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Peace groups react to Syria crisis

Peace groups are launching a petition drive — calling on members of Congress to vote against authorizing military action against Syria — with a rally at Representative Jan Schakowsky’s office, 5533 N. Broadway, on Wednesday, September 4, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“U.S. military intervention is far more likely to make matters worse, not better,” argues an online petition from the Illinois Coalition for Justice, Peace and the Environment.

Schakowsky joined local representatives Danny Davis and Bobby Rush last week in signing a letter initiated by Rep. Barbara Lee of California calling on President Obama to seek congressional approval for any action, which he has since decided to do.  But yesterday Schakowsky’s husband, political consultant Robert Creamer, posted a “progressive case” for authorizing military action on Huffington Post.

Those responsible for chemical attacks should be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, and the U.S. should maintain humanitarian aid for refugees and step up diplomatic pressure for a negotiated settlement to the two-year conflict in Syria, said Marcia Bernsten of Chicago Area Peace Action, one of the groups organizing the Wednesday rally.

“Using chemical weapons is completely atrocious, but we don’t have the facts, and even when we do, it’s not the job of the U.S. to punish the perpetrators, it’s the international courts,” she said.  Not only has there been no attack on the U.S., she argued, but the risk of attacks on the U.S. increases “if we go around bombing people.”

She cited a statement from former president Jimmy Carter pointing out that “a punitive military response without a U.N. Security Council mandate…would be illegal under international law” and “will only harden existing positions and postpone a sorely-needed political process to put an end to the catastrophic violence.”

An attack would also risk extensive civilian casualities, would further destablize the region and potentially provoke retaliation by Syria or its allies, Bernsten said.

The American Friends Service Committee is also urging people to contact Congress and ask for a “no” vote on military authorization, said Mary Zerkel.

“While we unequivocally condemn any use of chemical weapons along with continued indiscriminate killing of civilians and other violations of international humanitarian law, military strikes are not the answer,” the group said in a letter to President Obama signed by 26 national organizations.

“Rather than bringing an end to the violence that has already cost more than 100,000 lives, they threaten to widen the vicious civil war in Syria and undermine prospects to de-escalate the conflict and eventually reach a negotiated settlement.”

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Chicago Spring

A May Day march and rally by Occupy Chicago on Tuesday launches the final weeks of the Chicago Spring, culminating with protests at the NATO summit later this month.

With the theme of immigrant, labor, and youth solidarity, an array of community groups and unions will rally at noon (Tuesday, May 1) at Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph, and march to the Federal Plaza, Adams and Dearborn.

Though it continues a recent Chicago tradition of immigrant rights marches on May Day going back to 2006, it was initiated by Occupy Chicago, and in particular the group’s labor committee, said Orlando Sepulvida of Occupy the Barrio.  Strong union involvement in the march is the result of interest on the part of rank-and-file union members participating in Occupy, he said.

“After six years, [the issue of immigration reform] is not resolved, and in some ways it is worse now for undocumented families,” said Sepulvida, who has been involved in the marches going back to 2006.

Questions about whether Occupy Chicago would last out its first winter were answered when an estimated 1,000 people participated in an April 7 “Freedom Festival” in Grant Park, with teach-ins on topics including non-violent direct action, the “black bloc,” NATO, and “Mayor 1 Percent’s Budget of Austerity.”

Moving to indoor quarters allowed the group to hold a steady series of educational events and strengthen a network of working committees, according to Mark Cassello at Indignant Left.  Chicago Spring and the NATO protest are making Chicago “the national hub of the Occupy movement this spring,” Costello writes.

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Counter-recruitment activists charged

Six peace activists charged with disorderly conduct July 2 after leafleting near military recruiters at the Taste of Chicago pled not guilty this week, and battery charges against a seventh were dismissed.

The next showdown could come at the Air and Water Show.

At an August 1 arraignment in criminal court, the six turned down an offer of three months probation and $25 fines if they pled guilty, said Melissa Woo, a summer intern at American Friends Service Committee and one of those charged.

A guilty plea “would have set a bad precedent,” validating police efforts to ban counter-recruitment activity, Woo said. “It’s important to take a stand.”

Courts have found leafleting to be an activity protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, said Jeffrey Frank of the National Lawyers Guild, one of the attorneys for the six. The leafleters were not obstructing traffic or access to recruiters, he said.

The leafleters were arrested when they refused police directions to move to an ad-hoc “free-speech zone” far from the recruiters and other traffic in an area between Grant Park dumpsters and porta-potties, Woo said. Other officers had other ideas of where the supposed zone was located, she said.

“I thought the whole country was a free speech zone,” she said.

The six requested a jury trial, and a preliminary court date was set for August 8. Because they requested a jury trial for misdemeanor charges, the defendants must now raise $1,500 for court costs, Woo said.

Among those arrested were several students, a member of Code Pink, and a legal observer from the NLG.

Battery charges were dismissed against a seventh counter-recruitment leafleter in an August 2 hearing. Zoryada Ortiz was charged with battery when she spilled a soft drink on a recruiter after the recruiter grabbed her arm, said Darlene Gramigna of AFSC.

Over the last couple years police have regularly ordered activists to leave the area of military recruiters, but when commanders were brought in the activists were allowed to remain, said Amy Meyers of the Chicagoland Coalition Opposed to the Militarization of Youth. But at the Blues Fest in June, police “pushed and shoved” leafleters away from recruiters, and commanders “told activists they cannot have signs, pass out leaflets, or have any visible presence within the area of the recruiting booth,” she said.

Military recruitment booths feature semitrailers with a range of enticements for youth. “They have computer games where you get to shoot and kill people – but of course you never die in the games,” Meyers said. “They have climbing walls, they have prizes for things like if you can do 50 push-ups, they have booths where you can have dogtags made.” To participate, young people have to provide recruiters with contact information.

“We go, yeah, that stuff is cool-looking, but here are some facts” – including the high incidence of sexual harassment of women in the military, lower promotion rates for minorities, difficulty obtaining promised education assistance – “and there’s a good chance you’ll end up in a war,” Meyers said.

The Chicagoland Coalition also works in high schools, and Meyers researches college scholarships and other alternative opportunities for students considering enlistment.

Counter-recruitment activists from peace, religious, and veterans groups will be on hand, as they have for several years, both days of the Air and Water Show, August 19 and 20. “It’s usually even more contentious at the Air and Water Show,” said Gramigna.

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