By Mike Ferner

Chicago -- Sub-freezing temperatures and a brisk wind did not darken the day in Drexel Park for the kick off of Camp Hope, an 18-day vigil just down the street from Barrack Obama’s home on Chicago’s south side, yesterday.

Organized by a coalition of social justice, religious and peace organizations from the Chicago area, Camp Hope’s goal is to remind President-elect Obama of the progressive themes he sounded in his campaign and urge him to follow through with policy changes when he takes office later this month.

Asked what she was hoping for, Jessica Phillips, 37, answered, “I hope Barack Obama hears of us and gets our message. I hope he realizes that the promises he made and the reasons we elected him are important.”

The Chicago resident said in particular, she wanted the city’s most famous resident to keep in mind his commitment “to rely on the primacy of diplomacy -- to get the U.S. military out of Iraq and change America’s image as the bully of the world. He’s got a lot of issues facing him but he knew that when he decided to run and convinced us to elect him. We commit to doing our part, by being public in our actions and supporting him to make hard decisions.”

Jevoid Simmons, director of employee relations for the Chicago Art Institute attended the Camp Hope opening to say that he hopes “Obama will see there is a broad base of people pushing peace, justice and fairness. I’m concerned about some of his cabinet selections but I hope he will marshal them into a force for positive change.”

One of the camp’s organizers, Marcia Bernsten, from the North Shore Coalition for Peace and Justice, said they got the inspiration for Camp Hope from the example of people she knows in St. Louis who participated in a similar vigil in Plains, Georgia, when Jimmy Carter was President-elect. The issues they highlighted at that time were support for an amnesty for Viet Nam war resisters in Canada and opposition to the B-1 Bomber. Within days of taking office, Carter issued the amnesty and the B-1 was cancelled six months later.

Holding a large box wrapped in red, white and blue and festooned with labels reading “HOPE,” Dan Kenney, a fourth grade teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary in DeKalb, stood hatless, looking very cold. “I asked my students what they would like to give to Mr. Obama and they answered, “’A box of hope.’ So that’s what I have here -- letters and photos from the nine and ten year-olds in my class.”

Responding to a request to read one of the letters, Kenney reached into the box and pulled one out that began, “Dear Mr. Obama, I hope we could keep gas prices low, recycle, and stop the war. It breaks my heart to see homeless people, especially when it’s snowing. Sometimes when I’m walking home and it’s really cold, I call my mother to pick me up. Then I think of the homeless. So please, Mr. Obama, help the homeless by making more Home Havens (a local shelter).”

Rev. Dr. Finley Campbell introduced a program of speakers which included Rev. Gregory Livingston, National Field Coordinator of Rainbow PUSH Coalition. After saluting the crowd with several rounds of New Year’s greetings, Rev. Livingston said, “But it’s not enough to just say Happy New Year. We must make this a Happy New Year. Camp Hope is not just a symbol; it’s an exercise in justice.”

Explaining that he has toured many parts of the country with Rev. Jesse Jackson to talk with people who lost their homes to foreclosures, Livingston said, “The melding of colors and incomes that we’ve worked for all these years we’ve finally seen in the tsunami of foreclosures. Unregulated greed is why we have all these foreclosures. Unregulated greed is why we are at war. Unregulated greed is why we do not have universal health care. America’s thread of optimism has been snapped in two by unregulated greed…but Camp Hope is the base camp from where we begin in the next 19 days to change all that.”

Kansan Cathy Smith, the mother of Tomas Young, a soldier who received a gunshot wound to his cervical spine in Iraq and is now a paraplegic said, “My son and I were in Grant Park celebrating with thousands of others here in Chicago on election night. But then I remembered how I felt in 2006 when we put in a new Congress that was supposed to stop the war…that can’t be allowed to happen again.”

Dr. Marjorie Fujara, MD, a pediatric physician at Stroger Jr. Hospital of Chicago said, “After eight years of living with an administration which has displayed utter contempt for the poor and middle class I was elated on the morning of November 5. The election of Barrack Obama made me optimistic for the first time in eight years. I was finally proud to be an American. But my euphoria began to fade when I came to grips with the huge gulf that existed between where we are, and where we need to go.”

She explained how at her hospital, budget cuts have increased wait times to see a doctor from weeks to months, neighborhood clinics have closed, doctors have been laid off, and nurses are forced to function as clerks, housekeepers and maintenance workers.

“The election of Senator Obama is a beacon of hope,” Dr. Fujara added, “but there is still a long way to go. We need to redouble our efforts to create a system with the premise that universal health care is a right, not a privilege.”

Camp Hope continues in Drexel Park from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm every day until January 18, including evening programs of speakers and films. Tomorrow night’s program features Dr. Quentin Young, a national leader in the single-payer health care movement.


Ferner is a freelance journalist from Ohio and author of “Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq.”

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