NEWARK – Community leaders, artists and activists are rallying to block efforts to remove renowned poet, playwright and activist Amiri Baraka as New Jersey’s poet laureate. Gov. James McGreevey, after recently appointing him to the post, called for his resignation after an outcry over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.”

In the poem, written just after Sept. 11, Baraka suggested Israel, along with Bush and leaders of other countries, had prior knowledge of the terrorist attacks and that Israel had told its workers to leave theWorld Trade Center. The Anti-Defamation League is spearheading the campaign to remove Baraka. Baraka has refused to apologize or resign.

Freedom of speech is a basic issue in the debate. Many are citing the poet’s right to express his view, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it. Even The New York Times, Oct. 2, editorialized against his removal.

At a recent press conference, Baraka told the crowd of 250 people that the charges are “dishonest, consciously distorted and insulting non-interpretation of my poem.”

He said the charges come from “right-wing zealots who are interested only in slander and character assassination of those whose views and philosophies differ from or are in contradiction to theirs.”

Baraka rejected the charge of anti-Semitism, insisting his aim was to criticize the Israeli government, arguing that to be against the government is not to be against the Jewish people. “When we criticize U.S. imperialism, does that make us enemies of Christianity?” he asked. “I was not saying Israel was responsible for the attack, but that they knew and our own counterfeit president did, too,” he explained.

Baraka said the poem’s focus is on “various forces of terror: Afro-Americans and other people of the world have suffered. The ADL disingenuously makes no mention of my probing into the creators of the Holocaust, i.e., ‘Who put the Jews in ovens / and who helped them do it.’ Nor do [they] mention the poem’s listing of some of the Jews across the world, oppressed, imprisoned, murdered by actual anti-Semitic forces, open or disguised. The poem asks ‘Who killed Rosa Luxemburg, Liebknecht / Who murdered the Rosenbergs / And all the good people iced, tortured, assassinated, vanished.’”

Observers noting the timing of the controversy suggested that behind the attack are the upcoming mid-term elections and an attempt to split the democratic vote and silence the voices of opposition to the war. In other parts of the country right-wing elements in the Jewish community joined the Republican right to defeat Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.)

Aware that neither McGreevey nor the N.J. Council for the Humanities can legally force Baraka to resign, the ultra right is now pushing the New Jersey legislature to pass a law that would enable the governor to dismiss the poet laureate. A mass mobilization is already under way in New Jersey and around the country in support of Baraka’s decision not to resign.

At a dinner to honor Baraka’s 68th birthday, Oct. 5, over 200 people jammed into Newark’s Pronto Cena Restaurant and gave the poet a standing ovation. Petitions are being circulated to promote his First Amendment rights. Baraka called for a united front against the war and to defend democracy. He urged everyone to send e-mails and letters to the governor’s office and the New Jersey legislature.

“I’m just doing my job,” Baraka said, “bringing attention to poetry. No one can say this has not brought more attention to poetry.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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