Stopping the Crimes of the Government: An Audacious Idea, a Challenge to Act

By Debra Sweet
 
(This is the text of the speech given by National Director Debra Sweet at the opening session of the Chicago conference of World Can't Wait, November 22.)

Download the Audio of this Speech
 
In 2005, when we embarked on this audacious idea of "driving out" a sitting president who had just been re-selected, by bringing forward a movement from the people that was independent of the government and stifling framework of politics as usual, we didn't know what would be possible.
 
But we knew that many people felt as we did: the idea of waiting through four more years of this Bush juggernaut of war and repression loose on the world was intolerable. We knew that passivity and denial were very dangerous when the Bush Regime was nailing into place fascistic new legal norms and changing the whole culture. Evolution, abortion and dissent were in a state of siege. Habeas corpus, privacy and fundamental rights were coming undone.
 
Where would this lead if the people did not resist?  The people needed to come into action to stop this, but most were in terrible paralysis which would only take them toward accepting more and even worse horrors.  People needed a vehicle for their inchoate, palpable anger and sense that the Bush regime was not legitimate. The people needed to be a force that could change history.
There was a need to drive out the Bush regime, and I believe we were not wrong to think that there was a basis to achieve this. That great reservoir of opposition to Bush & Cheney swelled over the second Bush term to a nearly 80% negative in public opinion polls. Some people who normally felt they had the ear of those in power felt so locked out of the process that they helped us place 7 full page ads that were quite radical in content, in major newspapers. Those of us who wore orange against torture, or ARREST BUSH shirts began to be thanked in airports, on the streets, everywhere. People who thought the 2004 t-shirt "Bush is a terrorist" went too far, by 2005 were calling him a war criminal. You all have stories of the defiance and anger we helped crystallize with our exposure of the crimes against humanity being done in our name.
 
We came together with the goal of creating a "political situation where the Bush regime's program is repudiated, where Bush himself is driven from office, and where the whole direction he has been taking society is reversed." We did not accomplish what we set out to do, and the world is the worse for it.
 
But let's look at what the political situation in this country would look like had we not existed, if World Can't Wait had not drawn the writers and whistle blowers and people who were feeling alone and isolated together to be the conscience of the country. We made torture real with the orange jumpsuit contingents, and especially with the live waterboarding demonstrations. 
 
We were not the only people speaking out, but we built a vehicle for people to act with the strength of alliances that might not have come together without us, and we brought this visibly and exuberantly into the streets. We sought to speak to millions by creatively giving people a voice in the mainstream media when it was systematically lying and covering up the crimes this government was committing.
 
The giant reservoir of mass discontent moved politically, but mostly not in the way it needed to in order to bring what the world most needed from us; high officials from the Bush regime being driven from office by the popular uprising of a politically aroused people, acting to join with and give support and heart to people all over the globe who so urgently need and want this regime to be stopped.
 
Overwhelmingly people have put their hopes into those in government that they think will listen to them. People are banking on Obama. They have invested their hopes and dreams in what millions of people the world over think will be a new day.
 
The election of the first Black president in a country when most people thought it would never happen in our lifetimes is momentous. The elation people felt on election night is still palpable.   That black people, who have been so long oppressed and dehumanized by a culture where white supremacy is as American as apple pie, would see someone in office who does not hate them, fear them, and routinely insult them is a very profound, symbolic and ideological event.
 
Those of us who came together to form World Can't Wait have different views and analyses of Obama. And we think it is very important that we are able to come together soon after this election to hash out what it means. What is the situation now and what must people of conscience do? This afternoon, for instance, we"re having Hal Snyder and Sunsara Taylor, who represent different viewpoints within World Can't Wait, converse over this very important question.
 
My own opinion, and speaking for myself, is that there will be change -- but not the change people are hoping for. What does it mean to have a Black President?  Well, what does it mean to have a Black Commander in Chief?
 
A few examples that make your heart sink and portend very bad things to come.
 
A young man who organized his high school to walk out on November 2, 2005, to drive out the Bush regime, is now working in a grocery store. He just told about how, before the election, his friend at work said he was thinking joining the military. Our friend said, "man, you can't go fight for this government. You don't even support what they are doing in Iraq." The kid looked at him surprised, and said, "But I wouldn't be fighting for the government. I"d be fighting for Obama!"
 
I hear the military recruiters have new lies now to lure youth to join up. "Obama is going to end the war, so it's safe to go in." "Obama's going to make it better for Black people in the military."
 
I saw an African American woman interviewed in Grant Park on election night saying that all her life she"d looked at that flag and didn't feel it was hers, but now she does.  80 thousand people in Mile High stadium in Denver, who went in opposing the war, and came out waving thousands of little American flags. And people chanting USA, USA at Obama celebrations on election night, making patriotic jingoism OK to feel good about.
 
