People’s March for Peace, Equality, Jobs, and Justice in Newark, New Jersey

A Good Beginning

by Tom Barrett


On Saturday, August 25, 2007, the grassroots spoke. About 2,000 people, nearly all New Jerseyans, gathered in Newark’s Lincoln Park to demand an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and that the money now being spent on war be put to use for human needs, such as universal health care and repair of the decaying infrastructure, which caused such devastation after Hurricane Katrina. Less important than the size of the crowd, however, was its breadth: the event brought together the African American community of Newark and other Essex County communities (such as Irvington and East Orange), important sections of the labor movement, the traditional peace movement, and feminists and environmentalists. It even brought together people from southern and northern New Jersey: people came from as far away as Camden (across the river from Philadelphia), as well as a contingent from rural Sussex County, New Jersey’s northernmost, which is where I make my home.

The demonstration was organized by the Peace and Justice Coalition, which brought together about 150 grassroots organizations, from every part of New Jersey and some from New York and Pennsylvania. It included the traditional peace action groups, the successors of the SANE/FREEZE movement: New Jersey Peace Action, based in Bloomfield, in northern New Jersey, and the Coalition for Peace Action, based in Princeton, whose territory is the southern counties. There was strong participation from Military Families Speak Out, with its powerful message of stopping the war and caring for the veterans. Also involved in the Peace and Justice Coalition was the newly reconstituted Students for a Democratic Society, which has a chapter at the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, New Jersey’s state university. The New Jersey National Organization for Women participated from the beginning as well.

Antiwar protesters marching down Broad Street in Newark on
August 25, 2007

The Industrial Union Council of New Jersey was the most important labor component of the coalition. It is not common knowledge, but the New Jersey unions did not participate in the merger of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, which took place in 1955. The New Jersey CIO was renamed the Industrial Union Council, and though it is in the minority of the state labor movement, it includes some of the most important and powerful unions in the state. It also keeps alive the radical labor traditions going back to the Paterson silk strike of 1916. The IUC’s young president, Ray Stiever, came from the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, which has since merged with the United Steelworkers of America. He was trained as an organizer under the leadership of the late Tony Mazzocchi and worked in Labor Party Advocates, later serving as a delegate to the founding convention of the Labor Party in 1996. Stiever himself represented the IUC in the Peace and Justice Coalition and gave one of the most powerful speeches at the rally on August 25.

The key component of the Peace and Justice Coalition, however, has been the African American community. A predominantly Black civil rights organization, the People’s Organization for Progress (POP), initiated the coalition and played the leading role in organizing it.

POP’s self-defined mission is:

   To educate the people about relevant social, economic, and political issues.

   To continuously organize and mobilize the grassroots community so that it can effectively solve its problems and fight for its needs.

   To improve the social and economic conditions in our community.

   To work for the total elimination of racism and sexism.

   To further develop and increase the political power of working and poor people.

   To strive for a more just and equitable distribution of wealth in our society.

   To serve as an advocate of human and civil rights.

   To support the struggles of people at home and abroad against oppression and exploitation.

   To promote world peace.

   To build unity with other organizations and individuals whose goals are similar to our own.

 

Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress

Over the nearly twenty years of POP’s existence it has developed connections with a broad range of religious congregations, traditional peace and justice groups, and traditional civil rights groups. Its chairman, Larry Hamm, worked in the Rainbow Coalition in the early 1990s; he is a frequent speaker at antiwar demonstrations and is someone who is frequently interviewed when journalists want to know what problems are affecting the people of Newark.

In January of 2007 POP organized a day-long antiwar conference, which was held at the Rutgers Law School in Newark. Over 500 people attended. They heard presentations from a broad variety of speakers, from Mayor Wayne Smith of Irvington to the poet Amiri Baraka. They discussed a wide variety of issues in workshop discussions, and then came back to launch the Peace and Justice Coalition and to make plans for future activities.

What was especially inspiring to veteran peace activists was to walk into a conference plenary session at which a majority of the participants were people of color. This level of racial unity in the antiwar movement — or any other struggle — has not been achieved since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, and though there is no way to prove it definitively, there is strong evidence that King was assassinated for exactly that reason.

