Fifty Years of Protesting for Peace
by Lisa Stiller
Fifty years ago I was running from tear gas on the university campus in Madison, Wisconsin. Massive protests had erupted opposing the Vietnam War. Classes were often canceled as students clashed with police and the National Guard during the two years I attended school there. I was right out front, making protest signs, putting up posters, and handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students protesting outside of buildings.
The following year I was among the first people to approach the 14th Street bridge in Washington, DC. We were arrested and ended up in RFK stadium, continuing our antiwar chants as people threw us food, soap, and warm clothes. I became a draft counselor, hopefully helping many kids avoid the draft and the war. And three years after that I stood with a group of Quakers from New York in front of the White House for a summer during a three-month-long, 24-hour protest against the Vietnam War. We danced to “Lord of the Dance” in DC’s daily summer thunderstorms, fed people who passed by, and talked to people from all points on the political spectrum.
During the 1980s, I participated in protests against aid to the Contras in Central America, aid which was funding violence against civilians. In 1988, I initiated an anti-Contra protest at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta, which I attended as an Oregon delegate for Jesse Jackson. (I supported his economic policies to address poverty and his advocacy for peace and equality.)
And in 1990, I found myself marching around downtown Portland protesting the first Gulf War. Every day we gathered and marched. I don’t remember how long this lasted, but eventually that war ended and the protests ended.
Twelve years later, with the threat of war with Iraq looming, I helped organize protests down the strip in Las Vegas, in front of casinos, and on the university campus, and spoke out very publicly against the war. The Catholic Workers started a weekly peace vigil near downtown Las Vegas. I moved to Reno and three months later, on Veterans Day in 2003, got a letter from my son; he had joined the Army and was in boot camp. I began speaking out again, even louder, organizing more protests and meetings with our elected representatives. The Quakers began a peace vigil in front of the Federal Building every Monday. It’s still going on today.
On December 2nd, 2009, I was at the rally and peace march at West Point Military Academy in New York when President Obama announced the troop surge in Afghanistan. I participated in the half-mile candlelight march to the gates where we sang peace songs and people blocked the entrance. There was media there from all over the world talking to the protesters, and it was all over national news.
Now, over 10 years later, it’s happening again, with a war with Iran looming on the horizon, due to an act of violence by pro-military forces in our government. I organized the Beaverton, Oregon, protest, and the next night went to the Cedar Mill protest. We held signs and waved at cars, holding out hope that sanity in our administration would prevail this time.
For now, it has. The violence our president and his supporters began could have escalated into a deadly conflict that once again killed hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands, of people. The conflict still could escalate. There have already been 176 lives lost as collateral damage from Iran’s retaliatory fire.
The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a War Powers Resolution, and we’re all praying the Senate will follow. These resolutions are an effort to rein in the administration from recklessly and unilaterally waging war. With the impeachment process ending, I’m hoping Congress will turn its attention back to putting a stop to the president’s ability to wage endless war.
But this is not enough. We haven’t learned to begin with peace, with the aim of ending with peace in our words and actions. The Iran nuclear deal was a first step towards making the world a little safer, but for whatever reason, our leaders once again opted for confrontation and military action. And our president has helped put together a “peace plan” for the Middle East that will not begin or end with peace for Israel and Palestine.
The U.S. Congress just approved a new military budget of $738 billion. Meanwhile, nutrition programs, health care, housing, and environmental budget proposals keep getting slashed. There seems to always be money for war and the military and never enough money for people.
We need to do better than this. In the words of Isaiah 2:4, “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
And in the words of Pete Seeger, “When will we ever learn?”
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