Published on Sunday, November 3, 2002 by the Baltimore Sun
The Making of An Activist
Laura Brodie is a mother, author, teacher, taxpayer and voter. But in the threat of war with Iraq, she discovered another identity
by Lisa Pollak
This is exactly what she didn't want, you know. The headline, the pictures, all the focus on her. As if she's the important part of this story, one woman marching in a crowd through the streets of the nation's capital, carrying a sign that says "We Are From Lexington, Va. and We Oppose This War."
True, she drove more than three hours to get here, and she left her three little girls and husband back home, and the button she's wearing - "No War Against Iraq" - is one of 500 she ordered this summer, and until this summer she'd never even worn a button before, let alone held a sign, marched in a protest, lobbied her senators, planned a demonstration or walked into the office of a national peace organization to ask how she could help prevent a war.
Where Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, stands in an auditorium at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington and tells 650 cadets and concerned citizens gathered at a forum that ousting Saddam Hussein isn't "worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, let alone a lance corporal or a specialist from one of our United States military's finest."
Riveting words, to be sure, and she'd prefer you hear more of them. Never mind that the forum at VMI was her idea in the first place, and so was inviting the outspoken general to be on the panel discussing the case for war. She'd rather people hear his words, his argument, than hers.
But there's no denying that Brodie is part of the story now, too. Maybe even the most important part: a first-time activist, driven to action by the threat of war.
Last weekend's anti-war rally in Washington is being called the largest since the Vietnam era, and the familiar faces were well-represented: Quakers and Greens, socialists and anarchists. There were boa-wearing roller skaters, an Uncle Sam on stilts, dreadlocked college students playing bongos.
But Laura Brodie - mother, English professor, wife of VMI's band director - was there, too, and so were plenty of people who looked just like her. She didn't join the chants of "Drop Bush, Not Bombs!" but her cries of "No War!" were as loud as anyone's. Maybe louder. Hers is the voice of the newly awakened activist, resolute and hopeful. She believes in the process, in her ability to make a difference. While others may grow cynical in the face of defeat, she finds inspiration in the smallest victories, in the increasing number of like-minded voices stepping up to be heard.
Organizers say 200,000 marched last weekend; police put the estimate at 100,000. But for Laura Brodie, perhaps the number that matters most is 14.
Before the parade of signs and banners fill the streets, before chants of resistance sound outside the White House, 14 people from the small town of Lexington, Va., meet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Together, they walk to the rally, and together they stand in the growing crowd. Brodie stands among them, holding the white posterboard sign that she inked that morning, wearing a gray cardigan sweater and jeans.
And, of course, her button.
* * *
It begins with one person. One person reading an article about a U.S. plan to invade Iraq. One person, filled with a sense of dread and disgust. One person writing letters to newspapers that don't get printed and sending e-mails to senators that only get form letters in response. One person making phone calls, posing questions to friends and strangers: Is anyone else concerned? Is anything being done? One person, going to a party.
That's right. A party. A midsummer party to celebrate a friend's new book.
Some guests are wearing little blue buttons advertising the name of the novel, a romantic suspense tale called Pretend I'm Not Here.
Brodie looks at the buttons. They're a clever gimmick, to be sure. But with everything on her mind, she sees something else, too: a way to communicate.
A way to make her voice heard, to spark conversations in her community, to put a face on her position. Or, as much of her position as can fit on a button, anyway. Even a political neophyte knows that "No Unilateral U.S. War Against Iraq Without Proof of Imminent Threat" isn't exactly button material.
"No War Against Iraq," she tells the man at a button company in Florida. Over the phone, she asks him: Are people down there talking about this issue? No, the man says. Not really.
Political action takes many forms, and in the months to come she will experience a great deal of them. But for Brodie, being an activist begins with a button. Not one button, but 500 buttons, at 34 cents each.
The first day she wears one, she has an appointment for a massage.
The massage therapist notices the button. "Where did you get that?" she asks. "Can I buy some?" Brodie reaches into her purse, leaves 10.
Now it's not one person anymore. The little red button - the size of a silver dollar - does just what Brodie had hoped it would. It draws people out. It gets people talking. It makes them want their own buttons. She wears her button all over town, to the grocery store and while picking up her daughters from school, but there are also places where she is careful to take it off. Her English class at Washington and Lee University, for example, or a private dinner party with friends. She doesn't want to make people feel uncomfortable. She is well aware that she lives in a small, conservative town, home to the Virginia Military Institute. But she also knows that there are VMI faculty who share her views, and veterans who do, too. And when she wears the button in public, she doesn't hear any criticism. The most negative comment comes from a woman at a restaurant - a woman who herself shares Brodie's position. "Most people don't agree," the woman says.
