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Solidarity in Numbers

Notes from the peace march on Washington, D.C.

‘Hang on a second,” said Joe Seeman, juggling phone calls. Back again: “OK. We’ve just added a fifth bus.” This was last Thursday, as he helped coordinate the Albany contingent. By Friday, as that bus filled and no others were to be found, he was inviting protesters to show up at the departure point in downtown Albany and form carpools.

This was Janet Vinyard’s plan. Her spontaneous decision to travel came too late to secure a seat on an Albany bus, so she and three others—family and friend—were ready to do the driving when they found seats on one of the Kingston buses. “The last time I did this,” said Vinyard, who lives in the Montgomery County town of Sprakers, “I was protesting the Vietnam War.”

March on the mall: activists protest a pending U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Photos by B.A. Nilsson (left) and Shannon DeCelle (right).

Protesters from Columbia and Berkshire counties filled three buses; there were buses from Cobleskill and New Paltz as well. Think of any significant city across the state, and there probably were bus trips departing during Saturday’s frigid wee hours; nobody yet has coordinated the numbers to determine how many New Yorkers in all made the trip. But if it looked like most of Vermont was on the Capitol Mall, that’s no surprise: 22 buses left the Green Mountain State.

I drove in with my family the day before and stayed in an inexpensive hotel in Falls Church, Va. During our morning metro ride to the Capitol, we sat near some sign-wielding people who had just arrived from North Carolina. Their trip was coordinated by their church, and their buses were parked at an affiliated church in suburban D.C. “We’re Christian, and maybe even fundamentalist,” explained one of the protesters, “but we don’t like to be identified with the kind of fundamentalist who supports George W. Bush.”

“Those are people who oppose things like taking care of the poor,” said another, “which doesn’t seem very Christian to me. How can a true Christian support Republican values these days?”

The walk from any Capitol-proximate metro station takes you by some of the imposing-looking buildings that concretely suggest the imposing nature of the federal government; as we neared the Capitol, and I asked a Connecticut-based protester to pose with his sign, we were chased by a security guard who said we were too close to Capitol grounds, where no signs are allowed.

Saturday’s rally and march in Washington, D.C., was coordinated by International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), a coalition founded in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and spearheaded by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who was one of 40 speakers and musicians whose pronouncements thundered across the Mall during the late morning.

Others included U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan), Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ron Kovic, who recounted his Vietnam experience in his book Born on the Fourth of July, Rev. Al Sharpton, British MP Michael Benn and actresses Jessica Lange and Tyne Daly.

As each speaker finished a brief presentation, more busloads of people arrived. And arrived. And arrived, easily filling the block between 3rd and 4th streets, and then swelling the lawn west of 4th Street back toward the next intersection, at 7th. With the Capitol in front of us and the Washington Monument behind, the sky a crisp, clear blue, it couldn’t have been more picturesque. And with so much American history enshrined in the museums and galleries that flanked the rally, it was easier than ever to hope that another significant page in history was being inscribed.

It was a day of pleasant moments, big and small. I explored the Mall, exchanging where-are-you-froms with strangers, regretting that I hadn’t packed a snack, when a pair of young men hauling garbage bags ambled by. “Bagels!” they shouted. “Muffins! Bread!” I was given a bagel. I asked the fee.

“The fee? The fee is that you came here today. Bagels! Muffins!”

On the speakers’ platform, Moonanum James of the United American Indians of New England drew cheers by observing that “for the next few hours, at least, we have no war.” Simplistic as it sounded, it reinforced the senses of hope and solidarity that allowed so many people to politely share a comparatively small amount of space.

A New York Times reporter observed “a swelling crowd, packed densely to stave off the winter winds,” ignoring the fact that proximity was dictated by space, and that folks hardly were breathing down one another’s necks.

As the crowd began to move along the march route, we bottlenecked onto Independence Avenue, fitting many streams into the few that could fit abreast. I’d had a similar experience with vehicles the day before on the New Jersey Turnpike, but this, by contrast, was an essay in good spirits and politeness. And as we gained a slight hill near the Jefferson Memorial, I turned to see if I could locate the end of the line. I was looking at a half-mile stretch with a slight uphill; at the back of it was an unbroken thicket of sign-wielding bodies still surging off the Mall.

We walked with a few from the Albany contingent. Joe Quandt, an activist from Troy who visited Baghdad late last year, said he now has faces to add to what before was only a matter of conscience. “The Iraqi people I met have got to be the friendliest, most welcoming on Earth,” he said. “They know most Americans oppose a war. They know it’s just this crazy administration. But the war has already been going on for years in the form of sanctions. Thousands of kids are dying every month. That’s why I’m marching.”

A pair of marchers from Massachusetts walked on stilts in giant Uncle Sam outfits; a group of drummers kept up a syncopated rhythm on empty water-cooler bottles. It was a carnival, a celebration so heartfelt that the cold air was easy to ignore.

