New York, NY – May 1, 2007. Movement for a Democratic Society is a direct action organization that provides a vehicle for organizers who believe in participatory democracy (PD) and a multi-issue approach. In the last few months MDS organizers have been active in a variety of locations: Austin and Arlington, Texas; Baltimore and Bel Air, Maryland; Denver; Orlando; Palm Springs; Philadelphia; Michoachan (Mexico); Louisville, Kentucky; Northwest Arkansas, and; Staten Island, New York. On Staten Island, MDS organizers are working with community members and Peace Action Staten Island (PASI) – for social justice and an end to the permanent war mentality of the current US administration. MDS organizers in Staten Island find themselves in the middle of a very active campaign to raise consciousness in their community – and in their Congressman: Representative Vito Fossella (R, NY). While MDS works in the community, student activists at the College of Staten Island (CSI) are working on their campus – and these two groups of organizers are now supporting each other.
Peace Action Staten Island (PASI) is a very active, very dynamic local group that has been organizing vigils against the war and marching for peace for over four years. Recently the group moved into nonviolent direct action – in response to Congressman Vito Fossella’s outright refusal to meet with this group which is composed exclusively of his constituents. MDS members Tom Good, Elaine Brower, Ben Maurer and Devra and Mike Morice worked on the campaign that produced an occupation of Fossella’s Staten Island office on March 23, 2007. Five members of PASI were arrested in Fossella’s office – for reading the names of the US war dead while awaiting a meeting with Fossella. Elaine Brower, Tom Good, Sally Jones, Ben Maurer and Barbara Walker were charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. A short time later the group acquired the nickname “The Fossella Five” and launched a campaign, demanding Fossella drop the charges – and agree to meet with them.
Tom Good was a student organizer at the the College of Staten Island circa 1983-85. His first journey back to his alma mater happened a few days after the the Fossella action arrest, on March 27th. The occasion was a teach-in organized by two young students: Jennifer Weppler and Tiffany Schwabacher. Weppler and Schwabacher were assisted by two of their professors: Mike Foley and John Lawrence.
“Last semester we went to an event on campus organized by Professor Lawrence; it included a panel of speakers ranging from solders’ mothers to a conscientious objector. It was at this event that I realized I wanted to do something more. At this event we learned about war protest in D.C in January; which we went to through Peace Action Staten Island. Being at the protest was an amazing event. Just seeing so many different people come together and express the overall same view was inspiring. I wanted to be apart of more protests, and become involved in more activities that worked towards ending the war,” said Tiffany Schwabacher, describing how she became involved in organizing the CSI event.
The CSI teach-in featured Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and Matt Daloisio and Carmen Trotta from Witness Against Torture. It was well attended and inspirational for the attendees, as well as the organizers.
“Jenn (Weppler) and I both experienced a few difficulties along the way, but with the help of both Professor Lawrence and Professor Foley, we were able to get everything together. Jenn and I decided to do this ourselves. We approached both professors with the idea and asked for their help. Since we were just two students and not a part of a club on campus we were told in the early stages of this, that we needed the backing of a professor. Students on campus can not come together and organize any type of event with out being in a club or getting the approval and support from a professor. Most of the paperwork had to go through either Professor Foley, or Professor Lawrence, while Jenn and I spoke to both of them about our ideas. Without their help, this event probably would have taken a lot longer to put together,” Schwabacher said.
At the event, Veteran activist Kelly spoke movingly about her experiences in Iraq – meeting ordinary US marines some of whom expressed relief at not having killed anyone directly, and others who expressed horror at having witnessed loss of life. Kelly also spoke about the incredible hospitality and generosity of Iraqi families into whose homes she was invited. Kelly concluded her remarks with a call for “courage for peace, not for war”. In a question and answer segment she mentioned the arrest of the protesters at Vito Fossella’s office and offered her support to the Fossella Five.
Jennifer Weppler and Tiffany Schwabacher (CSI Peace Club Photo)
Jennifer Weppler was very pleased with how her event went off: “I was very happy with the turn out of the event and I believe if we had more time to promote it we could have gotten an even larger crowd. We didn’t get approval for the event until the week before it was to take place and so we were pressed for time. Listening to Kathy Kelly and also the speakers from Witness Against Torture was truly inspirational.” She plans to continue working on campus. “Tiffany and I also decided to start a Peace Club so that we can invite other speakers and plan other events with relative ease for the upcoming semesters,” she added.
Shortly after the CSI teach-in, Peace Action held another event designed to encourage Vito Fossella to meet with his constituents. On April 11th, 2007, PASI members gathered at Fossella’s Staten Island office. As dusk descended the group walked in a quiet procession – holding electric candles and wearing placards with the faces of dead US military personnel and Iraqi civilians. The procession paused briefly outside Fossella’s home where they read some of the names of the US war dead while ringing a Buddhist bell. A short time later the group returned to their starting point – Fossella’s office. Along the way an angry police officer, Inspector Thomas Delahanty of the 122nd Precinct, accosted the group – he made some comments that PASI members found inappropriate and then departed (PASI attempted to arrange a meeting with the officer to discuss the incident but he has been unavailable to meet). The candlelight vigil was designed to continue to keep pressure on Fossella to cease ducking a meeting with his constituents – it, like the arrests, got excellent coverage in the Staten Island Advance.
On April 23rd the Fossella Five were to be arraigned. In a move that surprised PASI, District Attorney Dan Donovan declined to prosecute the protesters and charges were dismissed. It emerged later that Fossella’s office refused to press charges. PASI members held a press conference after the arraignment, at which it was stated that they were grateful the charges were dismissed and justice served, however, Fossella continues to avoid a meeting with his constituents so the dismissal was not regarded as a ‘win’. Sally Jones of Peace Action remarked “”We believe this is the most important issue of our nation. We need to have an open-door policy with our congressman, whether he agrees with us or not.” The Fossella Five campaign continues – and organizers are still pushing for a meeting with Fossella.
As the weather improves in the northeast campus activities are moving outdoors – and this includes the College of Staten Island. Weppler and Schwabacher have organized another event: a “Peace Week” slate of activities addressing the issue that “students are hungry for peace while Congress sits on its hands”. Events will run from April 30 through May 4th – student organizers will be distributing arm bands and buttons on campus and announcing the names of local soldiers killed in action since September 11th (9/11). Students plan to draw the outline of the US on a large white sheet and put the number of those killed in each state. They also going to put the names of the casualties on posterboards so that the memorial will be visible from far away on campus. Student protesters will be meeting at the World Trade Center Memorial on campus on Monday (4/30) 9-5, Wednesday (5/2) 2:30 -3:30 and Thursday (5/3) 1:25- 3:30. The hours on Wednesday and Thursday are designated club hours where no classes are held.
Completing the circle of resistance – two members of the Fossella Five (Good and Elaine Brower) will be meeting with the students at the Thursday College of Staten Island event. Another trip back to his alma mater for Good and a chance for Brower to express her feelings as the mother of a marine who did one tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. Brower, a member of the steering committee of the World Can’t Wait and a member of Peace Action’s board, is also active in Movement for a Democratic Society. MDS organizer Good said: “I think it’s wonderful that Elaine and I can work together – addressing all of the issues surrounding this horrendous war and demonstrating that Left organizations that have not always gotten along can put aside differences and work together for peace and justice. She is amazing and I’m proud to work with her – and that goes for Sally Jones and Barbara Walker too. Peace Action Staten Island has made this MDS activist feel at home.”