Wednesday, November 23, 2011

At the Movies: Rising Up Down South

The myriad marches, sit-ins, camp-ins and other protest demonstrations sweeping across America these days didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Such actions against entrenched injustice were honed in the civil rights movement that shook up authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. That movement energized and inspired a groundswell of grassroots movements against the war in Vietnam, for women’s liberation from stultifying traditions, against environmental destruction and for safer working conditions, among other heated issues of the time.  

For those who’ve forgotten or never knew what that earlier era of dissent was about, I’d recommend viewing You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South, a documentary by Lucy Massie Phenix that’s just been re-released on DVD. This is the story of a nonviolent uprising that effectively challenged racial discrimination laws, night-riding Ku Klux Klan gunmen, police who beat African American citizens trying to register to vote, blatant dumping of industrial waste into water supply streams and other arrogantly authoritarian customs of the time in southern states still clinging—a century later—to calcified attitudes of the post-Civil War era.  

 “This film brought me face to face again with some of the people I most admire, those 'ordinary,' 'plainfolks’ people who see the wrong that exists so clearly they can't rest without doing something about it,” Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, said of this film.  The black and white activists profiled in the film are down to earth, still feisty despite advancing age, and memorably articulate about what spurred them into action.

“There comes a time when people stop thinking about what happened to them and start thinking about what they are going to make happen,” said a woman involved in the civil rights movement, which repeatedly took a beating in sit-ins, marches, bus rides and bus boycotts until federal laws were changed and Southern states elected a different assortment of public officials—many of whom today are African Americans, whose ancestors were denied the right to vote.  

“I learned that you don’t quit when you’re denied—you keep on going and try something else,” said another protest organizer, who banded together with fed-up neighbors and backpacking college students in an effort to save a landmark mountain in Kentucky from being deforested, blasted and bulldozed into a massive strip mine for coal.

“We can’t leave it up to somebody else to save it. We’ve got to. We’ve got to say ‘no more,’” said a third activist who helped lead a community revolt against the dumping of hazardous chemical wastes in a remote Appalachian corner of Tennessee.  

The DVD of Phenix’s 1985 documentary was recently released by Milliarium Zero, a New Jersey based distributor of independent American and foreign art films and social issues documentaries. With an eye on attracting the current generation of students and teachers, the DVD version “memorializes the 50th anniversary of the Albany Movement — a landmark in the history of American civil rights activism — which was led by students, including Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of the a cappella group Sweet Honey In the Rock and a nationwide leader for human rights) who appears in the film,” notes the distributors.

As the documentary shows through period film clips, photos, folk songs and flashbacks by an array of participants, challenging authority to change from protecting exploitative practices to championing democratic improvements on the premise of the Declaration of Independence has a deeply inspirational, illustrative history in this country. 

For more information:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Planting a Peace Pole

Jules Orkin and Puffin Peace Pole

Dedicating a Peace Pole at a community cultural center in Teaneck, NJ drew a small crowd of local officials, school children and war veterans the other day.

The carved wood pole was dedicated at the Puffin Foundation, as a band from Thomas Jefferson Middle School played and adults took turns exhorting the students and a television audience via a cable news program to help advance a cause that is often hard to hear in a nation engaged in seemingly perpetual war in various corners of the world.

“A world without war is a universal desire by untold millions of people,” Puffin Foundation Executive Director Gladys Miller-Rosenstein said on behalf of herself and her husband Perry Rosenstein, a retired industrialist and noted philanthropist. “We have sought to have our voices for peace heard. We have erected a ‘Peace Pole’ on our property. This pole will be shared by many young and old, who will take part in the varied cultural activities at our Forum. … There are presently 264 peace sites throughout New Jersey. We are proud to be one of the new sites in our state.”

“This is a community peace pole,” added Neil Rosenstein, vice president of the Puffin Foundation. “Peace is only achieved through community.” One of the community leaders, School Superintendent Barbara Pinsak, praised the Rosensteins—whose foundation assists local and regional arts programs, conservation and environmental education programs, as well as social action and investigative journalism projects—as role models. 

“This is one of the things I am very proud to welcome to Teaneck,” said state Senator Loretta Weinberg, a well-known champion for a substantial agenda of domestic issues. “May peace prevail on Earth,” she said, quoting the message on the pole, which is printed in eight languages. “It is not an easy goal. It’s a long struggle.”

