With twilight and candlelight playing across solemn faces, thousands of antiwar protesters gathered at more than 50 vigils at sites from Northampton to Quincy last night, in solidarity with a mother of four from California who has camped outside President Bush's ranch in Texas for 10 days and who vows to remain until he explains why her soldier son had to die.
The number of hastily organized protests across the state and the country -- more than 50,000 registered for 1,627 vigils across the United States, the political action group Moveon.org said on its website -- showed a new depth of feeling against the war that has coalesced around Cindy Sheehan and her protest in Crawford, Texas, organizers said.
Nazima Samir of Somerville at a vigil for Cindy Sheehan at Davis Square in Boston. More than 50 vigils were held across the state. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
Nara Takakawa, left, and Sharon Reilly, right, hold candles and a sign with a message to President Bush, during a silent candlelight vigil in support of Cindy Sheehan. The vigil took place in Honolulu, Hawaii, Wednesday, August 17, 2005. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman)
Hundreds of people gather at a candlelight vigil in the North Hollywood area of Los Angeles August 17, 2005. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Athena Nolan joins about 200 demonstrators in support of anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan during a candlelight vigil, on the north side of the White House in Washington, D.C., August 17, 2005. (Chip Somodevilla/Reuters)
In Cambridge alone, five separate vigils were scheduled for last night. In some cases, the gatherings were intimate, no more than extended groups of friends gathering outside an apartment, but many were large and were held in public spaces.
In Somerville, about 250 people attended a gathering called ''Davis Square Supports Cindy Sheehan," the 48-year-old mother of Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who died last year in Sadr City, Iraq. Many held candles, and one protester held a sign that read: ''Honk if the War Makes You Sick."
At least 10 passing motorists honked their horns, but one man leaned out of his car window and yelled, ''The terrorists are going to get you next!"
Protesters said the rapid and enthusiastic response to the call for vigils this week indicated that Sheehan's protest at Bush's ranch has struck a chord with opponents of the Iraq war.
''I think she has really inspired people with the idea that one person can make a difference," said Rose Gonzalez, 30, of Somerville, who attended the Davis Square protest with her 2-month-old son, Marcos, in a baby sling across her chest and her 2-year-old daughter, Talia, alongside.
'People think, 'Wow, it is OK to speak up about this,' " she said.
Gonzalez, a member of the group Military Families Speak Out, said her 47-year-old mother has been stationed north of Baghdad since January with the Massachusetts National Guard. A few weeks ago, Gonzalez sent her mother an e-mail message with the subject, ''Are you OK?"
Her mother replied a couple of days later; the subject was ''Alive," and there were only a few terse sentences in the e-mail reply.
Last night in Gloucester, about 75 people holding candles gathered in a large circle around a monument to the wives of the city's fishermen. A guitar player strummed peace anthems as someone held up a rainbow flag with the word peace embroidered on it.
In Concord, a vigil was held near the Concord Town House, where Henry David Thoreau read his 1849 tract ''Civil Disobedience," which influenced nonviolent civil rights leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
''What better place to be than in Concord, Massachusetts, where civil disobedience started," said Richard Smith, 45, an historian from Acton who said he feels a special affinity for Sheehan. ''She's really just trying to get the same answers to questions we've been asking for three years: Why are we there?"
Another 75 or so protesters met on the Wollaston Beach seawall in Quincy, holding antiwar signs as cars passed. Organizer Helene Sansoucy of Quincy said she was ''just fed up" with the conflict in Iraq.
''When we went into Afghanistan, that had some logic," said Sansoucy, who wore a ''War is not the answer" button. ''But [for the president] to say that there's a connection between 9/11 and Iraq is unbelievable."
The vigils displayed the speed with which Cindy Sheehan and her 10-day protest have become a focal point for opposition to Bush's handling of the war.
In a brief telephone interview from the Crawford protest site, Sheehan called the protest turnout ''overwhelming and amazing."
''I think it happened because America was ready," Sheehan said. ''The kindling was there; it just needed a spark. This definitely is a mainstream thing, normal Americans who know this war is a mistake and want it to be over. Enough is enough."
Sheehan's son, Casey, was killed at age 24 in the Sadr City section of Baghdad on April 4, 2004. After his death, she cofounded Gold Star Families for Peace and crisscrossed the country speaking out against the war. But it wasn't until she traveled to Crawford this month that she became national news.
Nancy Lessin, 56, who as stepmother of a US Marine from Jamaica Plain cofounded Military Families Speak Out, said she believes a confluence of factors paved the way for Sheehan to become a protest leader.
The surge in US military deaths in Iraq, Bush's announcement that he was taking a month of vacation, and his recent statement that US casualties had died for ''a noble cause," she said, all contributed to a growing sense among ordinary Americans that Bush is mishandling the war.
''And it didn't hurt that the White House press corps was just sitting around Crawford," Lessin said of the flood of publicity Sheehan has received. ''But seriously, I think that America was ready to hear this."
Sheehan said she has no grand plans for her impromptu protest movement beyond staying in Crawford until she either meets with Bush or he goes back to Washington. ''We are just going day by day," she said. ''It's an organic thing that's really taken on a life of its own."
© 2005 New York Times Company