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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

REPORT TO HISTORIANS AGAINST THE WAR: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the pre-election teach-in in Berkeley on the Iraq War

Summation of the day:

The Teach In on the Iraq War took place on Friday, September 19, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, in the spacious glassed in Heller Lounge of the Student Union right at the entrance to the campus below Sather Gate, a historic location of course, recalling the Free Speech movement of 1964 and thousands of demonstrations that have followed in the free speech zone created by the 1964 militants. Heller Lounge is now a Multicultural Center, thanks to the struggles of Ethnic Studies students in 1999.

250 chairs were set up with sofas and easy chairs lining the walls and an elevated stage in front with the sound equipment and a screen. In the other 1/3 of the room where people enter, Ramsay Kanaan of PM Press set up a bookstore, and there was ample standing room for those who did not want to commit to sitting down.

We began on time (every session began on time) with a talk by Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame. At that time only about 30 people were in attendance beyond the dozen organizers, so we felt anxious that it was going to be very small, but the numbers increased steadily to full capacity by early afternoon.

John Yoo was speaking at 11 AM in a building across Sproul Plaza. The UC President's office and the Law School hastily organized an all day session on torture and the constitution with a bunch of right wing lawyers, including Yoo, to take place at the same time as the Teach In. They announced it only the day before our Teach In.

The 10 AM panel on torture and the constitution was better attended and was excellent, with local civil rights attorneys Anne Weills and Dennis Cunningham, and constitutional legal expert Tom Reifer, The panel was moderated by lawyer and critical theorist John Hayakawa Torok, professor at Berkeley (all moderators for all panels were UC faculty or students). The discussion was excellent.

The 11 AM panel on US interventionism included a Palestinian activist, Mexican writer, a Serbian who was under the bombs in Belgrade, and myself. By then, there were probably 100 people with lots of people lounging on the sides and quite a number standing in the back.

At noon, we had box lunches for all the speakers and organizers, and a good crowd gathered to watch film clips from Paul Cronon's documentary in progress on the 1968 Columbia uprising. He had just come from showing the 4 hour film at the Toronto Film Festival to critical acclaim. Tom Hayden arrived about that time, and Immanuel Wallerstein was there, and they are both featured in the clips.

We had a hard time getting Iraq veterans lined up, but succeeded at the end beyond our wildest dreams. The 1:30 PM panel on "from Vietnam to Iraq" was supposed to start with a half hour talk by Tom Hayden, but instead he insisted on being one of the panelists. IVAW finally responded (thanks to Anne Weills work) and sent us a new member of theirs, Forrest Schaeffer, who was in Delta special forces in Afghanistan. A working class Irish-American guy, his father, a Vietnam vet, shot himself when Forrest was 6 years old. At 19, Forrest signed up to special forces after 9/11 to "defend America."

The other vet, Cleavon Gilman, is African-American, now a student at UC Berkeley, and was a medic in Iraq. Our main UC student organizer, Roberto Hernandez, had met Cleavon in a class he TAed this summer. He has a speech impediment (stuttering), which somehow made his testimony even more powerful. Neither Forrest nor Cleavon had spoken in public before, so it was a liberating experience for each of them. The room was packed and totally silent when they spoke. The discussion that followed with Carlos Muñoz (Vietnam vet and founder of Chicano Studies), Antonia Juhasz, a young activist/writer on the war, and Tom Hayden, and the two vets was powerful.

To me, this was the highlight of the day and the reason for even doing the teach in.

The 3-4:30 panel on how to stop US wars of aggression featured Immanuel Wallerstein, and students and faculty crammed the place, as he has, deservedly, many fans. But, Dunya Alwan, an Iraqi American that Max Elbaum recruited for us, stole the show with her descriptions of everyday life of Iraqis under occupation.

We then had an hour and a half of discussions led by two brilliant young Chicana doctoral candidates, more video, some music and refreshments.

Comments:

We did not end up getting sponsorship by the Associated Students (ASUC). Classes had just started and they were new to their jobs and didn't even know if they had the right to sponsor without consulting the student assembly which is not scheduled to meet until the end of the month.

However, we did have the student organization, Critical Response and Intervention for a Sustainable Ethnic Studies (CRISES) as primary sponsor (along with HAW and War Times, which, of course, have no standing on the campus to do anything), and that made everything possible, not in terms of funding, which was too soon in the semester, but in kind support--the space free of charge, set up, just the right to be there. We could not have had the teach in without, specifically, Roberto Hernández, Daphne Taylor-Garcia, and Dalida María Benfield, who were burdened with most of the day to day work getting everything set up and recruiting the moderators.

From "The Great Rehearsal" we were able to get publicity, thanks to HAW's financial contribution--great posters put up by a professional thumb-tack brigade. The Great Rehearsal and University of San Francisco paid for speakers to come to the USF symposium held on Saturday after the teach in, and we were able to borrow those speakers for our panels, including Immanuel Wallerstein. The Working Group that came together, an intergenerational group of young and 60s activists, was about the best group I've worked with for a long time. We're thinking of planning more teach ins.


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, HAW Steering Committee, coordinator of the teach in.

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