The November 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

AFSC Honors War Resisters

David Harris: A Stirring Call to Conscience

Leonard McNeil: Resisting 'Rich Man's Wars'

Karen Meredith: A Mother's Plea for Peace

Not One More Death, Not One More Dollar

Massive Police Sweeps in Contra Costa County

Housing First for Poor Families

Landlords Sue to End Just Cause

Struggle to Save the Free Box

YEAH! Shelters Homeless Youth

Gentrification in Berkeley

New Home for East Bay Law Center for Poor

Wal-Mart Pushes Philanthrophy

Sutter Health's War Against Health Workers

Growing Gulf Between Rich and Poor

Inequality in America

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Forgiveness


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March 2005

February 2005

 

 

 


 

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

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The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

AFSC Honors the Inspiring Legacy of War Resisters

In the light of those candlelight vigils, we could see the peace movement pass on the light of conscience from one generation of war resisters to the next.

by Terry Messman

"SEEK PEACE AND PURSUE IT." A candle's light shines at an AFSC peace vigil.

On October 26, 2005, hundreds of peace vigils were held across the nation to honor those killed in the war in Iraq and protest the announcement of the 2000th U.S. military fatality. From coast to coast, peace activists and families of war victims held candlelight vigils to shine a light of hope in the darkness of war and death. In the radiant light of those candles, one could almost see the peace movement pass on the light of conscience and resistance from one generation of war resisters to the next.

That is why it was so symbolically right that, on two consecutive evenings, staff organizers Stephen McNeil and Sandra Schwartz of the Peacebuilding unit of the American Friends Service Committee helped organize a peace vigil in San Francisco solemnly marking the 2,000 war dead on October 26, and then followed that up the very next evening with a spirited event at St. Mary's Cathedral called "Remember the Draft: Honoring Resistance from Vietnam to Iraq."

On October 27, the evening after 2,000 war deaths were announced, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) held a gathering to honor the resisters of past wars and learn from the legacy of conscientious objection. On that evening, the past, present and future of antiwar resistance were all gathered together and commingled as war resisters from past generations passed their lessons on to resisters of the present.

Karen Meredith, of Gold Star Mothers for Peace, spoke out against the war in Iraq with searing intensity, as she described how parents of soldiers are stricken with unimaginable grief when their loved ones die in combat.

Meredith's own son, Lt. Ken Ballard, died in Iraq at the age of 26. She spoke with warmth and love of her son, then described her fears when he left for Iraq the day after Mother's Day in 2003. She struggled to keep her composure as she described the impact of his death in Iraq one year later; and she somehow made every member of the audience feel with inescapable clarity the tragedy of her heartbreaking loss.

All she has left are dog tags

Lt. Ken Ballard was Meredith's only child. She said, "The impact to me is that I don't get any grandchildren. I don't get to plan a wedding. And these "dog tags" that I wear, that my son wore, were given to me when they gave me his body. This is all I have left."

Meredith then warned those who had just held vigils to commemorate the 2000th U.S. military casualty that the death toll was still increasing and had, in fact, just reached 2006 as she spoke. But every single life lost, American or Iraqi, is priceless, and every surviving family member is wounded and devastated by the same bullet or bomb that killed their loved one. The numbers cannot signify the cost of war in the end; what matters is that one irreplaceable human being is lost, gone, disappeared for good.

Meredith described that sense of loss more vividly than I had ever heard it before. "The family of the 2006th service member doesn't care about a number," she said. "When they heard their awful news, they probably never even heard, 'I regret to inform you...' Because they knew when they saw who was at the door what the news was. Every nightmare they had about their loved ones had just come true. Every prayer for their safety on this earth will never be answered, and every deal they made was off."

Meredith was describing something intensely personal, yet something that now has been experienced by the family members of 2,000 U.S. citizens and more than 100,000 Iraqi citizens killed in the war. The room was solemn and silent as she went on to somehow capture in words the true inhumanity of war that butchers the sons and daughters and simultaneously, and unforgivably, rips and shreds the hearts of mothers and fathers.

Meredith said that when family members are told their son or daughter has been killed, their world turns upside-down at that very moment. "Those family members screamed, and didn't recognize the pain coming from a place they never knew existed. They screamed again, and it was their soul leaving their body."

