At least until the end of June, when notoriously shallow Lake Erie becomes a heat sink, cool breezes soothe Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo’s West Side. There may be a heat wave a few blocks inland, but keep to the shore and you’ll find relief. And so it was on June 17: As the region suffered a 90-degree afternoon and the now-routine ozone alert, people flocked to the water: boaters on the Niagara River, picnickers in Buffalo’s Front Park, bikers along Ontario’s beautiful Niagara Parkway.
But on the Canadian side, only a few hundred yards/meters from the river, the political temperature rose a few degrees. It was because of a festival of resistance – “War Has No Borders” - aimed at boosting support for US military resisters now living in Canada and seeking formal asylum there, and fostering even greater crossborder opposition to the patently illegal and immoral US war in Iraq.
The two-day event began June 16 with a long evening program at Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall, and finished up the next afternoon with a rally in a Fort Erie park to showcase the resisters, their families, and their cause. Liz Henderson and I went to both events. The program at Kleinhans dragged on a little – largely because headliner Cindy Sheehan, the famed antiwar activist and mother of a young man killed in Iraq just over two years ago, got delayed in transit. Rumors floated through the audience that Sheehan was getting the same treatment Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams got a few months back, when security geeks held him up at a DC airport, preventing him from speaking at an Irish-American event in Buffalo. But Sheehan finally did make it to the hall, and she gave a brisk, inspiring talk. Her message stays on the money: George W. Bush (she calls him and his aides “boils” on the butt-y politic that need to be politically lanced) is responsible for the death of her son, Casey, and must be held accountable for this and, of course, their larger war crimes.
The Kleinhans program also featured Air America personality Barry Crimmins, a Boston-based stand-up satirist now with the Randi Rhodes radio show. Crimmins set the tone by recalling he grew up in Skaneateles (“an Indian name that means ‘beautiful lake surrounded by fascists”), and he continued delivering zinger after zinger. Check out his website, www.barrycrimmins.com.
But I was most impressed by some other activists who took the podium. Among these was Vietnam combat vet David Cline, a Buffalo native now based in Jersey City who serves as president of the national Veterans for Peace organization. (Disclosure: I’m a once a future member of VFP – gotta get my dues paid up.) Then there was Michael McPhearson, VFP’s national CEO, an African-American vet of Gulf War I. He was not the only one present to sigh about the numbering scheme. I silently asked myself, Will we have to live with the state-fascist equivalent of “One, Two, Many Gulf Wars”?
Delivering a very emotional talk was Buffalo resident Bruce Beyer, who resisted the Vietnam War in his younger days, was busted by US stormtroopers for draft resistance and subsequently spent five years in exile in Canada. Beyer obviously hasn’t given up working for peace. In fact, he’s made news in Buffalo in recent years for his work against Junior ROTC in the city schools. Specifically, he’s taken on school administrators who’d quietly imposed the equivalent of a JROTC draft – preemptively enrolling students unless and until parents took the initiative to “opt out.” Nice message from the administrators to their charges, right? As the nation’s schools struggle with internal violence (cf. this week’s series in the Democrat and Chronicle), US society, represented by putative “educators,” preps young people for organized violence on a global scale.
The high point of the program came when Beyer literally embraced an antagonist from the old days: Stephen Banko III, a highly decorated combat vet who after returning from Vietnam peddled very hawkish views in the media. Banko, who now heads the Buffalo HUD office, confessed to the audience that back then he was acting out of PTSD and alcoholism. As his appearance at Kleinhans makes clear, Banko has come around 180 degrees – and dealt decisively with his addictions.
Another high point: the appearance of Geoffrey Millard, a Lockport resident and National Guard alum who now heads the Buffalo-area chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. (See www.ivaw.net.) It’s great to see the torch of peacemaking and resistance passed to the new generation.
Over in Fort Erie on Saturday, the rally turnout wasn’t big, but the energy was palpable. The afternoon was filled with music, of course, and you could feel an undercurrent of crossborder solidarity that promises greater levels of resistance to come. Several military resisters, including Virginian Ivan Brobeck and Texan Brandon Hughey, told how time in Iraq had clarified the moral questions for them and compelled them to leave the US. (You’ll find a gallery and bios of the resisters, plus other useful information, at www.resisters.ca.) I always think it’s odd these soldiers, some of whom remain proud patriots, are called “deserters.” In reality, they haven’t abandoned or avoided things - they’ve engaged themselves more deeply than almost anyone else in fighting against this war.
One nagging thought: I couldn’t but notice that more Canadians are involved, certainly in proportional terms, in the active GI resistance than Americans are. As several speakers noted, Western New York (and I’d add the Genesee Region) has a special responsibility. Part of this is location: We live at the border, so we’ve got to step up. Another part is history: Our communities were important stations on the Underground Railway. And it’s past time to create a successor network. Anyone looking for, say, a Harriet Tubman award? It’s worth remembering that Tubman lived on both sides of the US-Canada border, of necessity – and that her last home was in Auburn, a stone’s throw from Skaneateles.