Blacks missing-in-action at Darfur rally
By Robtel Neajai Pailey Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer
WASHINGTON (NNPA)-As momentum increased with a recent rally to end the slaughter of civilians in Darfur, Sudan, blacks were few and far between in a sea of white protesters on the National Mall. "Save Darfur" campaign rhetoric claims that the appeal of the movement is its assorted religious groups, its protesters from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and political affiliations- but did the average black person get the memo?
Black leaders were vocal, yet their followers were hardly visible.
Radio talk show host Joe Madison, who has been arrested with other black activists for protesting the Sudanese government's support of militias in Darfur, served as the rally emcee. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), cosponsor of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act that pushes for sanctions against perpetrators of the genocide, said, "I know that if we care, the world will care."
It appeared, however, that most blacks took a rain check on caring, calling into question whether or not Darfur is a priority for African Americans, West Indians and others in the African Diaspora. In a display of irony, images of black Darfurians on a large projector screen were juxtaposed with mostly white protesters.
One of a few hundred black people in the wave of more than 10,000 bodies, Haitian American Marie Auguste was there. She had taken a train from New York to participate in the rally. Holding a sign with the message "President Bush You Said Not On Your Watch... It Is Happening, Do Something About It," Auguste bumped into Prisca Doh, a native of Ivory Coast in West Africa, who had been using the poster as shade from the smoldering sun. They became engrossed in conversation about the lack of black faces in the lines of protesters.
"There's a very thin line between us here and blacks on the African continent. Katrina taught us that they react to us the same way-with inaction," said Auguste, alluding to the importance of solidarity among Africans on the continent and Africans of the Diaspora. She continued, "If we can't be like the Jewish people and demand things for people that look like us, we're never going to progress."
Auguste was moved to action by the countless images of women and children who suffer most. "Because these are black people, the world has looked the other way," said the New Yorker about the three-year genocide that started when rebels in Darfur sought political independence by challenging the Khartoum government.
The size of Texas, Sudan is a telling example of the 19th century "Scramble for Africa" by European colonialists that meshed together semiautonomous groups-like Darfurians-into arbitrarily formed nation states.
Spilling into neighboring Chad with an influx of refugees, the Darfur genocide has left 200,000 dead and scores of people displaced. The U.N. World Food Program announced recently that it was cutting food rations. Responding to the magnitude of the situation, Auguste encouraged her friends in New York to attend the rally but heard only excuses.
She denounced black church leaders who have been silent on the issue.
"A great deal of black folks go to church... I find it unconscionable that black churches are not talking about what's going on," said Auguste, who believes that blacks in various religious communities would follow suit if the political will existed in their mosques, temples, or churches.
Pat Evans, an African American management consultant based in Fairfax, Va., also wondered why the average black person hasn't joined the movement to push for a robust international intervention in Western Sudan. Jewish groups have compared the crisis in Darfur to the Holocaust, leaving Evans and others questioning what it's going to take to get blacks on board.
"I don't know if it's that we don't feel connected to Africa," she said.
Evans said she became interested in Darfur while on a trip to the U.N. headquarters in New York last February. When Evans returned to D.C., she immediately began sending out missives to black organizations about doing something, but no one responded. Disappointed, she reached out to what appeared to be unlikely allies-mostly Jewish organizations that have since joined the Save Darfur Coalition, a 160-plus member organizational body that sponsored the rally on Sunday.
"I'm really committed to stopping another Rwanda," said Evans about her motivation for attending the rally.
She and her husband pitched lawn chairs in the lush green grass at the Mall and listened to countless speeches calling on the Bush administration to do more than call the Darfur crisis a genocide. "It's going to take commitment from other African states such as Egypt and Algeria," she added. Her advice to blacks who missed the memo about Sunday's rally is "start educating yourselves about what's happening."
Black politicians came out, but their constituents were missing in action. Al Sharpton, who visited Sudan in 2000, said that leaders within the civil rights community were committed to putting the spotlight on genocide in Sudan. He admitted that despite ideological differences, Americans refuse to remain divided on Darfur. "We know that when Americans come together, we can change anything in the world," said Sharpton.
Also present was Rev. Gloria White Hammond, an African American liaison to Sudanese communities in the U.S. and an organizer for the Save Darfur Coalition. She also coordinates the coalition's outreach program for communities of color. White Hammond said more than 760,000 signatures for an online petition to President Bush had been collected for the Million Voices for Darfur Campaign (http://www.millionvoicesfordarfur. org/). Galvanized by this record number of signatures, Hammond encouraged rally-goers to push forward.
"We will not back up George Bush! We're not going to shut up Omar Bashir [president of Sudan] until peace and justice reign in Sudan," she screamed out to deafening applause.
The recent rally in D.C. has been described as the largest mobilization against the genocide in Darfur. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 attended in D.C. and record numbers came out in at least 30 other U.S. and Canadian cities. Participants were demanding that sanctions be placed on Sudan to pressure the government into stopping militias known as Janjaweed from raping women, scorching homes, and pillaging villages in Darfur.
The protesters were also calling for divestment from Sudan. Maryland is now considering request by African American Lt. Governor Michael Steele (R) to remove pension funds from any companies doing business with Sudan. Steele, who has called for the divestment of $25 billion of Maryland assets in Sudan, gave rousing appeal.
He said, "Darfur is more than numbers, it's about human lives...The strength of a nation has been determined by the power of its compassion, let's build the peace, and stop the genocide in Darfur."
Jendayi Frazer, an African American who holds the most powerful position related to Africa in the Bush administration as the assistant secretary for African Affairs, responded to statements about the regime's need to do more in Darfur. As protesters filed out, she said, "This rally and your participation in it represents the very best of our country... The ghost of Rwanda hangs over our heads, but 2006 is not 1994." Frazer, who was challenged few weeks ago at Howard University for touting Bush's track record in Africa, attended the rally as a political gesture of support, she told the crowd, adding that Bush is working to convince other U.N. members to send in troops.
Other black rally speakers included: Congressman Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), Salih Mahmoud Osman, a lawyer and human rights activist from Darfur; Tragi Mustafa, a Darfur refugee and founder of Save Women-Sudan; Simon Deng, former slave in southern Sudan; former NAACP President and ex-U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume; Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Recordings; and Sudanese former NBA star Manute Bol, who has donated millions to relief efforts in Sudan.