Dr. King and his message were very much the inspiration for the August 25 demonstration. The date was chosen in part to commemorate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963. There, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King delivered the most famous speech of his career, in which he told the hundreds of thousands in attendance: “I have a dream today.” However, the real message that inspired the August 25 demonstration came from a speech that Dr. King delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, a year to the day before his death. That speech was titled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

King, as a clergyman, was concerned with moral issues above all else, and in 1967 he came to the conclusion that the moral standards which compelled him and his movement to fight against racism and poverty also compelled him to speak out against the Vietnam war. In similar fashion, African American leaders in Newark — especially clergymen such as Rev. Dr. William Howard, the pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, one of the largest in Newark — have come to the conclusion that they cannot work to put an end to violence in the streets of Newark and not work to put an end to violence in the streets of Iraq. It makes no sense, they have decided, to raise their voices against injustice in U.S. cities without protesting the monstrous injustice that the U.S. government is committing in Iraq. It gave POP, which has opposed the Iraq war from the very beginning, the opportunity to involve the Black community’s leaders in the movement to put a stop to the Iraq war.

Vickie White of the People’s Organization
for Progress

Those of us who have been educated in the use of the tactic of the united front are accustomed to organizing around a specific demand or a small but related list of demands and bringing people together on that basis. The civil rights movement has a somewhat different tradition. The civil rights movement did not unite on the basis of opposing school segregation or discrimination in employment by themselves, but on the basis of opposing all the injustices which African Americans faced every day of their lives. When the hundreds of thousands of people marched in Washington in 1963, they were demanding an end to all forms of racial discrimination, whether defined in “Jim Crow” laws or not. People took to the streets not so much because of a particular demand or group of demands but because they were Black and were being treated unfairly in American society. So it made perfect sense for the civil rights movement to address every issue that had a negative impact on African American people. Furthermore, because of the prominent role of the African American clergy in the civil rights movement, its goals were based squarely on the Christian morality that the ministers preached every Sunday morning, a morality which could not be “cherry-picked” issue-by-issue. That was true then, and it remains true today.

As an example: when Rev. Dr. Howard addressed the January antiwar conference at Rutgers, his starting point was that the Iraq war was morally wrong and was part of the oppression of the Black community; however, he also spoke to the issue of the violence on the streets of Newark and to the disintegration of Black families in contemporary America. He not only called on the United States to get out of Iraq; he called on Black families to sit down to home-cooked evening meals together rather than patronizing the fast-food restaurants. For the pastor of Bethany Baptist, a congregation of over two thousand in the center of downtown Newark, this makes perfect sense. For antiwar organizers who are attempting to bring together the powerful social forces which actually can force the government in Washington to get out of Iraq, it can impose limitations on reaching out and forging a unified movement.

The date of August 25 was suggested to the Peace and Justice Coalition to commemorate the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as we mentioned earlier, and also to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a symbol of the U.S. government’s complete indifference to the well-being of poor people and of people of color. Larry Hamm drafted an initial call for the march which explained what its purpose and demands were. The document was well written and sensible. It called for policies which are eminently just and beneficial to the overwhelming majority of people in the United States. For example:

 

 

 

NAACP Contingent at the August 25, 2007, rally at Lincoln Park in
Newark, NJ

March for Jobs and Justice

On that day, let us march for jobs and economic justice. We will demand the redirection of funds for the U.S. war on Iraq towards employment, housing, healthcare, education, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and other domestic programs. During his lifetime Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon Congress to enact into law an economic bill of rights. On August 25th, we will demand an economic bill of rights that includes the creation of a massive jobs program that pays a living wage, an increase in the minimum wage, health care for all people from the cradle to the grave and the passage of H.R. 676, the national health insurance bill.

We will call for economic democracy. We will call for an end to poverty, unemployment and homelessness. We will call for the passage of H.R. 4347, a bill to help end homelessness in the U.S. We will demand affordable housing for all and environmental justice. We will demand jobs programs to end the depression-level unemployment that exists in African American and other communities of color. We will call for economic development in our urban communities and the revitalization of our cities. We will demand more funding for scholarships and grants for college students, and that higher education be made affordable for poor, working class and middle class students and their families. We will demand the environmental clean up and funding for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast and its communities. We will demand justice, housing, jobs, and the right of return for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. We will call for the creation of jobs to develop renewable sources of energy and to increase energy efficiency within our society in order to decrease our oil dependency and help stop global climate change.

