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Honk For Peace At Lake Merritt
T here’s a lake near the edge of downtown Oakland and for over three years it’s been the centerpiece of a weekly antiwar peace walk. Every Sunday afternoon a small group gathers at the lake, then sets out on a three-mile stroll around its perimeter.
The first time I attended was in March 2003, just a couple of weeks before the war started. The meeting place was the Colonnade, a structure that looks like something out of ancient Greece. About 40 people showed up, many carrying placards and banners that read: “No Blood for Oil,” “Bush & Ashcroft are the Axis of Evil,” and “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease.” Others expressed support for the Palestinian cause and some were about the environment. One person brought a St. Bernard dog bearing the notice: “I pee on Bushes.”
The group included all ages. Pat Maginnis, the group’s resident cartoonist, was in her mid-70s and had been involved in politics since the 1950s. Then there was Vern Krohn, an 87-year-old activist, with his “contraption”—a small cart on which was mounted a huge sign, “Honk for Peace,” that passing motorists could read from a block or two away.
“May I have your attention,” called Beth Wagner. Beth had been a peace activist since the Vietnam War. She came from a conservative family in Virginia and began life as a Republican. During her freshman year at William & Mary, she joined the campus chapter of Young Republicans for Nixon because she thought that if we changed presidents that might bring the war to an end. “I was just a naïve country girl from the sticks who’d never been away from home before,” she says. After the Kent State killings in 1970 she joined the antiwar movement. Since the Yugoslavia bombings in 1999, she and her husband, Steve, have been instrumental in Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace (LMNOP), as the lake walkers are called.
Beth announced several items and then we set out on our three-mile walk. Lake Merritt is a federally funded wildlife preserve; it’s the oldest in the country, dating back to 1870. Large flocks of geese and other water birds live along the shore.
From the beginning of our walk, passing motorists had been giving us a positive response. Sometimes it was a single driver; sometimes several at once. At times the honking was ear-splitting. “Maybe we should be more careful about what we ask for,” I heard someone remark in jest. Others agreed that sometimes the honking did get painfully loud.
Joggers and bicyclists also expressed support. “Beep, beep,” said one jogger as she passed. Others waved the two-fingered peace sign or gave us a thumbs-up. On the lake was a gondola; the gondolier waved and shouted to us in Italian, “Pace.”
We passed a small boy who pointed to the symbol on one of our placards and asked his mother what it was. “It’s a peace sign,” she told him. “They want people to stop killing each other.”
But not everybody agreed with our cause. A couple of guys drove by flipping us the finger, yelling, “We want war, war, war, war.”
course, we hardly expected everyone to agree with us; fortunately,
those who expressed negative reactions were rare and some of their
comments were unintentionally funny. “You’re totally irrelevant
to everyone around here,” shouted one ill-wisher. “Nobody’s
listening to you. Nobody.” Despite those few war supporters,
we received an overwhelmingly positive response. Some pedestrians
said to us, “Thank you for taking time to do this.”
As we walked, I spoke with people around me. One was Mark Boynton, who is old enough to remember World War II. He grew up in the area and used to come to the lake to fish for smelt. In the 1950s he was a logger, cutting down redwoods in the vicinity of Garberville. “Some of those redwoods were well over a thousand years old,” Mark told me, “so large they had to be split in two to be hauled by truck. There was a width limit. Those huge logs were called ‘pumpkins,’ and the splitting was done with dynamite.”
This was approximately the 75th time Mark had walked around the lake, he told me, adding that the peace walk actually originated in 1991 when one person took up an antiwar banner and held a nightly vigil by the lake. Others joined him and they turned it into a weekly walk. At the end of that war the peace walk was discontinued until 1999 when the U.S. attacked Serbia. Members of the old group got together again. Beth and Steve Wagner set up an email list.
“For the next couple of years we contacted people to go with us to various anti-war events, especially in support of Palestine and against the sanctions on Iraq,” Steve told me. “After the attack on the World Trade Center, it was obvious that Bush would be dropping bombs somewhere or other very soon. Due to all the jingoistic manipulation of people’s genuine grief, we had some anxiety when we broke out the signs and started the walks again in September 23, 2001 with banners calling for ‘Justice, Not Revenge.’
“The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive from the very beginning,” he said. “The attendance has ebbed and flowed, but we’ve been out here every Sunday presenting a presence for peace to the neighborhoods surrounding the lake.”