Karen Meredith's words should be mandatory reading for every Congressional representative who fails to oppose this war, every Pentagon analyst who coldly calculates the body counts and the battlelines on the map, every reckless president who gave the order that has led to more than 100,000 deaths and murders.

The loss of her only child led Meredith on a journey to Cindy Sheehan's peace camp near Bush's ranch in Texas, and then onward to peace demonstrations across the United States. She worked on the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit organized by the American Friends Service Committee, which has displayed the hundreds, and now thousands, of empty combat boots in public in cities such as San Francisco, Sacramento, Philadelphia and Illinois.

She said, "The exhibit of Eyes Wide Open was the way to show the human cost of war, and we did just that. We touched an awful lot of lives along the way."

Torch of resistance is passed on

During the course of the "Remember the Draft" event, one could see the torch of resistance being passed on to the future as Vietnam-era resisters David Harris and Leonard McNeil electrified the room with their deeply felt messages of inspiration and commitment gained in the course of resisting the Vietnam War and the draft.

Both men ended up paying a heavy personal price for their conscientious objection to an unjust war; but their overwhelming message was one of hope and belief in the power of the people to act for social change.

David Harris was imprisoned for refusing to be drafted, and spent 20 months in the federal prison system, including 12 months in maximum security for continuing his resistance behind prison walls. Yet, instead of seeing his lengthy prison sentence as a bitter sacrifice, Harris said his stand against the war helped to give true meaning to his life because he acted to uphold the values of his conscience.

'Mission Accomplished!'

Harris said that one of the very reasons he made such a sacrifice was so that when he became older he would be able to look in the mirror and "look back and feel good about who I was and what I did. And I'll tell you: "Mission Accomplished!"

The choice for draft-age men during the Vietnam War was stark and sharply drawn. They could either follow the government's dictates and go to Vietnam and kill people in what they felt was an unjust war, or they could follow their conscience, often to prison or exile. Harris said that reflecting on Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann had taught him that individuals are still responsible for acts of inhumanity even when following the orders of their own government.

He then asked a powerful question that, in the end, must be answered by the average citizen as well as the highest-ranking government official of every country that pursues an unjust war. He asked: "What do you do when all the powers of your society, when all the organized institutions of your society, instruct you to behave in a way which you understand to be fundamentally in violation of everything a human being is supposed to be?"

The answer for Harris was clear and unavoidable. He said, "To be the person I wanted to be, I would not sit back and be the nameless assassin of thousands of people in Southeast Asia who had done nothing but live where they were born."

The overarching message that Harris learned during the course of his resistance is that change is possible, even when the odds seem hopelessly stacked against the movements working for peace and justice. Those who worked against the draft in the Vietnam era know that change can happen because the strength of the antiwar movement, then and now, has kept politicians from trying to reinstate the draft.

Harris used the title of the evening's event, "Remember the Draft?" to teach a crucial lesson about never giving up hope in the possibility of social change. He said, "I think it is important for us to remember the question that was posed here tonight, 'Do you remember the draft?' Yeah, I remember it! It's an old institution that used to exist! Change, as discouraged as we all get, is possible. And we have engaged in it."

Even though Harris himself was being honored by the American Friends Service Committee for his commitment to peace and antiwar resistance, he also honored the contributions of the thousands of draft resisters and conscientious objectors whose names have been forgotten. He praised the "sacrifice of countless, unnamed Americans" who were willing to throw away their normal lives and "step outside the boundaries of their society, and force that society to change."

Taking a stand against an empire

Leonard McNeil was one of those whose courage in resisting the Vietnam-era draft helped make a difference, but that was only the very beginning of what would become decades of work for peace and justice, and against militarism.

McNeil, like Harris, paid a high personal price for resisting the draft, but he spoke with joy and fulfillment about the meaning of his resistance. The experience of taking a stand against the war and the power of the U.S. government helped to prepare him for a longstanding dedication to peace and justice.

McNeil told the AFSC gathering, "Once I made the political and moral stance to oppose the war, and oppose the government, it set me on a path of being in the movement for political and social change that I will never relinquish."

Resisting the draft was often an incredibly difficult choice for a young man to make. In McNeil's case, it took him to exile in Canada for over two years. After he returned to the United States, 10 FBI agents arrested him one morning "in my underwear -- they were Hanes," McNeil said, making light of a situation where the government was trying to intimidate a young man with an overwhelming use of force.

