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I can't get over what People's Organization for Progress (POP) achieved in Newark on January 20th! Scores of community organizations came together for the "People's Peace Conference — The U.S. War in Iraq and Our Communities." This African American-led event drew more than 400 registered participants. The theme of the conference, "Breaking the Silence: The Grassroots Speaks" put it clearly in the spirit of the historic, April 4, 1967 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence."

Though the call originated in and was aimed toward the Black community, (People's Organization for Progress was the initiator, along with Rev. William Howard of Newark's Bethany Baptist Church), the turnout included folks from the Latina/o community, veterans and military families, gang-bangers, youth and students, as well as white labor union and anti-war activists and a crew of the usual Left movement types. The organizations signing on as sponsors ran the gamut from the NJ Black Issues Convention, and the Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughter (MOMSAD), to Street Warriors, Inc., and the Almighty Latin Kings & Queens Nation to the Alan Reilly/Gene Glazer Chapter of Veterans for Peace, and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) chapters from Bergen and Essex counties, to several area Black elected officials, and, of course, New Jersey Peace Action, a key early sponsor. Participation was more than half African-American with white activists making up the majority of the rest. There were also representatives of the Asian-American, Arab, Latina/o and other communities of color.

The true spirit of this event is best captured in the statements of participants, during and after the fact:

  • This is not a one-time event. We've gotta bring this war to an end; we can't have this conference and be satisfied.
  • 21 hospitals have been closed across NJ. This is clearly because of money being spent on that war instead of here at home.
  • The US wants to divide Iraq into three or four parts. Is this because they want rights for the Kurds, religious freedom for the Shi'ite population? No, the United States wants to divide Iraq so it can't stand up to US imperialism!
  • It felt like the '60s in here today!
  • This conference wasn't just about ending the war (there will be more wars, other wars), the People's Peace Conference became about social transformation.

And this WAS a transformative event! As the chair of POP's Anti-Street Violence Committee confided to me, "You know I had questions about this peace activism. For me, the real war is the violence our young people are being subjected to, getting hit with, in the streets. But Saturday's conference, I felt the spirit. I saw 400 committed anti-war warriors who knew what time it is, who understood that the money being spent on weapon systems sent to Iraq is precisely the same money that's needed for our hospitals and schools, for after-school activities for our youth, for drug-rehab programs, to rebuild New Orleans!"

Determined that this not be a "one-time" event, participants planned a continuations committee to hold the coalition together to build a massive state-wide march for peace and justice in Newark later this year. A March 27 follow-up meeting is scheduled. This was one among the resolutions passed at the final plenary, that also included:

2)      Opposition to Troop Increases
3)      Demands to Redirect War Funds to Domestic Needs
4)      Bring the Troops Home Now
5)      Impeach George W. Bush
6)      Prosecute George W. Bush for War Crimes
7)      Cut Funding for Iraq War
8)      Support Gulf Coast Residents’ Efforts to Rebuild and the Right of Return
9)      War Monies and Profits to be Immediately Redirected for National Healthcare, Affordable Housing for All, and Jobs with a Living Wage.

One intriguing "after-action" observation reflected the strengths of the People's Peace Conference and evidence why social transformation has to be the overarching goal. As the conference closed, Nell Sanders, a powerful young African-American musician, drummed us out of the final "speak-out" session. A comment, "People were in awe of little sister Nell… folks are not used to seeing women drummers, powerful women drumming," pointed out both the broadness of the gathering and unfinished issues like male-supremacy and patriarchy that need to be to be addressed in the future.

To a considerable extent, this was a "stealth conference". The organizing committee did plenty of media outreach but newspapers like the Star Ledger (Newark and Essex County's primary daily) and almost all broadcast media decided it was a non-event. They all received multiple press releases and it was definitely in their day-book. No one covered it, except for the local CBS affiliate. To put this in context, two weeks or so back the Star Ledger felt that Larry Hamm was an important enough political figure to warrant two pages of copy. Though Larry repeatedly mentioned The People's Peace Conference during the interviews, it never made it to the paper, either in that article or in news coverage. Apparently an African American-led anti-war effort is such a non-sequitur that the editors at the Ledger neither heard nor understood what Larry was telling them.

There are other lessons to be drawn and contradictions to be addressed by POP and others who aim to move forward from this event. A number of "foreign student" organizations, such as the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association from Rutgers-Newark, as well as The Almighty Latin King Nation took active part, both representing a first step in reaching out and including the immigrant and Latina/o communities. Given the increasing reliance of the Pentagon on recruitment from these communities, we must build on this foundation.

Amiri Baraka was one of the final speakers at the afternoon session. He urged representatives to build similar events and activism throughout the state. As POP chairman Larry Hamm put it, "When we can build not just conferences throughout NJ, but weekly picketlines of 1,000 at military recruitment centers in every major municipality of the state, then we will have a movement that can't be ignored."

Similarly, we need to be able to replicate this Newark conference in Raleigh-Durham and Rocky Mount, in Detroit and Chicago, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in Kansas City and Saint Louis, in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Antonio, in every urban center with a non-white majority.

Jon Levine is active in the People's Organization for Progress, where he is chair of POP's labor committee and also one of several POP photographers (see link for a photo database of more than three years of POP activities). He is also a longshoreman in Port Newark, a member of ILA Local 1233, and co-editor of the local union newsletter, The ILA 1233 Messenger. (Photos in this article by Jon Levine).


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February 1, 2007
Issue 215

is published every Thursday.

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