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March 21, 2013

US pockets of protest persist after years of war

MONTPELIER, Vt. — The protesters gather at noon every Friday in front of the Montpelier post office, sharing signs made up years ago to tell their little part of the world why they oppose the latest war involving the United States.

There might be as few as two people in the midwinter cold, or as many as 20 at the height of summer. But a decade after the invasion of Iraq, protesters there and at similar demonstrations coast to coast still show up, determined to remind people that the U.S. is at war.

“I believe there are many, many people who know in their conscience that we are at war, that we aren’t really in any danger of being invaded by the terrorists,” said David Connor, 76, of East Montpelier, a Vietnam-era objector who’s been a Montpelier protest regular for years. “There’s more terror in the world for fear of what we can do and have done than there is fear that there are terrorists going to take over countries like this.”

While the war in Iraq is over for the United States, the war in Afghanistan continues, largely off the public radar as it fades from front pages and the top of television newscasts. In a way similar to how U.S. service members continue to fight overseas, the small groups of protesters still regularly protest, their voices all but lost in the chatter of a country focused on other things.

“It’s a constant reminder that we are still fighting in various countries. We haven’t really come out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Scilla Wahrhaftig, the Pennsylvania program director for the American Friends Service Committee in Pittsburgh, where there are two regular protests every Saturday. “These little vigils around the country do have that impact of reminding people that this is still going on.”

Most of the time, the protesters generate few comments from passers-by, but occasionally people object. During Friday’s Montpelier protest, businessman Henry Partlow stopped and talked to the protesters. He didn’t like one of the signs that used the phrase, “We demand peace.”

“A demand is something that you hear from a terrorist or a dictatorship: You will meet my demands or there will be consequences,” said Partlow, who noted their right to protest was won by people who put their lives on the line and sometimes gave them up. “It seemed like such an oxymoron. Why would you put that on your sign, ‘We demand peace’?”

Randi Law, spokeswoman for the 1.6 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said veterans across the country notice the protests and respect the rights of the protesters to do so.

“I think the overall consensus is it is somewhat disrespectful. Our service members didn’t take it upon themselves, so to speak, to go into battle,” Law said. “They answered their nation’s call when they were called up.”

Many of the protesters are older, veterans of the civil rights marches of the 1960s and anti-Vietnam protests, who never lost their activism.  

In San Francisco, a chapter of the American Friends Service Committee started holding vigils in front of the federal building after the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. At first there was some hostility, said Stephen McNiel, the group’s peace education director.

“Over time, especially, people in the building and the neighborhood came to sort of really like the vigil and so respected the fact that people were out there every week, rain or shine,” McNeil said.

For the last eight years just outside Denver, Colorado Citizens for Peace meets every Saturday on a busy corner. Usually about a half-dozen protesters show up.

“When we’re lucky enough to have more, we get far better honks, you know, people notice us more,” said Kathy Tolman, 69, of Wheat Ridge, Colo. She said she has been a political activist since 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

“It’s so amazing to me,” she said. “It doesn’t take a lot of people, really, to have an impact. Twenty people can really get noticed when they’re on a street corner.”

In Montpelier, the capital of a state known for its leftist political activism, the Friday protests predate the invasion of Iraq by decades. Every time there’s a protest, building security officials fill out a form, noting the event. They date to at least the mid-1980s.

Last Friday, about a half-dozen people came and went.

Ann Burcroff, 80, of Montpelier, said her activism goes back decades, traced to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The protests don’t draw the attention they once did, and even though they don’t appear to have done much to end the wars, she feels it’s worth it.

“I don’t have much money,” she said. “I don’t have much power, but I have a voice, and this is one way of exercising an opinion, and people do stop and listen, they argue, they talk, they see us here, they think about it.”

 

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