“Albany, NY: No War,” read a sign held by a Ed McCorry as he stood in the Pennsylvania Avenue median. He explained that he never bothered to find out about the buses—he hopped into his car and drove down for the event.

Turning down 8th Street en route to the Washington Navy Yard, we passed through a residential neighborhood. The sun hung low in the sky, and colder winds began poking through. Any open eatery was packed with the hungry. Pizza Bolis was sending out cheese pizzas ($5.50 for an eight-cut, no price gouging here) as fast as they could make them. “Our best day ever, I think,” one of the employees told me later. “I don’t how many pies we sold, but we usually do about 300 in takeout on a Saturday, and this was way, way more than that.”

A gaggle of buses began to flank the sides of New Jersey Avenue, the pickup place for everyone at the end of the march, and good spirits still prevailed as the mad search for the right coach commenced. The Albany people established a rendezvous corner at 2nd and K and reflected on the experience.

“I’m real pleased with the turnout,” said Tom Catchpole, who was last here for the Inauguration protest in 2001. “And this time, everybody’s watching,” added John Pagoda. “I like the fact that there are demonstrations going on worldwide right now.”

It was a natural move for Julie Belles, who won a share of local notoriety when she was thrown out of Crossgates Mall for wearing a shirt that displayed a peace message. “It’s absolutely incredible here,” she said. “So energizing and moving.”

While many of the protesters have been active for many years, this demonstration seems to have attracted more than its share of first-timers. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Karen Campbell. “Washington’s a cool place, and I’m opposed to just about all of Bush’s policies. I’m sure I’ll be back.”


When the People Lead

Is New York state ready for initiative and referendum?

Civic groups throughout New York would like to see Gov. George E. Pataki back up his words from the State of the State address asking the Legislature to give the state’s voters the power of initiative and referendum.

Currently, voters in 24 states have the power of initiative or referendum or both, processes that give citizens direct power to change the laws that govern them. Voters with the power of initiative can collect signatures and petition their government to hold a vote to create new laws or to amend ones already on the books. In 2002, for example, marijuana advocates in Nevada brought the state’s possession-of-marijuana law to a vote through the initiative process. The process of referendum requires a governing body, like a state Legislature or common council, to pass a specific measure prior to a public vote.

In his State of the State address, Pataki said he wanted to “empower voters with that fundamental right” this year, but New Yorkers aren’t holding their breath. Pataki’s office did not respond to inquiries about how he plans to put initiative or referendum to use in New York.

“That is the same old story with him,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “He has talked the talk, but he has never taken the first step to walk the walk.”

Groups like NYPIRG and Common Cause/NY say that is unfortunate, because initiative and referendum are sound public policies that give citizens the ability to correct representative governments that misrepresent their constituencies.

“The positive is that you are literally giving citizens the ability to pass their own legislation, to control their own situations,” said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause/NY. “For New Yorkers frustrated with the dysfunction in Albany, it could provide a forum for issues like campaign finance and term limits—certainly citizen frustration is reflected in those areas.”

Leon said sometimes voters need the powers of initiative and referendum to reform their laws when their elected officials won’t do it for them. She pointed to a longstanding dispute between the voters and the state legislators in Colorado regarding campaign-finance reforms.

In 1996, Colorado voters passed a referendum introducing campaign-finance reforms to its state Legislature via the initiative process. In the following years, the Colorado Legislature took the voter-approved amendments through the state’s court system, effectively weakening the reforms. But last year, Colorado voters again introduced the campaign-finance reforms through the initiative process and presented them as constitutional amendments that, once passed, would require voter approval to be overturned. The measures passed 66-to-34.

“It is a powerful tool,” Leon said “We’ve seen this happen in New York City, where citizens have passed publicly financed elections three times and the council just kept trying to overrule it. There are times where I think it really can give people an opportunity, but there are pros and cons.”

Leon pointed out that initiative and referendum are not cure-alls and noted that there are a number of cases nationally where the processes have seemed like politics as usual. A recent example was California’s Proposition 45, which set out to overturn the state’s term-limit requirements for state legislators, voted on in 2002. Proposition 45 was eventually voted down 58-to-42, but critics questioned the integrity of the proposition, saying that money notably influenced the process.

According to Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, petitioners are frequently paid to solicit signatures in California, and financial records showed that a campaign in favor of overturning term limits was heavily funded by legislative lobby groups.

“The donor list [for ‘Yes on 45’ included] interest groups that had a lot of stake in the Capitol and were trying to curry favor with the incumbents,” said Knox. “This wasn’t an issue that the incumbents felt [they] could have their fingerprints on, so all the usual suspects were headed up to fund the measure.”

But Knox stopped short of calling initiative and referendum a corrupted process, saying the glut of special interest money is a “mixed blessing.”

“The interest groups whose financial livelihood is at stake are going to invest one way or another,” Knox said. “There just needs to be clear financial disclosure and the public has to be able to sort through it.”

