by Maryellen Kurkulos
Two historic pieces of pro-peace legislation submitted to the Rhode Island State House this year have created a whirlwind of activity for the Rhode Island peace movement. Activists representing the groups Action Corps, Brown War Watch, No Endless War or Excessive Militarism, and the RI Poor People’s Campaign wrote the legislation in collaboration with progressives newly elected to the RI House and Senate.
On the evening of March 11th, some 30 speakers gave oral testimony to the House Finance Committee in support of H.6026, a bill requiring the RI State Investment Commission to identify and divest any state pension funds invested in military weapons manufacturers. The companion bill in the Senate, S.0578 was presented to the Senate finance committee on April 5th.
The other legislation (H.5755/S.0639) promotes the conversion of the state’s economy away from militarism and towards climate resiliency using the dividends from decreased military spending. The resolutions were explicitly designed to intersect with the campaigns of environmental groups and young climate activists. The conversion bill was heard before the House State Government & Elections Committee in late March; the date for the companion Senate resolution is pending.
News of these landmark bills has traveled well beyond Rhode Island. The national peace organization Code Pink became so enthusiastic about the divestment campaign, they broadcast an email appeal to their networks to collect more testimonies and hosted an interview with core activists Linda Coelho-Stevens, Jonathan Daly-Labelle, and Peter Nightingale on Code Pink Radio. Even Col. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell under President G.W. Bush and now a prominent voice for peace, learned of the legislation on Twitter and submitted an endorsement.
The major sponsors of these bills are all newly elected progressives, part of the Rhode Island Democratic party insurgency that culminated in a wave of progressive legislators in 2020. The Ocean State, already known for passionate grassroots organizing around racial justice and economic and carceral rights, had seen several organizations emerge in recent years. These groups, notably Providence DSA, the Sunrise Movement, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, and the Sanders-inspired group Reclaim Rhode Island, became deeply involved in grassroots organizing around those elections and instrumental in their success.
Over the years, peace activists have discussed the importance of bringing issues of war and peace into the RI legislature, a body whose members vie for attention at every ribbon-cutting ceremony for General Dynamics Electric Boat, the N. Kingston-based submarine manufacturer that is Rhode Island’s largest military contractor. However, until the progressive campaigns for the State House ended in success, the idea was never viable as long as establishment Democrats remained in power.
And by virtue of the persistence and commitment of these peace groups that remained active over the last two decades of Endless War, they were able to quickly organize a No War With Iran rally in January 2020 in response to the sudden assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani ordered by President Trump. This was a moment that synergized with early stages of the insurgent campaigns for the state house. Despite the dismal, cold weather, a sizable rally in Providence brought together speakers and attendees from beyond the peace movement. NEWEM member Jonathan Daly-Labelle, a leading force behind the legislative project, had recruited Providence DSA member David Morales to speak at the event. Months later in November 2020, Morales became one of the slate of 15 progressives that swept into the Rhode Island legislature. Daly-Labelle also helped with the campaign of Brianna Henries, a theater teacher in East Providence, and she defeated the incumbent soundly. Now both Morales and Henries are sponsors of the House divestment bill.
At the moment, the RI peace movement is busy building on this momentum and garnering additional support for these bills in the various RI legislative districts. The activists understand that they are proceeding in small but critically important steps that may lead to ending the reign of war profiteers in their state and begin the transition towards a peaceful, sustainable future.
Stay tuned for more developments.
—Maryellen Kurkulos is Treasurer of Mass Peace Action. This report was written with input from Linda Coehlo-Stevens and Jonathan Daly-Labelle of NEWEM, Peter Nightingale of the RI Poor People’s Campaign, David Oppenheimer of ActionCorps and Les Robinson of Brown War Watch