2012

Report on the 2012 Virginia People’s Assembly

The 2012 VPA took place on January 14, at St. Stephen’s Koinonia Church, Richmond

This year marked the fourth annual gathering of the Virginia People’s Assembly, a statewide progressive networking conference, march and rally under the general theme of “Jobs, Peace, Justice!” In terms of numbers, composition and unity, it was the most significant VPA since the founding conference in 2009.

Who came?

A total of 45 organizations and individuals endorsed this year’s VPA. (See below for the final list.) More than 170 people attended, from 35 cities, four states and the District of Columbia. This was a substantial increase over the three previous VPAs, which averaged about 100 people each. As in past years, the majority came from Central Virginia (65 from Richmond), but there was also good representation from Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, the rest of Central Virginia and as far west as Harrisonburg and Blacksburg. In addition to the major population centers, we had folks from smaller towns, such as Burke in Northern Virginia; Crewe, Crozier and Montpelier in Central Virginia; and Lakey in Hampton Roads. There were also four people from Rocky Mount, N.C. (members of United Electrical Workers Local 150); three from Washington, D.C.; and one each from Baltimore, Md.; Bethesda, Md.; and Atlanta, Ga.

Attendees were about 20-25 percent African-American and 15 percent Latino/a, plus some people of Asian, Iranian and Pakistani descent. So overall, this year’s VPA was about 40 percent people of color. (Virginians as a whole are now 30 percent people of color.) There was a substantial presence from the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer community, a good mix of younger and older people and an organization representing the rights of physically and mentally challenged people. This year’s numbers were also swelled by new layers of activists from the Occupy movement, who made up more than one in four attendees. Labor activists made up more than one in eight.

Special thanks to Charlottesville activist and author David Swanson for arranging for Ray McGovern to attend and make a presentation. Ray is a former high-ranking military and CIA intelligence officer who turned against the war machine and has distinguished himself as a courageous anti-war activist. Other notable folks who attended were Ajamu Baraka, former Executive Director of the U.S. Human Rights Network; Saladin Muhammad, a founder of the Black Left Unity Network; Simin Royanian, Founder of Women for Peace and Justice in Iran, King Salim Khalfani, Executive Director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP; and Ricardo Juarez, General Coordinator of Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (Mexicans Without Borders).

Highlights

There were a number of highlights. (See “Program,” below.) In addition to the overall numbers, there was very strong participation in the labor, prison, LGBTQ, immigrant and self-determination workshops. The prison issues focus group and workshop were, as always, majority African-American, reflecting the racism in the state’s criminal injustice system. But this year, the labor focus group was also predominantly Black, perhaps reflecting how the ongoing economic crisis is severely affecting the Black community, as well as the increasing efforts by Black trade unionists to reach out to community allies. Participating in the labor workshop were members and organizers from United Electrical Workers Union Locals 150 (North Carolina) and 160 (Virginia); United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400; Virginia Association of Personal Care Assistants/SEIU (an endorser); and the Richmond Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). We should think about how to build on this development to make labor’s presence even stronger at next year’s VPA.

The presence of so many new people from the Occupy movement was also an encouraging development, with activists from the occupations in Blacksburg, Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Norfolk, Richmond, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg.

There were solidarity messages to the VPA from Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, and the United National Anti-War Coalition (UNAC). (See below.) The organized anti-war presence was smaller than in previous years, reflecting the shrinking ant-war movement in the state and country as a whole. On the other hand, strong anti-war positions are no longer confined to organizations focusing on those issues, as evidenced by the unanimous support for a resolution condemning war, sanctions and internal interference in Iran (see below), as well as support for the overall theme of “Jobs, Peace, Justice.” Another example was when 1st Plenary Session Co-Chair Jeff Winder opened up the conference by declaring that “if you can’t support the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, then the VPA is not for you.” He made the same declaration about support for the LGBTQ community. Both statements were enthusiastically applauded.

This year’s VPA focused on networking, and that seems to have been very successful. Lots of contacts were made and alliances begun. Of the 170 people who attended, 143 filled out registration forms and, of these, almost all checked the box to receive notices about activities sponsored by VPA endorsers.

Resolutions adopted

Two resolutions were introduced and unanimously adopted during the afternoon session. One was the written resolution on Iran and the other was a verbal motion to support all efforts by the Virginia NAACP to defend voting rights, now under attack in the Virginia General Assembly. There was also a general agreement to support the efforts of Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged (R.I.H.D.) and other prisoner advocacy groups to promote progressive state legislation being proposed for prisons and to oppose the negative ones.

Media coverage

In Richmond the week before the event, the Black-owned Richmond Voice ran our press release and the Black-owned Richmond Free Press reported on the VPA along with other progressive efforts related to the General Assembly. Community-sponsored Richmond radio station WRIR provided pre-event coverage on its Indy Media and DefendersLIVE! programs. TV stations 6 (CBS) and 12 (NBC) reported on the event itself, as did DefendersLIVE! on Jan. 16. Look for coverage in the next issue of The Virginia Defender, due out in February.

March on the State Capitol

The march on the State Capitol to demand “Don’t balance the budget on the backs of Virginia’s workers!” was a whole struggle in and of itself. The Richmond Police Department had demanded that, in order to receive a parade permit, we first had to agree to hire off-duty police officers, at a cost of at least $294. There is no authorization for this demand in the City Code covering parade permits, or even a requirement to this effect in the Police Department’s own parade permit application. Further, the police twice refused to put this demand in writing. This is at least the fifth time this issue has come up in Richmond, and we have always been able to beat it back, but an ACLU suit challenging this demand was defeated in federal court the week before the march, a development which apparently emboldened the police.

We were not going to submit to what we viewed as an attempt at extortion, but also did not want to expose vulnerable people to the possibility of arrest, so we decided to hold our march on the sidewalk. About 80 people took part in the 1.6-mile march from Monroe Park to the State Capitol. Some people volunteered to be arrested if the police tried to prevent this protest. Instead, the police kept their presence to a few patrol cars parked at a respectful distance. Many pedestrians expressed their support, as did many drivers, even though the marchers did not stop at traffic lights or other intersections. Spirits were high, and with the help of the bus provided by supporters of the immigrant organization Mexicans Sin Fronteras, we were able to transport people to and from the march and still be able to start the evening rally on time.

Thanks to all who contributed

Other organizations that should be mentioned for their roles in helping to make this year’s VPA a success are Richmond Food Not Bombs, which coordinated lunch; Mother Holbard and her team who took care of dinner; the Wayside Center for Popular Education, which provided translation; R.I.H.D., which brought a substantial number of former prisoners and family members; the Flying Brick Library and a local bike club, which played leading roles in providing security for the day’s events; Elizabeth Albrecht of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), who recruited and coordinated volunteers; and the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, which provided overall coordination.

Thanks to everyone who pitched in, took on responsibilities, showed sensitivity and patience and generally helped to make this year’s VPA a real success. The VPA’s goal is to help unite and strengthen the progressive movement in Virginia, and to help ensure that that movement is based on the multi-racial working class, with an unshakable commitment to the right of oppressed communities to self-determination.

This year, we made significant progress toward that goal.

Jan. 21, 2012
Phil Wilayto
for the Virginia People’s Assembly
(Report has been approved by the endorsers of the 2012 VPA)

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