Steve Wagner was born in Albion, Washington, which is downwind from the Hanford Atomic Works. “Albion was a wonderful place to be a child,” Steve had testified to a government health effects subcommittee. “Little did we know what living downwind from Hanford was doing to our health.” One of his cousins died of leukemia and another of a brain tumor. “My family often wondered why Jerry and Karen died at such early ages and now we have a pretty good idea why.” Steve has a thyroid disease for which he’ll have to take medication the rest of his life.
Other lake walkers have also had poignant experiences of one sort or another, which motivated them to become activists. There’s Ed, a retired orchestra musician. As a teenager Ed spent nine months living with relatives while studying music in Germany—that was in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. He remembers that the Nazis began forcing Jewish musicians out of the profession. “I was 14 at the time and those months following the Nazi takeover radicalized me,” he said.
Cathy Green was working on her master’s thesis in geography and she talked about the lake. “Lake Merritt is a cultural and transit hub, popular with joggers, walkers, and bicyclists,” Cathy explained.
“The best thing about this peace march is that the people who see us are probably the most diverse group in the Bay Area. We have immigrants from all over the world—Latin America, even parts of Africa like Ethiopia and Senegal. There’s a large Chinese population, as well as many people from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.
“Oakland has a substantial African American component and the Fruitvale neighborhood is a mix of Latino and Southeast Asian. The Islamic Cultural Center is nearby; it was established by Iranian immigrants. You couldn’t ask for a more mixed audience.”
I originally heard about LMNOP (Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace) from Jeff, a postal worker. Jeff had been attending since the previous October. At first he’d felt really shy of participating in a visible, on-stage activity, he told me. Eventually he’d gotten used to it and found he got a positive feeling from it. “Taking part in this makes me feel good about myself,” he said. “The great response we get from people around here is a big part of it.”
Many of the group affirmed this feeling of being part of a good cause. There was also a social aspect, meeting and talking with like-minded people. Unlike most antiwar marches, there was no chanting; instead, everyone chatted and exchanged the latest news. Many of the conversations were about politics. Books, newspaper clippings, and audiotapes were exchanged. Among the favorite authors were Howard Zinn and Michael Parenti. Computer information was also shared; people helped each other get on-line and learn to access the Internet. Friendships formed. Even romances began at the peace walk.
The circuit of the lake took an hour and a half; it was about 4:30 PM when we reached the Colonnade where we’d started out.
T he second war against Iraq began on March 19, 2003 and there were many demonstrations in the San Francisco area. Judging by the number of people who participated, the antiwar movement seem- ed to have massive support. Or did it? According to polls being published in the corporate media, the war had suddenly become a popular cause. Even here in the Bay Area over 60 percent supported the war, the polls reported. So, on the following Sunday at Lake Merritt, I was wondering what sort of response our peace walk would receive. In recent weeks some 40 of us had been participating; that day there were over 100. As for the response, the honking of autos went way beyond anything I had experienced during previous Sundays.
“The polls report that 60 percent of the people in the Bay Area are pro-war,” a woman near me remarked, “Doesn’t sound that way to me.” At that moment somebody in a passing car yelled, “Fuck you. Fuck all of you.”
“There’s the 60 percent,” someone remarked and everyone within hearing chuckled. To be sure, if large numbers of people had been booing us and shouting obscenities, it wouldn’t have been so funny. But the few negative responses we got were so unrepresentative that they struck us as amusing. What we were seeing for ourselves was entirely different from what the media had been reporting.
That day was one of the high points of our peace walk at Lake Merritt. It would’ve been great if that many people had been out there every Sunday, but that’s not what happened. As the months went by, our numbers slowly diminished. Our usual attendance of around 40 people went down to 30, then to about two dozen. Then suddenly the war was over—or at least it seemed to be—and the corporate invasion was on. Most of us expected Bush to start another war before long, but, for the moment at least, there was the illusion of being between wars. It’s hard to oppose a war that’s over and perhaps we seemed a bit out of tune.
On the first Sunday in May, Beth Wagner announced that, due to ill health, she’d no longer be able to continue. She had a degenerative disease that made physical activity increasingly painful. During the year and a half, she’d participated in more than 80 circuits of the lake. So we felt this walk would be the last, at least till the next war. But by the end of the walk we’d unanimously decided that this was no time for us to quit. Bush and the neo-cons were out there building an empire. Peace had to be a lot more than a momentary absence of shooting.
