Tony Norman: Black peace group ends vigils but not effort

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In the decade since the local chapter of Black Voices for Peace began a vigil every Saturday from 1 to 2 p.m. at the intersection of Penn and Highland avenues, it has never missed a week.

The extremes of weather may have slowed foot and car traffic through East Liberty's busy shopping corridor, but even the coldest winter in memory wasn't enough to deter the group's witness against the folly of America's two longest-running wars.

Since May 17, 2004, Black Voices for Peace has fielded at least one person at the appointed hour with a sign denouncing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of those driving by or idling at the light would honk support or shout a pro-war sentiment.

Either response was fine by Gail Austin, one of the chapter's founding members. The very presence of Black Voices for Peace was a catalyst for a much-needed discussion in the African-American community about the politics of war and peace.

Thanks to supporters and friends in other peace groups, the vigils attracted as many as 100 people who agreed with the group's central message -- that the wars were extracting too high a cost in blood and treasure.

Black Voices for Peace began its weekly witness during the first term of President George W. Bush, and it will have its last regularly scheduled Saturday protest two years into President Barack Obama's second term -- 10 years to the day since the vigils began.

Neither a false optimism based on the fact that American military occupation of two countries is winding down, nor despair over the fact that Mr. Obama has increased drone attacks around the world, influenced this week's end to the vigils, Ms. Austin insisted. The group is merely shifting strategies. It is not conceding to the forces of indifference.

"We feel that in that 10 years, we've accomplished so much," Ms. Austin said. "We felt we've used the vigil to inform as many people as we could about the war and its costs, particularly its consequences and impact on the black community. We feel we've been successful."

Along with the weekly vigil, Black Voices for Peace has taken its message to area high schools and other public forums. Ms. Austin said that raising the profile of the anti-war debate in Pittsburgh's black community was always its primary mission.

"We never saw this as an anti-Bush, anti-Obama debate," she said. "It was all about ending the wars. We take our inspiration from Martin Luther King's April 4, 1967, speech at Riverside Church."

Ms. Austin was referring to the famous anti-war speech that alienated MLK from many of his allies in the civil rights struggle who embraced the American military as the nation's most egalitarian organization at the time.

"It's the speech where Dr. King said that silence [on the Vietnam war] is really consent," she said.

"Obama ran as an anti-war candidate and he's still perceived as such," Ms. Austin said, indicating that she's not in that camp. "Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan. The role of private contractors has gotten bigger in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Bush years there were 51 drone strikes in Pakistan. Under Obama, there have been 450 strikes."

She added, "Obama has made no bones about the fact American citizens can be killed without due process. He is not an anti-war president."

Ms. Austin said that no one in her anti-war group anticipated they would still be at the same intersection a decade later, holding up signs decrying the estimated $4 trillion to $6 trillion combined cost of both wars and the terrible human cost on all sides.

Still, bringing an end to the Saturday vigil after a decade feels like the right time to shift gears and develop new strategies for getting the group's message out, especially to Pittsburgh's black community. Vigils will still take place, but they will be confined to benchmark occasions.

Though she is often quoted in the media, Ms. Austin said the group doesn't have an official spokesperson or leader. It has always included Aisha White, Fred Logan, Carlos Brossard, Mensah Wali, Mike Matabambanozo, Arthur Young and herself, and they will try as a group to figure out their next move.

Oddly enough, Black Voices for Peace doesn't have a blog, a Twitter account or any other social media presence. This is something the group knows it will have to change to remain relevant to the ongoing conversation.

"We feel too seriously about these issues not to continue speaking out," Ms. Austin said.

Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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