By Alana Hawkins
While white peace activists struggle to maintain momentum, groups of color are taking leadership.
Looking out onto the streets of Portland today, one can miss the occasional Attack Iraq No! sticker displayed on passing vehicles. However, prior to the war in Iraq, no one could have missed the 10,000 plus demonstrators marching through Portland carrying signs protesting the looming war. Before the war, people were getting mobilized. Peace became the focus of everyday discussion and debate. A coalition existed, one made up of people ranging from radical war opponents to the mainstream. The atmosphere prior to the Iraq war was being compared to that of the Vietnam era. It looked and felt like a larger movement was rising.
Post invasion, the peace movement has taken on a back seat role to the everyday distractions of American life. Even the confirmation that the Bush administration lied to our entire country regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has not yet been enough to remobilize many of those involved prior to the war. The peace movement seems to have bowed out of middle class America and returned to its traditional place in radical politics.
Will Seaman, the media liaison for Portland Peaceful Response Coalition (PPRC), a key organization in coalition-building prior to the war and continuing today, believes numbers are down because, there is no clear concept of what might be accomplished. Prior to the invasion, people could come together around the common interest of preventing a war. On January 17, 2003 The Portland Tribune wrote, The local anti-war movement has become so mainstream that radical activists are planning their own rally before being swallowed up... No one wanted the war, whether they were protesting United States imperialism, the potential loss of innocent lives, or the economic effects of conflict. The Iraq war became a symbol for many other political, social, and economic issues taking place around the world.
In struggling to build a lasting peace movement, Seaman points to the difficulties of mobilizing such an incredible number of people - all with differing ideas of what the movement is, or should be. Seaman views a movement as having, not only the ability to organize and mobilize people on the street, but the ability [to] organize and mobilize people at a political level as well. A movement is not constrained by an event, but is ongoing. All we have now [is a] large unorganized population who do not agree with what is going on.
However, in the absence of a mainstream movement, there is a different kind of peace movement taking place in Portlands communities of color. Since the civil rights era, it has worked to undermine systems of oppression that mainstream America does not experience. It is a part of the peace movement that is often marginalized amid the other cries of protest. Throughout the war, communities of color have been home to the largest percentage of people declaring themselves against the war. Reclaiming Our Origins Through Struggle [ROOTS!] and Sisters in Action For Power are two Portland-based grassroots organizations that are managed by members of Portlands communities of color. Both of these organizations have chosen anti-war politics.
ROOTS! is a grassroots organization, whose mission is to fight for racial justice and liberation of People of Color. Founders Lakita Logan and Tomás Garduño have strategically built ROOTS! to flip the customary power structure, providing the communities of color with ownership. Our power structure is from the ground up explains Logan. The people who are the most affected must lead. ROOTS! works to create a safe space where people can learn about their histories and openly discuss racial justice issues in their communities. We believe that in order to build true collective power we must empower ourselves and our communities by struggling with each other around the issues and oppressions that face our communities.
Sisters in Action For Power is a multi racial, girl-driven, community-based organization. They are most recently known for their success in securing a $16.00/month bus pass for students in the Portland Metro tri-county area. Two-year members Camille Kent and Chirece Jones (Juniors at Grant H.S.) explain that Sisters in Action For Power is an organization that is working to build the leadership and organizing skills of young women to promote social justice.
Currently, both of these organizations are battling the governments forced displacement of their community businesses and homes. By informing community members of the tactics, history, and effects of gentrification and forced displacement, ROOTS! is raising community awareness in the Albina district. Forced displacement in the Albina district goes as far back as the displacement of the Clackamas Indian Tribe by white explorers. More recently, projects such as the Coliseum; the expansion of I-5; and the building of Legacy Emmanuel hospital have all caused forced displacement and gentrification. ROOTS! is combating not only the discrimination involved in forced displacement, but the negative effects that it has on community -such as the impact that changing schools can have on a child, or the loss of a support network for the elderly.