On that day, we will march for the right of all workers to be organized and represented by unions, without fear of retribution by their employers for participating in union activities. We will demand fair and decent wages for immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, an end to unjust raids on immigrant communities and to the stealth deportations that separate and destroy families.

Ray Stiever, President of the Industrial Union Council of New Jersey

Paula Rogovin of Military Families Speak Out

As eminently fair and reasonable as this would seem to so many of us, there are people who are opposed to the Iraq war who may not agree with it. On occasion, for example, I have informally debated immigration policy with participants at our Friday night peace vigil in Newton, NJ. Some members of our committee do not agree with calling for fair and decent wages for undocumented immigrant workers, arguing instead that they should be kept out of the United States. While I strongly disagree with them, I welcome their participation in the struggle for an end to the Iraq war.

In the course of discussing the call in the Peace and Justice Coalition meetings, the majority insisted on holding to a broad list of demands. However, some tension developed over the other issues which were not included or given less mention. Neither abortion rights nor U.S. support to the racist state of Israel were mentioned in the call, and homosexual rights were given only a passing mention. To have prominently included demands around these issues would have seriously narrowed the coalition, and organizers were right not to do so. Nevertheless, some members of the coalition argued for including them.

A good compromise was achieved when Hamm drafted a sentence calling on all who oppose U.S. involvement in the Iraq war to join the August 25 march. Once that language was inserted, a consensus for the call was achieved and the coalition could move forward to building the demonstration. Whatever disagreements people may continue to have around different issues within the antiwar movement, they were able to put them aside and come together to make August 25 a success.

The call for support to the bill HR676, which would provide universal single-payer health insurance under the Social Security Administration, led to its sponsor, Michigan Congressman John Conyers, attending the march as its keynote speaker. IUC President Ray Stiever has been lobbying for the bill and has met with Conyers in Washington. In the course of their discussion, Stiever mentioned the plans for the August 25 march. Conyers responded by asking if he could come and speak at the event. Stiever also got the agreement of filmmaker Michael Moore to send a recorded message to the event. Moore’s latest film Sicko is a documentary on the health care crisis in the United States and makes a strong statement in favor of a single-payer health insurance system.

The day of the march turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer, with high humidity and very little wind. Those of us coming from the northern and western suburbs and rural communities came by New Jersey Transit train to the Broad Street station, over a mile from the rally site at Lincoln Park. We walked to Lincoln Park as a feeder march; about halfway to the rally site we were joined by demonstrators from southern New Jersey who had taken a New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station. By the time we arrived at Lincoln Park, we were nearly a hundred strong, led by New Jersey Peace Action executive director Madelyn Hoffman and Coalition for Peace Action chairperson Rev. Robert Moore.

Organizing the feeder march from the Broad Street train station

The American Friends Service Committee's “Eyes Wide Open” Exhibit

At the entrance to the park was the powerful “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit of boots belonging to New Jersey soldiers and Marines who have died in Iraq, along with a sampling of shoes belonging to Iraqi civilians who have been killed in the fighting. The exhibit has been put together by the American Friends Service Committee and includes information about the cost of the war, the lies told by the administration to justify it, and the terrible destruction it has caused in that long-suffering country. All around the park were tables where different organizations were distributing literature and other merchandise. The National Organization for Women provided a baby-changing station as part of their table set-up, and the Nation of Islam was selling halal food and health and beauty aids at theirs.

The rally began with a reading of the Call for the march (as described earlier). Four POP activists each read a section of the document. The last section was read by Vickie White, whose tireless organizational work probably contributed the most to the success of the day, not only on the day itself but in the many months leading up to it.

One of the most moving speeches was given by Paula Rogovin, representing Military Families Speak Out. Holding in her hand a list of the GIs who have died in Iraq, she condemned both of New Jersey’s senators, Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez,for voting to continue funding for a war they claim to oppose. She related heart-breaking stories of the toll that the war has taken on individual families and the terrible injuries that have been inflicted on the GIs. Rogovin’s youngest son is currently serving in Iraq.

