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Why was a US anti-war campaigner no-platformed in Illinois?

British peace activists speak out in defence of Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, after she was cancelled from an event for her views on the politics of sex and gender

TOWARDS the end of last month, independent US online radio station Women’s Liberation Radio News broadcast an interview that merits considerable further attention — particularly for those involved in the peace movement and other progressive politics.

The interviewee will be a name that’s familiar to Morning Star readers from the height of the battle against the murderous crimes being committed by the US and Britain in Iraq as part of George Bush and Tony Blair’s so-called “war on terror.”

Cindy Sheehan hit the news in the mid-2000s after her son Casey was killed while serving in the Iraq war. Following his death Sheehan became a staunch anti-war and anti-imperialism activist, setting up a protest camp, dubbed “Camp Casey,” outside Bush’s Texas ranch, which garnered media attention from around the world.

The camp attracted thousands of supporters and visitors, including members of Congress and civil rights figures, who, inspired by her stance, wanted to draw attention to the death and destruction being meted out in Iraq. In late 2005 Sheehan came to visit London, where she addressed a conference organised by the Stop the War Coalition.

The story of her tenacious activism even became the subject of a play, Peace Mom, written by Nobel Prize-winner Dario Fo.

However, this time Sheehan is not in the news for her peace work. She has now become the latest female activist to be no-platformed by a left-wing event amid the increasingly fraught debate surrounding sex, gender and trans rights taking place in North America, Britain and elsewhere.

Sheehan told Women’s Liberation Radio News (WLRN) that she had been due to speak at a number of pro-peace engagements around the time of the 18th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, first at a town called Carbondale, Illinois, before moving on to Chicago then Washington DC.

She described how shortly before her speaking tour began, a fellow peace activist, a friend of hers, had been attempting to discuss gender issues in a post on her Facebook wall, which soon attracted over 1,000 mainly hostile comments. Sheehan said she started to notice that “if anyone disagreed with the original post or the bullies on the page they were labelled Russian trolls.”

So she decided to contribute to the discussion: “All I said was: ‘Oh my God, what a ridiculous thing to charge people with being Russian trolls because you disagree with them,” she explained to WLRN.

“And then all of a sudden the next day there is talk of deplatforming me … they called me a disgusting person and then they contacted the event’s sponsors and then they contacted the event, the place that was sponsoring the event, and the place that was sponsoring the event was inclined to let me speak because of free speech but the sponsors were saying it would cause so much division and they wanted to invite somebody who was more inclusive than me — by excluding me.”

She continued: “They wanted me to clarify my position and I said OK … I don’t think that just because a man says she’s a woman that makes him a woman and I don’t believe that men with fully functioning penises should be allowed in safe spaces for women and girls like locker rooms bathrooms sports etc. Also women’s shelters, where women who have been abused by men are trying to get away from men.”

These comments led to Sheehan being barred from speaking at Carbondale.

Her no-platforming has provoked consternation from British activists. British writer and peace campaigner Lindsey German told the Morning Star: “I’ve known Cindy Sheehan as a strong anti-war campaigner who lost her son in Iraq and challenged George Bush’s war agenda. I’m horrified to find she is being no-platformed. The debate round trans rights has to take in all progressive views and not silence women with her record.”

Also speaking to the Star, socialist activist and former national officer of the Stop the War Coalition Kevin Ovenden paid tribute to Sheehan’s extraordinary track record: “Her impact was huge — in itself and in what it represented. Her son Casey was killed in Iraq and it propelled her, still in grief, on a journey from what she described as a military mom to powerful anti-war campaigner.

“She took a great initiative setting up ‘Camp Casey’ outside George Bush’s ranch and was fearless in taking on the neocons, conveying very well the understanding that her own tragedy had led her to.”

Regarding Sheehan’s comments on women-only spaces, which are similar to arguments made by some feminists on this side of the pond and which have also led to women being ostracised, Ovenden said: “The first thing is to recognise that there is an issue. To break out of a silo in which ‘there is no debate.’

“The second is to recognise that this is about a mass and collective response. Being ‘on the left’ is not about holding a set of values and cleansing your own little space. It is about collective organisation to change things. A big part of the problem is that retreats and defeats on the left over decades have led to an unreality for too many about what the left is for — and a narrowness about what it actually is.

