Elections

Meet the Local Activist Group that Started Long Before Trump’s Rise

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This photo shows demonstrators in New Brunswick on Jan. 28, rallying in an "emergency protest" organized by the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War. Credits: Linda Powell/Facebook
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Terrorists had just attacked the World Trade Center, killing thousands and shattering what was perhaps a naïve sense of American invincibility, when the resistance began.

Some of its founders gathered near Livingston Avenue and George Street on a day shortly after 9/11. Sam Friedman, a Highland Park resident who works in AIDS research, made sure he was there. He couldn’t go to his office, anyway. It had been destroyed in the attack on downtown Manhattan.

“We just experienced what it’s like to have your locality where you hang out blown up,” he recalls thinking, “and we don’t want to do it to anyone else.”

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That get-together more than 15 years ago birthed what would become the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War. While it officially formed in 2002 under a different name, the left-leaning activist set has for years been a constant force of dissent in and around New Brunswick, championing everything from anti-war causes and immigrant rights to civil liberties and wage issues.

Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency has further revitalized the coalition, members told TAPinto New Brunswick. Since the inauguration, they’ve led bus trips to Washington, rallied against an immigration policy and welcomed new members to their ranks.

“For a while, we were having a problem in that we were aging. Some of the members that we would have in the planning committee, no one would be under 60 years old,” Friedman said. “That’s not true anymore, and it wasn’t true even a year ago.”

Of course, not everyone is on board with the group’s message. The on-campus Rutgers Conservative Union, for example, has been striving to promote the views of the right in this largely liberal area. Pockets of pro-Trump supporters have also attended left-wing protests in recent weeks.

But, with a sort of renewed sense of purpose and plenty of budding activists cropping up in Middlesex County, it seems that the Central Coalition Against Endless War is as busy now as it was in the heyday of opposition to the Iraq War.

The Early Days

Much like today, the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a politically charged time.

Tina Weishaus, a psychotherapist and founding member of the coalition, said that “very scary moment” in history inspired a handful of local activists to officially band together in October 2002. By February, what was then known as the Coalition Against the War in Iraq was bussing hundreds of protesters to the nation’s capital.

When the war began, the local activists turned their attention to its end. Weishaus said they rallied against the country’s perceived desire to secure oil supplies in the Middle East, military recruitment in high schools and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s ties to the defense contractor Haliburton.

“This sense of imperialistic entitlement—that you can go wherever you want and take the oil—we were opposed to that,” she said. “We were doing what you would do if you opposed the war.”

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In 2004, the anti-war group began holding weekly “peace vigils” in Highland Park, near Raritan Avenue and Route 27, north of the Albany Street Bridge. For roughly two hours every Saturday, activists assembled there to honor American soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the war.

From a nearby fence, they hung black banners that displayed photos and personal information of each deceased U.S. soldier. In 2008, according to the coalition, there were too many casualties to list.

Given its busy locale, the vigil proved effective in blasting out the group’s anti-war message, Friedman said.

“We got very positive responses from people who were driving work trucks. Minorities were also very supportive of us,” he added. “Back then, a lot of people thought it was mainly the educated middle class who was anti-war. But it was much more widespread.”

The weekly vigils went on for 11 years before the coalition halted the program.

The coalition set up a regular coffeehouse in 2006, during which members and guests discuss issues, read poetry and share food. This February, for instance, speakers outlined how to build solidarity among activists.

Along the way, coalition members have fought a number of other battles, some of them local.

In 2013, they held an emergency meeting after Highland Park’s schools chief laid off heads of the teachers’ union. Friedman said that event contributed to the outcry that ultimately led to the superintendent’s resignation.

The coalition has also partnered with the New Brunswick-based group New Labor. After a city cop shot and killed 25-year-old Barry Deloatch, the two organizations rallied in New Brunswick, forging a strong connection between their members, Friedman said.

Coalition members have also published pamphlets, including three filled with poetry. They focused on what it’s like to be a survivor of the 9/11 attacks, environmental issues and Palestine.

Through all of this, the coalition has remained something of a loose operation. Its leaders don’t have titles, though they do run a planning committee, and it doesn’t even have formal membership.

“Most of what we decide, we decided by consensus,” Friedman said, “and then we go and do it.”

What Trump Means for the Coalition

A few months ago, Mark Lesko hadn’t attended any meeting of the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War.

He went to one in December and another in January. Now, he considers himself a “very aggressive” member, giving his all to the fight against Trump’s vision for the U.S.

“His policies are so blatantly against all life on our planet, whether it be humans, religions, the trees, the atmosphere or the poor,” Lesko told TAPinto New Brunswick. “He’s essentially attacking everything.”

Lesko isn’t new to political activism. He belongs to several other groups. But his decision to join the coalition in the wake of Trump’s election is emblematic of the organization’s recent growth.

As desirable as it may be to expand, it comes at a price. For coalition members, after all, Trump represents a threat to their dearest beliefs and the vulnerable people for whom they frequently advocate.

But that shared sense of urgency has drawn people to action, Weishaus said. That includes people who she’s never known to hold a sign or march for a cause.

“There has never been, in my memory, as much political activity in this area,” she said.

Some on the right have also become active in the face of what they believe are unending—and unfair—attacks on the president. While their numbers appear smaller than left-leaning dissenters in the New Brunswick area, they have begun to make their voices heard.

The Rutgers Conservative Union caused an outcry earlier this month after its members posted fliers that looked similar in design to one made by a white-nationalist faction. The on-campus group’s leaders have denounced any connection between the two entities.

Even so, as the old saying goes, all press is good press. The conservative union has found more attention in defending its right-wing views and engaging those who disagree on social media.

“We’re here on campus defending the nation,” one member said in a recent video pitch to prospective members, “and we are energized to fight political correctness.”

So far, however, it seems that groups in New Brunswick have been met with more applause when fighting Trump.

In late January, Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. The move, which has since been battered in court and replaced with a new order, sparked outrage in many communities.

Central Jersey’s coalition quickly organized a protest, which was held on Jan. 28 at the corner of Albany and George streets. It attracted more than 120 people who spoke out against the executive order and the Dakota Access Pipeline without incident.

If things go as planned, that demonstration will be remembered as one of many coalition actions against Trump.

The group has since held quieter forums in the New Brunswick area. In late April, it intends to run buses to Washington for the People’s Climate March. Come Monday, when the organization sends its weekly email, more efforts are likely to surface.

“Ultimately, we’re in a struggle for power,” Friedman said. “And that means we have to be ready to exert influence and power locally.”

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