Power to the Peaceful: The Inaugural Peace Ball

By Rob Okun
Editor, Voice Male Magazine

It had been Barack Obama’s day but the night, at least in one corner of Washington, D.C. belonged to the peace community, a moment to celebrate the sweet taste of victory. Not even the frigid Washington evening could cool the sizzling heat emanating from the nation’s first Inaugural Peace Ball, a night of inspiration and celebration. Nearly 1500 activists and optimists from around the country streamed into the grand hall of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum to sing, dance and give a shout out to joy. Indeed, our time had come.

Amidst the flowing gowns, tuxedos, colorful African vestments, and splashes of (code) pink, social justice voices led a call and response spanning more than 40 years, crossing the political desert in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sister-troubadours Joan Baez, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Holly Near, Toshi Reagon, and Angelique Kidjo took to the stage massaging weary hearts, supporting tired legs, and tickling eager dancing feet. Meanwhile, sisters of conscience Alice Walker, Eve Ensler, Amy Goodman, Laura Flanders, and Kimberly Crenshaw encouraged us to find balance, deepen commitment, and celebrate a common humanity.

To a pulsing beat, musician-activist Michael Franti and Spearhead moved down the chakras, head awash with both the burning light of injustice and possibility; heart beating in unison with brothers and sisters around the fragile planet; and loins aflame with the energy of love. This was one ball Michelle and Barack Obama would have benefited from attending. It generated at least a four year supply of renewable energy powered by grit, commitment, savvy, groundedness and boundlessness, all at celebratory full throttle.

At the heart of the Inaugural Peace Ball was impresario Andy Shallal, who organized the event as a challenge for the peace community to reclaim its rightful place in the mainstream. Owner of the Washington progressive community’s flagship Busboys & Poets‚ much more than a restaurant, cultural center and bookstore (although it is all three)‚ Busboys is a microcosm of a healthy community where a United Nations of the soul can break bread together. Shallal seized the paradigm-shifting moment of Barack Obama’s election to create an event to help catalyze the peace movement to set the political and social agenda for the future of our country and our planet. “We can no longer afford” Shallal said,”to be cynical or to find comfort being on the fringe.”

The mood all evening was relaxed and hummed with expectation. When he hears the reports of what went down on the night of his inauguration‚ and hopefully he will‚ President Obama would be well-advised to ask for a briefing paper.

Harry Belafonte, honorary host for the evening, would have welcomed the new president onto the stage but likely would have reminded him‚ s he did John Kennedy a half-century ago‚ that even though we worked hard for his election, we weren’t going to give him a free pass. We are going to agitate for our agenda. Activist before entertainer, the legendary Belafonte still has fire in his belly. At 81, his voice was strong as he admonished the throng at the Peace Ball, “If [President Obama] fails it’s because we failed. If we succeed, he’ll succeed. We have to keep the pressure on,” he said. Appreciated from the stage for his long service to the movement, Belafonte said no praise was necessary. “I am having the time of my life, and I love making mischief.”

Feisty and funny, Dick Gregory, full white beard and shock of white hair, is still one of our prophets of conscience and biting humor, one of the movement’ great uncles. Introduced in song by his daughter, he reminded the crowd that the peace community doesn’t need validation from the corporate media. “You are so important. What you do is so critical,” he said, pointing out at the sea of faces in the great hall. “The change is not [President] Obama; the change is us.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker offered a message that holds a key to help the peace community to endure. To be peaceful, she encouraged her audience find a way to be centered each day. And, deeply revere the feminine, the goddess. “The time is past,” she pointed out, “for only patriarchal religious imagery to be offered at inaugurations.”

When playwright-activist Eve Ensler bounded onto the stage, the energy quickened. “I believe in openings,” she said to laughter, “and today was a /big/ opening.” The author of The Vagina Monologues remains hard at work putting the issue of violence against women, and Africa‚ in a highlighted place on the social justice agenda.

At the center of an evening of celebrating that went on for six hours, was hope and possibility, buzz words of the Obama campaign. The hall sizzled with electricity: excited first-time meetings, reunions of old friends, whoops of joy “Yes, We Did!” coupled with “Thank God he’s gone!”

Joan Baez’s set included Bob Dylan’s Forever Young, dedicated to the Obama family. Later, introducing another song, she told of traveling with Dr. King in Mississippi. He was an hour and a half late to deliver a sermon because he’d been taking a nap. “You wake him, Joan,” Baez recalled being asked and the young singer tentatively stood by his bed, starting in on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Dr. King rolled over and said, “I believe I hear the voice of an angel. Sing me another one, Joan.” The Peace Ball was the kind of night Dr. King would have no doubt said, “Sing me another one, Joan. Tell another story, Harry.”

After eight years of the Bush regime, it was time to sing and tell stories, to feel our connection to generations of activists gone by. Ossie Davis would have loved the Peace Ball, so would have Grace Paley and Studs Terkel, to name a few. It reminds us to continue the struggle: to know our feet are meant for marching /and/ dancing; our voices for protest /and/ singing; are hearts for beating fast facing the winds of injustice/ and /slowly in the quiet of meditation. This /is/ our moment. What will we do now when we can finally step away, as Andy Shallal said, “from the comfort of being on the fringe, We /are/ the change we have been waiting for. Barack Obama is the president we elected. What will we do?”

In Wild Geese, poet Mary Oliver writes, in part: “You do not have to be good/You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting/You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves/Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

We have told ourselves about our despair. Now it is time to tell ourselves about our joy, walking on our two feet, backs erect, through the desert of war to the oasis of peace. We begin, like Barack Obama, today.

/ Rob Okun is editor of /Voice Male /magazine. His essay, “onfessions of a Premature Profeminist” appears in the anthology /Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power, (Routledge, 2008). /He can be reached at rob@voicemalemagazine.org

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