by Dylan Thiermann
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ince October 12, 2001, a group of people from faith-based organizations such as the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the American Friends Service Committee, Church Women United, San Francisco Friends Meeting, and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship have been vigiling by the old San Francisco Federal Building on Thursdays from noon to 1:00 p.m. to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The vigilers stand at the corner of Larkin Street and Golden Gate Avenue, some holding a silent witness for peace, others chatting with each other and with the occasional friendly passer-by. Cars honk with approval as they drive by, and passengers on sightseeing buses cheer, enthused by the message of peace and nonviolence.
The vigilers hold signs reading, among other things: “War is Terrorism,” “Stand with Us Against All Wars” and “Bring the Troops Home Now.” A large banner reads “Quaker Witness for Peace and Justice.”
The vigil started out fairly small, with around 16 people attending in 2002, and then grew as U.S. military involvement in the Middle East began in earnest.
Markley Morris, a Quaker and long-time vigil participant, recalls that during the week before the United States invaded Iraq, “People were roaming the streets of San Francisco, looking for a way to protest, to witness against the war…. I’d guess maybe a hundred people joined the vigil that day but I have no idea how many knew who we were and were actually opposed to all war.”
Since then, the vigil has declined in numbers, but it has continued in steadfast opposition to war. Although the vigilers may be few, they are dedicated to the display of their nonviolent beliefs.
Stephen Matchett, holding the banner proudly, sums up the vigil’s purpose in one eloquent sentence. “We are witnessing to the existence of an alternative to war-making as a response to being attacked,” he says.
Other vigilers echo Matchett: “War is futile,” says Morris. “By and large, people do not want war. The government has to sell them war.”
As Michele Gloor puts it: “Sending in planes and guns just makes things worse.”
This neighborhood has experienced various peace events since the beginning of the Iraq war. In 2006, activists set out hundreds of boots on Civic Center Plaza to represent soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast field of empty combat boots in front of City Hall stood lined up as though in military formation — silent testimony to the mounting fatalities caused by the overseas wars waged by the United States.
Phyllis Malandra also recalls the numerous “die-ins” that were common earlier in the vigil’s history, where peace activists lay down in front of the Federal Building, blocking the entrance, as if they were dead soldiers. She remembers that the Episcopal bishop of California, in full ceremonial dress, once proceeded formally from Grace Cathedral to participate in the die-in. All these demonstrations helped bring attention to the vigilers and their message.
In lieu of violent intervention, the vigilers would like to see the United States rely more on diplomacy, sanctions, and peaceful aid to achieve its international aims. Many of them have spent their lives working towards this goal.
Lois Roberts participated in Fremont peace marches as a teacher. She recalls that they started out “friendly, almost picnic-like,” and then became “hairier” as more people’s kids were drafted. Matchett remembers taking part in a demonstration in the late 1960s that closed the highway illegally in order to march down it.
Morris protested issues such as nuclear testing and the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Gloor has taken part in peace vigils and demonstrations in Washington, D.C. For them, activism was a natural response to the social turmoil of the ‘60s.
People began coming to the vigil for a variety of reasons. When Matchett was growing up, his parents vigiled near the Federal Building in Seattle, so he was used to the practice. He joined the San Francisco vigil when it began in October 2001 in response to the bombing of Afghanistan.
Malandra used to go to the dental school in San Francisco on Thursdays for her dental treatments. It was convenient for her to go to the vigil afterwards. Gloor was concerned about the Iraq war. After she retired, she became involved in the 2003 protests against the war, and then joined the vigil.
Roberts didn’t believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. She felt that it was the people’s duty to try and get the U.S. government out of war.
What all the vigilers shared was a love of peace and a distrust of war. They have encountered some interesting characters during their weekly vigils. Once almost every vigil, a man driving a car shouts, “Boring!” as he passes by. The vigilers have dubbed him “the boring man.”
Matchett recalls that the man once said, “Something-something … go back to Walnut Creek.” He adds: “I think he’s mistaking us for someone else.”
Says Malandra: “Maybe we’d be less boring if we did a little dance.”
This is a good example of the kind of friendly banter that goes on during the vigil and makes it an enjoyable way to express one’s political opposition to war.
The vigilers do not worry about their lack of influence on government policy. “I have no illusion that sitting here is going to change things,” says Roberts jokingly, “but I like sitting in the sun.”
It is simply an important part of their spiritual and political lives. “It satisfies my conscience,” says Gloor humorously.
On the serious side, Malandra describes it as a form of public witness and weekly practice. “I feel it is necessary to display one’s feelings on government policies to the government so that your position is acknowledged and respected,” she says.
Some vigilers also discuss the role of today’s youth in political affairs. Roberts laments that youth are complicit in the government’s wars. She finds it frustrating that young people go into the military to get their education paid for.
As I talk with Roberts and Gloor, I begin to wonder if their generation was more politically active than the youth of today. When I voice this concern, Gloor notes that due to the absence of a draft, the war in Afghanistan does not affect youth to the same extent as the war in Vietnam did, meaning that youth are not driven to protest as much. She is not sure if youth are generally less politically active, though.
Some of the vigilers still conduct peace work outside the vigil. For example, Matchett works for the Alternatives to Violence Project in California women’s prisons. However, for many, age limits their ability to continue further peace work, making the vigil their only chance to practice the principles they stand by.
In this way, the vigil assumes its most meaningful purpose: giving people a convenient way to voice their concerns about the direction this nation is heading.
“I am very thankful for the vigil,” says Markley Morris. “Without it, there’s no effective way to express the things we believe in.”