Also speaking was James Kelly, whose stepson was killed in Iraq due to unbelievable stupidity and carelessness on the part of his superior officers.

During the rally I talked with a Latina woman who also belonged to Military Families Speak Out. She suffers from a neurological condition that causes seizures, and she has no health insurance. It is a great concern to her family, and her son was promised by Marine Corps recruiters that if he joined the Marines, they would provide health insurance for his mother. So he joined, and now he faces a six-year commitment. It turns out that they lied to him: they are not providing health insurance for his mother. And during his last two years he will very likely be deployed overseas.

The keynote speaker, Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, spoke not only on the war but about his health insurance bill, HR 676. He noted that only one member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation supports his bill: Donald Payne, who represents the Tenth District, which includes Newark. During his speech some demonstrators confronted him about his refusal to work for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. He agreed to meet with them after the rally to discuss it.

Other speakers included: poet Amiri Baraka, whose comments raising questions about the September 11, 2001, attacks cost him his position as New Jersey Poet Laureate; IUC President Ray Stiever; Sara Flounders, who represented the Troops Out Now Coalition; and Madelyn Hoffman, executive director of New Jersey Peace Action. The IUC Solidarity Singers also performed: among the members of the Solidarity Singers are Carol Gay, who heads New Jersey Labor Against the War, and attorney Bennet Zurofsky, the IUC’s General Counsel. Other performers included hip-hop artist Tha Truth, drummer Nell Sanders, and Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi.

There is general consensus among New Jersey activists that the People’s March was a success. However, some of its original goals remain to be achieved, and further organizing work in the weeks and months ahead remains to be done. First, though the coalition did very well in involving African Americans, it did not do nearly as well in mobilizing participation from the Latino community or the Arab community.

The Arab community, based mainly in the Paterson-Clifton-Passaic area, is the second-largest in the United States. As might be expected, people in this community are focused on earning a living and making a place for themselves in a new country. Naturally, they are concerned about not opening themselves up to victimization, whether they have legal documentation or not. There has been considerable activity in defense of the Arab immigrant community against unjust imprisonment under immigration laws and the USA PATRIOT Act. The organization leading this work is the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee. This would be a natural and appropriate activity for the Peace and Justice Coalition, which would put it in touch with this large and important immigrant community.

New Jersey as well has a very large Latino community, which has expanded far beyond the old Puerto Rican and Cuban communities of past decades. People from Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, and many other Latin American countries are settling in communities throughout the state, working in everything from construction to hotel and restaurant services. In recent years, a large number of Brazilians have moved into the “Down Neck” or “Ironbound” section of Newark, where European Portuguese have been predominant. Latino immigrants as well are concerned mainly with earning a living and not becoming victimized. Sadly, there is tension in many municipalities between the African American and Latino communities, brought into stark relief by a recent murder case. Three young African American university students were killed execution-style in a Newark schoolyard in August, and those accused of the crime are Latinos. Community organizers including Larry Hamm have been working hard to calm the situation and keep the peace between the two communities, and so far their efforts have been successful. Besides reaching out to working with the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, connecting with the Roman Catholic peace and justice networks would open up many new opportunities for reaching Latinos and involving them in future actions.

POP and the Newark religious congregations did very well in mobilizing their members for the People’s March. Other endorsing organizations did less well. Future activities will be far more powerful if the Industrial Union Council is able to bring out the rank-and-file members of its member unions. Increasing the participation of student youth is another important goal. The traditional peace organizations were also underrepresented, though New Jersey Peace Action and the Coalition for Peace Action worked very hard to mobilize them. The August 25 date, at the height of vacation season, was an obstacle to greater participation, unfortunately.

The August 25, 2007, People’s March for Peace, Equality, Jobs, and Justice is pointing the way and setting an example for the future. When military families, GIs and veterans, labor, and the communities of color join together with student youth and traditional peace activists to mobilize to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, that brings together forces that actually have the power to force an end to the war. The war policies of the Republicans and Democrats have lost the support of the majority of people in the U.S., and the challenge now is to mobilize that majority in the streets to overcome the policies of war and to bring about peace, justice, and fairness for all. What happened in Newark was a step in the right direction, and the next priority is to continue taking steps in that same direction.