The idea of planting a peace pole at the Puffin Foundation, which hosts an eclectic collection of outdoors sculpture, was proposed by Jules Orkin, a member of Veterans For Peace, Chapter 21 New Jersey. A retired bookstore owner from neighboring Bergenfield, Orkin was named a Puffin Peace Fellow earlier this year in recognition of his participation in numerous peace walks, vigils and civil disobedience actions in protest of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his comments, Orkin proposed organizing “a walk between peace poles,” such as the annual walk in neighboring Leonia between peace poles at the high school and the Methodist Church to mark the United Nations International Day of Peace. And then he was off to pack for a peace walk from Atlanta, Georgia to Ft. Benning, Georgia to protest the training program based there for military officers from Latin American nations that until recently were bastions of military dictatorships.

Walt Nygard, vice president of Veterans For Peace Chapter 21, spoke about transforming Veterans Day to the original, peacemaking intent of Armistice Day.   

Township Councilwoman Barbara Toffler offered an historic note of hope for peaceful change in the world. “There is a legacy of peace in Teaneck,” she said, holding up a copy of Teaneck High School’s 1959 yearbook. “The Class of 1959 dedicated its yearbook to peace,” she said, reading from that dedication, composed amid the Cold War nuclear missile stand-off with the Soviet Union by students who were born during World War II.

Peace Poles grew out of a project of The World Peace Prayer Society that began in Japan in 1955 as a response to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For more information:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Weather Wise

Oct. 29, 2011  Teaneck, NJ  (photo/Jan Barry)

Early Warning

Winter dropped from the October sky
Two days before Halloween—
Tree branches smothered in snow
On summer leaves snapping deep into the night
Made darker by downed power lines

Global warming! skeptics scoffed—
As this part of suburban civilization
Staggered for days without electricity,
Closed schools, postponed Halloween
Until tangled wires and lives are restored

--Jan Barry

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Celebrating Drew Cameron’s Healing Art

Drew Cameron
Remarks I gave at “Envisioning Tomorrow,” the Printmaking Center of New Jersey's awards dinner at the Somerville Elks Lodge, Bridgewater, NJ on November 12. The center honored Drew Cameron, the co-founder and co-director of Combat Paper, “a touring project with a compelling mission to use the healing power of art to transform the shattered lives of young veterans.”

I first encountered Drew Cameron three years ago at Rutgers University, where I was teaching a journalism class. He and several fellow Combat Papermakers were conducting workshops at the Brodsky Center in New Brunswick, turning military uniforms into posters and chapbooks of art and poetry, culminating in a jam-packed poetry reading. I went to the first workshop intending to spend a day—and ended up returning all week, intrigued by the interaction of vets, students, art instructors and passersby.

Though my intention was to observe and write about this fascinating project, I was pulled into the middle of it by Drew’s infectious invitation to join in. Presented the opportunity to cut up a desert warfare uniform, I found it very satisfying to disassemble an official symbol of military might. I wished I still had one of my Vietnam uniforms to slice up!

Many veterans have returned from war so angry, disillusioned, disgusted that they threw their uniforms away. After serving in Iraq, Drew decided to slice his war uniform off while filming his defiant act of performance art and turning the startling images into postcards and posters. This angry artwork was hand-printed on paper made of rag pulp from the shredded uniform. The genius of this idea to physically transform a war uniform into primary elements of papermaking art is that it is cathartic, as well as creative.

Through Drew’s networking and prodigious traveling, Combat Paper workshops and their thought-provoking art have appeared at scores of colleges and arts institutions across the USA and overseas. He has planted seeds of this cathartic art in many places and woven a new social fabric linking many war-torn hearts. As Drew notes on the Combat Paper web site: “From each new participant, I take a piece of fabric and mix it into the lineage pulp. This pulp is then mixed in with each new batch of pulp, so a little piece of each vet’s uniform is in every new piece of paper made.”
Another participant in the Rutgers workshops who also was deeply touched by the experience that Drew offers vets is Eli Wright. Eli has followed Drew’s path by serving as Co-Director of the Printmaking Center’s Combat Paper Program. As Eli said three years ago: “We’re all going through many changes in this project… I was a medic. I enlisted in the military to save lives, not take them. … This project saves lives, it gives us direction—to find we can build bridges and tear down those walls and remake sense of our lives.”

