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To Activists, Real Battles Are on Home Front

April 05, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

It did not matter that the speech was first delivered nearly 36 years ago. Or that its author wrote with another battlefield in mind.

The audience that gathered at the Crenshaw Christian Center in South Los Angeles listened to a recording of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech on the Vietnam War as if his words were intended for them. They clapped and shouted their affirmations in timeless synchronicity with the audience that first heard the speech in 1967:

"I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.... So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

While many in today's peace movement have restricted their protest to the war in Iraq, others see the war the way King came to view Vietnam -- as intrinsically linked to conditions at home.

The King speech set the tone for a recent forum at which panelists and guests voiced concerns that can be heard throughout communities such as South Los Angeles. More than an antiwar sentiment, it is a call for intervention in communities beleaguered by violence and need.

"We must mobilize ourselves by the tens of millions," said the Rev. James Lawson, who was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and a King confidante. "The struggle must be for health care, not warfare. It must be a demand for the end of racism, poverty and homelessness."

Those who now demand peace in Iraq must also demand justice in the United States, Lawson told the forum, because racism and violence, militarism and greed are "connected to each other."

That is not the kind of sentiment Yusef Omowale, 31, has heard at some other antiwar gatherings and protests. Some peace movement organizers have pointedly declined to focus their protests beyond Iraq for fear of alienating "soccer moms" and the middle class, he said. Vietnam-era activists, in contrast, took a counterculture approach, agitating for increased rights for African Americans and women and other causes.

From where Omowale sits, the situation in communities such as South Los Angeles once again calls for extreme responses and outrage.

"I don't see any human shields in our neighborhoods," said Omowale, a program director for a downtown nonprofit that works with community-based organizations.

"We're in a neighborhood that's been devastated for years. Where's the human shields in front of our schools? Where's the human shields in front of prisons housing all the black men?"

Speakers contended the war in Iraq raises glaring questions, particularly at a time when schools, health-care clinics and social welfare programs are suffering from budget cuts.

The large numbers of African Americans and Latinos enlisted in the military is evidence of a need in their home communities -- a need that many said the president's $74.7-billion requested war budget could address.

"A lot of kids join the military because there are no jobs," said Jessica A. Crenshaw of Leimert Park, who attended the forum with Rasputon Mims of Glendale. "They want a job. They never dreamed we were going to war. Now they have no choice. They're caught up in Bush's insanity."

Among residents like Crenshaw, support for the troops extends beyond praying for their safe return. They root for them to find jobs, educational opportunities and good lives once they return.

The troops fighting in Iraq include former members of the Community Coalition, an organization that addresses education and other needs in South Los Angeles.

"I think about what are we going to do when these young people come home," said Karen Bass, executive director of the coalition. "We have the experience of Vietnam.... Our troops came home to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Our troops came home to substance abuse. Our troops came home to homelessness. We need to prepare today to face the truths that will come home."

Those truths involve communities still weighted down by the effects of crack cocaine, which activist Margaret Prescod branded "a weapon of mass destruction."

Others have noted that, in Los Angeles County, violence has snuffed out the lives of more young black men than the war has.

"We must realize the problems that we have here in this country also," said the Rev. Leonard Jackson, of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, who is also a Vietnam veteran and a chaplain with the Los Angeles Police Department. "We realize the number of people we're already losing over there and we look at the people we're losing here in the inner cities of these United States each and every day."

Peace activist Medea Benjamin, the forum's keynote speaker, offered a standard antiwar speech, including enlarged photographs of wounded Iraqi children. She was the only speaker to do so.

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