One such grouping I have had the privilege to be a part of these past five years is the Strength in Unity contingent. Made up of people and organizations of color in the San Francisco Bay Area, we came together in 2002 to march and protest against the war.
Why would people and organizations of color – Arab, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, and African American – feel the need to march together in a separate contingent at the anti-war demonstrations?
The quick answer is: because there’s Strength in Unity! By which I mean that our shared histories and voices merit a specific safe space that we ourselves can only define together. Many of us come from refugee and immigrant communities that have experienced the brunt of U.S. military intervention and occupation. Many of us have ancestral roots that can be traced back to U.S. slavery and indigenous genocide and displacement. Like Iraqi women, children, and men, many of our peoples know too well what the rape, torture, murder, bombs, chemical weapons, and invasion and control of U.S. forces look like.
Take my story. I am Vietnamese American. It was less than 40 years ago that the U.S. tried to bomb my people back to the Stone Age, as U.S. General LeMay declared, for standing up for Viet Nam’s sovereignty and resisting U.S. occupation and influence. My working-class mother – a single parent – is a refugee from this U.S. war on Viet Nam and has worked in a factory here in the states for nearly thirty years making no more than twelve dollars an hour. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four years old that my mother spoke of the consequences of war, describing how she had to suck from an orange peel to stay alive coming to the states.
When I recently learned that four million Iraqis have been uprooted since the U.S. war on Iraq began in 2003, I immediately thought of my refugee mother and the suffering and trauma she endured from U.S. war not too long ago.
It is from these kinds of real memories of U.S. war and terror that we come together in Strength in Unity. It is from ongoing struggles we experience living in the states that we also unite as people and communities of color for immigrant rights, affordable housing, better schools, free healthcare, and fair employment.
We connect the issues we face here to the war in Iraq knowing, like Congresswoman Barbara Lee, that it is out of this world for the U.S. to spend trillions of dollars on an illegal war while 37 million Americans live in poverty and over 47 million live without health insurance. Or in the wise rhymes of Tupac Shakur: They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor. This on top of unjust deportations, raids, and detentions that many families in our communities have suffered through since 9/11.
So there we were, five years later, marking the 5th anniversary of the war on March 19, 2008 with our footprints and international chants from downtown San Francisco to 24th and Mission. Like the wider peace movement, our Strength in Unity contingent has experienced its own ebbs and flows. At the height of the ANSWER-sponsored demonstrations in 2003 and 2004 nearly a thousand of us marched together, led by the beat of Korean drummers and the music of Loco Bloco.
This year our contingent was about 300 people strong. A lot smaller than prior marches, but a microcosm of our dire state of affairs, where people don’t feel it makes a difference to march. I empathize with this feeling, because those in power have proven that they will act in arrogance and with total disregard of what most Americans desire and need. But as a semi-veteran of this generation’s anti-war marches, there’s a real spirited and contagious energy that I only experience when our contingent is out in the street stomping feet, pumping fist, and collectively chanting songs like, One! We are the People! Two! A little bit Louder! Three! We want Justice for the Third World! And again!
Organized by Bayan USA and the International League of People’s Struggle, our contingent this year included more than ten Bay Area youth and community organizations representing Arab community members, Asian and Pacific Islander youth, no and low-wage workers of color, Filipino students, Latina women, children and youth, and white allies.
My task that day was to help with security for the back of our contingent. There, I met women from the community group Mujeres Unidas y Activas, some of whom brought along their young children. I walked the majority of the march next to a young Latina mother who pushed her 18 month-old daughter in a stroller while her young son, no more than six years old, followed nearby. Even as the sky got darker and the air cooler, they walked the entire 2.5 miles of the march.
Although our contingent wasn’t as upbeat and tightly organized as past years, seeing this young Latina mother and her two little kids helped me realize how critical it is for us people of color to continue to march and voice our opposition to the war, especially now when no clear signs of better days are near.
And while I came out to the fifth anniversary of the war to march for peace in Iraq and for its peoples, I left understanding that it’s not just about them. It’s about us – people of color – marching for our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, our children, our ancestors. We march to remind ourselves that we are still sane, that we haven’t lost all hope for humanity.
So when the next time you think of the U.S. peace movement, I hope you hear us calling you to: Rise up, Rise up, Rise up! Rise up, My People, Rise up!!!
Tony V. Nguyen is the Asian and Pacific American community program coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org) in Oakland. A member of VietUnity (www.vietunity.org), a progressive Vietnamese community group, Tony helped organize Strength in Unity contingents with the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition Against War from 2002 to 2007. He can be reached at tvnguyen [at] afsc.org.
 Report: World ignoring Iraqi refugee crisis: http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/03/20/iraq.main/
 America’s economy is a war casualty by Barbara Lee: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/03/21/EDP7VNC0J.DTL&hw=barbara+lee&sn=006&sc=305