The regional peace rally held at the State Capitol in Sacramento on February 15 didn’t have “big name” celebrities like Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Danny Glover, Martin Sheen or Susan Sarandon appear on the stage. It didn’t have the 1,000,000 people that filled the streets of Rome, London and New York nor the 250,000 that nearly shut down San Francisco the next day.
But this “regional peace convergence,” sponsored by Senator John Burton and a wide ranging coalition of Central Valley and foothill peace organizations, featured the best, most diverse line up of inspiring speakers I’ve ever heard at a rally. And even more important, the crowd of 8,000 to 9,000 people were the most diverse group of people that I’ve ever seen at an anti-war march. In the crowd were young, middle aged and senior citizens. People of color, including Palestinians, Chicanos, African Americans, Vietnamese and other Asian Americans, made up a large proportion of the crowd. Hundreds of veterans from World War II, Korean War, Vietnam and the Gulf War attended the event, some behind a Veterans for Peace sign, and others sprinkled throughout the crowd.
Overall, it was the greatest rally I’ve ever been to, including the huge anti-war march and rally sponsored by International ANSWER in San Francisco in January.
I don’t say this lightly, because I’ve been a peace, social justice and environmental activist since I was a teenager. Felix Alvarez, my friend and fellow cultural activist, joked at a rally where we performed songs at in 1984 (I forget regarding what issue!) that we were “black belt demonstrators” because we had organized or appeared at so many demonstrations on a wide variety of issues. Among the issues we demonstrated for included peace in Vietnam, farmworkers rights, undocumented workers rights, democracy in Chile, an end to the Contra war, peace and justice in El Salvador, the nuclear freeze, American Indian self determination and the educational rights of undocumented children.
Since then, either one or both of us have demonstrated against the Gulf War, for women’s rights, for California fishery restoration, against the clear cutting of California’s forests, against the occupation of Palestine, against the war in Kosovo, for a living wage, against NAFTA, the WTO and corporate globalization, for the impeachment of George W. Bush and now against the Bush administration’s planned war on Iraq and attack on our civil rights and liberties. So when I say this was the most inspiring rally I’ve ever been to, I’m speaking with many years of experience behind me.
Sacramento-Yolo Peace Action, the Chico Peace and Justice Center, Davis Peace Coalition, El Dorado Peace and Justice Community, Modesto Peace and Life Center, Peace Center of Nevada County and Placer County Peacemakers were the main groups organizing the rally, the largest anti-war event ever held in Sacramento. The regional groups, along with a student contingent organized by cultural activist Xochitl Lopez, met at separate locations throughout the city and “converged” on the west and south steps of the capitol.
I attended the rally with my mom, Cassie, also a veteran of many protests since the 1960’s. Jeanie Keltner and Husam Abu-Sneineh were the m.c’s of the rally and did an outstanding job. Keltner set the personal, heartfelt tone for the demonstration when she stated how our rally was a part of an unprecedented global movement of millions of people throughout the word.
“Before our speakers begin, I want you to turn to your neighbors in the crowd and greet each other,” said Keltner, English professor emeritus at CSUS and editor of Because People Matter newspaper. “Unions, poets, artists, veterans, grandmothers and even former CIA agents and generals are now calling for peace. I’ve been on the verge of tears for years over our country’s wars, but today my grief, anger and frustration all disappeared with the big turnout of people against war here and throughout the world.”
Richard Becker, Western Regional Co Director of the International Action Center, was the first speaker. “The only reason the attack on Iraq hasn’t happened yet is because of the intervention of people throughout the US and the world,” he stated. “The reason for the war is to take Iraq and its oil. The U.S. wants to crush all resistance in the Middle East, including the Palestinian resistance against the occupation by the Israeli armed forces.”
Becker emphasized that the Palestinian resistance to the U.S.-funded Israeli government is central to the movement against U.S. global dominance and plans for war against Iraq. “To talk about Iraq without talking about the Palestinians is to mutilate reality!” he exclaimed.