He then faced 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine for refusing induction. Through the efforts of his defense attorneys, Paul Harris and Ann Fagan Ginger, McNeil was acquitted and spared from being imprisoned for years in what he called the "gray-bar hotel."

His history of resistance came around full circle many years later, when McNeil became the coordinator of the AFSC's Peace and Justice Youth Outreach Project in San Francisco, and learned how to liberate many young people from an unwanted stint in the military. McNeil recalled, with joy and gratitude in his voice, how his work at AFSC had allowed him to literally lift the burden of involuntary servitude off the backs of young people of color when he counseled them.

McNeil got so good at getting young people out of the military that, when he came onto military bases, the officers often would just surrender and sign the release papers. How many of those young people now owe some part of their lives and health and their physical and mental well-being to the military counter-recruitment efforts of McNeil and so many others who have stepped in to help youth facing these life-and-death decisions?

Among countless other youth he worked with, McNeil counseled two young people who would go on to do inspiring work of their own in the peace movement - Tahan Jones and Aimee Allison, conscientious objectors during the first Gulf War. In that way, the torch of antiwar resistance is passed on, from generation to generation.

Candlelight vigil in S.F.

Stephen McNeil, AFSC assistant regional director for Peacebuilding, Youth and Relief Work, helped organize the "Remember the Draft" event on October 27, and also helped pull together a vigil the night before, on October 26, in front of the San Francisco Veteran's Building.

The vigil was one of hundreds across the country on the day after the death toll of U.S. military personnel reached 2,000. Stephen McNeil said, "Every death in itself is significant, but we wanted to take time out when it reached 2,000 to reflect on the human costs of this war. And 2,000 military personnel lost indicates that over 100,000 Iraqis have also been killed since the beginning of this conflict."

The vigil was co-sponsored by the AFSC, United for Peace and Justice Bay Area, Veterans for Peace, and Military Families Speak Out.

The protesters displayed "Faces of War" panels that depicted the names and faces of U.S. military personnel and people in Iraq killed in the war. Candles were placed in front of the panels to illuminate them at night in a very public place along Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco.

Stephen McNeil explained: "We are trying to make what is happening so far away from us direct and immediate, and we're trying to be respectful of those military people who have died in Iraq. We were taking time out to reflect upon the fact that they have died, and they have sacrificed -- some of them willingly, and some of them unwillingly -- for what we think is an immoral war."

It seemed like keeping faith with resisters of the past, in that the AFSC helped organize protests against the war in Iraq on October 26, and then, the next evening, held an event that honored war resisters of the past, and passed on their hard-won lessons and inspiring moral witness to the present generation of resisters.

Stephen McNeil said, "We wanted to take the opportunity to gather the generations together. We don't do anything in a vacuum, and we build upon the witness of our elders. So we had people from World War II who were conscientious objectors and who ended up counseling people during the Vietnam War.

"We had people from the reinstatement of the Selective Service System in the early 1980s who refused to register and went to prison. When the first Gulf War occurred, we actually had former people in the military who applied and got C.O. status with the help of our Vietnam-era resister, who was on staff and who counseled Aimee Allison and Tahan Jones, and they, in turn, ended up counseling people during the invasion of Iraq."

This event was living proof that the higher ideals -- love, compassion, justice, peace, resistance -- are hardy perennials that will blossom and flourish again and again in history. One day, these coast-to-coast candlelight vigils will become a torch of resistance that will be passed hand to hand until the light of conscience abolishes war itself. When that day dawns, war will be cast on the junkheap of history, along with slavery and Nazi concentration camps and apartheid in South Africa and the segregation laws of the South, and the draft itself.

David Harris reminded us that social change is not only possible, but that we have seen it in our lifetimes. The voices of grieving mothers and antiwar priests and draft resisters and hundreds of thousands of student rebels ended the Vietnam War and shut down the draft.

Cracks in the wall of the Bush administration's capacity to carry on the Iraq War occur every time someone holds up a candle, or is arrested for peacemaking, or places a flower in the empty combat boots that symbolize one more military casualty.

Sometimes, an eloquent question from one mother grieving the death of her son in Iraq can expose the injustice and inhumanity of an entire military empire.

Karen Meredith said these words at the AFSC gathering, but she directed them right at the president: "Tell us what the noble cause is. Tell us honestly why this administration took this country and our men and women into an invasion of a sovereign country. Tell us when we can bring our troops home. And tell us when torture became acceptable."


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