New Jersey Antiwar Activists Unite in a New Coalition

by Tom Barrett

On January 20, 2007, about 500 antiwar activists from all over the state of New Jersey gathered in conference at the Rutgers University Law School. What the participants accomplished was in many respects historic and unprecedented, certainly in my nearly forty years’ experience working against imperialist war in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Simply walking into the common area of the Law School building, where all the chairs were set up to accommodate the hundreds of people attending, one could see how different this antiwar conference would be. The majority of people in the seats were African American and on average considerably younger than at most peace movement events. In the opening session, at which prominent individuals addressed the conference, the speakers were virtually a “Who’s Who” of Black leadership from Newark and other New Jersey communities.

Opposition to the Iraq war is extensive in New Jersey. Even in the rural northwest, where I live, we have a very active antiwar committee, the Northwest New Jersey Peace Fellowship, which maintains a weekly peace vigil in Newton (the county seat) and has filled buses for national antiwar mobilizations. All of the elected officials in our area are Republicans; nevertheless, antiwar sentiment is quite high and growing.

There has been, however, no statewide coalition to bring all the various antiwar committees together to coordinate our activities. The closest we have had have been the Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA), based in Princeton, and New Jersey Peace Action (NJPA), formerly based in Montclair and now based in Bloomfield. Both are descendants of SANE (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy). CFPA has functioned essentially as the South Jersey coalition, and NJPA as the North Jersey coalition, and the various community-based peace committees have affiliated to both groups accordingly. Unfortunately, there has been dissension between the two regional groups based on approaching the same people for financial contributions. And furthermore, neither group has been able to mobilize young people or to tap into the massive opposition to the war among the communities of color.

Among the groups which have participated in the work of NJPA has been the People’s Organization for Progress (POP), a Black community activist group, working, in its own words, “to empower the grassroots community and fight for its needs,” and speaking out “about issues such as poverty, racism, unemployment, education, housing, drugs, crime and community deterioration as well as important local, national and international issues.” Its president, Larry Hamm, is an experienced and respected community organizer, well known throughout New Jersey and the northeastern U.S. for several decades. In December 2006, he issued a call for a statewide conference in a document called “The People Will Stop the War,” in which he makes clear that only immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces is an acceptable solution to the Iraq war and that grassroots organizing will force U.S. withdrawal.

His most important point, however, is this:

“We must broaden the base of the peace movement. African American and other communities of color have consistently opposed the war. However, they have not had a strong presence in the peace movement. Leaders and activists in our communities, particularly at the local level, must make sure our voices are heard and our presence is felt in the struggle for peace.”

The People’s Peace Conference of January 20, 2007, was organized specifically to correct that problem: to insure that the voices of people of color are heard loudly and clearly in the peace movement and beyond — to the halls of Congress, to the White House, to the Pentagon, and to the corporate boardrooms of Halliburton and other multinationals who profit from death.

As is common at gatherings based in the Black community, the meeting opened with a prayer, led by Rev. Perry Simmons, the president of the General Baptist Convention of New Jersey. This was followed by the Columbia High School Martin Luther King Association Gospel Choir leading everyone in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was a tradition in the civil rights movement long before anyone knew “We Shall Overcome.”

Most of the next hour was devoted to speeches by several prominent individuals on different aspects of the campaign to stop the Iraq war. One was given by Wayne Smith, the young mayor of the city of Irvington, which borders on Newark and where many of the same social and economic problems that Newark suffers are more intense even than in Newark itself. Smith was one of several elected officials who were present at the conference, including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James (who remains a member of the New Jersey state senate), and Newark City Council President Mildred Crump, who has spoken at many antiwar demonstrations. To their credit, it must be said that the elected officials who attended did not come stumping for votes but expressed genuine interest in building a community-based antiwar movement. Mayor Smith has consistently attended follow-up meetings since the January 20 conference, as have a number of members of the New Jersey State Assembly.

Two hours were devoted to workshop discussion (see schedule for the list of topics). Organizing discussion which is both democratic and productive is not easy in such a large conference, especially since this was not a conference at which people came with agendas which had been formulated in advance. The division in the national antiwar movement, with the United for Peace and Justice coalition (UFPJ) on the one side and International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and the Troops Out Now Coalition (TONC) on the other, did not cast a shadow over this conference. There were participants who agree with the ANSWER and TONC perspective, but they did not challenge the conference leadership’s orientation toward the demands and organizing approach of UFPJ.

