Activist warns U.S. on strange bedfellows

November 10, 2001|By Gregory Kane

BEFORE tying up a few loose ends, let's look at another member of the new peace movement. The first one was A. Robert Kaufman, the curmudgeonly Trotskyite activist who's been known to irritate even his fellow left-wingers. Well, better them than us.

The Rev. Chester Wickwire irritated mainly conservatives during his tenure as chaplain at the Johns Hopkins University. The reasons he did show just how staid, reactionary and downright wrong conservatives were in years past.

Wickwire ran into opposition early on at Hopkins. Hired to run the university's YMCA in 1953, he started a program in 1958 that brought Baltimore's poor black children to the campus for tutoring in reading and math. Racial attitudes being what they were in that era, the move caused consternation among some in the Hopkins community.

"My God, you mean he wants to bring the Negroes here?" some must have whimpered.

In 1963, Wickwire was one of hundreds of demonstrators who picketed against segregation at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, formerly in Northwest Baltimore. A young Jewish civil rights activist from New York named Mickey Schwerner was one of those arrested with Wickwire. A year later, Schwerner was dead, murdered in Mississippi along with fellow activists James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

Wickwire kept up the good fight. He caused more dispute on the Hopkins campus when he invited civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin to speak in 1966. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the campus in protest of Rustin being black, gay, communist or all of the above.

Later in the 1960s, Wickwire stayed overnight at the local Black Panther Party headquarters to stave off a police-Panther shootout. He made then-Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau's enemies list -- that should make Wickwire a hero in somebody's eyes -- and worked in the movement against the Vietnam War.

He's retired now, and spends his days writing poetry. A March hip injury has him operating from a wheelchair these days, but that hasn't slowed him any. Wickwire is now part of the new anti-war movement, the one that started Sept. 11 when radical Islamist terrorists crossed their Rubicon.

Wickwire isn't one of those knee-jerk blame-America-firsters who immediately pointed to our foreign policy as a cause of the attacks. But the retired chaplain says we have to ask ourselves tough questions.

"I think that there are a lot of things at play in this," Wickwire said, "but I think we ought to be asking the questions of why this happened. We have to ask ourselves if we set ourselves up for this with our foreign policy. We are guilty of playing a role that has often made people feel very negatively about us."

Wickwire wasn't just talking about the Middle East, where he says we support a corrupt and brutal Egyptian regime and the Saudis, "who have no democracy and 7,000 princes who hold all the top jobs." He was talking about a place very close to home, one he has visited frequently since 1979: Central America.

"I took groups down there for 10 years off and on, maybe three times a year," Wickwire recalled. In 1983, he took a group to a military prison in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.

"We brought back affidavits from some of the prisoners," Wickwire said. "One was from a young man who said he was tortured in military headquarters in the presence of American advisers."

Wickwire knew three of the six Jesuit priests murdered by Salvadoran troops in 1989.

"I still have tapes of my conversations with them," Wickwire said of the trio. "These men weren't communists at all. They were absolutely wonderful men. We trained the people that killed them."

We trained them as part of our policy to fight communism, which was considered the major anti-U.S. threat in the 1980s. It was fighting communism that gave us O-Slimy bin Laden, whom we supported when he fought with Afghanistan's mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation of that country.

Our anti-communism may have blinded us. Communism, as bad as it was, had the benefit of being far more progressive than the medieval form of Islam the Taliban later imposed on Afghanistan.

Wickwire hopes we have better vision in the future, particularly regarding the anti-terrorism coalition. The aging peacenik has a warning for us.

"We must look at the strange bedfellows we've crawled into bed with," Wickwire cautioned.

Now, as for those loose ends: Betty Waibel, wife of the late Polytechnic Institute football and lacrosse coach Augie Waibel, wrote to let me know that their daughter Stacey also attended the Nov. 1 dedication ceremony of the Augie Waibel Athletic Center at the North Baltimore school.

"Stacey and her father were very close," Betty Waibel wrote. Thanks for the heads-up, Mrs. Waibel, and my apologies to Stacey.

Several callers want the number to A Place of Our Own, a Baltimore County drop-in center run by those suffering from mental illnesses for those suffering from mental illnesses. The center can be reached at 410-866-2296. The address is 8061 Philadelphia Road. A Place of Our Own is open on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.

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