“Then you have the substitution of effective political work with demands that people conform to an ideological position. Most people in Britain say they oppose discrimination against trans people, but only a small minority hold to the ideology of gender identity — which I think profoundly mistaken — and mantras such as ‘transwomen are women.’

“It isn’t necessary to hold to that unscientific view — and absurd claims that male-born athletes have no advantage over female counterparts — to make a socialist case against anti-trans bigotry. In fact, it undermines doing so.”

Sheehan said that although she was no-platformed in Carbondale, the other talks in her peace tour went ahead as planned with no objections or protests.

“I contacted the organisers in Chicago and said this is what’s going on in Carbondale, and the organisers in Chicago were like ‘well that sounds like snitchjacketing to us, Cindy, and we can’t see any situation where we wouldn’t allow you to speak’,” she explained.

The organisers in this case were a group called the Chicago Coalition for Peace and one of its main members is the Gay Liberation Network.

The GLN “wrote me my cheques for travel and my cheques for the stipend and we actually had two trans people show up to the event and not one thing was mentioned,” Sheehan said.

“So no blowback in Chicago. I was ready for the questions, I was ready for the protest or whatever, but nothing.”

Ovenden, who along with his anti-war activism, has been involved in LGBT politics since the time of Clause 28 under the Thatcher government, believes that it’s of significance that the GLN was unfazed by the controversy in Carbondale, as this group is based on an older, more progressive, tradition of emancipatory politics.

“I have friends involved in GLN in Chicago,” he said. “One thing that marks out their approach is that it is of real practical solidarity and faithful to the truly liberatory perspective of the post-1968 movements that produced the original Gay Liberation Front.

“So, for example, GLN provides a sound system for all sorts of campaigns in Chicago. I used it speaking to a pro-Palestine rally. It was full of Palestinians and Arabs of a range of political views. What you going to do? Insist that they all sign up to a vision of sexual liberation of the Marxist kind before you join forces to oppose Israel’s oppression of Palestine? Of course not.

“In fact what happens is solidarity and the opening up of conversations, persuasion, collectivity and an actual advance.”

Sheehan also told WLRN that she believed the repeated no-platforming and harassment of feminists who wish to discuss the importance of single-sex spaces is leading to wider disruption and division across the left.

“I’ve been attacked ever since my son died and I started speaking out against George Bush and the war so I’m kind of used to that,” she said.

“What I thought is this distracts from my other work I have been doing against war and empire and the US government and things like that … I wasn’t so afraid of being attacked, I was afraid of the distraction that it has caused … But I’m sorry I didn’t speak out about it [women’s rights] before as much as I could have or should have.”

She added: “If I was going to be deplatformed for not even barely raising my voice on this issue, then I might as well raise my voice on this issue.

“Women’s rights have long been important to me and [so are] women’s safety and safe spaces for women.

“I’m a woman, I have daughters, I have granddaughters, we can’t let men define what it means to be a woman. We can’t let the safety of men supersede the safety of women.”

Ovenden said he agreed that the continual silencing of women’s voices had the potential to cause real setbacks for progressive politics.

“It is terrifically harmful and it is a huge misunderstanding of the tradition of the left and socialism,” he said.

“Our starting point is and always has been free speech. That is in the limited liberal sense of freedom from political censorship and in the wider sense of democratising the means and instruments of speech, mass media and their ownership. Socialism is the party of permanent persuasion.

“The policy of no platform specifically for fascists and organised, violent reaction that is as near as arose out of the defence of freedom of speech and of assembly.

“Stopping fascist organising to defend free publishing, democratic organisation such as the unions, public political space within which we contest for our ideas — including debates on the left.

“This is most clear in Greece where the cordon sanitaire around the neonazi Golden Dawn has not been about trying to ban ideas about, say, whether Greece should let more refugees in.

“The opposite. It has meant concretely preventing fascists from organising a reign of terror in a neighbourhood in order for democratic meetings and organisation to take place in that neighbourhood precisely to win the argument in real life for solidarity with the refugees.”

To listen to Cindy Sheehan’s interview with WLRN visit wlrnmedia.wordpress.com.

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