January 20, 2008

Black NJ Organizes Against the War--2008 edition!

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Yesterday, the People's Peace and Justice Coalition held its 2008 conference in Newark, NJ. Fire on the Mountain has been covering the Coalition since before the inaugural conference was held last year with over 500 participants. Since then, the Coalition held an even larger indoor rally and the historic People's March for Peace, Equality, Jobs and Justice through downtown Newark on a scorching August day.

When the assembly was called to order by Larry Hamm of the People's Organization for Progress, we thought we might be looking at a real setback--there were fewer than one hundred people in the hall at Rutgers. As it turned out, folks kept coming and, unusually, the conference hit its peak in mid-afternoon with over 250 people present at one time, overwhelmingly from the African-American, Latina/o and other minority communities of Northern NJ.

Among them was a sizable contingent from the street organization The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, who have seen a good number of their Northern NJ members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They attended workshops with titles like "Challenging Military recruitment Among the Poor, Working Class, People of Color & Immigrants," "Stop the Violence: Ending the War in Our Streets," "Building the Peace Justice Movement Among Young People," and "The Influence of the Prison Industrial Complex & the War."

Still, while the event went very well, we need to reflect on why participation in the Coalition has not continued to grow. POP Chairman Larry Hamm and I had to cut out at the start of the morning workshops and make a run to the Ironbound section of Newark for a community and hospital workers rally against the closing of St. James Medical Center. The drive over gave us a chance to consider why the attendance was off back at Rutgers. Brother Hamm felt that the short participation might be his fault, given that he hadn't spent a lot of time making his usual personal phone calls to build attendance among the clergy and elected officials. I suggested a significant growth in cynicism since the Democratic majority in Congress had essentially ignored why their Republican rivals had been tossed out in '06 ("End this criminal war, dummies!").

In Ironbound, we came face to face with another reason: about 750 people, mostly neighborhood residents, protesting the closing of their hospital! This was an interesting contrast to the weak community response to the closing of other hospitals throughout Newark and Essex County recently. This powerful protest reminded us was that the survival struggles of poor and working folk are so urgent that they take priority over issues like stopping the war, even though most of them recognize the direct connection with the trillions of dollars being wasted on the war and worsening living conditions here.

Back at the conference, a conversation with Margaret Stevens of Iraq Veterans Against the War (a sponsoring organization of the Peace & Justice Coalition) helped me see something else that has changed since last year. Margaret described how one early and dedicated member of the new NJ Chapter of IVAW had gotten so wrapped up in the presidential campaign of Congressman Dennis Kucinich, that he is not very active in the veterans anti-war movement. The lure of "quick fixes" is in some ways a mirror image of the view that the war against Iraq a matter of individual leadership errors. So too many concentrate on electing a President who promises (sort of) to end the war, or on impeachement, at the expense of the drive to bring the troops home has disarmed the bring the troops home movement.

The crowd was buoyed throughout its day's work by exciting cultural performances including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Columbia High School Gospel Choir, the NJ Industrial Union Council's Solidarity Singers, and the return of Nell Sanders' incredible drumming.

To see addition photographs from the January 2008 People's Peace Conference, go to the People's Organization for Progress photo page http://homepage.mac.com/union_county_labor/Peoples_Org_for_Prog/PhotoAlbum160.html.

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