Breaking Down Segregation in the Peace and Justice Movement

It was a moving experience to hear Reverend Lennox Yearwood speak on July 5 at the Impeachment Forum in Philadelphia and again on the 24th at Independence Hall with Cindy Sheehan. He spoke truth to power and his passion for justice, peace and unity was palpable.

Rev. Yearwood (Photo: Cheryl Biren-Wright)

I wondered, though, that afternoon of the 24th what might come of the growing reaction as it related to race and the sit-in at Congressman Conyers’ office the day before. I wondered if this issue might have erupted eventually irregardless of what happened with John Conyers. I am not referring to the on-line blog comments fueled by boredom and self-righteousness from those (on all sides) who are quick to criticize, yet slow to act, but to a deeper discussion of why our marches, rallies, and movements are for the most part segregated despite an open invitation by all and why there continues to be a certain level of distrust.

A friend of mine in the pursuit of justice, a community leader in Camden, New Jersey, has guided me recently through his writing in understanding more clearly where some of these issues are rooted. Understanding this has been integral as we form a coalition of diverse groups in the peace and justice movement here in New Jersey. In planning for The People’s March for Peace, Equality, Jobs and Justice in Newark, NJ on August 25, we have been working to energize others to join together and are acutely aware of the need for all people to have a voice if significant change is going to be made.

In the process, I was invited to speak at a rally that was held on a hot day this summer in a church parking lot in Camden. The focus was on ending the war in Iraq and the larger picture of how the military machine continues to drain money and resources from communities like Camden – the poorest city in the richest state. There was a strong emphasis as well on the significance of reparations. I was asked to speak on the impeachment movement.

As I listened to the other speakers, it struck me that our outrage over the abuses by the current administration as it relates to the Constitution, rule of law and human rights is out of proportion if we do not first take into consideration the injustices that have been and continue to be inflicted upon minority groups in this nation since its birth. Knowing that I had all the legal and Constitutional arguments laid out for impeachment, my friend gently cautioned that what worked in a speech in Princeton may not be received in the same way in Camden. He was correct in that assessment and when I began to speak of the gross criminal negligence during Katrina, I immediately felt the energy emanate from the crowd.

It was then that I realized more completely and with greater depth than ever before that Katrina happened well before George Bush and his sidekick “Brownie” ambled into town. The levees that were breached last summer reflected a breach in justice and humanity in our country as a result of racial and socioeconomic discrimination. It led me to ask myself where was I before I began speaking out for impeachment? I have, in the past, written members of Congress on reparations, on housing, and equal access to education, but did I do it with this level of passion and with this sense of urgency? No. Did I choose to shift my speech more strongly toward the Katrina travesty to gain support for my agenda or because I wanted to further a movement of justice for the African-American community? While I care deeply about the latter, I believe the honest answer would be the former. Can I then claim to not understand why there is a measure of distrust as we try to merge our movements?

While the message was warmly received from those in attendance, I was humbled by that realization. There is after all a big difference between being aware of the injustices that have occurred in our country and actually being the recipient of that injustice. For me and others like me to stroll into an economically disadvantaged community like Camden waving a warning flag that we are in grave peril from the government and urging them to join and act immediately would seem comical if it were not so serious. Of course these citizens know we are in danger, we’ve been in danger and they’ve been living it. While I imagine I could have been rebuked for this, we have moved forward graciously, if not cautiously, toward our goal of creating peace and demanding justice. I credit this, not only to the simple decency of all involved, but as well to the organizers of the rally. A clear objective had been identified in advance and an understanding that our goal to unify diverse groups called for an open mind as well as an open heart, that we needed to listen more than speak, and that we needed to trust more in inter-dependence.

I understand now that before I can join with others, I first must look inward. It is no longer enough to simply assure myself and others that impeachment will benefit us all. While I hold fast to my conviction that it is the right thing for our country and will continue to pursue it vigorously, when this administration is gone, whether through impeachment or on January 2009, the departure will not be the remedy to our ills as a nation and people. What promise can I make? What commitment will I give after the King has left the building?

I object to a rush by some to explain, rationalize or otherwise smooth things over without slowing down and taking a closer look first. It is good that this was exposed. It opened a line of communication, as complex and painful as might be, about a problem that has been rumbling under the surface for a long time. I encourage people to continue the conversation. If we truly want unity, particularly against the powerful political machine, we have to find our common humanity and work to heal this wound and not just place a bandage over it. Let us also come to know that the schism that divides us and keeps us from moving forward, in turn emboldens that political machine.

Rev. Yearwood and Cindy Sheehan (Photo: Cheryl Biren-Wright)

I shared with the community in Camden these thoughts that day:”A successful movement gains its strength from Unity and that is why we are here today. It is where our power lies. The greatest tool of the elite and powerful is to create and perpetuate divisions among us through race, economic status, and religion, particularly now against the Muslim community by breeding fear and distrust. Those divisions weaken us, shift the focus and allow the powers to be to engage in self-serving acts while those without the power, those who are marginalized endure the fall out. With Unity, every group, every person can define and maintain their true selves, bring their unique experiences to the table. There will be some differences, but united we can create a movement that won’t easily be stopped.”

The People's March, Newark NJ

The People’s March, Newark NJ. 8/25/07 (Photo: Cheryl Biren-Wright)

People’s Organization for Progress (Photo: Cheryl Biren-Wright)

A diverse crowd pours into the streets in the name of Peace and Justice

A common enemy unites. (Photo: Cheryl Biren-Wright)


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