There have been activist groups in the Tampa Bay area practically as long as there's been a Tampa Bay area.Each group has had its own agenda, and lobbied, marched and protested in numbers that weren't always impressive. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, peace protests began growing in numbers, not just because there were more people frightened by the prospect of war and incensed by a lack of justice, but also because the various groups began to pool their resources.
The Florida Alliance for Peace and Social Justice formed just before the first bombs fell in Afghanistan in 2001. The umbrella organization has been active ever since.
The alliance brings together activists from all over the state to discuss how they can work to create a louder voice of dissent. Individuals are welcome, said member Carol Schiffler, but many of those who participate are members of other activist groups. Voice of Freedom, which focuses primarily on First Amendment issues, is a participant. So are the Democratic People's Uhuru Movement and the national anti-war group Answer.
They may not organize around the same issues ordinarily, said Schiffler, but they agree on common goals when they act under the umbrella of the alliance. "I've seen a lot of agreement and a lot of willingness to sit in a room and hammer out our principals of unity," said Schiffler.
The alliance has helped to organize anti-war protests outside MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, headquarters for the U.S. Central Command that will direct any military invasion of Iraq. The events have drawn more than 500 people. The alliance is now banding together to support the "MacDill Nine," a group of protestors who were arrested and charged with resisting arrest without violence at a demonstration last May.
Their trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 15. Protestor and defendant Penny Hess hopes to use it as a vehicle to get the anti-war message out.
"If they're going to take us to trial, we're going to put the war on trial," said Hess. "We're ready. We're going to talk about the issue of why we were doing it."
Not that the anti-war message is the only one the alliance promotes. The organization wants peace and justice in all areas of life. They want to combat everything from homelessness to the U.S. PATRIOT Act.
"The idea is that it would be a peace organization that would be grounded in the understanding that the only way that peace is going to come about in this world is through justice," said Hess. "I think it's really timely."
This month, the alliance is demonstrating against the Immigration and Naturalization Service's registration of citizens from 15 countries, mostly Arab states in the Middle East, who visit the United States. The INS has arrested hundreds of Muslim men and boys since foreign nationals started appearing at agency offices to register in November. The protest starts at noon on Jan. 10 at the INS office at 5524 W. Cypress St., Tampa.
When the alliance first began to protest outside MacDill Air Force Base last year, Hess said the people in the neighborhoods they marched through weren't at all pleased to see them. But attitudes are changing, according to Hess.
"I think it's interesting that the climate is changing in this country," she said.
Many members of the alliance will attend a national peace rally set for Jan. 18 and 19 in Washington, D.C. The event was organized by Answer, an international peace organization, but activists from all over Florida have helped coordinate it.
According to Schiffler, so many Floridians have signed up for the trip that they've had to add extra buses. The alliance will continue to add buses if they have to, so that everyone who wants to attend can do so, she said.
For those who can't make it to the nation's capital, CenCom at MacDill is providing a protestor's Plan B. On Jan. 18, United Voices for Peace, along with the Gulf Coast Women in Black and other peace-minded organizations, will conduct a vigil outside of the air base.
It's an anti-war rally, says Diane Cardin-Kamleiter, a founding member of the Gulf Coast Women in Black, but it's also a rally for peace in general. The legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will be honored, and there will be both secular and religious groups present.
"It's a gathering for everyone who seeks peace and wants peace," said Cardin-Kamleiter. "That is the only way to resolve any conflict."
The Florida Alliance for Peace and Social Justice is also hosting a pro-First Amendment forum at the John F. Germany Public Library in downtown Tampa on Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m. Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela, Sheridan Murphy of the American Indian Movement, and Tampa City Council candidate Joe Redner, among others, are to speak.
"I think it was always an issue with this administration because they seem to be particularly secretive and not tolerant of dissent," said Schiffler.
The alliance hopes that the event will help people to remember that civil rights were under siege even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Speakers include some of the protestors arrested when President George W. Bush visited Tampa earlier in 2001.
The PATRIOT Act may not be repealed anytime soon. The people of Iraq may still be in imminent danger of an American bomb. But alliance leaders hope that, by pooling resources with other like-minded activists, it will only be a matter of time.
"We have a really thriving progressive community," said Schiffler. "It's just a matter of getting people together."
For more information on the Florida Alliance for Peace and Social Justice, visit www.macdillpeacerally.org. To learn more about the Gulf Coast Women in Black, contact Diane Cardin-Kamleiter at [email protected]. It's not too late to register for the trip to D.C. For more information or to make a reservation, call Carol Schiffler at 727-328-7273 weeknights after 7 p.m or during the weekend.
Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or [email protected].