On July 24, 2003, Sisters in Action For Power held a community gathering to push forward their Land Equity Campaign. They are also raising community awareness to battle forced displacement, specifically the HOPE IV federal grant given to cities to revitalize severely distressed public housing. At this forum Sisters in Action For Power took a critical look at the realities created by the HOPE IV grants. They discussed the fact that HOPE IV was displacing over 1,200 people living in Columbia Villa, in order to revitalize Oregons largest public housing project. Many of these people were forced to the outskirts of Portland and into Gresham, making it considerably more difficult to get to work.
The war that these organizations are fighting is not contained by geographic borders. It is a continuation of the war that has historically been waged on the poor and people of color. Therefore, there is more at stake than homeland security there is the security of communities and families; of our communities and our families. This issue dramatically complicates the process of coalition building, and raises the price of joining a mainstream peace movement, because these issues do not affect the mainstream.
ROOTS! and Sisters in Action For Power are taking a very broad and complicated stance. It is a stance that is influenced by their everyday experiences. Both make connections between the social justice issues that they are combating here at home, and the social justice issues that arise from United States imperialism abroad. Kent states, we are against the war and against all wars that target people and communities of color. Thus, while Iraq is far away, for communities of color the war hits very close to home.
Darlene Lombos sees social justice and equality as global issues that Sisters in Action For Power combat daily. Sisters in Action for Power is built against the politics and the legacy of colonialism, expresses organizer Lombos. The organization addresses issues derived from colonialism domestically, but continues to view them in connection to the international system. We work to concretely connect issues in this community to issues in the global community, and then to expose these connections. Sisters in Action For Power directly links their community efforts combating Portlands legacy of forced displacement to the Bush administrations occupation in Iraq. They have also developed ties with like-minded organizations and participated in peace gatherings, as well as held their own discussions over cultural domination, which they believe the war in Iraq symbolizes.
ROOTS! also views the war in Iraq as stemming from the same imperialistic attitude. There has to be a connection between what is happening locally and what is happening globally, says Logan. If one person is oppressed, every one of us is oppressed.
ROOTS! seeks to create a safe space where racial dialog can take place, which they see as the key to building a human race. Logan suggests that if we cant learn to exist together, were perpetuating what the [Iraq] war is doing, and Were doing exactly what that war is meant to do... to go over there and break up that community. It is happening in another country and happening right here at home. Logan believes that communities of color in the United States are combating the same things. Logan asks, How can we talk about what a war stands for? How can a war go and better them when we cant seem to better ourselves? I mean we are sick, and we are giving our sickness to people who dont deserve it.
Mainstream anti-war organizations have still not demonstrated the level consensus that ROOTS! and Sisters in Action For Power have shown regarding what the peace movement looks like at home. Nor have mainstream organizations joined forces with these community. Many members of Portlands mainstream peace movement are still concerned with bringing communities of color into their fold instead of helping to join a peace movement that already exists in those communities. It is the classic majority-minority communication gap.
How do you reach out to a broader public? asks Seaman, and at the same time, How do you reach out to different social blocs? He believes that creating these alliances is part of building a movement and is necessary to overcome institutional and social barriers. What it takes is connecting with different communities and engaging in those communities. Just showing up at meetings and announcing that you want to build a partnership doesnt really work.
Seaman relates to ROOTS! and Sisters in Action For Power, and believes that there must be both a peace and social justice movement... To be against the war in Iraq is such a trivial position to take; it is just a symptom of a larger ongoing problem. Iraq [is not] an aberration of U.S. policy; it is a continuation of those same sets of interests that continue to have influence in our government..
The challenge will be to build a movement that is sustainable,
one that does not marginalize anyones cause. Logan makes it a simple
matter, saying that it goes back to peoples values. What do you
value? In the end, Portlands mainstream peace movement has yet
to answer that question.
Alana Hawkins is a writer, student at the University of Oregon, and a Portland Alliance intern.
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Last Updated: July 5, 2004