The buttons spread like seeds. Brodie gives them out, and other people do, too. At the annual community festival, amid the arts and crafts displays, the buttons are available at booths representing the local Quakers and the Greens. Over the summer, when Brodie takes a trip to Washington to see a friend, two men in an elevator ask her for buttons. She visits the national headquarters of Peace Action, and later an image of her button appears on the group's web site. She hears that her buttons have reached Florida, Pennsylvania, even Maryland. One found its way onto the jacket of a teen-ager at Towson High School.
After her stop in Washington, Brodie takes a train to Connecticut. She is with her oldest daughter at a table in the dining car. A middle-aged woman sits down across from them. She doesn't say anything at first. But after she does, Brodie will never forget the words, or the tears in the woman's eyes.
"I want to tell you how moved I am by your button."
The women talk. Brodie, 38, was a child during Vietnam. But the other woman remembers those days, and now fears her country is headed in the wrong direction. It is not the only voice of despair Brodie will hear in the months to come.
"I tried to convince her that some of us were still fighting this fight," Brodie says. "And hopefully this was one particular battle that could be won."
Then she gave her two buttons.
* * *
In stories of war and peace, numbers have meaning.
Demonstrators. Troops. Casualties.
Votes on a resolution in Congress authorizing a president to use force.
It was in those votes - or, more specifically, in her chance to influence them - that Laura Brodie saw a window of opportunity that roused her to act.
For 15 years, she had stood on the sidelines. Her political activity consisted of voting and making the occasional donation to a humanitarian or environmental cause. She was aware, yes, but like many people, not involved.
Things were different now. This was about war, a word whose horrifying implications were heightened not just by being a parent, but by the town in which she lived. She had a husband, John, a former Marine who went to work in a military uniform, whose cadets represented the potential human toll of conflict.
But living in Lexington was important in other ways, too. In a community of 10,000, you could see clearly the power of individuals. People like "Hull's Angels," the group that had stepped in and resurrected the local drive-in, turning it into a nonprofit after its owner, Sebert Hull, died.
Elise Sheffield, the co-founder of that group, was one of the first people Brodie called last summer, seeking advice for her nascent campaign. Sheffield suggested she contact local Quakers, and soon Brodie had hooked up with Nell Lancaster and Peggy Dyson-Cobb.
The women did not share all the same views. Brodie was not a pacifist, she told the two Quakers. Her position - no unilateral action without proof of imminent threat - meant that theoretically they might eventually go their separate ways. But for now, united, the women were a team. They collaborated on a petition urging members of Congress to oppose a U.S. invasion of Iraq, urging diplomatic responses to the problem of Saddam Hussein. In a week, they collected 270 signatures. Those were delivered - along with 2,500 e-mail petitions collected by a group called MoveOn - to the Richmond offices of Virginia senators John Warner and George Allen.
Brodie, Lancaster and Dyson-Cobb were among the group of about 30 Virginians who went to Richmond that August day. It was hard not to be disappointed to learn that "lobbying" Sen. Warner meant talking to an aide on a speaker phone. And yet there was this piece of encouragement, however small: Warner, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, had called for hearings on Iraq.
A few days later, after reading in the paper that Warner was coming to a nearby town for a Labor Day parade, Brodie called a local activist to seek advice: Was Warner's visit an opportunity to make their voices heard?
"She said, 'He'll be walking the parade route. The best thing to do is try to get 50 people there with signs,' " Brodie recalls.
"And I said, 'Well, can you count the children?'"
For two straight days she was on the phone, calling women from her book club, people who had signed her petition, anyone she could think of who supported the cause. She wrote a statement to hand out to reporters and onlookers, explaining some of the reasons why she opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq: That there was no evidence of an immediate threat, that most allies opposed the invasion, that "a post-Hussein Iraq could descend into anarchy, destabilizing the region and miring the U.S. in a long and bloody conflict."
On Labor Day, long before marchers took to the streets of the nation's capital, 58 people - including 24 children, three of them her own - lined both sides of a street in little Buena Vista, Va., just down the road from Lexington.
Brodie set the tone for the day with a sheet of typed guidelines, including "If people who are not part of our group gather behind you, politely inform them that you will be raising a sign during the parade which might block their view."
The demonstrators cheered the VMI band, led by Brodie's husband, and called out to Warner as he walked by. He stopped, shook hands, even took Brodie's sign, which thanked him for calling for hearings. "I don't want war either," he told her.
That night, though, she heard Warner on television, talking about a madman with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It was no surprise when, on Oct. 11, Warner joined his Senate colleagues in overwhelmingly approving the resolution, 77 to 23.
Those weren't the numbers she would have liked. But they didn't change the number she was proud of: 58 people who'd made their voices heard.
* * *
It does not speak in one voice, this new anti-war movement. That's why the general - and the VMI forum he spoke at - is so important to Brodie. That's why she considers the event, though hardly noticed outside of Lexington, to be the most important of her many anti-war efforts.