Horner said that voters in New York would benefit if given the power of initiative and referendum. He pointed to a study released by his group in 1998 showing that the average voter turnout in states with initiative and referendum, 56 percent, was greater than in states without, 46 percent. Considering that average voter turnout in New York from 1976 to 1996 was 44 percent and dropped to a record low of 39 percent in last year’s gubernatorial election, Horner said giving New York voters the power of initiative and referendum could give the state a civic boost it desperately needs.

“If the public wants to pass its own law because the Legislature is in gridlock, they should be allowed to do it,” Horner said. “In a democracy, letting the people occasionally choose their laws is not necessarily a bad idea.”

—Travis Durfee

Does Race Have a Place?

Rekindling the debate on affirmative action in college admissions

A few days before the national holiday remembering civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., President George W. Bush officially took sides against the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

On Jan. 15, Bush announced that his top attorneys would file a brief with the Supreme Court arguing in favor of four white students who claim the admissions policy used by the University of Michigan and its law school is discriminatory to nonminorities. The university employs a policy that takes race into consideration in order to create a diverse student body. Michigan uses an admissions formula that assigns points to prospective students; 20 out of the possible 150 points are based on students’ race.

Locally, Siena College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute responded to a Metroland inquiry into their affirmative-action admissions policies.

A representative from Siena said the college does not employ affirmative action in admissions, saying it views each applicant on an individual basis. Teresa Duffy, dean of enrollment at RPI, said the university attempts to vary its student body based on four “broadly defined” criteria: intellectual, geographic, gender and ethnic diversity. Duffy said the university’s enrollment policy admittedly looks to create a diverse campus, but student selection with that goal in mind is second to academic ability.

“We have specific [academic] policies that we don’t bend for anybody,” Duffy said. “When we’re looking at prospective students, we are looking first and foremost at a student who will thrive here.”

Duffy said the educational background needed to attend RPI can make meeting its goal of diversity that much more difficult.

“One of the things unique to [predominantly science- and technology-based] universities like Rensselaer,” Duffy said, “is that women and students of color are tremendously underrepresented in the students at the high-school level that are taking advanced science and math exams needed in order to even apply here.”

Duffy noted that the minority students often come from school districts that don’t prepare them to attend many colleges and universities, a point with which Mark Mishler, an Albany-based civil-rights attorney, agrees. Mishler said many minorities have historically been excluded from some of the privileges, like having alumni parents or having attended prep school, considered in college admissions. Mishler said affirmative action is necessary since some of these considerations are still used today.

“It is important to understand that people have historically been excluded from full participation in, among other things, higher education based on race, and that is a problem,” Mishler said. “Part of the solution to that problem has to be to consciously take consideration of race in order to correct what has been a direct exclusion based on race.”

Further, Mishler said affirmative action policies are necessary today to avoid further race- or gender-based injustice in the future.

“Colleges should take affirmative actions in regard to issues of race and class and gender,” Mishler said. “It is a myth that what we have in the absence of affirmative action is a system that is based solely on merit determinable in some objective, absolute manner.”

But critics of affirmative action, like Tom Wood, who sits on the Americans Against Discrimination and Preferences board of directors, claim that racial considerations have no place in college admissions. Wood said the problem with the University of Michigan’s admission policy is that racial preferences are the deciding factor and some students can be excluded based on race.

“If you can decide in favor of an individual on the basis of nonracial criteria, then preferences are not an issue,” Wood said. “[But] if you can’t make the decision in favor of an individual and you want [to admit] that individual for diversity or something like that and you have to use race [to make that decision], then it is by definition the deciding factor and I am opposed to it.”

To achieve the university’s goal of a diverse campus, Duffy said RPI will continue its affirmative-action policy. Since only 35 percent of all students admitted to RPI actually attend the university, Duffy said admissions decisions never boil down to having one spot open and having to decide between two students.

“College admissions on the undergraduate level is a funnel process,” Duffy said. “You have certain thousands of inquiries that result in far fewer applications that convert to admission that convert to a class. Anybody who says that at the undergraduate level comes down to choosing one student or the other, college admissions just doesn’t work that way.”


Teri Currie

Day for a King

Martin Luther King Jr. Day inspired a number of celebrations throughout the Capital Region. Jack Landron (pictured with guitar) was the keynote performer at the Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology elementary school’s Martin Luther King and Labor event with students. Landron, a civil rights activist, actor and songwriter, was formerly Dr. King’s personal assistant. At Monday’s event, he told stories and sang songs highlighting King’s commitment to workers and civil rights.

John Whipple

The March Before the March

Students, mothers, doctors, state workers, lawyers and children marched down State Street in Albany last Friday in a candlelight vigil to protest a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. The demonstrators marched to the state Capitol, where more than 250 people converged for a rally in which numerous speakers, singers, activists and poets voiced their opposition to war. The event was also a send-off rally for those traveling to Washington, D.C., for the national antiwar demonstration on Saturday, where a turnout of more than 300,000 people was reported, making it the largest war protest since the Vietnam War.

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