It might be awkward, Elizabeth Bradley thought, to hold a sign for peace at a busy Sacramento intersection. But finally here was a chance to do something.
It was fall 2002, the war in Iraq looming. She felt alone in her opposition. Standing in line to watch the Michael Moore film "Bowling for Columbine," she was handed a flier for a peace vigil - and that ignited the fuse of her activism.
She hadn't plunged into politics since her teenage fury at the Vietnam War. But the community of like minds at the vigil and the honks of support at 16th and J streets astounded her. She picked up another flier, and curiosity led her to another protest ...
At 16th and J streets, John Reiger takes part in the weekly peace vigil. Peace activists plan to mark the first anniversary of the Iraq war Saturday with protests in San Francisco. (Photo/Bryan Patrick)
Now, Bradley, 49, is in charge of coordinating the small weekly vigils at 16th and J.
The peace movement born of the Iraq conflict sucked in new activists like Bradley and spawned new groups that, it appears, aren't going away. On Saturday, they will mark the first anniversary of the war with protests in San Francisco. The movement has broadened - connecting to other issues, grappling with bigger questions and carrying on with more endurance than previous anti-war movements, say veteran organizers and academics.
Yet there is no peace. Plenty of Americans back military intervention in Iraq and lay off the car horn when at 16th and J. Some conservative commentators deride the protesters as anti-American fanatics. Other groups have staged counter-demonstrations to salute the commander in chief, though local organizers say rallies to support the troops and President Bush have dropped off.
In the past year, Bradley, a paralegal, twice has been arrested protesting at the Sacramento federal building at Fifth and I streets. She's on probation after getting arrested in Georgia protesting the former School of the Americas, a cause she hadn't heard of until she came to that first vigil.
Military brat, daughter of Republicans, watcher of Fox News and wife of a Vietnam veteran who plays devil's advocate to her ideas, Bradley is not your usual suspect. She grew more outraged as she absorbed books and lectures and learned about globalization at last summer's protests against an international agriculture conference.
"A little knowledge can be dangerous," Bradley says. "I understand so much more that I don't think I'd be comfortable not being an activist now."
She has a new understanding for a changed world: A year after massive demonstrations clogged downtown San Francisco and racked up 1,400 arrests in one day, the war is now less defined. Yes, major combat in Iraq was declared over in May and Saddam Hussein was captured in December, but the Iraqi and American death count swells and U.S. troops are in Haiti now, too.
An anti-war stance now seems more mainstream. Democratic presidential candidates who originally supported the war took a more critical view during primaries, and controversy eats at the government's justifications for war.
According to the latest Gallup poll, the nation is evenly split over whether "it was worth going to war," the lowest level of support for the war so far. In comparison, a year after the start of 1991's Persian Gulf War, up to 66 percent of the population thought it was worth going to battle, according to Gallup polls.
Their previous pleas unheeded, peace activists now demand that U.S. troops come home.
At this point, an anti-war movement normally will drop from public view, says Michael Nagler, professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The people roused to action for a specific conflict slip back to their routine. That has happened somewhat, but this time the movement has managed to keep momentum, he says.
"There's much more awareness that, OK, that was one manifestation of the system that we're fighting, and now let's roll over to the next one," he says.
Patsy Byers, left, Elizabeth Bradley and Randy Hicks, all of Sacramento, protest at 16th and J as fighting started in Iraq last year. The peace movement has since incorporated other issues, including civil rights, jobs and the U.S. role in Haiti. (Photo/Randy Pench)
The fliers summoning mass dissent this Saturday, for example, proclaim a lengthy agenda: Bring the troops home now! End colonial occupation from Iraq to Palestine and everywhere! Money for jobs, education, health care and housing - not war! Stop the attacks on civil rights and civil liberties!
Anti-war activist Leisa Faulkner Barnes organized a small gathering Friday at the Sacramento federal building, condemning the U.S. role in the recent Haitian turmoil. Just two days after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left his country, the Haiti signs were ready to go at 16th and J: "Restore Democracy: Bring Back Aristide!"
"People realize that it's not over," Barnes says of the anti-war campaign. She's new to organizing but already is headed for federal prison for illegally entering military property last year.
"What if next week it's North Korea - would we all be too surprised?"
Meanwhile, monthly vigils outside Arden Fair mall declare the war's connection to Consumerism Central: "Want to end sweatshops, corporate exploitation, environmental degradation? Stop U.S. militarization," read one sign.
Many believe the motive of the war in Iraq is control of oil resources. So fuel conservation - bike riding, or eating locally grown food that's not dependent on long-distance shipping - becomes work for peace, activists say.
With that in mind, Sacramento Area Peace Action sprouted a "sustainability committee." Its potlucks draw together environmental groups, gardeners and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op to network at the nexus of peace and sustainable lifestyles.
