Bringing the War Home

Thirty-six years ago, on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King stood in the pulpit of New York's Riverside Church and delivered his first major address against the Vietnam War.

"The Americans are forcing their friends into becoming their enemies," King warned. "It is curious that Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of freedom, democracy and revolution, but the image of militarism and defeat."

It was a controversial speech; King was called a traitor and a foreign policy naïf. But he argued that the fight for social justice could not be won without ending an unjust war abroad.

That's an important legacy for the anti-war camp to remember, faced with a USA PATRIOT Act II backlash worthy of "Fahrenheit 451." As mobs burn Dixie Chicks CDs and Fox talk-show host Bill O'Reilly labels demonstrators "terrorists" and calls for their arrest, anti-war activists are reaching back into communities to denounce the assault on civil liberties, and to bring home the costs the war in Iraq will have on already crippled state and city budgets.

"We think it's an appropriate time for the peace movement to start focusing on the social justice part of this war: Where is the money coming from?" says Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice.

Instead of mobilizing another national march, the group is calling for an extended weekend of local actions -- everything from teach-ins to rallies and nonviolent civil disobedience, starting Friday and continuing through Monday. "We need to keep nurturing the local and community-based parts of this movement, because that's really the backbone," Cagan says.

Many of the events will pay tribute to King, who was assassinated exactly a year after his Vietnam address, on April 4, 1968.

Friday in New York, religious leaders will lead a funeral procession to honor King and the "dead and not yet dead" in Iraq. Bearing coffins, the group will march from Grant's Tomb uptown to Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan.

On Saturday, the recently formed Black Solidarity Against the War Coalition is organizing a march through Harlem.

"We want to give voice and visibility to the large percentage of African Americans who are against this war, and who have been largely overshadowed by the so-called 'mainstream' peace movement," says Nellie Hester Bailey, a longtime tenant organizer from Harlem who is helping to spearhead the group.

The coalition is also urging blacks to stay home from work and school on Friday as part of a nationwide "Black Day of Absence" in honor of King and to protest the war. Their call has been backed by several black politicians and labor leaders in New York City.

Though only announced this week, these calls from the black community point to a largely untapped vein of opposition to the war. Polls show that twice as many African Americans oppose the war than do whites. Many are angered that a disproportionately large number of blacks are being called to serve in what they view as an unjust ploy for U.S. domination in the Middle East. (African Americans count for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but they constitute 21 percent of the armed forces, including 15 percent of combat troops and about 29 percent of the Army.)

"We can't talk about this war without talking about the war on us at home," says Bailey. "Every opportunity for higher education is being cut for our sons and daughters, and now they want them to go over there to die for U.S. hegemony and for oil."

Beyond this weekend, the group is urging blacks nationwide to boycott Exxon/Mobil as one of the oil companies that stands to profit from the war. "We picked Exxon because they have gas stations in every state where black people live," says organizer Sam Anderson. "And its board has given millions to Bush's presidential campaign."

The big business of war is also the theme for nationwide protests on Saturday called by Ralph Nader's Citizen Works. Demonstrators across the country will target corporations like Halliburton and Kellog Brown and Root for "profiting off the tragedy of war."

The war at home is a theme that students are latching onto as well. On Saturday, members of the Campus Action Network, which represents more than 100 high schools and colleges nationwide, will hold rallies and marches in Washington D.C., Chicago and Oakland.

"We're trying to partner with local teacher unions, which are facing massive job cuts," says CAN member Kirsten Roberts.

In California, students will march through Berkeley to downtown Oakland, where 1,000 teachers just received layoff notices. There they will join a larger anti-war march organized by a broad coalition of community, religious and labor groups.

The role of labor groups at this weekend's protests is significant, a sign that support for the war may be more shallow than it appears. While AFL-CIO President John Sweeney issued a statement at the start of the war voicing his "unequivocal" support for the troops, in a March 20 letter addressed to state and local unions, he remained sharply critical of the Bush Administration's rush to war. "I do not believe that President Bush's insistence on military action rather than further diplomatic efforts serves our nation well," Sweeney wrote, adding that he fears America's "respect and goodwill have been squandered."

"We have to organize against what's looking like a permanent war economy," says Bob Muehlenkamp of U.S. Labor Against War. "Unions can no longer afford to talk about jobs and benefits without addressing issues of war and peace."

Other activists want to target war makers more directly. The Bay Area-based Direct Action to Stop the War is calling for a nationwide day of civil disobedience protests on Monday aimed at "war makers and war profiteers." The loosely knit collective coordinated the thousands-strong street blockades and marches that shut down the financial district in San Francisco for two days last month. Now its members are honing their tactics, moving from a strategy of widespread disruption the day the bombing started to more narrowly focused protests on government, military and corporate targets. In the San Francisco Bay Area, affinity groups plan to go after the Concord Naval Weapons Station and shipping lines used to ferry munitions from Oakland's docks.

In New York, members of the M27 Coalition, which staged last week's traffic-stopping die-in in front of Rockefeller Center, plan to converge on the midtown offices of the Carlyle Group, a well-heeled investment firm (George Bush Sr. is an advisor) with strong ties to the defense industry. One of its holdings is United Defense Industries, a maker of armored vehicles, missile launchers and other advanced weaponry.

The Iraq Pledge of Resistance, is mobilizing for another national wave of civil disobedience at tax time (April 15), aimed at underscoring the growing imbalance between military and social spending.

So far organizers with more mainstream anti-war groups such as MoveOn.org and the celebrity-backed Win Without War have shied away from directly backing civil disobedience protests. The fight now, they argue, is not to stop this war, but to prevent the Bush Administration and its neoconservative backers from extending their battle plans to Iran, Syria and beyond.

But other activists say it's important to make their dissent heard on the streets now.

"Nationally there's been a tremendous pressure to silence criticism and support the troops," notes Roberts. "But because the war is not going well for Bush, I think people are beginning to find their voice again. And I think that once people start to look at the long-term costs of this war at home and abroad, their views could change."

Opposing this war may not be a popular position. But like King, today's peace activists may ultimately be vindicated for taking a principled stand against a war that may not end until long after Baghdad's "liberation."

Sarah Ferguson is a freelance writer in New York who writes frequently about activism.

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