Cornell West, this week on Democracy Now called Colin Powell "my brother." Colin Powell, whose heroes are is the Buffalo Soldiers - the Black soldiers who, after emancipation, were sent to kill Native Americans. Colin Powell, who has commanded war crimes in 3 different wars, who as a colonel in Vietnam helped to cover up the My Lai massacre, and as a general in the first Gulf War, as Secretary of State for Bush in shamelessly selling the invasion of Iraq when he knew he was based on blatant lies.
 
A lot of attention is being paid to Obama's promise to close Guantanamo, and it looks like, sometime in the next year, the interrogation facility in Cuba will be closed to look like a fix for one of America's worst affronts to world public opinion. They may release most of the detainees, who were turned in to the US only because of the $25,000 bounties on their heads. There are very few the US is willing to try in any court - because evidence of how they were tortured will come out. So Obama is floating the idea of new "national security courts" to replace the military commissions. But no one - especially the Democrats under which the program started - is even talking about ending secret renditions and prisons. John Brennan, who developed that for Clinton, is on the transition team, and will likely have a role in the Justice Department! 
 
[The day this was presented, the American Psychological Association sent an open letter to Barack Obama asking him NOT to appoint Brennan, because he had been part of building the torture state under Bush, and back to Clinton, where he designed the "secret rendition" program. See http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2008/11/22 It was reported on November 25 that Brennan has taken his name out of the running as CIA director because of the tremendous negative response, due to his involvement with torture.]]
 
What better representative than Barack Obama to put the legacy of the "Vietnam syndrome" to bed?  What better person to say to young Black and Latino kids, "if you can't make it - it's your fault because anything is possible in America. I'm proof of that. And if you don't grab the American dream it's because you refused to pull your pants up and work hard." And William Bennett that old reactionary Bush recycled from Reagan days is already using the same line to say that Black people have to quit complaining about discrimination because Obama's election shows there is no more.
 
What better candidate to move the oppressed to inspire them to be warriors in the US military to be wasted in a war requiring expendable cannon fodder and high casualties, as Afghanistan will be?
 
Obama's been compared to JFK, and we can expect his inaugural speech to call people to service and sacrifice - but in the service of what and sacrifice for who?
 
Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic earlier this year that all the "viable" presidential candidates have virtually the same options, and will do just about the same thing as president. But he said Obama's presidency would be "the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial-it's central to an effective war strategy."
 
I think one of the most important contributions that World Can't Wait could make in this situation is to step up and say this whole "War on Terror" is wrong. There is no such thing as a good war on terror
 
 
That's why - Monday - we are starting the "We Are Not Your Soldiers" tour to reach into high schools with the participation of veterans of the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, to tell kids the real story of what the "war on terror" is. What are they recruiting for? Murder, rape, torture, war! And to get into some history. "Buffalo Soldier" is not just one of Bob Marley's songs - there's a sordid history that people don't know, and we"re going to tell them. The point is to help them resist the military recruiters individually, and to make collective resistance against them. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Phil Aliff and Emma Kaplan are going to 4 high schools in Chicago, and then they go on to LA and San Francisco. We"re putting together a simultaneous tour in NYC for the east coast.
 
We need to call for demonstrations against the war & torture in December, and be a big part of anti-war protests at the Inaugural on January 20. Let's make plans now to make sure that the 6th anniversary of the war does no pass with passive consent but mass protest and determined action to stop this war especially by the youth, with nationwide high school walkouts and determined political acts of resistance.
 
How many of us have been out talking with people who have told us "protest doesn't work. We tried that and it didn't work?" We had the largest protests in world history before the war began. Bush dismissed them with "I don't listen to focus groups." But I say to people who think that, "Bush called you a focus group and it seemed you took it literally?" You didn't believe that much else that he lied about!
 
People think elections will work, but my view is that this is actually not the arena where the real decisions are made. And it's not how people are able to force those who govern over them to act in their interest. It's how they corral you to confine your options to what is in their interests. Yes, there were differences between the candidates - even very significant differences - but ending the war was not a choice people were given. Starting a war with Iran was not a choice you were given, bailing out the financiers was not a choice you were given. You didn't get to vote on that. Your choices were much narrower.
 
All Obama - when you get right to it -- had to say was he was against the invasions of Iraqt at the start because it was a "stupid" war, the "wrong" war. But he didn't say during the campaign that he voted for every war funding bill since he came into the Senate. He didn't mention that Joe Biden voted FOR starting the war.
 
