Pushing for peace

Juneau activists work to mobilize opponents of an attack on Iraq through marches, petition drives

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2003

On a Tuesday night a few weeks ago, as television sets and radios across Juneau broadcast the State of the Union address and President Bush pressed the case for a war with Iraq, a small group of people assembled in plastic chairs under the fluorescent lights at Northern Light United Church.

"Remember our plan," said K.J. Metcalf, a fit gray-haired man in a sweat shirt and cutoff XtraTuf boots. "As soon as you hear that the bombs are dropping, meet at the courthouse with candles."

Metcalf addressed a group of about 40 people who now call themselves Juneau People for Peace and Justice. The group, which includes doctors, teachers, high school students, state workers and retired people, has been meeting Tuesday nights since the early fall, with a mission of promoting peace as the nation moves toward war.

"We are a loose coalition of people who have an interest in peace," Metcalf said.

The group is multi-denominational, has no formal leaders, and functions exclusively, and sometimes painfully, by consensus. Many group members are in their 50s and 60s. About 300 people belong to the group's e-mail list, and 30 to 50 people attend weekly meetings. Juneau People for Peace and Justice has sister groups in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Homer.

Since late summer group members have been visible in many corners of the community. In November, they ran several petitions in the Empire listing more than 1,200 names of people opposed to military action in Iraq. Some gather on Wednesdays at the foot of the Federal Building for a small peace vigil. Others drafted a resolution, now being considered by the Juneau Assembly, that would require law enforcement officials to report government actions taken locally under the federal Patriot Act.

Such actions include detainment, electronic surveillance, seizure of library or bookstore records, monitoring of political and religious meetings, and subpoenas without a court approval.

All the group's members plan to participate in a march in Juneau at 10:30 a.m. Saturday as part of a worldwide protest called "The World Says No to War." Marchers are meeting at Northern Light United Church.

Judith Maier, a 67-year-old retired teacher and grandmother, organized the group in its most recent incarnation during the late summer. A devout Methodist, Maier said she became a pacifist at a young age, learning in church that God loved all people equally. She remembers the moment as a girl when she first understood a message in a hymn as a call to activism in God's name.

"I can think about a very short pastor, Dr. Kilpatrick, who for the most part acted like a good Methodist and sang from the hymn book, but then he would sing in a booming voice, 'Set us a fire, Lord, stir us, we pray.' ... ," Maier said, speaking her favorite hymn in the cadences of a song.

A Christian commitment to peace, Maier explained, is what stirs her to be an activist. The American United Methodist Church, General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church, Quaker groups and Pope John Paul II, as well as many other religious organizations, have urged the president to take a diplomatic, peaceful approach with Iraq.

Maier protested the Vietnam War, and was arrested for protesting nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1980s. Her most recent spate of activism was started by origami cranes. Maier became concerned about the possibility of war in the early summer and with the help of friends folded several hundred large origami cranes, a Japanese symbol for peace.

"I have found the cranes were something that my hands wanted to do that could help heal my heart," Maier said.

Maier gathered about 60 people to march in the Fourth of July parade with the cranes in a makeshift float - a sort of peace train of peace cranes.

"I thought, 'We need a banner,' and I thought, 'Well, People for Peace' will do,' " Maier said.

By the time the people for peace reached the end of the parade, their ranks had grown from 60 to 300, as spectators were moved to join in.

Fiona Stewart-Campbell, a middle-aged freelance writer and Web designer, began her Fourth of July as spectator, but ended up in the peace float, singing hymns.

"Their energy and enthusiasm and message caught hold of me, a friend walked by me and grabbed my arm and said, 'You are marching,' " she said. Stewart-Campbell was so inspired she now attends the weekly peace meeting and directs a singing group called the Peace Cranes devoted to "bringing the message of the peace songs of the '60s forward into the new millennium."

Maier called a meeting after the parade. Though there have been groups with an interest in Middle East peace in Juneau for many years, the late summer meeting was the genesis the most recent group.

