Author: Alyssa Thurston
President Bush officially declared an end to the war in Iraq in May. Yet in the state of Vermont and around the nation, national sentiment against the United States' continuing presence in Iraq, as well as against Bush administration policies both at home and overseas, has only grown since then. Peace groups locally and nationwide are continuing to develop and strengthen a voice that carries a message of action and justice, protesting not just the Bush administration's militarism, but also a wide-ranging number of issues on both the domestic and international front, with no plans to quiet down anytime soon.
The tiny Green Mountain State is home to a staggering number of peace groups. Some, such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), have had a presence in the state for decades. The AFSC, a Quaker organization, articulates its mission on its Web site as a "dedicat[ion] to nonviolence: opposing both the overt violence of war and the covert violence that erodes the human spirit." The Committee's Vermont chapter (AFSCVT) was founded in 1971, and has actively worked since then "to increase the capacities of communities for peace building, social and economic justice." Its program work ranges from ensuring civil liberties for Vermonters to opposing militarization and international nuclear weapons proliferation.
Many peace organizations are relatively new on the scene, recently formed in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the recent war in Iraq and U.S. involvement in the Middle East. The Addison County Peace Coalition (ACPC) first came into being at a peace vigil on the town green in downtown Middlebury during the first weekend following Sept. 11.
Central Vermont Peace (CVP), based in Pittsfield, came together in response to events in Iraq. The group has a focus on fighting, in founder Donald Gray's words, the United States' "addiction to militarism" as represented by its hostile actions in Iraq and threats of similar action in other countries. Members of the April6Vt Citizens' Lobby, which has over 1,000 members, organized at a peace rally in Montpelier on April 6, 2002. In the words of April6Vt Coordinator Tom Luce, the group "came about as the result of the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the excessive military response by the Bush administration."
The events of Sept. 11 and American involvement in the Middle East galvanized forces behind the swift formation of grassroots groups in Vermont. But recently, peace groups as a whole throughout the state don't only have terrorism, the Iraq war and the situation in the Middle East at the top of their agenda, though these continue to be issues of intense focus. In recent months, groups throughout the state have increasingly turned to a wide array of causes on both the domestic and international scene.
The ACPC, for example, has continued to hold peace vigils on the Middlebury green every Saturday since September 2001. Middlebury resident and ACPC member Winslow Colwell remarked that the Coalition's goal "is to remain a continuous presence" in the Addison County community, "as a reminder that fighting terrorism is more difficult than simply finding a target to bomb." Many members have also been active participants in peace marches and rallies as far away as Washington, D.C.
At the same time, however, members also engage in active discussion through their mailing list of a broad range of issues facing Vermonters and Americans alike. Recent emails between group members have touched on a wide range of topics, from Vermont health care reform to the process of electronic voting and its possible risks to the democratic process of electing leadership. The theme running throughout has been a call for ACPC members to get involved and take a stand on issues directly impacting their lives, whether those issues be political, social or environmental.
Along the same lines, CVP, according to Gray, "is now in a process of morphing into a more permanent organization encompassing issues other than just the Iraq war." CVP's past and continuing activities have focused on rallying Vermonters' participation in anti-war rallies and sponsoring "Peace Forums" and weekly vigils in Rutland. More recently, CVP has been working with the Vermont Chapter of the national group Veterans for Peace (VFP), another Vermont humanitarian organization recently formed in October 2002. The VFP lists among its objectives "restrain[ing] our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations, and the abolish[ment] of war as an international policy." The two groups together have begun a project called P.E.A.C.E. (People's Electronic Activist Computer Exchange), aims to refurbish second-hand computer systems for donation to organizations representing the peace and social justice movement.
April6Vt's concerns also include the growth of American militarization and unilateralism, but the group is also primarily concerned with the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and the globalization of the world economy. The group's agenda also includes more specific concerns which have attracted less international attention. April6Vt supports, for example, a campaign to put on trial Guatemalan generals responsible for massacres in that country in the 1980s, events which Luce says were accomplished with U.S. support.
Despite "having no paid staff, no office and a woefully inadequate Web site", Luce says April6Vt has been successful in "managing to stay active, despite the problems of time and energy, and organizing very independent-minded peace activists." Such a statement is testament to the continuing growth and relevance of political and social activism in Vermont. Last Saturday, for instance, hundreds of Vermonters, representing a wide variety of pro-peace groups throughout the state, came together in a rally and march in Montpelier to call for the removal of American troops from Iraq. Coordinated to coincide with major rallies in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the event was co-sponsored by several other prominent peace organizations, including AFSCVT, Pax Christi and Peace Vermont.
According to AFSCVT representative Joseph Gainza, the event included protest not only over the United States' continued presence in Iraq, but also on issues ranging from American unilateralism to education and health care reform right here in the United States. Gainza believed that the event was a success in that "it showed that there is still a great deal of resistance to the present policies of the government. People are joining together around different issues" to present a united front against what he termed the "agenda being pushed by a few neo-conservatives in the government that results in an assault on civil liberties" both at home and worldwide.
Most leaders of peace groups in Vermont are optimistic about the present situation and future of activism in the state. Gainza pointed out how far peace campaigning has come in Vermont since the days immediately following Sept. 11, "when we were still in a state of shock. The peace movement has become much more mobilized since then. There are not as many people on the streets [as during the weeks leading up to the Iraq war], but there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes, and a lot of groups that are coming together to work on their common ideals, all of which strengthens the movement."
The movement is not perfect, however. For his part, Luce of April6Vt expressed frustration in his own efforts to form a single united coalition of local groups, citing "competing convictions" in terms of individual group priorities and styles. However, he remains committed to working with other local peace groups "in trying to affect our congressional delegation and other centers of power."
Luce also expressed his belief in the pressing relevance for lobby groups such as April6Vt in current times, commenting that "the times we are in are full of jeopardy. The
champions for greed and injustice are as bad as in any other age. " His sentiments were shared by CVP coordinator Gray, who stated that recent events in Iraq "have awakened a sense of urgency in people world-wide." Like Luce, he cited the continuing urgent need, in the face of current world events, to "speak out, get involved, educate ourselves to the facts and educate others."
Far from being passive in this era of terrorism, militarism and turbulent international relations, more and more Vermonters have been coming together to protest policies that they believe counteract their passionate convictions in justice and nonviolence.
As ACPC member Colwell put it, "we're just in it to make it happen." If "it" is peace, the ardent activism continuing to take place right here in Vermont provides hope that peace may indeed one day become a reality.
Still Giving Peace a Chance Vermont Rallies Together
Author: Alyssa Thurston