At the workshops the first hour was taken up with panel presentations. Even though the presentations were informative and were done by a broad spectrum of antiwar activists and knowledgeable people, the tendency was to reduce most conference participants to passive listeners. Furthermore, the conference organizers drafted resolutions for all the workshops to consider and to vote up or down. This was certainly necessary in order to provide a framework and direction for the workshop discussions. In the workshop which I attended, “How Do We End the War in Iraq?” there was genuine discussion, not a rubber-stamping of the organizers’ resolution. However, the resolution that was presented was basically good, and with some small modifications resulting from the workshop discussions, the workshop agreed unanimously to recommend it to the conference as a whole. This was the experience in all the workshops. There was a certain “top-down” character to the resolutions and workshop discussion; however, without the previously drafted resolutions it is likely that the workshop discussion would have become amorphous and directionless, and would have accomplished very little.

It is my opinion that the panel presentations were not terribly helpful; however, sometimes it is necessary to give a platform to well-known individuals who are playing important roles in a variety of organizations and constituencies in order to build a coalition. When a prominent intellectual such as Dr. Leonard Jeffries comes to a conference and attends a workshop (the same one that I attended), the expectation by both talker and listener is that he or she will be given extended time and attention. This is the dilemma that the conference organizers were facing, I am certain.

Representatives of each workshop made reports to the plenary session of the conference, which agreed to all the workshop resolutions unanimously with virtually no discussion. The remaining sessions of the conference had more the character of a rally than a conference; however, the broad agreement on the need to put a stop to the Iraq war was genuine as was the agreement that we the people need to act to stop the war and that we cannot rely on our “representatives” in government to do it for us.

In a conference organized by people of the Peace Action/United for Peace and Justice perspective, at which many elected officials were present, it is surprising how much criticism of Democratic Party politicians was expressed. Even though the Democrats had only exercised their majority in the federal Congress for a matter of days, already the disappointment in their performance was being voiced quite openly. Their choice of Steny Hoyer for majority leader over antiwar Marine veteran Jack Murtha and Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to consider any discussion of impeachment of George W. Bush showed that the Democrats are not going to mount a serious challenge to the White House’s war policies, and the conference participants were upset about it. There was no talk of “giving them a chance” or of working within the Democratic Party to change it. The discussion was about what we the people would do. It was not necessary to convince conference participants to follow a mass-action strategy. What was needed was a specific plan of activity, to make sure that New Jerseyans’ voices are heard as we demand that the U.S. bring its troops home from Iraq immediately.

Initially, the conference decided to hold a follow-up meeting on March 17; however, at my urging (and I am sure it was not at my urging alone) that date was changed to March 24 in order not to conflict with the March on the Pentagon being organized by International ANSWER. At the time, none of us was aware that UFPJ was planning a demonstration in New York City on March 18. Discussion also began on building a statewide march against the war in Newark during the month of August.

The conference ended with speeches by poet Amiri Baraka and former television journalist Gil Noble.

Representatives from the endorsing organizations met on February 6 to discuss carrying out the decisions of the conference. Significantly, the discussion was marked by the absence of any predetermined agendas other than the action proposals coming from the broader meeting. The meeting decided to begin work on three events:

1. A mass meeting and rally for peace and justice for all People’s Peace Conference participants and the general public that will take place on Saturday, March 24, 12:00 noon at Essex County College, 303 University Avenue in Newark. This will be a follow-up meeting to the People’s Peace Conference.

2. A statewide march for peace, equality, jobs, and justice in Newark, NJ, on Saturday, August 25, 2007, to coincide with the anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington and the anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.

3. The second People’s Peace Conference to be held on Saturday, January 19, 2008, at Rutgers Law School in Newark.

Participation at the February 6 working meeting was quite remarkable: representatives came from as far away as Camden (across the Delaware River from Philadelphia), and from a broad spectrum of organizations: religious groups, both Christian and Islamic, labor, community antiwar committees, women’s organizations, military families, and elected officials. The meeting was held at the Bethany Baptist Church, one of the largest in Newark. Its pastor, William Howard, is a strong supporter of the Peace and Justice Coalition, and the congregation sent over thirty of its members to the first conference.

The formation of the New Jersey Peace and Justice Coalition is a giant step forward for the antiwar movement, and an example to be followed. It shows the extent to which the Iraq war has lost whatever support it might have had within the U.S. population. The mobilization of an alliance of working people, people of color, and the families of soldiers and Marines, standing up to the Bush administration and demanding an immediate withdrawal of the troops from Iraq, will not be defeated. The most astute decision-makers in Washington and Wall Street are now advising the “Decider” that it is time to get out of Iraq, and with such broad antiwar unity being forged, he ignores their advice at his peril.