In the large chapel of the old gothic church, over 200 people, most from Rangel's district which cuts a wide swath on the upper west side of Manhattan, amassed to meet with and to speak to their Congressman at the Town Hall meeting sponsored by United for Peace and Justice and several other local anti-war groups. The Congressman was warmly greeted as he took to the podium.
Rangel said he was heartened to see such a good turnout and that he thought we were now "turning the corner" in gaining support for ending the war. Rangel was an early opponent of the Iraq invasion, being 1 of the 81 Democrats who voted against the original 2002 resolution authorizing the President to invade Iraq. But so far, he has not signed on as a co-sponsor to HR 508, a bill introduced by Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee, and Maxine Waters that specifically "prohibits funding to deploy or continue to deploy US troops in Iraq" and "repeals 2002 law authorizing use of military force against Iraq." Nor has he voiced support for the bill or others like it.
Audience members demanded to know why Rangel, now chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was not doing more to get stronger measures passed to effectively end this unpopular war. Rangel is nothing if not an astute and seasoned politician; this is his 18th term in Congress. In a measured response he described to the group how strategy is important and how the Democrats "are afraid of the appearance" of abandoning the troops. It's a delicate balance, Rangel said. In making his case, Rangel made it clear that the Republicans would like nothing more than to cast the Democrats in that role and blame them for anything that goes awry thereafter. When the bill comes to his committee, there is a plan in place to specify what gets funded and what gets cut, Rangel reassured the audience. And it will come to his committee: everything related to tax policy must go through Ways and Means.
Rangel listened intently to the questions posed but defended his position. The Democrats are trying to work with Congress and to get the Republicans to join with them to avoid the "disaster" that would result should the Republicans be successful in framing the Democrats in the role of not "defending the troops," he explained.
Attempts to localize the issue with the theme of "bombs dropped in Iraq explode in our neighborhoods" were met with affirmation as audience members raised the guns vs. butter issues that hit the poorest congressional districts hardest. Rangel's district is among the poorest (his district ranks 424 out of 438 in median income). The loudest bursts from the audience were reserved for statements of support for defunding the war and bringing home the troops.
"We lost not just over 3000 in our military, but the silence of thousands" who were indifferent, Rangel stated to more applause. This was not a silent group; it was a group that presumably understood his reference to "the silence of thousands," a refrain he has used in other contexts. But in 2005 he got hung out to dry by the right when he used the image in reference to the Iraw War, which he called a "fraud" and likened to the Holocaust. "I am saying that people's silence when they know terrible things are happening is the same thing as the Holocaust, where everyone would have me believe that no one knew those Jews were killed over there," he said at the time. Rangel is not new to these kinds of arguments. He spent much of his time in his early years supporting Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement-another seminal event in US history in which the silent majority eventually became vocal and helped bring about major changes.
Rangel described how painful it has been to attend funerals of soldiers who have died in Iraq and how lucky he was to have come home from Korea in one piece. Rangel took a radical position on the draft early on in the Iraq War, another strategy that may yet bear fruit. Rangel's lone voice in calling for a new draft to accompany the Iraq War may turn out to be prescient. Almost exactly four years ago (2-12-03), before the actual invasion had started, in introducing a bill that would reinstate a draft, he wrote into the Congressional record: "My push to reinstate the draft was meant to first, show my opposition to a unilateral preemptive strike against Iraq and second, to insure that if America does go to war, that an equitable representation of all classes of Americans are making the sacrifice for our great country."
Rangel has been consistent in his call for equity in who serves in this war of choice. As people questioned the billions of dollars gone to Iraq rather than to local community building, Rangel reminded them that the effects of this war are not being felt equally across all constituencies. It is the poor who sign up to go into the service, as he did as a young man who felt he had few good choices. This war has "exhausted our volunteers and creamed the best of what we had from the poor communities," he said to a round of applause.
"This war was planned well before 911," Rangel charged. But President Bush has never made an appeal to patriotism that calls to duty those who support it. He has relied on volunteers who are offered $20,000 incentives to sign up. "It was sold as patriotism, as a way to stop terrorism," he said. Rangel characterized it as "an illegal invasion."
"We're responsible for many more deaths in pursuit of this war than Saddam Hussein ever was," Rangel declared as the audience clapped in agreement.
It was obvious from the questions posed to him that Rangel has been adept at representing the interests of his constituents. The guns/butter budget-cutting is sorely felt among them. After several questions and comments related to program cuts for schools, jobs, unemployment, housing, et al., Rangel turned the focus back to the budget issue that binds them with the war. The deficit problem that we now face will take years to undo, he said, and will affect not just us but our grandchildren.
Rangel explained, however, that his job is made easy. "I'm no profile in courage," he said modestly. "I'm doing what my constituency wants so it's easy for me."
As he listened to more questions and comments from the audience, one could understand his perception. He reminded the audience that the rest of the America does not look or feel like this racially/ethnically mixed group. There's still a dividing line that separates the tip of Manhattan from Main Street, USA. The kind of activism spilling from this Harlem church on a Sunday afternoon has yet to fully penetrate the heartland.
But it is from grass-roots uprisings that changes are effected, and the rumbling voices that are erupting are being heard across the aisle not just across the river. And when they are finally heard, Rangel will be ready with a strategy in place.