BOSTON — We don’t have St. Patrick’s Day parades in Pakistan, but we do have discrimination. And as elsewhere, our media often sidelines the struggles for justice and against discrimination. So it sounded familiar when I heard that the Allied War Veterans’ Council (AWVC) had refused, for the second year running, to allow the Veterans for Peace (VFP) to participate in the "official" St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston.
It was at an event titled "Bridging the Divide: USA/Pakistan" where I was speaking on Saturday, sponsored by seven organizations, that moderator Cole Harrison of Massachusetts Peace Action made the announcement. VFP, he said, would hold its second St Patrick’s Day Peace Parade the next day, Sunday.
As I started looking into it, it became clear that the alternate parade was not just about discrimination. It was also an effort to bring the peace message into the public domain.
“There is a heavy hand of media suppression coming from far above the City of Boston, which likes to think it is the City of Progress, with millions of dollars in new money flowing in; they don’t want this controversy to surface showing the same attitudes of racism, homophobia and subservience to the military-industrial complex still prevail,” Tony Flaherty of VFP, a retired naval officer with 25 years service told me. “The biggies in this country don’t want it seen clearly that in South Boston and in the country, they’ve made "Peace" into a dirty word; it’s certainly not profitable.”
In 1993, the AWVC refused to allow Boston’s gay and lesbian community to participate in the parade. A subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the organizers’ right to exclude anyone without assigning a reason (Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 1995).
Thirteen VFP members marched, with permission from the Boston Police, at the end of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2003. They were protesting the imminent attack on Iraq, which took place two days later. The AWVC sued the Boston Police Department and got a court order stating that any future marches would have to be a mile behind the regular parade.
Last year, when the VFP application to participate in the parade was rejected, they got permission to hold their own parade, and invited Boston’s lesbian gay bisexual transgender (LGBT) community. They applied again this year, and in solidarity, so did the LGBT rights groups Join the Impact and Mass Equality. The AWVC rejected all three.
So the VFP and LGBT groups held their own parade again, joined by more organizations from around the country, including the Occupy people. The estimated 1,500 to 2,000 participants were at least three times more than last year’s 500. The numbers are likely to grow every year as word gets out.
Legally VFP may not have a leg to stand on, but morally they’re spot on. They appear to have considerable support from the Boston community — including the 60 organizations that form the South Boston Association of Non-Profits. Everyone I spoke to on the sidelines of the St Pat’s Day Parade in South Boston said that excluding them was discriminatory and wrong — some had been unaware of it.
“The parade is privately organized and they have the right to include who they want,” said a young man standing with friends on a side street, watching the Peace Parade units literally warm up under a scorching sun as they waited to be allowed to move on. “But it’s a shame.”
“It’s not right,” added a young woman. “Why shouldn’t they be allowed to march with the main parade?”
“It’s great to be here regardless, and to feel the support we get from the people at the parade,” said Doug Clifford, a grizzled Vietnam and Korea vet. “It’s a positive feeling and that’s what’s important.”
The police would undoubtedly be happier dealing with one parade rather than two. They even informally offered to get VFP into the main parade but “we said we will only walk with the official parade if our LGBT brothers and sisters are also allowed,” said Pat Scanlon of VFP, who organized the Peace Parade.
“We’re told we’re too political,” he added. “Too political? There’s a parade all the politicians participate in after getting together for breakfast, with military bands, military hardware on display, military units marching — that’s not political, and we’re political because we’ve got the word ‘peace’ in our name along with ‘veterans’?”
VFP’s Tony Flaherty has publicly offered to debate “the credibility of the Allied War Veterans versus the Veterans for Peace. We (VFP) have Medal of Honor winners, Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, and Medals of Valor. The Allied War Veterans have nothing of substance — indeed their long term commander never left the country, was in the reserve for one year, and is the grand voice advocating young men go off to sacrifice for this country — or rather die in vain.”
While we wait for the AWVC to take up this challenge, this has clearly become, as Scanlon says, “a fight for social justice, for standing up for principles and what is right.”
“A hundred and fifty years ago, the Irish walked through the streets of Boston to protest discrimination — against the Irish. Today, they’re using St Patrick’s Day to exclude people like me, who stand for peace. But we’re not going to give up. We’ll apply to march in the parade next year and every year until they say yes. How long will they refuse us?”
Beena Sarwar, a journalist from Pakistan, is an associate fellow with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in Cambridge. In 2006, she was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard. She blogs at www.beenasarwar.wordpress.com. Twitter @beenasarwar