Eric Vega and Ahjani Uni from the Freedom Bound Center spoke about the need for resistance to the Patriot Act, a tool of Bush’s war on immigrant and African American communities.
“Many of you have been called wimps and traitors,” said Vega, “but you are none of those things, you are part of a worldwide movement for peace and justice. You need to be very concerned about your Constitutional rights in this strange inter-regnum between peace and war.”
Uni added, “G.W. Bush is not the real problem, the real problem is that to our government, profits are more important than people. As an African growing up in the projects, I have lived with terrorism all my life. We in the African community know why the Patriot Act is being imposed; we know that our government is about profits by any means necessary.”
One of the most moving speeches was given by a student activist at U.C. Davis, Lara Kiswani from Students for Justice in Palestine and the Third World Forum.
“This war against the people of the Middle East started not in 1948 with the expulsion of Palestinians from their land, but with the Native American genocide in the Americas,” she said. “The Bush move for war against Iraq is part of an an ongoing war against people of color, an ongoing racial war. This war includes U.S. wars against Vietnam, Colombia, Central America, Iraq, Palestine and other countries throughout the world. We are fighting against one system of oppression, one system of racism. If you want to see justice, you must work for global justice. Brothers and sisters of all nationalities, all backgrounds, all sexual orientations, we must continue the struggle!”
Her speech was a hard one to follow, but Elias Rashmawi, longtime peace and justice activist and the co-chair of International ANSWER, did a fabulous job. One of the founders of the Free Palestinian Alliance and a Palestinian Christian whose dad was a prominent bishop, Elias is a fiery speaker who has regularly spoken at anti-war demonstrations in Washington D.C., San Francisco and elsewhere.
“I stretch my hand out to you on behalf of the Arab people to people of all colors,” said Rashmawi. “You are not our enemy. We know that you will not take arms against us. We stand shoulder to shoulder across all ages, sexual orientations, and all divides to say no to war from north to south, from east to west.”
Rashmawi emphasized the ties between war and corporate globalization, stating that the warmakers in Washington are “those who want to profit from our misery and oppression.”
He compared the detention and repression against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. now to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. “In the past, the US government tried to tell the American people that Asians were their enemies,” said Rashmawi. “There are those today who say that the Constitution should stop at Muslims or Arabs, but nobody now can stop the march of people towards justice.”
Tim Malone, U.C. Davis Chaplain, said that in spite of so called right wing “Christians” urging support for Bush’s war, “I’ve never read anything in the bible about bombing, hurting or killing your enemies. Our government finds enough money to build new prisons and bombs, but not enough for health care for the elderly. In the end, love will win. Justice is love in action.”
David Mandel, of Jewish Voice for Peace, said “together we can build a better world of Arabs and Jews united for peace.” Mandel, a dual U.S./Israeli citizen, said that Israelis and Palestinians have the most to fear from a war on Iraq. “The anger roiling the Arab world is fueled by the fact that their country was built at a big cost to the Arab world.”
“The Israeli government and military does not speak for Israelis any more than Bush and Rumsfeld speak for the people of the U.S. There are far too many people on both sides that are innocent victims of violence,” said Mandel.
Mandel noted that a demonstration in the streets of Tel Aviv against Bush’s war featured 10,000 people, 50 percent Jews and 50 percent Palestinians. He encouraged members of the U.S. and British armed forces to take a similar step to refuse to serve in Iraq that many Israeli “refuseniks,” now languishing in Israeli jails, have already done by courageously refusing to serve in the occupation of the West Bank.
Barbara Lubin, founder of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, said that many people still don’t want to make the link between Iraq and Palestine. “However, to oppose war in Iraq, you have to make the connection between Iraq and Palestine, you have to speak out against the occupation,” she pleaded. “As a Jewish woman, I have found it my duty to march with Martin Luther King, to work for people with disabilities and to stand up to the policies of the Israeli government and say yes to justice for all children.”
