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A Cheeky Protest: Bay Area Anti-War Activists Go Nude in Surge of Creative Vigils
Published on Sunday, January 12, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
A Cheeky Protest
Bay Area Anti-War Activists Go Nude in Surge of Creative Vigils
by Joe Garofoli
 

Even as U.S. troops inch toward the Persian Gulf for a possible war with Iraq, anti-war activists say it can be difficult to rally outrage or media interest back home. So a group of Marin County women has resorted to the ultimate attention grabber: getting nude.

NO WAR: Unreasonable Women Baring Witness
Lying naked on a dung-laden pasture, a group called Unreasonable Women Baring Witness hopes to bring attention to those against going to war with Iraq. Photo courtesy of Donna Sheehan
Since November, more than 200 women -- calling themselves Unreasonable Women Baring Witness -- have used their naked bodies to spell out anti-war slogans on three sites: a Marin beach, ball field and dung-laden pasture.

While some may say the gesture trivializes and distracts from the gravity of the anti-war message, Unreasonable Women organizer Donna Sheehan said desperate times . . .

"It got your attention, didn't it?" joked Sheehan of Marshall, who said she doesn't even go into the kitchen without a robe on.

Longtime activists say the Unreasonables are only one of a growing number of peace vigils springing up across the Bay Area. In most cases, the vigilists are performing small gestures of public devotion to a cause they see as being overlooked.

Whether it's Singing for Peace serenading BART riders or a man beaming a PowerPoint message on an Interstate 580 overpass, homegrown activists are taking their message to the streets. They are bypassing mainstream media outlets they say are ignoring their pleas for a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi crisis. They're tired of pundits accepting war as a foregone conclusion and giving little airtime to diplomatic solutions.

Yet Sheehan said her group isn't full of activists, or "bored Marin housewives," as one naysayer referred to them. Their Jan. 4 protest -- in which they spelled "No War" on a Marin pasture -- in more waitresses (seven) than Ph.D.s (six), more social workers (four) than doctors (two) and only two self-described " '60s radicals." None was a nudist -- until recently.

They are Sheehan's friends, and their friends, recruited through concentric e-mail list circles. The first participants were all from West Marin, but now they come from San Francisco, Berkeley and points beyond, all frustrated about not seeing their views represented.

Making themselves so publicly vulnerable, Sheehan said, is a frantic semaphoric wave in the face of mainstream media indifference to the anti-war effort.

She wasn't surprised that soon after she and her pals first began their protest, a CBS film crew came to visit. They were followed by calls from the BBC and radio stations from across the United States. Following their lead, copycat activists have stripped from Montana to Florida.

Unreasonable Women Baring Witness
None of the Unreasonable Women Baring Witness members describes herself as a nudist, but they include two Republicans, two " '60s radicals," three singers, two teachers and two masseuses, among others. Photo courtesy of Donna Sheehan
Inspired by anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott and a group of Nigerian women -- who stared down Chevron officials there last summer by threatening to disrobe unless village conditions improved -- Sheehan and the Unreasonables will be among the tens of thousands expected to attend a large anti-war march in San Francisco this Saturday.

Vigilists like Singing for Peace and others have the same goal, just subtler tactics.

They've joined longtime peace vigils like the Sunday walks around Oakland's Lake Merritt, which restarted a year ago after a 10-year hiatus, and groups of sign-wavers that convene in San Jose, Fremont and elsewhere.

Some draw supportive honks and thumbs up. Other passers-by just shrug.

On a recent Friday night outside the downtown Berkeley BART stop, 40 smiling Singers for Peace members belted out "This Land Is Your Land."

Not that a 25-year-old bookstore clerk, who asked to be identified only as Michael, heard them. He bolted past the ensemble, head down, the Grammy- nominated "Nellyville" CD blasting through his headphones. Michael stiff-armed an offered flyer listing contact numbers for local members of Congress.

"Do I support the war? No," Michael said a few steps away. "But this (vigil) isn't going to change my mind. Or anybody else's. It's Berkeley. There's always somebody opening their mouth and handing you something."

Vigilists hear "What's the point?" questions a lot.

Are the vigils going to change anybody's opinion in Washington? And, here in the left-leaning land that's re-elected congressional doves like Barbara Lee and Nancy Pelosi, aren't vigilists just singing to the regional choir?

Vigil regulars respond that the civil rights movement was about hundreds of small gestures across the country. That public demonstrations, small and large,

shaped public opinion and helped end the Vietnam War, apartheid and Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.

Besides, they say, the Bay Area isn't a unified choir. Not only did Reps. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, and Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, support a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq, but vigil supporters regularly hear from hecklers.

Almost as important, participants say displaying their opposition to war is an emotional outlet.

"As for why people do it, I think it's 50 percent for themselves and 50 percent for other people," said Betsy Rose, the Berkeley musician who organized Singing for Peace three months ago. She has taken it to weekly gigs at BART stops from Orinda to the Mission District.

"But," she said, "I think we do need to get out to the suburbs more."

Holding a vigil can be lonely outside the friendly confines of the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley axis of peace. Ask Ken Meyercord, a Pleasant Hill man who organized Sunday peace walks last year in Walnut Creek. They ended after three months and a peak turnout of 14 walkers.

"But I'm not discouraged, because of all the support I heard from people out there," said Meyercord, a 58-year-old computer systems developer who lives "in a neighborhood where everybody's got a flag outside."

He'll continue to seek ways to express his opposition to a war, like the time last year when he donned a Napoleonic outfit and flew an Earth flag over his boat -- right past Fleet Week spectators on San Francisco's Embarcadero.

"I'm out there because a lot of other people are afraid to express their opinions publicly," Meyercord said. "A lot of Muslims have come up to us and thanked us, because we're saying what they'd like to, but are afraid."

Bolstered by attendance from Green Party members, and students from South Bay Catholic schools, David Lowe has been joined by 40 folks at the weekly Friday evening vigils he's organized in San Jose for the past year. "When people just need some place to express themselves, we're here for them," Lowe said.

While nearly all of the vigils are nonconfrontational, the California Highway Patrol has asked Webb Mealy to end his anti-war PowerPoint presentation on a pedestrian walkway over I-580 in Oakland, fearing that traffic would be impeded. He obliged.

The 47-year-old, who took a sabbatical from his multimedia work nine months ago to devote time to the peace effort, was beaming to eastbound motorists a 15-second message featuring the phrases "No Greed/No Hate/No War" and "Solar Power/Solar Peace."

"I want to do my part," he said, "to persuade my fellow citizens that it's not ethically justifiable nor safe to go to war."

It's a message that activists like Meany wish was easier to broadcast.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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