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The Anti-Warriors 

In a year consumed by war, Triangle peace activists helped keep debate and dissent alive.

In early October, after most members of Congress had rushed to back President Bush's requested resolution supporting war with Iraq, Rep. David Price was still on the fence. So local peace activistas decided to give him a push: They blitzed his offices with e-mails, faxes and phone calls, and sent delegations to share their concerns with his staffers. One afternoon, 300 activists massed outside his Chapel Hill office while a dozen took turns staging a sit-in inside his office. They would leave, they said, when Price promised to weigh in against the war resolution.

The sit-in ended 48 hours later, on Oct. 8, when police officers arrested the three remaining participants. Lenore Yarger, a member of the Silk Hope Catholic Worker group and one of those arrested, says she camped out on her congressman's floor to exercise her faith. "We had to draw attention to the number of Iraqi and U.S. lives that would be lost if we decided to attack Iraq," she says. "I believe in a God that values all of us the same, and that therefore the Iraqis are my brothers and sisters. And the loss of any of our lives affects all of us."

"Our hope," Yarger says, "was that we would provide Price with the encouragement he would need to vote against the resolution." With constituent input running nearly 100 to one against going to war, Price ultimately got the message, becoming one of three N.C. members of Congress to vote no. The other nine N.C. representatives, along with senators Edwards and Helms, voted in favor of the resolution.

Here the major post-Sept. 11 debates--about war and peace, civil liberties, and the safest and best way to proceed in foreign affairs--have been joined by veteran social justice crusaders and political neophytes alike. Triangle peace activists are looking back on a year of enormous efforts, small victories and big setbacks. Looking ahead, with an attack on Iraq apparently looming, it's clear their work is far from over.

Together, they are citizens who are alarmed about the new American militarism and the prospect of never-ending war against a nebulous enemy. But as a group, the people who make up the anti-war movement, here like elsewhere in the United States, are hard to categorize. National news reports have focused on campus-based groups, which have indeed proliferated, but in fact the Triangle peace movement has been propelled by many key constituencies.

Of course many who participate have no institutional affiliation, and became involved simply because of their personal beliefs. Then there are those who, like Yarger, take a stand on the basis of their religion. In an Oct. 8 letter to President Bush, more than 100 members of the North Carolina Council of Churches argued that pre-emptive military action is too dangerous a path to take. "Understanding that Mr. Hussein poses a threat to his neighbors and to his own people, we nevertheless believe it is wrong, and well as detrimental to U.S. interests, to take such action," the letter said, arguing that the human costs and foreign-relations problems of another attack on Iraq should be avoided if at all possible.

As during previous wars, progressives in the African-American community have also carried the torch for peace. The Rev. Curtis Gatewood, president of the Durham NAACP, has been so stridently anti-war that he was rebuked by the NAACP's national leadership, which has assiduously avoided bucking Bush's war plans. And Cynthia Brown, the former Durham town council member who made a bid for this year's Democratic Senate nomination, critiqued the war on terrorism during many of her campaign events.

Organized labor also has pitched in. The Durham chapter of Jobs with Justice, the Rocky Mount-based Black Workers for Justice, and several like-minded local groups are making the case that U.S. interventions abroad are largely driven by the same corporate interests that keep workers underpaid and disadvantaged on the home front. And notably, at a national conference held in Raleigh in September, UE I50, the local chapter of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, helped marshal the national union's support for a resolution declaring that "an invasion of Iraq is not in the interest of workers," the resolution said.

And then there are the seemingly unlikely players in the peace protests. Consider just two examples. Stan Goff of Raleigh, a former Army commando turned grassroots activist, has been among the most militant critics of Bush's war aims. And David Potorti, a local folklorist and Independent contributing writer whose brother, James Potorti, died in the World Trade Center attack, is a founder of a peace group formed by relatives of 9/11 victims.

Though it's truly a broad-based movement, the local push for peace has indeed found its hotbed in local colleges and universities. While several local schools are home to fervent anti-warriors, UNC-Chapel Hill has been, as it was during the Vietnam War protests and many subsequent anti-intervention campaigns, a major nexus of organizing. Shortly after 9/11, faculty, staff and students on the campus, backed by hundreds of assorted locals, formed the Coalition to End the Cycle of Violence, one of several Triangle-based groups that have staged high-profile teach-ins, protests, and a host of other anti-war events.

In addition to doing the hard work of making the case for peace after 9/11, the campus-based activists have helped maintain key tenets of academic freedom and free speech at a time when both are at risk. UNC-Chapel Hill has distinguished itself as one of the few Southern universities to foster serious and sustained resistance, even while weathering much McCarthyite criticism from the right.

A year in the trenches of the debates about war and terrorism has left the activists fully aware of the challenges they face. Andy Pearson, who co-edits On American Soil, the coalition's newspaper, says that a key task is to broaden the movement using outreach and messages that tie the anti-war struggle to everyday concerns in the United States. "We need to show people of all walks of life that the problems we're seeing in our domestic economy, and the growing security state we're being subjected to, are directly linked to how far Bush and the oil and military interests are taking this new pre-emptive war doctrine," he says.

Meanwhile, the peace movement must struggle to keep their momentum going--even in the likely event that the United States soon goes to war with Iraq. Michal Osterweil, an anthropology grad student active in the coalition, says that she and other activists are in it for the long haul. "We've changed few policies," she says, "but in terms of changing minds, it's been happening all the time." EndBlock

More by Jon Elliston


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