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Rapid Deployment: New York City Peace Movement Hits the Streets
By John Tarleton
NEW YORK--An eclectic grasroots movement against war and racism is emerging in the heart of this traumatized city.
Between 6,000-7,000 people marched against the war Friday September 21 from Union Square to Times Square. It was the largest anti-war rally to date, since the September 11 attacks.
Meeting halls in Lower Manhattan and Midtown have been packed to overflowing with community activists. When not together, they are organizing frenetically on-line. Teach-ins have sprung up on campuses around the city. A September 14 candlelight vigil for peace in Union Square drew several thousand people, and a Sunday afternoon rally against violence toward Arabs was held at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Roughly 700-800 people were on hand.
"Whenever we go out with signs, people say "thank you very much," said Kevin Skvorak, a longtime peace activist. "I think the American people are hugely receptive. People are starting to question American policies. They are hungry to find answers for why this happened and they are getting nothing from the media."
The local anti-war movement is nourished by both a deep unease with president Bush's open-ended promise to "rid the world of evildoers" as well as a desire to end the cycle of violence that took such a devastating toll on the city.
"Your response to this attack does not make us a feel better about our son's death. It makes us feel worse," Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez wrote in a letter to Bush. Their son Greg was one of the World Trade Center victims. "It makes us feel that our government is using our son's memory as a justification to cause suffering for other sons and parents in other lands. It is not the first time a person in your position has been given unlimited power and came to regret it."
Two large networks of local activists have formed since September 11. Mostly younger anti-corporate globalization activists have been meeting at the CHARAS/El Bohio community center on the Lower East! Side. They organized the September 14 peace vigil on two days notice and then the following morning 45 activists fanned out through Manhattan, from the Lower East Side to Midtown to Spanish Harlem, to leaflet and talk with people about their concerns. Several days later, a smaller group went out to Astoria in The Queens.
"This is the dirty work we have to do. We can't just sit in a penthouse and speculate on what people are doing," said Ayca, one of the street team organizers. "...When you raise a question mark when everything is so absolute, it's important."
The organizing efforts at CHARAS have inspired participants to return to their own neighborhoods and begin anti-war organizing. The Flatbush Peace Coalition formed Tuesday and its three members began drumming up support among friends, community groups, churches and businesses for a candlelight vigil on Monday night (September 24) in front of the Cortelyou Branch Library.
"I think in the neighborhood there is an anti-war sentiment," said Jessica, one of the organizers.
Meanwhile, a more middle-aged group of 200 people from over 40 community organizations met at the Brecht Forum for four hours on Saturday the 15th. They met again on Wednesday night at DC 1199 headquarters. They are currently laying plans to hold a large scale anti-war march and rally on the weekend of October 6-7. Drawing on their institutional connections and resources, they hope to attract 10,000 people.
Their four "points of unity" are 1.) Condemnation of the September 11 attacks. 2.) No to war and military intervention. 3.) No to Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim racism and 4.) Work for global peace and justice. Organizers say Osama Bin Laden (if he is the guilty party) should be brought to justice through proper international legal channels.
"We are at a turning point," said Ray LaForest of Haitian Constituency USAInc. "We have a challenge in front of us. We have to sink or swim." LaForest then added, "This is the final installment of the coup. We have a president who wasn't chosen by democratic means. And now, he's getting worldwide powers."
Anti-war organizing is also springing up in other cities around the country as well as in Canada, Europe and Australia. 2,300 people marched against the war in Portland, Oregon on September 16. Demonstrations of 300-500 people took place in Concord and Fresno, California, Madison, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas. Thursday's National Day of Action for Peaceful Justice the war saw vigils, teach-ins and rallies for peace on 146 campuses in 36 states. And a national day of protest against war and racism is planned for September 29 in Washington, D.C. in lieu of massive anti-IMF/World Bank protests that had been scheduled for that weekend.
"This peace movement is being deeply informed by the anti-globalization movement which is talking about economic justice as a part of global peace," said Carmen Trotta, an executive committee member of the War Resisters League, a pacifist organization that was founded in 1923 by World War I conscientious objecters. "The peace movement needs to be thinking about more than the events of September 11. And, I think there's hope for that with the tie-in from the anti-globalization movement...It suggests a peace movement that could have greater depth than ever before."
This story originally appeared in the September 2001 New York Indypendent.