On September 11, a little past 8 a.m., William Wong flew out of New York headed for his Bay Area hometown. Author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America, Wong was on the last leg of a long journey from Durban, South Africa, where he had attended the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR). About 90 minutes into his flight, the plane was ordered to land in Indianapolis, where he learned of the hijackings that killed thousands of people in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Wong was stunned and sickened. “In sorting through my feelings and thoughts,” he wrote in an Internet dispatch published at www.igc.org, where activists swapped notes after the conference, “I detected a connection between the U.N. conference and the tragic September 11 events that may not at first seem obvious.”
The connection he found was between the grievances of Osama bin Laden, the accused mastermind of the attacks, and the gripes of many WCAR delegates, non-governmental organizations and activists. “Perhaps I have been too sheltered in recent years, too American-centric and not fully aware of broiling negative feelings toward the United States,” Wong wrote.
For many who witnessed global disgust with arrogant U.S. unilateralism at the WCAR, the events of September 11 were like a ghoulish exclamation point. “It’s a tragedy that some people still feel they can solve the problems of the world through violence,” says Conrad Worrill, who attended the WCAR on behalf of the National Black United Front. “But remember what Dr. King said about the United States being the world’s most violent country? Remember what Malcolm said about chickens coming home to roost?”
But Worrill prefers to focus on another Malcolm X quote: “The American black man needed to recognize that he had a strong, airtight case to take the United States before the United Nations on a formal accusation of Âdenial of human rights,’ ” Malcolm wrote in his 1965 autobiography. For Worrill and many of the black nationalist forces he represented there, the WCAR was a success if only for furthering Malcolm’s vision of internationalizing the African-American struggle.
He also found victory in the conference’s final declaration, which described the transatlantic slave trade as a “crime against humanity,” stated that racism has economic roots and said demands for reparations to victims of the slave trade and colonialism were valid and worthy of further examination. Worrill says various members of the “Durban 400” (the WCAR’s American attendees) and others plan to push the reparations issue in a demonstration scheduled for October 14 in Washington.
There also were sounds of discord. The conference was “elitist and undemocratic,” says JoNina Abron, a delegate from the Southwest Michigan Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality. “Those who accused the Palestinians and their supporters of Âhijacking’ the conference have got it all wrong,” she wrote on the www.igc.org site. “From the beginning to the very end, the conference was hijacked by the United Nations bureaucrats themselves.” Abron complained that NGOs labored to craft a declaration and recommended an action plan that was summarily rejected by Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and head of the WCAR. Robinson objected to the use of “hateful” language accusing Israel of being an “apartheid” state and engaging in “genocide” against Palestinians. Abron wrote that the “watered-down document that was adopted did not reflect the views of the majority of NGO delegates.”
David Horne disagrees. “The WCAR cannot be adjudged a failure at any level,” says Horne, a writer who teaches at California State University-Northridge. Horne lists several benefits gained from participation in the conference. Among them are global participation with several thousand others; giving voice to the harm being done to women, caste groups and victims of xenophobia; and the development of broad networks for activists and attendees.
Author Makani Themba also came away with a sense of triumph. “For me, the most important thing is that we now have a global network of like-minded folk who can strategize and respond.”
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.