“Drums are a heartbeat,” explained Deborah Guerrero, before she helped launch the Veterans for Peace national conference today in the Twin Cities with her open-throated, open-hearted indigenous songs. And you could feel it...the heartbeats of veterans and those who support them, pounding in unison as the energy of being in community, in family, grew and enveloped us. She sang and drummed an “honor song,” paying tribute and giving back to those who have given so much. “Bless this path we all walk together,” she sang, and I envisioned the hundreds gathered together at the Ramada hotel—just across the way from that icon of excess: the Mall of America—garnering collective courage, walking together toward the common goal of peace.
And then Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), whose spirit name is “Thunder Before the Storm,” talked about his warrior father, a veteran of World War I, who taught him it was the responsibility of those in the tribe to feed those who didn’t have a father or big brother to feed them. “We didn’t wait for the last Thursday of November,” he said. “For us, every day of the month and every month of the year was Thanksgiving.” Bellecourt said his brother who fought in World War II, carried the war with him until he died of alcoholism—an escape too many veterans seek.
And then he invited seven representatives to come forward and smoke the sacred peace pipe with him as world champion Native American drummers echoed more heartbeats.
It was the perfect start to what promises to be a memorable experience.
It is fitting that this conference began on this, the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 80th anniversary of the day the government recognized that women had the right to vote. Michael McPhearson, Executive Director of Veterans for Peace, said it is no coincidence that these anniversaries come at a time when we had a Black man and a woman running for president and a Black man (McPhearson) standing before us as executive director of a predominantly white organization introducing a woman (Kelly Dougherty) who serves as executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)—a predominantly male organization. It is a reminder, said McPhearson, that our rights belong to us—they are not the government’s to give.
Kelly Dougherty had just come back from the Democratic National Convention in Denver. She described the amazing victory IVAW had there when they teamed up with the popular band “Rage Against the Machine” at the Denver Coliseum to deliver their message of peace to an audience of 9,000. “We announced from the stage that we were leading a march (unpermitted) to the DNC at the Pepsi Center. It started out with about 3,500 and grew to 8,000-10,000.” Dougherty said it was their intention to deliver a letter to Barack Obama stating the goals of IVAW and asking him—the purported anti-war candidate—to endorse their stances on veterans’ rights and issues. She described being blown away by the cooperation of the police, who escorted them to the Pepsi Center and their ability to deliver their letter to Obama staff. Her victory was shared by the audience who rose as one to give her—and IVAW—the standing ovation they so deserve.
Father Roy Bourgeois, a cofounder of the School of America watch, described his first time in jail as a “sacred” experience. “When we are compelled to follow our conscience, we are free,” he said, reminding us of Bishop Romero’s words: “Let those who have a voice speak for those whose voices have been taken away. Let those who have a voice work for justice.” Those who gather together at this conference as veterans and peacemakers have a voice, he said. It is up to us to speak clearly and boldly in the difficult days ahead.
Folksinger and peace activist Larry Long concluded the opening ceremony with stories of his own journey as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and peace activist with a song he wrote for his friend, John, who died from complications of Agent Orange exposure last year. “I thought the war was over, but the war has just begun for my wife and children; for the ones I love. They said there was no danger; this I did believe. I was bound to serve my country. My country ‘tis of thee.”
For the hundreds of Vets for Peace and those who support them--witnesses of too much war and too much pain—the war and the world is too much with them. But their voices—those brave and strong voices who dare speak truth to power—are coming together here at this conference, singing their songs of peace and hope. And their hearts—their warrior hearts that ache with the heavy burdens they bear—beat together in a unified drumbeat they hope the world will hear.