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Black Doves 

Even the most ardently anti-war African Americans understand the reluctance of other blacks

 

 

Paul Ghogomu looks a lot like the Iraqis he was sent overseas to kill. Born to a black African father and a white American mother, Paul seems to blend in with the Iraqi children in the pictures he sent back to his parents from the war.

 

 

Graduating from high school at 17, he had already chosen to enlist in the Army. His father, David, was a soldier in the Cameroon military and cherished the experience. "I think we should not be fighting in Iraq," says David. "The war in Afghanistan was the right war, but for the war in Iraq there was no reason to invade."

 

Paul's mother, Judy, agrees that "military service is honorable; I just don't think this is a righteous war. I'd hate that anyone would have to sacrifice their life for this war. I'm not against the Army, just against this war."

 

Right before he was to leave for Iraq, Paul was in a car accident, hurting his knee and ending up on crutches, but he was still deployed.

 

"I tried many ways to see if there was a way to get him out of it" because of the accident, says David. But when Paul was young, he would draw tanks and make guns out of Play-Doh when his mother wouldn't allow him to play with toy guns. There was nothing his parents could do to stop him.

 

Paul's parents took part in the anti-Iraq war demonstrations this past summer in Oakland. They held a sign that said "My son is in Iraq." David's black face was photographed a lot in that demonstration, they noticed. It was the only protest they participated in -- not because they didn't want to attend others, but "I have two jobs, he has two jobs," says Judy. "We would be more political if we had more time."

 

One thing David also noticed at the demonstrations is that his black face didn't resemble the faces of the hundreds out for this protest.

 

"You wonder why," he says, "but I guess people had other things to do."

 

"There has been no mass move by blacks to publicly join the antiwar chorus," wrote black commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson in his online column. "Where are the Black Cindy Sheehans?" asked the headline, referring to the white activist who energized the peace movement by camping out at President Bush's Texas ranch after her son was killed in the war. Hutchinson posited that even in the general anti-war demonstrations that have occurred, "the faces of the antiwar protesters have looked like Sheehan's."

 

Many like the Ghogomus say they haven't had the luxury of much time to rage against the machine. But there are plenty of other reasons why blacks haven't come out perhaps as strongly they have against as previous wars.

 

For one, blacks aren't involved in the Iraq war, nor are they dying, in the disproportionate numbers of past conflicts. Most blacks in the military now are enlisted in administrative, medical or support specialties, according to David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations, a decade-old institute in the University of Maryland's sociology department. Two-hundred-and-thirty blacks have died in this war, accounting for just over 10 percent of all American combat fatalities in Iraq -- less than the 12.4 percent rate for African Americans in Vietnam or even the 17.2 percent black deaths in the Persian Gulf War. When compared to the Hispanic combat fatality rate, which has increased from less than 1 percent in the Vietnam War to 11 percent in Iraq, blacks aren't dying in extraordinary numbers.

 

Still, there have been events, such as October's Millions More Movement march, in which thousands of blacks have come out to protest a number of issues, including the Iraq war. MMM leaders such as Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, as well as local organizing committees, have made statements against the war. But there's been no black mobilization targeting the war alone.

 

Locally, the lone organized African-American protest against the war comes from a small group called Black Voices for Peace, which is comprised mostly of members of the Black Radical Congress, a national organization that for decades has been active against American policies unfavorable to minorities. Every Saturday afternoon, about a dozen black Pittsburghers convene in East Liberty to picket, shout, chant and agitate.

 

At the intersection of Penn and Highland avenues, the busiest set of corners in the East Liberty business district, the BVP members -- with assistance from other anti-war groups, such as Code Pink and the Thomas Merton Center -- hold signs that say "Honk Horn Bring Troops Home Now" while chanting "Bush says yes! We say no! The war in Iraq has got to go!"

 

Pedestrians in the predominantly black community almost unanimously affirm their support by either pumping their fists, nodding in approval or stopping to gather some of the fliers and literature BVP sometimes has on hand. Meanwhile, just about every vehicle from PAT buses to cop cars honk as they drive through.

 

The BVP members have come out every Saturday from 1 to 2 p.m. almost since the war in Iraq began -- including Christmas and New Year's Eve, both of which fell on Saturdays last year. Yet, for all the noise they've made, their numbers haven't exactly skyrocketed since they hit the corners in the summer of 2003.

 

"It's a job organizing black folks around foreign policy," says BVP member Fred Logan, "and it always has been. But that's on us. There are a whole host of other issues" blacks are also worried about, he says: "public education, public safety, housing and so on. We got our own things to be concerned about."

 

 Steeply declining black enlistment rates are signs of protest as well, Logan believes. Since 2000, every sector of the military except for the Navy has seen a drop in the percentage of blacks on active duty. In the Army alone, African-American representation dropped from 31 percent to 23 percent from 2000 to 2004, though that is still a larger percentage than the 14 percent African-American population. African-American enlistment in the Army has dropped by 40 percent since 2000.

 

When it comes to public expressions, though, there seems to be a blackout, even when a recent CBS news poll showed 84 percent of blacks opposing the war, compared with 57 percent of whites.

 

Even when Cindy Sheehan came to Pittsburgh, few blacks showed up. Vanessa German, who performed some of her poetry at the Sheehan visit -- and who won the national Slam Bush poetry competition with strong verses attacking the war -- says she was dismayed that more young blacks didn't come out. In general, there are "not as many black people as I would have liked to see out and engaged," she says. But the few blacks whom she has come across in the anti-war movement were "more civically engaged, more organized and together, more in touch with the people than any of the happy progressive liberal white people that I've met along my travels."

 

There are perhaps other reasons why blacks don't come out for public protests. Many blacks from the Civil Rights era to the Black Panther era who've demonstrated have ended up in violent collisions with police.

 

"Regardless of whether we are taking the brunt of the risks, we are the ones who are punished, and so are rightfully distrustful," of public protests, says Lillian Bertram, a member of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group who is of mixed racial heritage. The POG has helped lead local anti-war protest since January 2003, and holds regular pickets of military recruiting stations in Oakland.

 

"This country takes the incarceration and execution of black people lightly," Bertram says. "This doesn't bode well when you are talking about inclusion [of blacks in general protest groups] or even the development of a black-based activist movement that will require confrontation with the police state."

 

 

Such clashes with authorities have led blacks to resort to quieter, safer vows of support for those who do publicly demonstrate.

 

"When we picket the military recruiting station in Oakland," says Alex Bradley, de facto leader of POG's counter-recruitment movement, "the highest percentage of honks and thumbs up are always from people of color."

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