Larry Hamm isn’t depressed.
He looked out from atop a stage in Newark’s Lincoln Park Saturday and saw hundreds of people representing groups from around the state joined in protest of the Iraq War.
Hamm, who leads the People’s Organization for Progress in Newark, has been on this march against the war from the beginning, and has withstood the criticism that without a draft and in an era of ringtones and ipods there is no traction for an effective anti-war movement.
He just keeps marching.
"Saturday was one of biggest marches held in Newark for a long time," said Hamm. "I thought it sent two strong messages. The first is it said to the Bush administration that we want a change in spending priorities in this country, from the war in Iraq to the needs of people here at home. And we want the war to end. We want the troops to come home."
The event’s keynoter was U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, who caught a wave of boos for being in a Democratic Majority that hasn’t managed to yank the plug on war funding. There were also some infuriated chants in the crowd for Bush’s impeachment, which Conyers and the Democratic Congressional leadership have likewise been unable to deliver.
"We all know Conyers wanted impeachment, but part of the issue is when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House she said impeachment was off the table," said Hamm. "She said that before Conyers was actually appointed chair of the House Judiciary Committee."
What he’s left with, Hamm added, is changing the spending priorities so the war ends.
Facing the ragtag corps of Revolutionary War troopers hoisting American flags with corporate emblems emblazoned on them instead of stars, young men with little black panther buttons on their berets, Nation of Islam suits, bedraggled old hippies, suburban beatniks, urban parents whose children have been murdered and peace activists folding cranes for peace and selling Che Guevara and Ralph Nader literature, Conyers told the crowd he’d try to end the war.
"I share your passion and I’m in a position to do something about it, and I will," said Conyers.
He got some back up from labor in the person of Ray Stever, president of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, who reminded the crowd that John L. Lewis founded the joint labor organization in Atlantic City 70 years ago.
"Today we’re dying for the oil and for profiteering – so Bush can make a few bucks on the backs of the Iraqi people and the American people," Stever said.
And it’s not just the war, he added. It’s corporate power having its way worldwide. Citing the Mattel toy fiasco, the labor leader derided NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and other trade agreements that have enabled American corporations to take advantage of cheap labor and diminished standards overseas.
"They went to China to make toys, to get around the regulations," Stever said of Mattel, which earlier this month ordered the recall of thousands of toy products made in China with toxic lead paint.
A giant blind-folded paper mache head rose above the crowd, flanked by two hands holding up the insignias of oil companies on one side and major media outlets on the other, a street puppet dubbed "Blind Patriotism" by its handlers, Faras Bilto and Melissa Dabrowski of the Lincroft chapter of the New Jersey Peace and Justice Coalition.
These two have say they’ve been in the thick of the protests from the beginning, holding vigil locally at Fort Monmouth but also trekking down to D.C. to join the larger movement of protesters.
"It doesn’t make any difference with this administration," said Bilto of his ongoing protest efforts. "They have a set agenda and nothing’s going to change that."
But he keeps going. Maybe the streets aren’t filled with people, but motorists’ response to the presence of the Monmouth County protesters has changed, Bilto said.
"In the beginning, back in 2002, it was about 50-50, with people either honking their horns in support or driving by in silence," he said. "Now 90 to 95% of the people passing by give us positive feedback. It’s encouraging."
And the war goes on.
"In the two minutes it takes me to deliver these remarks, we will have spent $390,000 on the war in Iraq," said Madelyn Hoffman of New Jersey Peace Action.
Hundreds of people can fill Lincoln Park on a Saturday, but the passion doesn’t ignite, in poet Amiri Baraka’s view, because Americans continue to insist on embracing a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption.
"The paradigm of the problem is the anti-war people are not anti-imperialist," Baraka told the crowd.