Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus talks about the anti-war movement and where we stand today on the cusp of the 4th anniversary of the war.
Q: March 19th will be the 4th anniversary of the war. Where has the anti-war movement gone since the February 2003 demonstrations which brought out nearly one million people in New York City and around the globe to say no to war with Iraq?
Rev. Yearwood: We’ve come in different directions. First thing we recognize is since that day 3,150 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq. There are reports of between 500,000-600,000 Iraqis who have died. There are reports that we’ve spent a half-trillion dollars so far fighting this war. We are at a point now where we see a sense of urgency in the anti-war community from the academics to the activists from the street heat to the revolutionary bloggers. There is a sense that if we do not do something at this juncture, especially as we reach the fourth anniversary, that humanity is on line. I’m sure others have felt that way when our world has been at war, in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and others. But this war is different because America is the only superpower. The stakes are raised putting mankind and humankind on the line.
Q: Now you just mentioned that the U.S. is the only superpower. In the aftermath of the 2003 demonstrations, the New York Times called the peace movement “the other superpower.” If that’s the case, why haven’t we been able to stop the war? What are the challenges and hurdles the peace movement has confronted in battling the first superpower?
Rev. Yearwood: I agree with the New York Times assessment that the power to the people is the other superpower. Being labeled the “other superpower” means the people are promoting the peace. I think the reason the war hasn’t stopped is because like any other superpower, America has a lot of power. This Administration has wielded this power in a very unyielding way. The other superpower, the people, is now recognizing that it will take so much more than just coming into the streets or even in some cases having allies in the halls of congress to stop this war.
The other superpower can’t be one focus, one color. It has to have a multi-issue, multi-racial, multi-dimensional component for it to be very powerful. The movements of the 1960’s were so powerful because they had different roads coming together. You had the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement running on different paths. But while they were on different paths they were running parallel. So while you had things going on the college campus at Berkeley you still had things going on in the streets of Oakland. All this intensity that was going on ran on parallel tracks and sometimes intersected. And that was very powerful. So even while the movements were separate for a number of reasons, together they were a very powerful piece in ending the war. The difference now is that times have changed. We are at a very much different place. Our culture is much more integrated but at times our movement still is not. So while we don’t have white water fountains and black water fountains, while we don’t have the blacks on the back of the bus, we haven’t gone to the next step to ensure that our movement is integrated.
Q: When you talk about integration I think about an issue that I know touched you very deeply, which was when hurricane Katrina hit the shores of Louisiana, New Orleans and the coast of Mississippi, on August 29, 2005. What affect that have on the peace movement and on social movements in general in the U.S.? Did it present the opportunity that some thought it would bringing communities from all around the states together on a common goal and project?
Rev. Yearwood: There are different parts to Katrina. Katrina showed a failed domestic policy. It showed America that conservatives, who had been advocating small government for decades, really meant no government. And we also saw capitalism running amuck. We saw this country literally leaving the least of these, the poorest of these, left behind in New Orleans.
I believe that Katrina had an impact on this country equal to that of the war. The war shows a horrendous foreign policy, a failure in peace and security, a desire to control global resources and oil and the willingness to lie, torture and spy in carrying out the war. Katrina showed this country that it wasn’t holding up what it wanted for this world. It wasn’t holding up the ideals democracy or prosperity for all. Katrina showed the world and this country that it was powerless to stop babies and grandmothers from drowning. I know as a parent it hurts to imagine what it would be like to have your child literally left behind or drowning in your basement or your child being put in a helicopter and then being put on buses without your parents. It was a horrendous act. And because it was in the south, and because what the south has meant to this country since the civil war, the devastation and failures of the administration really touched us in a way that had us thinking that something was wrong here. In the aftermath of Katrina, we saw that foreign and domestic policy had failed meaning that this Administration had failed and that it was time for change.
Q: Speaking of a time for change, a lot of people look to the November 2006 mid-term elections as a political watershed. How do you view the significance of the election?