It's also why she was heartened, at the end of September, to see the diverse crowd that marched to Vice President Dick Cheney's house from Dupont Circle in Washington. The demonstration, hastily planned as Congress rushed toward its vote, drew little media attention. But it was Brodie's first march on Washington, and she was inspired by what she saw: Not just the moms with strollers and elderly couples who joined the procession down Embassy Row, but the range of ethnic backgrounds of the people who waved from embassy windows and doors as the protesters passed.
Some called the turnout meager. But Brodie, who knew how difficult it was to draw 58 people to a protest on short notice, let alone what she estimated at 3,000, was not disappointed. If anything disappointed her, it was the disrespect for the police displayed by some of the young people in the crowd. Brodie agreed that the aggressive police presence, complete with officers in riot gear holding batons, seemed excessive. But when the chant of "This is what a democracy looks like!" was followed by "This is what a police state looks like!" Brodie could not join in.
"Police are part of the democracy, too!" she yelled back.
Later, she said: "I'm sure there are plenty of policemen who don't think this war is a good idea. And I think that when you become hostile toward police, it's one step toward becoming hostile to all people in uniforms."
It was, in fact, a man in uniform who first embraced Brodie's idea for a VMI forum on the war. Jim Hentz, who teaches in the college's International Studies department, eagerly agreed to arrange the event, and took on the task of finding a panel of experts that would include Zinni.
On the morning before the forum, Oct. 14, Brodie worried about the turnout. Had the event been advertised well enough to draw people from town, and not just cadets? Would passage of the resolution on Iraq just three days earlier dampen the public's desire to learn more? The answers were clear as she entered Jackson Memorial Hall. The grand auditorium, with its state flags and giant Civil War battle portrait, was packed. There were about 650 people in all, a mix of cadets in shiny black shoes, gray-haired Quakers, college students. Not just people from Brodie's growing e-mail list, but people she'd never seen before - one even wearing a familiar red button that said "No War Against Iraq."
Despite Hentz's best efforts to enlist panelists with diverse views, only one of the five experts echoed the Bush administration position on Saddam Hussein. The others, including VMI's dean, raised questions - some mirroring Brodie's own - about the wisdom of U.S. unilateral action at this time.
Zinni - the retired general and President Bush's special envoy to the Middle East - spoke last. Before the forum, Brodie had wondered if Zinni, who has referred to the administration's Iraq plan as the "Bay of Goats," would temper his remarks in this military setting.
He didn't."Well, I grew up in Philly, joined the Marine Corps when I was 18 and spent 40 years as a grunt," he began. "And the last 10 of those watching this guy, Saddam Hussein. And I'm here to tell you, he ain't Adolf Hitler, and he ain't Osama Bin Laden. He's Tony Soprano. He's a gangster, and he wants to live. He's not suicidal, and he's not a jihadist. He's a bum dictator, a second-rate dictator. And right now we don't need to be screwing around with him . . . .
"Now somebody asked me, 'What would it take for this war to be a success?' I said, 'Ten simple things. If you want this war to be a success, this is what has to happen." He held up his list and began reading.
"The coalition is in. The war is short.
"Destruction is light. Israel is out.
"The street is quiet. Order is kept.
"The burden is shared. Change is orderly.
"The military - ours - is not stuck.
"And other commitments are met.
The question-and-answer session had its own form of drama. At one point, Patrick Lang, former head of defense intelligence for the Middle East, South Asia and counter-terrorism, looked out at the audience, whose questions implied that war wasn't yet a done deal.
"The discussion in Washington these days is not about whether we're going to war with Iraq. That's pretty well settled, and if you think it isn't . . . you better get busy politically."
Brodie made a note on a piece of paper and raised her hand to ask a question. But she was sitting off to the side, so the moderator couldn't see her. She stood up, walked toward the front of the auditorium.
Her question, she said, was for Zinni.
"Is there anything you think the American people could do to avoid this - or is the invasion on?"
Zinni looked at her and said, "When Congress gave the resolution, that made it inevitable."
Inevitable. As in over. As in no point in trying to resist.
It was Oct. 14. The march in Washington was still two weeks away. Laura Brodie could cancel her trip. Stop sending e-mails and coordinating child care. Spend the weekend at home with her family, instead of trying to change the inevitable.
But if she had believed in the inevitable, of course, she wouldn't be an activist.
Later, as she walked to her car, a friend, smiling, stopped her and said: "Well, Laura, how do you feel about depressing an entire community?"
But here's the thing. She wasn't depressed. She was energized. Zinni and the other speakers had only fueled her opposition to the war. Of course she was still going to Washington in two weeks.
"I think that all you can ever do in life is act the way you think the people around you should act," she said later. "You try to set your own example and hopefully other people will be inspired."
Which is why, just that morning, she'd ordered 250 more buttons.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun