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NC peace movement struggles with its racism

by Jordan Green

More than three years after the US invasion of Iraq, North Carolina peace activists have reached a crossroads. Should they make tactical alliances across ideological lines in an effort to expedite a quick end to the war, or should they deepen and broaden organizing in an array of leftist causes to bring about fundamental social change?

Among about 75 activists from around the state gathered at New Garden Friends Meeting on April 22 and 23 for the founding convention of the NC Peace & Justice Coalition, the weight of opinion clearly favored the latter course.

‘“The question for the North Carolina Peace and Justice Coalition is how to strike a balance between setting an agenda and following that versus scrapping an agenda and supporting others’ work,’” said Tony Macias, a Durham member of the coalition’s interim steering committee. ‘“The middle ground is, we as a coalition determine what our values are and figure out what’s going on now and see how we can support it.’”

Activists spoke about their enthusiasm for playing a support role in a recent immigrant rights rally in Siler City. A written critique by the director of an organization of women of color struggling for economic rights ‘– ‘“SEJ is still working on how we want to engage and work with white people’” ‘– attests to the pressure felt by the majority white coalition to broaden its focus beyond a narrow goal of ending the war.

Other activists have defected from the coalition out of frustration that too much time was spent addressing racial, gender and anti-gay oppressions during planning meetings for annual mass protests in Fayetteville to commemorate the anniversaries of the invasion, said Mark Dixon, a Greensboro Food Not Bombs member who volunteered on the convention’s hospitality group.

‘“Predominantly white organizations said, ‘We’ve got to stay focused; we can’t dilute our mission,’” said Bridgette Burge, a Knightdale member of the interim steering committee who traveled the state to conduct an informal poll of activists. ‘“Others have said, ‘We need to be multi-issue, multi-racial and cross-class, and I think that’s the way the interim steering committee is leaning. But it’s an open question.’”

Lou Plummer, a former member of the National Guard from Fayetteville whose son was discharged from the Navy last year for refusing to deploy to Iraq, spoke to an uncomfortable reality.

‘“The demographics of the anti-war movement don’t match the demographics of people who are against the war,’” he said.

Reflecting on that discrepancy, he said, ‘“The polls say seventy percent of people in this country are opposed to the war. Our job as the peace movement is asking ourselves, ‘Why don’t we have seventy percent with us?’ It’s not their fault they’re not with us; it’s our fault.’”

Plummer said the peace movement should reach out to non-traditional allies, even people who would find little room for agreement with those on the left, other than ending the war.

‘“There’s a certain amount of people who are against the war because we’re losing, but would be all for it if we were winning,’” he said. ‘“There are fiscal conservatives who are really bothered by the $1.25 billion we’re spending on the war every week.’”

Jacek Teller, inactive-duty Marine Corps reservist who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, said opposing the war remains an unpopular stance in Greenville, where he attends Eastern Carolina University.

‘“Several professors said they supported my movement but couldn’t be on my mailing list because they’d lose their jobs,’” he said. ‘“Is that paranoia or reasonable caution? I hope it’s paranoia. The climate in Greenville is extremely stagnant and apathetic. Most people don’t have an opinion.’”

Teller, who is president of the ECU Peace and Justice Coalition, told of how his group created a presentation about the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal, using images such as the picture of the hooded detainee with wires attached to his fingertips that were widely circulated by the media two years ago. He was surprised to find that many of his fellow students had never seen them before.

The soldier-turned-student said he opposed the Iraq war from the start but chose to stay in the military instead of filing for conscientious objector status ‘— a move that would have likely relegated him to a desk job supporting the war effort from home.

‘“If your buddy goes a little nutso on the trigger, you can say, ‘Hey, don’t do that; give me your gun,”” he said. ‘“There was a lot of opposition to the war in my unit.’”

Jacek was assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 as an airframes mechanic.

The coalition was set to elect its first steering committee by by e-mail or physical mail from Sunday through Saturday this week. The interim steering committee decided to set a quota system of 50 percent people of color, 50 percent women, 20 percent youth and students, and 20 percent lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered people for the new 20-member governing body.

Voting is open to any North Carolina resident who identifies as a peace and justice activist since the organization does not yet have a membership structure. Fifteen steering committee members will be chosen by election. To ensure the governing body reflects the mandated diversity, the newly elected steering committee will appoint the remaining five members.

With only 14 candidates on the ballot, all were assured of getting elected. Of those, about two thirds live in the Raleigh-Durham area. No activists ran from the western section of the state, and only two ran from the eastern and coastal region.

‘“Seeing racism as a separate, secondary issue to the ‘real’ issue of the Iraq war ‘— that’s a manifestation of racism in the anti-war movement,’” said Isabell Moore, a Greensboro member of the interim steering committee. ‘“Not acknowledging that there is a war at home on people of color and poor folks ‘— as well as wars abroad ‘– that’s a manifestation of racism in the anti-war movement as well.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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