiwar groups in the U.S. this spring for an end to the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan; 2) to help advance a position for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as Iraq; and 3) to elect a representative of the Merton Center onto the UFPJ Steering Committee. Of these, the goal of adopting a “U.S. out of Afghanistan Now” amendment was achieved. No Merton Center representative was added to the UFPJ steering committee, and only one-third of UFPJ delegates joined us in supporting a unified mobilization of forces focused on ending the wars.

The UFPJ leadership had initially called for actions in Washington, D.C. for the week of March 16-21. Based on this a proposal had been put forward (by the pro-unity National Assembly to the End U.S. War and Occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, with which the AWC has affiliated) for unified mass demonstrations against the war on March 21 in Washington and San Francisco. Several other antiwar formations (including ANSWER) expressed support for such actions. The UFPJ leadership then reversed itself—proposing a national action in New York for April 4.

In the opening session, UFPJ leader Leslie Cagan, argued that the peace movement needs to move away from national marches and more into local organizing. She hailed the Obama family’s upcoming arrival at the White House as the dawning of a new era that would usher in substantial change. In introducing the April 4 campaign proposal, the UFPJ Steering Committee stated that they did not want to alienate the new generation that supported Obama. This was the reason, they said, that they decided to move their action from Washington, D.C. to New York. They also listed a central demand of their protest in New York as a “re-ordering of economic priorities.”

Marilyn Levin, a member of the National Assembly, introduced the Unity Caucus proposal for a united mass march in Washington on March 21, which had been endorsed by 18 UFPJ member groups including the Thomas Merton Center AWC. She emphasized that the U.S. peace movement has a historical responsibility to unite; that marches inspire and energize youth to get more involved in the struggle for peace and justice; and the importance of solidarity with the Iraqi people.

The Steering Committee recommended that the two action proposals be counter-posed. They argued that UFPJ would not have enough resources to organize both—despite the fact that they were planning to organize ten events from January to April.

The Unity Caucus made a motion to separate the proposals in order to allow delegates to decide each on its own merits. Many of us supported the civil rights and economic justice themes of the April 4 event, which will have a different emphasis than the March 21 protest. We also stated that supporting March 21 was a political decision, not a resource commitment.

The motion to separate the proposals failed, and the two dates were unfortunately pitted against each other. The Steering Committee allowed only a short debate. Iraqi poet Zaineb Alani gave a heartfelt plea for the March 21 proposal. She stressed that a unified national march focused on ending the war would be heard in Baghdad. With the proposed multi-issue event in New York City, she added, her relatives who had suffered under “shock and awe” would not hear a clear condemnation of the war from the U.S. people. (This position was supported by all Iraqis attending the conference.) Carl Davidson of Progressives for Obama spoke against the March 21 proposal, arguing that the real peace movement consists, not of the activists who have been organizing antiwar protests for the last several years, but of people who campaigned for Obama.

The March 21 proposal failed, with two-thirds of the voting delegates (by roughly 100 votes to 50) voting instead for April 4.

The AWC will be helping to build the March 21 mobilization in Washington, DC to end the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and also supports the April 4 multi-issue event.

To help build for the spring mobilizations, please e-mail