"The talk about Iraq became louder and louder and I had only seen one letter to the editor. I had to call a meeting to see what people were thinking," Maier said.

From that meeting came the plan for the newspaper petitions, which were the group's first attempt at raising money. They had more success than anyone expected. Donations still come in on a routine basis.

"The first time we were going around asking people to give a donation when they signed the petition, and we raised more money than we ever expected," said group member Anna Wright, 23. "The second time we did it, the same thing happened. We cross our fingers and hope it will keep happening."

Wright came to Alaska as a VISTA volunteer and said she started attending peace meetings because listening to the radio news made her so mad she felt like she had no other choice.

"I believe that nonviolent solutions are more lasting than violent ones," Wright said. "There is a saying, 'When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.' In the U.S. all we have is violence and everything looks like violence."

Aside from a few high school students, Wright often is the youngest person in the room, separated in age from other members by a few decades.

"The first meeting we had 40 people, the next meeting we had 80 and over 10 percent of them were in their 80s," Maier said.

It troubles Maier that only a few people under 40 attend. She wonders if it is because they are too busy with children. "Though I was out with my babies protesting Vietnam," she said.

More likely it could be that the younger generation has lived in a relatively peaceful time, and doesn't remember war, she said.

For Metcalf, also a Methodist in his 60s and a retired U.S. Forest Service employee, it's his war memories that drive him to come to the meetings.

"Just seeing the aftermath of that war (World War II) changed me," he said. "Hungary marshaled troops at the Russian border. If we crossed the border, they would send nuclear rockets at us. I looked around and there was no way out."

Charles Campbell, 78, served in Europe with the 17th Airborne Division during World War II. A retired prison administrator with a slight southern accent, he attends the peace meetings regularly, and urges the group to appeal to middle America, saying American opposition to the war is growing.

"I am deeply concerned about the war, I don't think we have any idea what this is going to be like for the troops," he said. "It is going to be absolutely miserable."

Amy Paige and her husband, John Dunker, both Quakers with a longtime interest in Middle Eastern peace, serve along with Metcalf and Maier as informal leaders. Paige, who is strongly committed to the principle of consensus, works behind the scenes to provide the group's organizational backbone. She delegates work to committees, sends out a dozen e-mails a week, and often gently facilitates discussions to keep them on task.

Dunker, a soft-spoken man with a white beard, was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, an experience he doesn't like to talk about. When he returned from the war, he began to attend anti-war protests and later decided to become a Quaker. Both said the U.S. sanctions, which have kept food and medicine from Iraq, already have created warlike conditions for the people there.

"It takes so much arrogance to assume you can create all this chaos, and somehow come out with the problem solved," Dunker said.

Rick Bellagh, 36, is a representative of a more contemporary activist culture in America that is not faith-based and has organized around opposition to globalization and the business practices of the World Trade Organization.

A University of Alaska Southeast Spanish instructor, he has a degree in peace and conflict studies from Juniata College in Pennsylvania and sympathizes with WTO protesters whose rowdy demonstrations have made headlines in recent years.

He often urges the Juneau group to be more forceful in its attempts to get the public's attention, but the group generally takes a more conservative position.

"That's OK because it really gets things going," Bellagh said. "If some of us want to break off and do something not with this group, a little bit more on the fringe, we can. I always have my eye out for a good way to do that in a more traditional kind of way."

Ask anyone in Juneau People for Peace and Justice, and they can tell you the president's phone number: (202) 456-1111. Along with calling the White House, the group sent newspaper petitions and scores of letters to the president and Alaska's congressional delegation.

Maier has tried repeatedly to set up a teleconference between the group and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska's congressional delegation, but so far the politicians have ignored her, she said.

"This is a learning process, and I think we need a smarter strategy. I am concerned when we don't have a voice to even consult our elected officials," Maier said. "I have seen that people have to make an issue out of something before an elected official can pass legislation. I believe that people have to be the democracy."

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