We soon came up with new slogans that were more in sync with the current between-the-wars era. “What price oil economy?” was one, and, when the WMD hoax was eventually exposed, “Fire the Liar.” Some of the “Honk for Peace” signs were replaced with “Honk to Impeach.” Meanwhile, there were some old ones that seemed appropriate, such as “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease.”
Nevertheless, our numbers continued to diminish. By August there were only a dozen of us. Mark and Dorothy had been coming almost every Sunday, but one day Dorothy broke her ankle. Then Mark got sick and was absent for several weeks. Vern Krohn, the 87-year- old who’d brought his huge Honk-for-Peace “contraption,” was often missing, presumably because of health problems.
Our thinning ranks also seemed to reflect the condition of the antiwar movement in general. There wasn’t much going on at this time, in the late summer and fall of 2003. The second anniversary of our weekly demonstration was in September and we considered it remarkable that our activity had lasted this long. On a Sunday in late October came the situation we’d been dreading—only three of us showed up.
M eanwhile, the shooting war in Iraq was heating up again, a guerilla war this time. A mass rally was held in San Francisco on Saturday, October 25 and some 10,000 people attended—not a large number in comparison with the hundreds of thousands who’d attended the rallies in January and February, but we could see that the antiwar movement was still alive.
The following week six people showed up at the lake—fewer than we’d hoped for, but we did our peace walk anyway. “We need to keep the flame burning,” we told each other. But all through the fall and winter there were many Sundays when there were fewer than half a dozen of us. Still, it wasn’t all gloom and doom. An encouraging sign was the enthusiastic acknowledgement we continued to get from motorists and pedestrians along the lake. “The response is still out there,” one of our group noted, “We’re the ones who seem to be missing from this scene.”
Eventually Mark recovered from his illness and rejoined us. In a tiny group like this, each person made a major difference and Mark’s reappearance was a boost to morale. However, Dorothy didn’t return. Vern Krohn went to stay with his son up north in Lake County and shortly afterwards we received word that he’d died. We remembered him for his perseverance.
“I think that Vern’s life should be a model for all of us,” said Ken Knudsen. “Vern was always out there against the war, no matter how old he got. I was often amazed that he could survive going around the lake. By the end he was always so tired.”
Jeff remembered him for his stories. “He would talk to me in that crusty voice and tell me about his experiences. He knew a lot about history that I had only a vague familiarity with. The depression and stuff before World War I.”
Vern Krohn had spent his life in political activism and that’s how we remembered him. Barbara summed it up: “Bless his heart. Sorry to see him go, but you know, that’s how I would want to go—an activist right up to the end, out there with my signs and banners.”
A utumn 2004 saw the third anniversary of the walk and we’re well into our fourth year now. Several generations of ducks and geese have grown up with us. We’ve grown too, from the friendships we’ve formed, from the events we’ve experienced together, and from our interactions with the motorists and pedestrians along the lake.
Bob Miller comes in his wheelchair, carrying a huge hand-sewn U.S. flag with the stars arranged in the form of a peace sign. Pat Maginnis continues to distribute her cartoons in leaflet form. Catherine Jones brings her posters, some of which are displayed at galleries of protest art.
A few people attend almost every week; a lot more of us come once in a while. Our group seems to be increasing to around 15 at the present time. While the huge rallies, varying from a few thousand to as many as hundreds of thousands, have been the most important events of the antiwar movement, such things can’t be done every week. In contrast, this Lake Merritt peace walk is a low-key, long-term activity which has become as much a part of the local scenery as the ducks and geese. With a handful of participants, LMNOP is helping to keep the antiwar movement visible here in Oakland. Although we get very little coverage in the media, we are in a real sense our own media, reaching out directly to the people around us. We believe that our activity helps to set a political tone in the community.
Bush’s 2004 election victory, which many of us suspect was stolen, was a disappointment. But our numbers have increased since that election and so has the enthusiastic response we’ve been getting from motorists and pedestrians. As Mark Boynton put it, “So it’s going to be four more years of walking around the lake.”
Daniel Borgstrom is active in LMNOP. Photos from www. lmno4p.org.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
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LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.