WASHINGTON — Whether the topic was violence in Baghdad or the lack of funds to rebuild New Orleans, the theme at the Congressional Black Caucus 36th Legislative Conference Sept. 6-9 was “changing course,” as the title of the meeting put it.
Speakers stressed that the change must begin Nov. 7 with a huge vote to end right-wing Republican control of the House and Senate. An estimated 20,000 people jammed the cavernous Washington Convention Center to hear that message.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) opened a special issues forum Sept. 8 titled “The Iraq war: what went wrong?” with a blast at President George W. Bush for transferring 14 detainees from secret CIA detention sites around the world to the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba.
“If they can go to a country that they have embargoed and set up a prisoner of war camp, then you have to believe it can happen to you,” Rangel said. “Some believe what the president or Cheney or Rumsfeld say is true because they say it.”
Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) thanked CBC members for standing against the war from the beginning. “I’m way behind these folks. I made a mistake,” said Murtha, a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran who voted for the resolution authorizing the war.
“I go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center almost every week,” he said. “I see young people there blown apart, kids without arms and legs, faces blown away. At first they said, ‘Send me back. I want to be with my buddies.’ Now they are saying, ‘Bring my buddies home.’”
He scorned “chickenhawks” who send the working poor to die. “These guys sit on their fat backsides here in Washington saying, ‘stay the course’ — Karl Rove, Dick Cheney who got five draft deferments” during the Vietnam War. Murtha said 79.9 percent of a flood of messages support his decision to speak out against the war. “We need to change direction. I’ve called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 Riverside Church speech that the “bombs falling on Hanoi are exploding in our ghettoes.” Added Jackson, “There is nothing today bigger than the war. We can, by Nov. 7, change the course of our nation with our votes.” A victory in ending Republican control of the House, he continued, “would make John Conyers the head of the Judiciary Committee and Bush would be facing impeachment.”
The Rev. James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church said the Iraq war “flunks the test” of a “just war” on every count. The basic lesson of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack “is that war is obsolete in the age of globalization. … Peace is the way of faith.”
He turned to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), calling her “our angel of peace” for casting the lone vote against a resolution just days after 9/11 giving Bush carte blanche to resort to military force in the “war against terrorism.”
Lee was greeted with a standing ovation. She told the throng: “What went wrong was that Congress voted to let Bush do as he wished in the name of the war on terrorism. We have to continually remind the nation of what went wrong. Our nation and the world, quite frankly, are less safe because of this president and his unnecessary, immoral war.”
She pointed out that Bush recently reaffirmed his “doctrine of pre-emptive war” that has cost 2,300 soldiers dead, countless Iraqis dead and injured, and $400 billion.
“Twenty-three percent of African Americans are living in poverty and we have tax cuts for the wealthy,” Lee said. “This war is costing our children a chance at a quality education. Four hundred billion for an unjust war! The challenge is that we insist that we bring the troops home now. ”
Lee blasted the Bush administration’s “fear and smear” campaign in the 2006 elections, where its spokesmen compare war critics to “appeasers” of Nazi Germany. “We’ve got to beat back these scurrilous attacks,” she said. “Peace is patriotic. We’ve got to tell them we’re going to right these wrongs at the ballot box in November. We’re going to hold them accountable. And we’re going to take back the White House in two years.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) chaired a session on financial services that focused on the struggle to rebuild New Orleans. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told the overflow crowd that one year after Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of residents are still waiting for promised federal help.
“There’s $12 billion earmarked for Louisiana but no formula on how much of that is going to be spent in New Orleans, which sustained 60 percent of the damage,” Nagin said. There was a promise of $150,000 per household in federal funds to rebuild homes flooded by the breaching of the levees, he added. “Many have not received a dime of that federal money. They set up this process and created this bureaucracy and the affect is to discourage people from applying.”