Peace Action and other groups also unfurled voter-registration and education campaigns. (Some activists note, however, that while they will vote in November for the apparent Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, they won't campaign for him, as they would have for a stronger anti-war candidate.)
Peace Action is proposing an alternative foreign policy based on international cooperation and arms reduction, says JoAnn Fuller, the chapter's secretary. That's why volunteers who showed up for the war are sticking around, she says.
Decades ago, protesters in the anti-nuclear movement, for example, often didn't see their connection to those in the environmental movement and vice versa, says UC Berkeley's Nagler.
What scooped diverse progressive issues together in a web of mutual activism was the anti-globalization movement culminating in the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, Nagler says. That movement opposes the current economic system, which activists say exploits people and the environment.
This anti-war campaign, he says, rose up in that context and included many of the same groups. So it's natural for the connections to continue.
There are also those who, from the beginning, viewed the protests as an anti-American orchestration by a hodgepodge of leftover hippies and fringe freaks. They aren't any more impressed now with the potpourri of causes.
"They're rent-a-protesters," says Mark Williams, a KFBK (1530 AM) radio host who emceed a rally to support the troops and the president last March.
The pro-Iraq war populace may not be as vocal these days, he says, but that's because they - in contrast - have "got lives."
"Middle America has gone back to work, has gone back to programming its TiVo, has gone back to paying taxes that support the parasites that make their hobby protesting against the country," he says.
Last year's Rally for America was meant to support the commander in chief and the country, but not necessarily to be an endorsement of President Bush's politics, says Dave Jenest of Sacramento-based Patriot Defenders Network. His organization helped organize the rally but isn't planning another because, during election season, it could be seen as more political than patriotic.
Public demonstrations are only the spilling over of something deeper in the American consciousness, says Michael Smith, professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis. And that invisible fight for the country's direction isn't going away.
Broader and deeper peace activism is a natural reaction to the war on terrorism, a foreign policy that's not specific to one enemy or geographic region, he says. It's difficult to separate Iraq, Afghanistan and conflicts elsewhere from the overall issue of how the United States should use its power.
"The larger questions were always there, but it's harder to avoid them now," Smith says. "You can't just say, 'Bring our troops home.' You have to be able to say, 'This is what we want to accomplish.' "
Nagler says the call by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, for a U.S. Department of Peace is inspiring plans to create a peace-oriented think tank. Others want a nonviolent peace force that will insert itself as a human shield in international conflicts, he says.
And with new groups bubbling up, the ideas are likely to keep coming. California State University, Sacramento, students formed several progressive organizations in the past year, such as Campus Peace Action, Progressive Students Union and Political Film Club.
Campus Peace Action is headed by bright-faced Heather Woodford, who is so green she thought "CD" meant "compact disc" instead of "civil disobedience" at a recent meeting.
Xochitl Lopez, active in the group last year and now doing union-organizing on campus, says it's refreshing to see the new leadership. "I think the war in Iraq is a first step for a lot of people," she says. "We gained skills and knowledge and understanding of how social change happens, and then we move on."
At C.K. McClatchy High School, an even younger generation of activists is carrying on the school's Peace Coalition, signing up seniors to vote and petitioning against military-recruitment policies in high schools.
Meanwhile, the honking of car horns at 16th and J hasn't let up. Some honks come hard and angry, others beep out a rat-a-tat pep talk, punctured occasionally by the low blast of a big rig.
Every so often, the vigils detonate the ire of a pro-war citizen. Some give a thumbs down, others another certain finger up.
Either way, Elizabeth Bradley says she can sympathize with the frustration of a war supporter, recalling her patriotic childhood on military-base housing even as she waves peace signs to passing cars.
"I really was Ms. Average Citizen - and the war on Iraq brought me out.
"But it's everything that I've learned since then that's kept me involved."
Want to give peace a chance?
As the first anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq approaches, peace activists are busy. Here's a partial list of upcoming events from the Sacramento Area Peace Action Web site, www.sacpeace.org.
Today, 4-6 p.m.: peace vigil at 16th and J streets. For more information: (916) 448-7157.
Saturday, 11 a.m.: "End the occupations, bring the troops home" march and rally at Mission Dolores Park, 18th and Dolores streets, San Francisco. For march information: (415) 821-6545; for information about buses from Sacramento and Davis: (916) 448-7157.
Sunday, noon-1 p.m.: Iraq Memorial Wall unveiling, recognizing U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed, and calling for an end to the war. Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 15th and L streets, Capitol Park. For more information: (916) 320-6430.
March 29, 7 p.m.: "The U.S. and the World: Endless War, Endless Occupation?" Richard Becker of International Action Center provides an update and analysis at Newman Center, 5900 Newman Court, Sacramento. For more information: (916) 448-7157.
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