Eduardo Cohen, a Vietnam veteran, anti-Zionist Jew and journalist, said the corporate media has brainwashed the American public into believing “the Iraqis have bad weapons and the U.S. has good weapons. But there are no good weapons.” He pointed out the hypocrisy of the U.S. allowing the Israeli government to have an arsenal of 400 Jericho II nuclear warheads that can reach 3,000 miles and destroy every Arab city in the Middle East while it plans for war on Iraq because it might create a nuclear bomb or “weapons of mass destruction.”
“The U.S. says Israel can have an arsenal of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction while the Arab countries cannot,” said Cohen. “This is nuclear racism imposed upon the world by the U.S. The Arab people, too, need the right to live free from weapons of mass destruction.”
He also emphasized that the U.S. has conducted a campaign of biological warfare against the Iraqi people by destroying their infrastructure, such as drinking water and sewage treatment facilities, and implementing economic sanctions that have resulted in the deaths of over 1,000,000 innocent civilians, including many children, through epidemics of dysentery, cholera and malnutrition.
He urged activists to work for an end to all military and economic aid to Israel until “it respects U.N. resolutions like Iraq is being forced to do.”
Other speakers at the rally included Sister Simone Campbell, Deborah Cohen, Gregory King, Peter Lumsdane, International ANSWER Coalition Youth and local representatives of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and SEIU. Performing at the event were Sherri Quammen, the Poetry Machine, Red and Black (an anarchist punk band), the World Peace Clowns, Staajaubu (African American mother and daughter poets) and the Sacramento Women’s Chorus.
A small counter-demonstration across the street was held by people incited by rabid right wing talk show host Mark Williams to protest what he called the “pro Saddam Hussein, anti-American demonstration” in Sacramento. In spite of a week of vitriolic, racist rants against the planned demonstration over KFBK radio, only a couple of dozen poorly-informed Bush supporters showed up.
I talked to one of them, army reservist Joe Lopez, to get their point of view. Unfortunately, all that he and others in the pro-war contingent could say was regurgitated Pentagon disinformation and “patriotic” platitudes.
“I’m here because I support love of country and the president. I’m not here as a warmonger. I represent a minority here today, but I defend the right of people to do what you’re doing. I’m defending your freedom. I stand for peace, justice and liberty for all,” said Lopez.
On the other side of the street was a large contingent of Veterans for Peace, whose members served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War, behind a banner stating, “Peace is Patriotic.” I said to Pat Driscoll, the local chapter’s organizer and Vietnam veteran, and others in the veterans contingent, “The forces of evil are here today,” as I looked across the street at the pro-war group.
However, Denise Christine, recently retired California National Guard tech sergeant, admonished me, “no, Dan, those are not the forces of evil, they’re forces of ignorance. The forces of evil are in the White House!”
“You’re right, absolutely right,” I responded.
The event ended with a “peace circle,” something I had been dreading all day. I was planning to leave before it started, but I couldn’t find my mom in the crowd. I find new age-style things like peace circles to be somewhat silly, hippy-dippy, touchy-feely and warm and fuzzy events, so I generally avoid them. I finally found my mom as the peace circle had begun forming. But as I looked at the faces of the circle of thousands of people completely encircling the capitol, women and men, young and old, veteran and non-veteran, black and white, Chinese and Japanese, Chicano and Anglo, Arab and Jew, businessman and blue collar worker, my mom and I were also moved to join the circle also.
This circle - and the rally that preceded it - definitely represented the new face of the peace movement, part of an unprecedented worldwide movement against war and corporate globalization. The people throughout the world have spoken, loud and clear, against war. The big question is: will their “leaders” follow?
Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: email@example.com
For more information about upcoming peace events, contact:
The Chico Peace & Justice Center: www.chico-peace.org; (530) 893 9078
Davis Peace Coalition: www.davispeace.org; (530) 792-1040
El Dorado Peace & Justice Community: www.edpjc.org; (530) 642-1120
Modesto Peace & Life Center: firstname.lastname@example.org; (209) 529-5750
Peace Center of Nevada County: www.ncpeace.org; (530) 470-9797
Placer County Peacemakers: email@example.com; (530) 878-1566
Sacramento-Yolo Peace Action, www.sacpeace.org; (916) 448-7157