How Real Change Happens
 
Real change happens when people take independent action - outside the confines of government and in their own interests. This what people have done throughout history, including in recent history. This is what's happening now with protest against Proposition 8 and other gay marriage bans, with quickly called marches on the Mormon temples who pumped so much money into passing it. How about the plan to "call in gay" at work on December 10 as a protest of gay marriage bans? This is how people build communities of defiance and resistance.
 
Now that Obama is already telling us that we aren't going to like a lot of the things he's doing, people are already excusing him. "What do you expect?" they tell us.  "He has to govern from the center. If he overreaches he won't get a second term."
 
Come on, we have to say to people: Governing from the center in the politics of 2008 means he is governing for Empire. A lot is being made of being bi-partisan, of Obama uniting the Congress and the people: "There are no red states and blue states, just the united states." This is demagogic rhetoric that obfuscates, like the pro Proposition 8 ads saying that "gays are coming for your first graders."
 
Every first grader is taught in the common sense vernacular that people should work together, & not be divisive. That people should unite and not be divided -- what's wrong with that?  But what is the CONTENT of what you are supposed to unite over and with who -- and who are you being asked to unite against? Do the people's interests lie with finding common ground with powerful ruling class figures who were the architects of torture and surveillance?
 
 
Do the peoples" interests lie in uniting with Christian fundamentalists who want to impose biblical traditional morality that dictates marriage is an institution "mandated by God to be only between a man and a woman" and who are mobilizing in the church pews to go after contraception and divorce next? Do we really want to live in a country where Immigration raids are now rounding up hundreds of workers at a time, leaving their children alone at home? Where there are more people in prison per capita than any country in the world?
 
The Not in Our Name Statement, that inspired us to drive out the Bush regime was that of standing with the people of the world & with the people that your government is waging horrible war and terror upon in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to bring back the globe flag and raise people's sights and actions to be citizens of the world and not ugly Americans.
 
World Can't Wait has to be here to say to all the people who are saying "In order for Barack to do the right thing, we got to hold his feet to the fire,"-"Fine we are going to make sure you hold your feet to your principles."
 
What are you going to do now".when all this talk of unity among exploiters, powerful thieves, fascists and proven liars turns to asking you to give them a chance?
 
We need to out there now demanding that war crimes be prosecuted!
 
The USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act must be overturned
 
That the new FISA Act be repealed.
 
All this must be brought to a stop and not amended with a face lift.
 
Proposition 8 and discrimination against gay people be turned over in the law. 
 
That the ICE raids end NOW, and people be allowed to work.
 
A lot of people are saying we are premature. "You don't know what Obama is going to do." Or silly wishful platitudes like those from Michael Moore saying that he hopes Obama will be a typical politician and fail to meet his campaign promises.
 
We have to say it's not OK to not confront what he's been telling you on the campaign trail and what he's doing now.
 
Take a look at whom Obama is surrounding himself with: Let's start with Joe Biden. There's a sign of change. He not only voted FOR the invasion of Iraq, but he ran the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and refused to allow testimony that challenged the Bush regime's lies about WMD's and Iraq's non-connection to Al Quaeda. Robert Gates for Secretary of Defense. This will be continuity of the war on terror, not change. And Hilary Clinton for Secretary of Defense. Not only voted for the Iraq war, but is a cheerleader for every military expenditure. 
 
This is not the way to stop the crimes of your government! So here's the question before us today.
 
World Can't Wait has the structures of an ongoing organization - the offices, website, chapters, large email list and collective experience and- that have been in the service of the mission to drive out the Bush regime. But we, the Steering Committee, are not assuming that all just goes on. And I am not interested in continuing this for the sake of building a bigger or better movement, or because we can think of nothing else to do.
 
I am here to argue that we, as a movement, must go on with the goal of stopping the crimes of our government, because, the world can't wait. 
 
But it's time to step up, grasp what is facing us, and steel people.  There are people here today who have been reading our emails for years, and have only been moved to get active now. We"re getting reports of a new openness. There is a widespread phenomenon of people questioning where all this will go. Let's take these questions - based on the real contradictions being thrown in peoples" faces of an economy in free-fall and mass uncertainty - and give people positive ways to act, as opposed to waiting or hoping that things will get better.
 
Program proposals:
 
Immediately - let's jump with both feet into the debate over where people should put their hopes, and how we should act: 
 
The World Can't Wait Steering Committee proposes these actions:
 
Go out boldly on the basis of what youth are being recruited to do, and challenge them to resist, singly, and politically.
           
 
 
 
 
 
We need a force that won't give up on putting the whole picture together, building resistance to it. Not just passively wait. Taking all that we know to be true, all that we"ve learned in this 3+ years of struggle - and joy - and make it count.
 
The World Can't Wait!