Rev. Yearwood: I feel 2006 was Americas way of saying something was wrong. It was a sweeping change. Americans went to the voting booths and made that change. I will say that with the failures around the war and Katrina we weren’t as concerned with a Democratic Congress or a Republican Congress, instead we needed a post-partisan human congress. Regardless if you were a small d, small r, small i, whatever you wanted to put after your name, our country recognized that something was wrong. Our country as a superpower was literally causing hell on earth. Something was wrong. Humanity was suffering. After 2006, people have a very short fuse for Democrats and a very short fuse for Republicans, having voted many of them out of office. Now the public is growing impatient hearing from members of Congress that “we’ll get to the changes.” They don’t want to hear debates about debates to even have a debate about the war. They don’t want to hear about non-binding resolutions. The public wants binding resolutions. They don’t want to hear about billions of dollars being lost in this war or billions of dollars lost with Katrina. They want sweeping change. They want courage. They want elected officials to stand up and make those changes. So on one hand I think the elections were a call for change but on the other hand also a paradigm shift. A shift in which people have gone from partisan and non-partisan to post-partisan and we are now looking at a country that is for all the people.
Q: You bring us up to the point we are at today with Congress just going thorough a fake debate about a nonbinding resolution on a troop surge. We are getting to the point where we talk about the money. It’s been clear that the president has been seeking to divide the Democrats between those who would vote no on the supplemental and defund the war that way or those whom might follow Murtha’s approach to set some standards for the troops and try to tie the hands of the president as a precursor to bringing the troops home. What should the peace movements’ relationship be to Congress at this point as the debate heats up?
Rev. Yearwood: It is strategic and wise to have an inside-outside debate. We should work with all of those in Congress, Democrats and Republicans across the board as we seek to build a human Congress. At the same time, we have to hold them accountable for what we want. And that’s simple–cut the funding, bring the troops home and investigate any impropriaties or illegal activity that took place in the buildup to this war. I know the leadership has sought to take impeachment off the table but it means to put impeachment on the table especially as new things come to light every single day, such as the facts from the Libby trial. It means we really have to make a change.
We must have an inside-outside approach. The Progressive Caucus is very exciting in this aspect, bringing members of Congress together with the grassroots. Institutions are trying to make this happen from the anti-war movement such as UFPJ and IPS. Many organizations are recognizing we are at a key moment in history and they have a responsibility to engage the power structures. But I think we also need street heat. We have to energize, mobilize, and organize the people outside the halls of Congress. This is one of the most important times now and the only way people will change is if we begin to really organize the other superpower. We cannot just count on working with those allies in Congress. Now is the time to engage those outside the beltway in this process.
Q: I know you are working on a project to do that. I’d like for you to talk about the work you are doing now to break down those barriers and to build the other superpower.
Rev. Yearwood: It’s a beautiful time as we have so many different resources. Back in the 1960s we didn’t have the internet or the cell phone. We have a number of new tools we can utilize from a cultural standpoint. From 1983 to 2003 people stopped mobilizing. People were pursuing social justice in South and Central America during that timeframe, and obviously the anti-apartheid movement was going on. But I mean in general as far as getting the public being really involved in the process and hitting the streets. Over that 20 year span we lost a whole generation of young people who are now in their 20’s–our next generation of activists who didn’t get anything during that timeframe. We need to go out there and meet them where they are. Reintroduce them to the peace movement, reintroduce them to what it means to be an activist, reintroduce them to what it means to be involved in social justice and social action. Our Hip-Hop Not War tour is taking from the cultural aspect, using the hip-hop generation or what we sometimes call the dream generation. (the generation born after the boomers also referred to as Generation X).
We’ll be involved in the march on the Pentagon taking place on March 17 and from there going to college campuses. We are going to Berkeley, Colombia, Atlanta, and Memphis where Dr. King was assassinated. We are going to Iowa, and New Hampshire. We are going to places that were key in the 1960’s and seeking to revitalize and reenergize them. Our piece is to put music together with experts such as some of the new anti-war icons like Cindy Sheehan.
The great thing is now we have the generation that Dr. King talked about–the generation of the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave owners working side by side. That’s why I know we can stop this war and stop wars in the future.
We have an awesome opportunity. As a generation, we are working side by side by black people and white people. Asians and Latinos, straight and gay, all working side by side now. I think that is one of the reasons why now we can have an impact not only on the 21st century but hopefully and prayerfully on the 22nd century.