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George Martin

by Jan Christensen

“I’m in a time of my life when I can really make a difference.” George Martin has a face that settles naturally into a smile, but today his expression is serious. “My kids are grown up. I have a lot of support. And I have a chance to use what gifts I have.” For the last hour, George has been talking to me about his eight days in Baghdad early in January. He was one of a seven-person delegation from the largest coalition of peace groups in this country, United for Peace and Justice. He serves as a member of that group’s national steering committee. “We hear about Shi’ite insurgents, different religious and nationalist factions in that country,” he says, shaking his head, “but in a given neighborhood, it’s just different people with different beliefs, all living next door to each other.” Diverse neighborhoods. Like our neighborhood. Like our neighborhood, but not like our neighborhood. Basic services are not being met. Nine months after Shock and Awe, central Baghdad has power, but it goes off for parts of every hour. In the residential neighborhoods, households have power sporadically, for four to six hours a day. The phone system is still nonfunctional. Water of questionable quality is available from wells that people walk to, wait in line, then walk home carrying the day’s water supply. George tells of two schools he visited that had no water. Hospitals with four children in a bed and no pharmaceutical deliveries for nine months, one with open sewage in the operating room. Like our neighborhood, but not like our neighborhood. There’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s not getting done. In Baghdad, there’s 80% unemployment. Companies rebuilding the country have a policy not to hire anyone who was a member of the former Baathist regime. Before the war, it was “standard procedure” to sign up as a member of the party. Then, if you wanted to work, you joined. But if you joined then, today your name is on a list, and you can’t get a job. Like our neighborhood, but not like our neighborhood. The housing stock was decimated by the “smart bombs,” so a lot of people are homeless. The Performing Arts Theater was destroyed, the roof blown off. But there is enough shelter in the bombed out building that some 400 women and children are squatting there. The streets are full of people — mostly women and children — begging. The young men who were traditionally the breadwinners in their households are the most at risk of being detained. According to U.S. estimates, 10,000 people are being held in one detention center at the Baghdad airport. And there are five other detention areas. George and I are silent for a moment. I look out the window of the Peace Action Center on Keefe and Weil at the sparkling winter morning in my safe, comfortable neighborhood. George is looking at something else. He leans forward. “It seems like there’s a serious problem,” he says slowly, “with the way we’ve decided to handle this. “In Bosra, where the British are in charge, they do things differently. There was a demonstration there, with more than 1,000 people. There was no violence. At a similar demonstration in an American-controlled area, 22 of the demonstrators were killed. “When British troops do house-to-house searches, they go during the day, offer help, food, medications. They spread the word that they are looking for guns and soldiers. When Americans search, they go in at 4 in the morning, fully armed, wearing night goggles. People are intimidated and frightened. More often than not, somebody gets hurt. The wounded wait for care while the house is searched.” George has more stories about what Shock and Awe looks like to the people living in the neighborhoods of Baghdad. The widow of an American-educated engineer whose whole family was killed as they tried to drive to the airport. The young man who was gunned down on his way to tell his father at the family store that dinner was ready. The children who can’t sleep unless they’re in bed with an adult, and who wet themselves whenever they hear loud, unexpected noises. Our own peaceful, familiar George Martin, sitting in a Baghdad coffeeshop for a couple of hours, finding himself time and again gazing up the barrel of a machine gun in the hands of a fresh-faced American soldier in a patrolling Humvee. George Martin is a man of many gifts, and the world is lucky that he has decided to use those gifts in service to peace and justice. And Riverwest is an honored neighborhood that he has chosen to make his home here. George was born in the Philippines, where his mother grew up. The family moved to Milwaukee when he was six years old. They lived on West Center Street, “…in the St. Boniface parish. Father Groppi,” George says. Social activism came naturally. In 1963, he participated in the March on Washington. “I stood 10 feet away from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” George says. And that explains a lot. George made a career of communication with his own marketing and promotion business. And he made a career of neighborhood work with credit unions, housing boards, job programs. He worked with Jesse Jackson on Operation Push in Chicago. Since 2000, George has turned away from business (“…I quit because I got pissed off”) and toward political work and peace action. He separates his work with the Peace Action Center — “it’s a non-partisan organization” — where he is Program Director, from his political work. He is active in the Green Party, co-chair of the Wisconsin Green Party and co-chair of the Black Caucus of the National Green Party. George looks a little tired as we share a hug and I head off into the cold Wisconsin winter day. But he seems to be a man at peace with himself. It’s obvious he’s spending himself in service. He’s putting his gifts to their highest and best use.