Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Anti-War Movements, Now and Then: A 1991 Interview With U.S. Political Prisoner David Gilbert--Part 2

What follows is part 2 of a 1991 interview with jailed former Weather Underground activist David Gilbert. See part 1 below.

(The following interview originally appeared in the June/July 1991 issue of New York City’s Lower East Side alternative newspaper The Shadow )

Q: Why do you think there was such extensive New York City Police Department Red Squad surveillance of the ICV at Columbia in the 1960s? Do you think there is much spying on Columbia’s campus today?

David Gilbert [DG]: Well, it was both the Red Squad and the FBI. What struck me—I think it was even clearer in my FBI files than in the Handschu files—is how early the surveillance began. They started their files on me in 1963, when all I had done was go to some civil rights meetings and a couple of picket lines. The file on the ICV starts right from the beginning, with my very first leaflet on the war, long before they could have had even the remotest conception that we would consider illegal activities.

One lesson is that their surveillance had nothing to do with law enforcement but was simply because they saw any significant dissent as a threat. Second, the surveillance wasn’t just to keep an eye on us: they initiated disruptive activity against us almost from the beginning—usually trying to foment splits and distrust among us.

One of the many examples I remember: an ICV member came to me with a list she said she found while working at some government agency that had the names of five ICV members who were actually police informants. If I had gone for this faked information and accused these people or tried to kick them out, at the very least we would have lost five fine activists; more likely we would have had a major and bitter split in the ICV. Luckily, I knew too much about some of the individuals’ background and integrity to go for the bait.

More examples became clear in retrospect once COINTELPRO—the government’s illegal program to destroy the Black movement and the New Left—was exposed. But there are still situations we’re not sure about—to what degree was it our own weakness and misunderstanding or to what degree had disinformation been consciously planted?

To maintain perspective, the infiltration of the ICV was minor compared to what was done to the Black movement. There, infiltration began a lot earlier, was much more pervasive, and moved beyond character assassination to outright violence.

As for the surveillance at Columbia today, I don’t really know how to assess it from here. The government is so worried about the re-emergence of a student movement, I’d be surprised if they weren’t at least keeping tabs on developments there.

Q: How do you compare the anti-war movement then to the one now [the first Gulf War in 1991 against Iraq]?

DG: That’s a giant question—there are many connections and also major differences. To start with, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam has lain like an insufferable nightmare on the consciousness of the ruling class—like a demon to be exorcised—and has guided almost every detail of what they did in the Iraq war. On the other hand, the legacy of Vietnam—the wellspring of sentiment against interventions in the Third World—meant that this time around we had massive and broad-based anti-war activity before the fighting even began. And the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against the war on January 19 and 26 [1991] certainly dwarfed the 20,000 we found so impressive in April 1965.

The similarities in the wars are that (1) the U.S. government is determined to crush any significant threat to its hegemony, and (2), each war was fought to set an example to other Third World nations and movements.

But there are vast differences, too. For one thing, Vietnam was fighting a national liberation struggle with deep historical roots. With Iraq, while Hussein did connect with important sentiments of Arab nationalism and support for Palestinians, the war developed more suddenly, and involved his own maneuvers for power and aggrandizement. The Vietnam War was very protracted, and we were pretty sure Vietnam would win. With Iraq, it’s just impossible to make up for the vast differential in military technology if you’re not fighting a people’s war—a war with deep roots in the people and for a cause they passionately believe in.

Q: But perhaps another reason for the one-sided slaughter is that Hussein—for all the demonization of him in the U.S. media—was actually not willing to be as ruthless as Bush [I], whose massive bombings killed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians both directly and through the destruction of sanitation and medical infrastructures. Hussein did release the hostages he initially held as a shield against attack. And he didn’t unleash his chemical weapons [in 1991] or order suicide missions in Europe.

DG: You’re right. And the whole media demonization of Hussein is something we should discuss further on. But first, without in the least justifying the U.S./Allies’ invasion, I was trying to make an analytical point that you just can’t fight a protracted war with any chance of success against a vastly superior military machine unless it’s a people’s war—a guerrilla war with deep popular support for a cause fully embraced by the people.

Another major difference in the context was the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960s. It opened people to seeing the need for social change and to questioning the very foundation of this society. It also created an atmosphere where moral questions were much more in the forefront. By contrast, in the 1990s, it seemed that the only issue—and some sectors of the anti-war movement played into this—was how many U.S. body bags came home. It is really shocking to see how little feeling or concern there is for the something like 300,000 Iraqis who were killed in this war.

Even with the impact of civil rights, the 1960s anti-war movement proved inadequate at incorporating anti-racism and in responding to leadership from Third World movements within the U.S. These necessary building blocks are certainly urgent tasks for the anti-war movement of the 1990s.

Another important difference is the role of women. Women played active and leading roles in the 1960s, but they had to do so against all odds. All too often women weren’t listened to, and were shut out of leading positions. Today [in 1991], as I understand it, women are playing prominent and often predominant roles at all levels of leadership and activities.

(end of part 2)

Next: The Anti-War Movements, Now and Then: A 1991 Interview With U.S. Political Prisoner David Gilbert—Part 3