By David Swanson
The Portside listserve, whose moderators have chosen to send out several articles over the past few weeks criticizing those activists who sat in at Congressman John Conyers’ office on July 23rd to demand impeachment, today sent out a lengthy article by Mark Solomon.
Three-quarters of the article simply recounted Conyers’ record of service in Congress, hitting only the positive notes. The rest of the article is quoted below with commentary:
More than a year ago, Conyers joined with 28 other House members to call for launching an impeachment process against George W. Bush. That stemmed from hearings on impeachable crimes that Conyers was forced by the then Republican controlled House leadership to conduct in a crowded basement room. As Rev. Lennox Yearwood (one of the sit-in protesters) noted: Conyers and his staff “wrote the book” on impeachment. With that awareness, one can reasonably question why the protesters did not ascribe some weight to Conyers’ assessment that the current positioning of various forces in Congress would frustrate the chances for advancing impeachment.
Conyers did not join with 28 other House Members. Conyers stepped out on his own, and 38, not 28, other House Members joined him. We organized efforts to lobby those members to join him here: http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/635
The hearings on the Downing Street Memos in June 2005 were organized by Congressman Conyers with assistance from the After Downing Street coalition, whose cofounder John Bonifaz testified along with Ambassador Joseph Wilson and two of the three leaders of the protest at Conyers’ office two years later, Cindy Sheehan and Ray McGovern.
Some on the left have contended that Conyers should have placed an impeachment resolution before the Judiciary Committee despite substantial obstacles and that such an act itself would focus a strong, inhibiting spotlight on Bush and his accomplices. That is a weighty argument but it does not account for the potential damage stemming from failure of the chair to win the support for impeachment by a majority of his own committee. Such a defeat would constitute a setback for a range of efforts to resist the unconstitutional acts of the Bush administration. Before the showdown on impeachment, Conyers pleaded for “three more votes” to advance the resolution. There is merit to the claims of critics of the sit-in that the protesters should have focused their efforts on attaining those three votes.
There are major problems with this argument, beginning with these: Conyers himself does not make this argument. He is worried about the full house, not his committee. The Democrats on his committee would follow his lead. Six of them have stepped out ahead of him. One of them is working with Bruce Fein to draft articles of impeachment for Gonzales. Secondly, there is no range of efforts to resist unconstitutional acts. There is only impeachment. Subpoenas have been rejected. Prosecutions have been obstructed and sentences commuted. Contempt as a court process will eat up the rest of this president’s term in office. And nobody in Congress has the balls to attempt Inherent Contempt. Any bills of any value that are passed will be vetoed. Nobody on Capitol Hill disputes that. Thirdly, if you had paid any attention to Conyers’ remarks on impeachment over the past year and a half, you would understand that his assertion that he just needed three more members and then he would act was a lie. It’s on videotape here: http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/25051 We added several more Congress Members, not just three, to the list of cosponsors of H Res 333 not long after the sit-in, but we didn’t have to wait. Congressman Conyers told us that day that he would never support impeachment. We could have informed Solomon of some of these basic facts had he asked. In fact, talking with each other might make a lot of sense.
One of the most controversial aspects of the debate over the Conyers sit-in is the charge of racism directed at the protesters. The existence of racism is inseparable from its historical roots exemplified by the ideology and practice of institutional oppression. A protest directed against a relatively empowered African American politician is arguably not racist. But a statement by a prominent leader of the protest that Conyers “is no Martin Luther King” is racist. As many have noted, that statement is a crude reflection of the historic practice of empowered whites to arrogantly select and define Black leadership. By linking Conyers to King, the impeachment controversy was framed in racist terms — terms that insulted both Conyers and King. The statement by another protest leader that Conyers “betrayed the American people” is more subtle in its negative implications, but perhaps no less racist. It reflects a historic posture of dominant white entitlement in commanding prescribed behavior from African Americans. The author of this declaration apparently had no interest in respecting or considering Conyers’ estimate of the positioning of various forces on the impeachment issue nor did she fully consider the congressman’s record as a leading progressive voice on the issue before leveling the charge of “betrayal.”
It’s not a comment I would have chosen to make, but then the charge that it was racist is not one that any person who knew Ray McGovern could ever level against him. Solomon should call Ray up and speak with him.
Reverend Lennox Yearwood has eloquently explained his decision to sit in and court arrest at Rep. Conyers’ office in terms of a moral compassion to demand impeachment of this immoral administration. There comes a time, Yearwood argues, when one must stand up to the best of friends and allies such as Conyers in advancing a vital cause. That viewpoint, represented also by others, is worthy of respect. Yet it is not fully immune to questions and reservations. Few if any progressives would argue against impeachment (nearly all would like to see the impeachment of the entire Bush crowd immediately), but on a tactical level, there is no consensus for it in the peace movement and among a broad range of progressives. The major antiwar coalitions have not prioritized impeachment, choosing instead to focus on efforts to end the war and occupation of Iraq and to prevent a war on Iran. The protest at Conyers’ office represented the tactical priority of a segment at best of the antiwar and progressive movements, therefore limiting its moral authority.
Moral authority does not derive from institutional support, but from moral wisdom. In this case, it is United for Peace and Justice, not Reverend Yearwood, that has limited its moral authority. But impeachment in this case is also about much more than peace, and the impeachment movement comes from many places outside the peace movement.
The sit-in had to be weighed in moral and practical terms against the damage in relations, potential and real, among diverse progressive forces. Efforts to obliterate the divisions, cast along racial and ethnic lines, between peace and justice movements have been weakened. The image of predominantly white activists assailing a leader of antiracist legislation to eliminate racial profiling and hate crimes, to advance universal health care, to bring the troops home from Iraq — has doubtlessly widened racial fissures as well as disagreements among left and progressive forces of varying racial and social backgrounds.
I don’t see that in organizing or in polling. I mostly see it in pontification that promotes a view while pretending to disinterestedly comment on it. The problems of racial division in the world of activism, as everywhere else, are not new and have not been created or seriously heightened by this sit-in.
However, the Conyers controversy can be a catalyst for renewed determination to forge a progressive majority by uniting various movements. It can spark a heightened awareness of the need for peace and justice activists to not only speak to each others’ concerns, but to act forcefully upon them. By building upon the conjunction of peace and justice exemplified by political leaders like John Conyers and Barbara Lee, by recognizing and acting upon the reality that rebuilding areas devastated by Katrina is inseparably linked to ending the Iraq war, by demanding justice for immigrants and for all working people, by working to prevent environmental catastrophe, by fighting the attempted legal assault on six Black teen agers in Jena, Louisiana, activists in all political arenas will be advancing a just, sustainable world. Such actions and commitments point the way to unity of all progressive forces that can in the coming weeks and months crystallize, consolidate and advance at the grass roots the demand for impeachment — the arena where all progress begins and where all who work for justice and peace should be engaged.
Now this I agree with, and I’ve agreed to participate with Pacifica Radio’s Voices of Vision in a forum discussion with this aim, along with commentators who take a much fiercer and, I believe, more misguided line on this than does Solomon.