Mid-Missouri

Peaceworks

Working towards peace and sustainability

Fifteen Years at the Intersection




Wednesday, Oct. 5 marks 15 full years of weekly Rush Hour Peace Demonstrations. We, in Peaceworks, began this weekly gathering just three days after the U.S. launched the tragic, and still ongoing, war against Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2001.  We’ve been out at the intersection of Broadway and Providence, in Downtown Columbia, Missouri every single week since.

That war was coming was clear right from the start. On the very day of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tuesday, Sept. 11, we knew that these horrific crimes would be used as a rationale to go to war. In fact, by noon that day we’d sent out media releases and e-mail alerts announcing a candlelight vigil for peace that evening. By 7:30 p.m. more than 300 of us gathered in MU’s Peace Park, sending out a message, “Condemn the Tragedy, Don’t Compound It.”

Over the next three weeks, we and our local allies, like peace groups all across the country, attempted to convince our fellow citizens and government that war against a nation that had not attacked our country was wrong and would only lead to far greater death, destruction and tragedy in the lives of our fellow citizens, as well as the people whose countries U.S. troops were ordered to attack. We advocated using the rule of law to bring the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice.

Little did we realize when we started gathering for peace every Wednesday that, 15 years later, we’d still be out there every week. But, as the wars continue, so must our efforts. Here are a few reflections as we mark the years passed and work to redouble our efforts for peace.

Two Important Decisions Made Early On

While there was already a weekly peace vigil held every Saturday from 10-11 a.m. in front of the Columbia Post Office, we wanted more visibility than this offered. Rather than gathering on a side street, we decided to demonstrate at one of the busiest intersections in town during the evening rush hour. This means that literally thousands of people see us each week.

We also, early on in the process, began holding, among other signs, ones that read “Honk for Peace.” This created a small, but empowering, way for those who supported our stand for peace to participate, even if they didn’t feel comfortable getting out of their cars and actually joining the demonstration. It was not only empowering to those who choose to honk, and thereby making their statement for peace, but it also signaled to others that their sentiment favoring peace was shared by many. It was not just this small group of demonstrators who thought the war should be halted. And the honking is contagious, once one person honks, others often join in.

Peace Signs and Unfortunate Half-Peace Signs

While supporters honked and flashed peace signs, there have always been people who disagreed with our position, which, of course, we expected from the start. It was easy to understand why many people, who are frightened and grieving would fall in behind those leading the government who declared the war necessary to protect our nation from the “evildoers.”

If one thinks back to that time, when so many assumptions about our nation’s invulnerability were shattered in a single morning, and then the whole country decked itself out in red, white and blue, it is easy to understand why those of us who preferred “God bless the whole world, no exceptions,” would seem a bit off script, at a time when nearly everyone else was invoking divine support for war with their frequent insistence that “God bless America.”

What was a bit harder for some to accept was the crude hostility of those who disagreed. Many just gave us a thumbs-down sign, which wasn’t terribly disconcerting. But others seemed really caught in their fear and hate. They often expressed their hostility with the display of a single, angry middle finger.

We came to refer to these as “half peace signs” and on occasion would tell those waving one finger in our direction that “it takes two fingers, brother.” Along with the rude gestures came taunts and other verbal condemnation, often impugning the masculinity of male demonstrators. And, as might be expected, some messages were racist, Islamophobic and/or homophobic. And there were the usual clich├ęs, including the sadly tired taunt to “Get a job!”

Most of us, however, have thick skins and anyway, these hostile responses diminished over time. So did the presence of counter-demonstrators.

In fact, after experiencing a peak in opposition during the buildup to—and immediately after the launch of—the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq, this leveled off and started to decline even during the first year of that war. It seems that many came to realize that the war had been sold to the American people based on a pack of lies. And, eyes were gradually opened, be it by the horror of Abu Ghraib or by the recognition that the U.S. troops being killed daily by IEDs were not being welcomed as liberators, after all.

Why We Persist

By the waning years of the Bush presidency, it finally seemed that a majority favored ending the wars. This pro-peace sentiment certainly contributed to Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. While many viewed his election as a turning point, we were well aware that he had embraced the continuation of the use of military force around the world, but claimed to have smarter methods up his sleeve.

Our response, announced immediately after the election, was that we would “support President Obama’s policies when we could and oppose them when we must.” And we knew that when it came to war and peace, there would be a significant amount of opposing still to be done.

While we organizers understood that the change in presidents did not spell an end to the “Endless War,” many participants did not. As such, the number of folks turning out declined significantly, in spite of the Afghanistan Surge and the rapid expansion of drone warfare. Even when the U.S. and NATO attacked Libya; even when our government was threatening to bomb Syria; and even after the U.S. reengaged in Iraq, and went from completely covert to mostly overt military involvement in Syria, our Rush Hour numbers have not significantly rebounded. 

Perhaps this can be written off to “protest fatigue.” We stand out there week after week and the wars don’t stop. Some might think that we are accomplishing nothing and question why we still bother.

While we respect those who’ve decided to no longer participate, it seems that the Rush Hour Peace Demo still plays an important role, even if it is not a direct vehicle capable of ending wars, changing U.S. foreign policy or dismantling the Military Industrial Complex.

One important function of our weekly demo is to remind thousands of our fellow citizens each week that there are U.S. wars going on around the world. In an era with no draft and a downsized military, relatively few people have family members or close friends who are deployed. With relatively little media coverage, if it wasn’t for us, and our banners with messages like “Stop the Bombs” or “No U.S. War on Syria,” many would hardly ever think about the wars or their impacts on those whose countries were being bombed and torn apart in conflicts directly attributable to U.S. war-making.

Another related, but slightly different, function of the demo is to remind people that there is opposition to war, and to bolster those who oppose war by letting them know they aren’t alone in what they’re thinking and feeling. In this Orwellian era, where fear is cultivated and the state presented as a vehicle to protect security, it is important for people to at least recognize that there is not a consensus to support illegal and immoral interventions around the world.

While there aren’t a huge number of us, we represent, to the CoMo community the most consistently visible presence for peace. Nearly a whole generation of children has come of age seeing us standing on those corners, holding our signs, banners and peace flags.

In our own small way, by our presence we call out the naked emperor; we question the social and economic order dominated by militarism, imperialism and corporate power. We are dissenters to the Permanent War. And we hope that to some small extent we encourage and inspire others to be as well.

In the spirit of George Orwell, who is credited, some say falsely, with the following quote, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act,” we call out the system of lies that presents war as a source of safety and security in a dangerous world. We make it clear that U.S. wars are making more enemies than they are eliminating, and killing more innocents than “terrorists.” In fact, the wars our government makes are, in a very real sense, simply another form of terrorism.  

While we would love to no longer have a reason to spend an hour each Wednesday standing at the intersection, we feel, as long as the wars continue, that it’s up to us to publicly call for peace. And, if you share our sentiment that this is a useful, helpful thing to do, we hope you will join us when you can for whatever portion of that hour (4:30-5:30 p.m.) you can. You will be warmly welcomed and appreciated. And your actions might just help tip the balance, in the long run, toward a peaceful, just future.

Addendum

On Wednesday, Oct. 5th, 25 of us gathered at the intersection to mark the completion of 15 years of a weekly presence for peace. As we move forward into our sixteenth year, we wanted to share some pictures of this demonstration (CLICK HERE to see them), and to invite your participation in the days and weeks ahead.

This reflection on the Rush Hour Peace Demonstration was composed by Peaceworks Director Mark Haim, who invites all who share our concern for peace to consider joining in making the concern visible, even if just participating occasionally.