What an arts project—to inspire war veterans to live more creatively. Last year, I dropped by a Combat Paper workshop at the Printmaking Center and ended up hand-making, hand-printing and hand-stitching a chapbook of new poems I wrote, that were inspired by conversations with Drew and other Combat Papermakers. Last winter, I traveled to Buffalo, NY in a snowstorm to work with Drew on a poster for an arts event I was organizing. Here’s the result—a poster designed by Drew that highlights key words in my “Costs of War” poem by using an amazing woodcut design printed on recycled military uniforms.

For such hands-on, hands-down creative work that has inspired so many people through art, I’m honored to present Drew Cameron with PCNJ’s Erena Rae Award in Art and Social Justice!    

For more information:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Saving America

Harvard law prof''s message
Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have a lot in common, not least of which is an historic mission to save the America that every public school class, politician and public officeholder pledges allegiance to. That’s the message that Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig is taking around the country in lectures, blogs and a new book titled Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.

Lessig is a former Reagan Republican and Obama Democrat whose latest foray into the political sphere has been hailed as “the manifesto of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” That is how he was introduced recently to a large audience at Ramapo College of New Jersey that crowded into an evening lecture swollen with students at the state college in Mahwah, NJ and senior citizens from surrounding suburban communities.

These days in the United States created by our revered Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Franklin, our “government is an embarrassment to most of us,” Lessig thundered, undeterred by a faulty sound system. “This is not an issue of Left or Right,” he added, noting that nearly 90 percent of the American people have lost confidence in Congress, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  

In a Huffington Post blog posted a few days earlier, Lessig summarized his on-the-road lecture in three concise points: 

“For there is a common ground between the anger of the Left and the anger of the Right: That common ground is a political system that does not work. A government that is not responsive, or -- in the words of the Framers, the favorite source of insight for our brothers on the Right -- a government that is not, as Federalist 52 puts it, ‘dependent upon the People alone.’

“Because this government is not dependent upon ‘the People alone.’ This government is dependent upon the Funders of campaigns. 1% of America funds almost 99% of the cost of political campaigns in America. Is it therefore any surprise that the government is responsive first to the needs of that 1%, and not to the 99%?

“This government, we must chant, is corrupt. We can say that clearly and loudly from the Left. They can say that clearly and loudly from the Right. And we then must teach America that this corruption is the core problem -- it is the root problem -- that we as Americans must be fighting.”

In his campus lecture in New Jersey, Lessig drew a big round of applause when he said: “Revolutions happen in waves. The first wave was the 2008 election of Obama [who eloquently addressed this problem as a candidate]. Wave two was the Tea Party movement. The third crest is the Occupy Wall Street movement. My view is that each of these waves is linked. Each of these waves is driven by the grassroots.”

In his book, Lessig cites numerous studies showing the massive flows of corporate money cascading into congressional election campaigns and fielding armies of lobbyists flooding the halls, hearing rooms and offices of Congress in recent years. This money was used to buy votes or influence to tilt government policies and actions to financially favor the funders’ economic interests, he argues.

“My sense is that too many on the Right make the same mistake as many on the Left. They assume that change happens when you win enough votes in Congress,” he wrote. Not so, he argues, because “the current system of campaign funding radically benefits the status quo—the status quo for private interests and the status quo of the Fund-raising Congress.” That’s why both Republicans and Democrats in Congress voted to bail out Wall Street banks whose unregulated gambling spree drove the national economy over a cliff, he argues. And now both Obama and his Republican presidential opponents are trolling for mega-buck Wall Street donations to their campaigns.

Lessig’s proposed solution is to marshal a movement of “nonpolitician candidates” in both Democratic and Republican primaries to challenge congressional incumbents, support a new crop of reform presidential candidates, and mount a grassroots campaign for a constitutional convention with a mandate to limit the amount of money anyone can contribute to a candidate for Congress.

“I’m not sure that any of these strategies would work,” Lessig told Rolling Stone in a recent interview, “but if there is one that will work, it will have to be on different territory than the one lobbyists and members of congress now control. I think that the real challenge is we’re not used to exercising power as citizens anymore. We’ve been passive listeners to television commercials for too long, and not really active producers of democracy.”

To help spur civic activism on this issue, Lessig co-founded a nonprofit organization called Fix Congress First, which promotes an activist project call Rootstrikers that does outreach via a website, facebook and twitter.

For more information: