Published on
the Boston Globe

Suburban Peace Activists Say Obama Withdrawal Plan Is Not Enough

Erica Noonan

Andre Sheldon, left, and Libby Gerlach, both of Newton, kept vigil on the corner of Centre and Beacon Streets in protest of the Iraq war. (Patricia McDonnell for The Boston Globe)

Hell no. These suburban peace protesters won't go.

President Barack Obama's plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq doesn't go nearly far enough, say local peace activists - many of whom are in their sixth year of grueling weekly public vigils against American foreign policy.

The president's plan to leave a contingent in place through 2011 and deploy 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, as well as recent hostilities in Pakistan, leaves plenty to demonstrate about, they said.

‘‘Iraq is a symptom of a foreign policy and priorities that I disagree with,'' said Susan Mirsky, 64, who was holding a sign saying, ‘‘Enough! Bring the Troops Home Now!'' at a recent vigil organized by Newton Dialogues on Peace and War.

‘‘I believe we are making a difference. People see us and we make an impact, however slight, but you never know how it ripples out,'' said Mirsky, 64, whose own activism began as a student during the Vietnam era.

Their determination is played out in more than 35 local vigils - involving groups from Needham, Natick, Sherborn, Holliston, Hudson, Waltham, Watertown, Wellesley - that sprang up on street corners shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001,  terrorist attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Once war began in Iraq, they settled in for the long haul.

Today, nearly all the vigil groups have a core that is still active, though some have joined forces with neighboring towns or reduced their demonstrations to once or twice per month.

‘‘The invasion of Iraq was a horrible thing, so I started coming because I thought I'd go out of my mind if I didn't do something,'' said David Ascher, 61, who protested at anti-Vietnam sit-ins as a student at City College in New York, before moving to Newton and working as a software consultant. ‘‘I'm still here because there are still many, many unresolved questions about this war. When I stop feeling this way, maybe I won't come anymore.''

The mainstays of the suburban vigil movements are nearly all over age 60, and some, like longtime protester Marvin Miller, who has carried the same slightly battered, hand-lettered placard reading ‘‘Peace Liberty Justice'' in Newton since 2001, are past 80.

Barbara Boltz, 76, of Arlington is part of a group of weekly peace demonstrators from Arlington and Lexington who gather Mondays at 5 p.m. on Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington. She plans to keep it up indefinitely.

‘‘Some people do think we should give Obama more time. But he is talking about troops in Iraq for three more years and more people in Afghanistan, which I see as just another quagmire,'' said Boltz, who said her activism dates to the civil rights movement.

The suburban peace groups are occasionally bolstered by students from Boston College, Brandeis University, and other local schools, but by and large, young peace activists do not demonstrate on a weekly basis.

Since January 2007, a small groups of religious leaders, faculty and students at Brandeis University in Waltham have held a weekly outdoor peace vigil.

The lunchtime session, which usually lasts about 20 minutes, will continue for the foreseeable future, said Alexander Kern, a university chaplain.

‘‘We'll do it until the war ends, and it hasn't ended yet and there is a lot to be resolved. We feel we have to keep the pressure on,'' he said.

Brandeis sophomore Lev Hirschhorn said student peace activists feel as committed to their activism as ever.

‘‘We also need to empathize with the people whose lives have been destroyed by this war and their suffering just goes on and on,'' said Hirschhorn, 19.

Students tend to be more active in on-campus and online peace efforts, while the older activists say they feel there is no substitute for the old-school approach of standing out in public with a sign.

Linda Stern, 67, of Newton, was active in demonstrations during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 as a student at Carleton College in Minnesota, and marched to protest the Vietnam War in Washington D.C., where students were tear-gassed and attacked by dogs.

The retired MassBay Community College librarian said the lack of a draft for the Iraq war was probably a large factor in the shortage of on-the-street young demonstrators.

‘‘They may think this approach is passé, and they certainly have other international issues they are involved in,'' said Stern. ‘‘But people see us and know us, and more and more often say ‘thank you' for being here. So I think we have an impact.''

Newton demonstrators did consider ratcheting down the protests after Obama's victory in November, but decided to keep up the weekly Thursday afternoon pace, at least through this coming summer.

Over the years, participation ranged from several hundred during special events commemorating the anniversary of the war, to just a half-dozen on the coldest and rainiest winter evenings, Ascher said.

These days, support for their antiwar cause is easier to come by.

During last week's vigil, several men and women driving Priuses beeped and waved, and a half-dozen pickup-truck-and-minivan owners offered thumbs-up.

An SUV driver at a stoplight rolled down a window and hooted into the icy air, ‘‘Bring my brother home!!''

The preschooler in the SUV's back seat waved and clapped. The vigilers cheered back.

The vigils were not always such amiable scenes. Newton demonstrators, like every group, have had their share of boos and hurled insults (Most common, ‘‘Go home, commies!'' Second place was, ‘‘Nuke 'em all!'') There was even a near-fistfight a few years ago, when a heckler pulled up on the curb and screamed an anti-Semitic insult.

For a few weeks, a counter-demonstrator stood across the street with a ‘‘WMDs Found'' sign. (Weapons of mass destruction were never actually found in Iraq, the vigil participants are quick to point out.)

Weeks also went by where the general mood was widespread indifference, demonstrated by a regular stream of cars who pulled over not to talk politics, but to ask directions to the Mass. Pike, said Ascher.

Even though the tide of public opinion on the war has turned, many in the peace movement feel that the time is right to become even more visible.

Vigilers from across the suburbs plan to join together on Thursday in Watertown Square from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. for a candlelight vigil commemorating the sixth anniversary of the US ‘‘Shock and Awe'' military attack on Baghdad.

Now that public opinion has swung against the war, ‘‘it's time to show people there is an active peace movement in the United States,'' said Marilyn Levin, a United for Justice with Peace activist from Arlington who plans to attend a planned national March on the Pentagon, sponsored by dozens of peace groups, this Saturday in Washington DC.

‘‘We are the only force that can stop our government,'' she said. ‘‘It is only the power of the American people that can change foreign policy.'

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