Adding Color To A Too-White Peace Movement
by Dennis Rahkonen
April 11, 2003
Arriving early for the latest in our town's series of ongoing anti Iraq war rallies, I turned on my transistor radio to catch the news.
The announcer said a female U.S. soldier, a Hopi Indian, was among the nine bodies unearthed near the Iraqi hospital from which Pfc. Jessica Lynch was rescued. Later, on television, I'd learn that the young fatality was Lynch's friend and roommate.
I watched her brother eulogize Lori Ann Piestewa, tying his personal grief to a movingly eloquent wish for world peace, as scenes in the background revealed the plain and probably impoverished place that was her home.
Ironically, one of the first participants at the rally who caught my attention was a very striking Native American man, with an ornate display of beadwork around his neck. He carried a placard calling for an end to war.
But he seemed to be the only Indian there.
Likewise, there were no more than half a dozen African Americans present, although the rally had deliberately been planned in conjunction with Martin Luther King's assassination anniversary and was being held in a racially mixed neighborhood.
Like the other Iraq-related protests I've attended, this one was almost entirely comprised of whites -- primarily college students and a core of liberal/radical activists who've been around for years.
The rally did have three black speakers, however, one of whom addressed the question of why so few people of color attend such events. She confessed to not really knowing the answer.
Each January, MLK's birthday is celebrated locally with a large, spirited march through the downtown. Blacks are always significantly present then, as are many whites.
There's a fundamental disconnect involved in all this, surely having to do with mistrust and the legacy of American racism.
By all logic and reason, people of color ought to be the main presence at gatherings against the Iraq war, and militarism in a larger sense.
After all, they're the ones who are disproportionately forced to seek military "employment" in an economy where good jobs are increasingly scarce for everyone, but doubly (even triply) so for racial minorities. The consequence in battle terms, sadly, is that young men and women of color also do a skewed share of dying. Notice how many of our current casualties have been African American, or Hispanic.
And, as the economic dislocations invariably associated with guns-before butter priorities impact our society, it's always minority communities that take the worst hits. A classic example is how Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was ruined by the monetary exigencies of his Vietnam folly.
So why the troubling lack of minority involvement in the peace movement?
I can only guess, but my speculation runs along these lines:
Although Martin Luther King and Malcolm X very clearly connected the dots between domestic racial oppression and imperialism's external wars, the white power structure has been effective in neutering the popularly perceived image of especially King to little more than an "I have a dream" sound bite. Often in advertising for fast food or soft drinks.
That cooptation, although admirably countered by efforts from progressives of all colors to convey the entire philosophical package, is pervasive in its negative, mass impact.
We're all affected by the establishment media and associated propaganda.
Until we're able to construct a broad influence of equal or greater strength, our truths can't rationally be expected to match or surpass their deliberate dilutions and distortions.
I'd be inclined to suggest that the Internet would be the medium to alter this imbalance, except for one pivotal reality: Much of the minority "target audience" is too poor to own computers.
But even thinking in those terms, I believe, gets us nearer to the real problem.
It isn't up to the white liberal movement to "bring" minorities into its ranks. The very notion smacks of elitist and possibly even racist arrogance.
It's highly presumptive for granola-crunch old hippies, and their younger anarcho-punker cohorts -- or L.L. Bean-wearing suburban denizens who arrive at rallies in minivans or SUVs -- to think they can garner much credibility with most ordinary folk in America...let alone minorities overwhelmingly confronted with racial and class-based discrimination.
Their issues will rise from their ranks, based on the harsh realties of their daily lives.
And, as the Chicano Moratorium proved during the Vietnam years, antiwar sentiment will ultimately assume organized shape from within respective communities, not as an external imposition by majority whites, however well intentioned.
It seems to me that our job is to manifest strong solidarity with the causes of minority America, without attempting to control, lead, paternalistically "educate," or give the impression that our concern for their battles is secondary to our own issues.
Crucially, the ensuing development of an all-for-one, one-for-all unity needs to be rooted in working-class mutuality.
We achieve unbreakable linkage and cohesiveness only when we struggle for the other person's cause as hard as we do for our own -- from a standpoint of full, shared respect -- and a complete willingness to have the best people rise to leadership of the whole movement. Regardless of what constituent group, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., they may separately represent.
It's been our elitism and reluctance to gracefully take a back seat to others that's kept a true, all-people's rising for peace and justice from decisively getting off the ground.
Instead of presuming to speak for the “people”, white progressives would do well to let them speak for themselves, trusting that their truths, born of singularly unique experience, will lift the consciousness and causes of us all.
Dennis Rahkonen, from Superior, WI, has written commentary and verse for various progressive outlets since the ‘60s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org