BY MAURICE WILLIAMS AND SAM MANUEL
ST. LOUIS - Leaders of the Nation of Islam and the National African-American Leadership Summit (NAALS) organized a national political "convention of the oppressed" here September 27-29 at the America's Center TWA Dome. While offering some criticisms of the Democratic and Republican party, they urged people "to march on the ballot box in November, like they did for the Million Man March."
"We've been ignored by the Republicans and taken for granted by Democrats," said Benjamin Chavis, convention organizer and national director of NAALS and the Million Man March Inc. "We intend to change our relationship with these political parties."
Some 4,000 people attended a September 28 rally where Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was the keynote speaker. Farrakhan declared to the audience, "We are not building a third party, we are building a third political force that will cut across all parties." He told the participants, "This is the last free ride the Democratic Party will receive from Blacks."
The convention was billed as a follow-up to the Million Man March organized last October. Although its organizers had predicted 20,000-30,000 people would participate, about 700 hundred delegates attended the working sessions of the event, many of them from the Nation of Islam (NOI). A number of young people attended the convention, including a group from Tennessee State University.
Various people involved in struggles attended as well. Relatives of Antwan Sedgewick came to the conference to win justice for the 20-year-old Black youth, who was found hanging by his neck on Oct. 4, 1995, in Hampton, Virginia. Cops ruled his death was a suicide.
"His friends said the day before he was killed, he was threatened by two cops who told him, `We're going to get you,' " said Antwan's father, Clarence Sedgewick. A vigil is planned for October 5 at 2 p.m. at the Hampton Coliseum. "We are trying to get more people to help us," Sedgewick stated.
Seth Big Crow and other Native American activists involved in the Crazy Horse Defense project attended the event to garner support for a fight against unwarranted use of the name "Crazy Horse" by the Heileman Brewing Co. and the Hornell Brewing Co. The Lakota people launched a struggle to remove the name of the Native American leader from the malt liquor marketed by the two companies and a boycott of their Arizona Iced Tea.
Snubbed by `prominent' Blacks
According to the Washington Post, the "convention was snubbed by virtually every prominent black political figure in the country." Congressman Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Columbia University professor Manning Marable were scheduled to address the convention, but failed to appear. U.S. congressman Bill Clay had publicly stated disapproval of the gathering.
St. Louis mayor Freeman Bosley, who is Black, went out of town. "The mayor believes that the concerns this convention plans to address should have perhaps been addressed prior to the Democratic National Convention so that those delegates attending the convention could have had their concerns more properly addressed," his spokesperson, Patricia Washington, told the St. Louis American.
East St. Louis mayor Gordon Bush, who was billed as a sponsor of the conference, also did not appear. "Mayor Bush supports President Clinton and will not be a party to any third party movement at this time," said Bush's chief of staff Ishaq Shafiq. "He is heading Clinton's campaign here."
"We're not about creating a third party. We don't have to do that," East St. Louis NOI minister Ralph Muhammad insisted to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "All we have to do is deal with the issues."
Farrakhan denounced the elected officials as "slaves who sold out to the Democratic plantation." The Nation of Islam leader told the conventioneers Clinton "would be good," but "you're not putting enough pressure on him."
Among those who attended the convention and spoke at the September 28 rally were Michigan congresswoman Barbara Collins, Harvard University professor Cornel West, activist and entertainer Dick Gregory, and Illinois state senator Richard Hendon. Some Black political activists who had attended previous activities organized by NAALS, such as Conrad Worrill, chair of the National Black United Front, and New York politician Al Sharpton, were noticeably absent from the conference.
`National agenda on issues and actions'
Participants who paid a $100 registration fee were considered voting delegates, while those who paid $25 were observers at the convention. Although delegates at the gathering were asked to approve a "National Agenda of Public Policy Issues & Action Items for 1996-2001," most conference participants never received a copy of the document.
Chavis stated in the agenda "executive summary" that it would be sent to the Democratic, Republican, and Reform Parties. The agenda advanced a perspective "to educate and inform" Black people "so they may make the right choice on November 5, 1996."
Several caucus meetings were organized to discuss sections in the agenda that included "political empowerment," education, and international development. At the caucus meeting on international development, delegates advocated the demand in the document for the U.S. government to lift sanctions imposed on Libya, Cuba, and Iraq. "We need to find out how they use sanctions to keep us divided and block Black businesses from investment opportunities in Cuba," said one participant at the caucus meeting. Other discussions in the session included cancellation of the debt owed by undeveloped countries, establishing a homeland in Africa for U.S. Blacks, and setting up an investment program in Haiti and other semi-colonial countries around the world.
One member of the Nation of Islam who had recently returned from Libya stated, "We have to deal with the issue of sanctions and the debt to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank." The agenda called for giving "appropriate compensation for the loss of human lives and material damage inflicted on Libya."
Chavis told the convention, "We are going to get the $1 billion" from Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, which is barred by the U.S. government. Qaddafi offered the money to Farrakhan earlier this year.
Arif Muhammad, attorney for the Nation of Islam, announced during the last session of the convention that he and several lawyers were preparing to file a class-action conspiracy lawsuit against the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency for their roles in introducing crack cocaine into Black communities in the 1980s.
The final session included reports from chairpersons at caucus sessions based on those discussions. One participant voiced her objection to the omission of women's rights from the agenda. "Where is the section on women's rights?" she asked. "There is a need to involve women in leadership responsibilities." She pointed out how three female political leaders, who participated in the conference, were "lumped together to speak at the same time for less than five minutes."
The agenda promotes an anti-woman position stating that the "crime" of pre-marital sex is "covered or hidden by contraception or by government sanctioned murder -abortion."
At the beginning of the final session, Chavis launched a 15 minute talk to prepare the audience for the introduction of fascist politician Lyndon LaRouche. Chavis has given several prominent interviews to LaRouche's newspaper, the New Federalist and participated in events sponsored by his organization, the Shiller Institute. "We are doing something new," said Chavis, pointing out that a white person had not spoken before the body. Chavis said that LaRouche was the only political party leader who responded positively to the convention's agenda.
Fascist LaRouche booed off stage
LaRouche was introduced by James Bevel, a close aide of LaRouche and a coordinator of the upcoming October 16 Day of Atonement at the United Nations. As LaRouche approached the podium a few in the audience began to heckle. "Fascist! Get out!" shouted the participants. "Get him off the stage now!" demanded another delegate.
"Eat the meal first before you decide whether you like it or not," said LaRouche, determined to address the convention. "Go! Go! Go!" chanted a handful of people in the audience who drowned out his words. Chavis unsuccessfully tried to calm the protesters until LaRouche was led off the stage by NOI members and Bevel.
As the convention wound down some political activists expressed various opinions on its success. Socialist Workers Party presidential candidate James Harris, who attended the gathering, said the convention failed to live up to the potential that was there for political discussions on a perspective that offered "a working class alternative to the Democrats and Republicans." Harris said, "We found a lot interest in socialist ideas. People were interested in discussions around the National Black Independent Political Party and independent political action."
At the end of the conference a few delegates expressed some objections in the organization of the conference. "There was not enough time to discuss issues affecting Blacks," said John Shapley a 25-year-old student at UCLA. Shapely, an activist in defense of affirmative action and the fight against Prop. 209 in California, said organizers of the convention "skirt the real issue" of independent political action by posturing with "third political force" rhetoric. But he added, "We as young people need to gain exposure to events like this. I came here to learn so I can be prepared to step into a leadership role when its necessary."
Sam Manuel is a member of the United Transportation Union in
Washington, D.C. Nan Bailey from Newark, New Jersey,
contributed to this article.
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