I wanted to call this section of the column "Fledgling Peace Movement Faces First Challenge," but every time I tried the phrase, Kingman peace vigil creator Christine Meisenheimer laughed and pooh-poohed me, "The Kingman peace movement has so much internal momentum it doesn't center on me. With my MS I occasionally face significant health challenges and have had to drop out of things; but the world goes on."
Meisenheimer (who I first interviewed in the recent column, "Dear Vets, Part 6") and her husband Will are leaving for their summer home in La Crosse, Wisconsin. However both are sure the twice monthly Sunday peace vigils at the corner of Stockton Hill Rd and Airway will continue with her.
So far the peace activists have assembled 4 times, to stay in the shadow of the Smith's gas station, at the most highly trafficked corner in town and wave both hand-made and manufactured protest signs. Susan Holland, Democrat activist, purchased several copies of the popular peace sign, "War Is Not the Answer," from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker peace group. Locally the regular participants range from a 13 year old girl with her mom, a combat vet from Vietnam, winter tourists, and school teachers. For the last two months many as a dozen people have shown up at the vigils for a half hour every 2nd and 4th Sunday at noon. "Much longer than that," Christine explains, "is too hard. It is very draining."
A long-time activist in La Crosse, Meisenheimer joined the anti-war movement in 2001 when America began bombing Afghanistan. I medically retired in 97 and started paying attention to politics. When I started understanding what our country was actually doing in our good name I had to get involved. I probably should have started during Kosovo. At first my family was totally opposed to me getting involved because of my health, the chair and everything. But with everything that was happening during the run-up to the Iraq invasion I couldn't in good conscience not get involved.
"Like the story of Thoreau when he goes to jail for refusing to pay the war taxes to support the Mexican-American War, Emerson goes to his cell and asks him, 'why are you in there?'And Thoreau answers back, 'why aren't you in here? Once I started paying attention to the news, there was no choice but to act." A psychotherapist until debilitated by her disease Meisenheimer was a co-founder of the La Crosse peace activist group, Women in Black. Christine was excited to bring her ideas and experiences to Kingman when she and her husband come out west for their winter vacations.
Instantly active local members in a variety of liberal and cultural concerns, Christine tooling about in her wheelchair and Will's droll wit had quickly become common sights this winter and spring. After spending most of the last ten years as a liberal activist, she still felt a little fearful of Kingman at first. "When I first started getting the vigils set up, I talked to the police dept. and parks and rec. and explained my concerns. The police said, "I wouldn't have to worry about my safety these days. Thirty years ago it was much worse. I have reason to worry. Back in my peaceful little liberal La Crosse I once had a man come up and set himself over my chair and point his finger right in my face. He said, 'What you need lady is a target painted right on your forehead.' You could just feel his fury."
"In Kingman, these days anyway it is different. you can feel the acceptance by community. We have only had four vigils and you can already feel the change. People are becoming accustomed to seeing us standing there. They are not driving by shouting obscenities or anything, though sometimes they rev their engines. It's definitely a message. But what you see mostly from the people who disagree with you is avoidance. They will look away very, very seriously, look anywhere but our corner. I am very pleased with the amount of honking, people waving, flashing the peace sign. Even little kids go by and flash us two fingers. I always shout out. What I was seeing the first time was a good 60% showing an avoidance behavior, like they were running a gauntlet. Now that has reversed, the passersby are much more animated."
I asked her, "Why do you think we Americans, we Kingmanites, have bought this war so thoroughly?"
She pauses a second. "We as a nation fell victim to typical propaganda, principles developed back when Americans were first sold their wars, the Spanish-American War, WWI. You know, Edward Bernays, the guy who developed the propaganda that sold America the First World War, and it was a very unpopular war, that guy, Bernays, later went on to found the public relations industry. The Bush administration followed the same basic outline the Nazis did. Goering even had a quote about it: 'Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.'
"That's how it worked here. I know there are far too many similarities in the way they approach war, but I see a difference. Bush slavered at the opportunity to go to war, Obama seems more reticent, more thoughtful. But the bigger issue I see, having spent the last 10 years immersed in the news, is that we need to follow the money and we'll see why our country stays at war. Hitler did a wonderful job getting his nation out of depression. It is a simple matter of understanding the expense. It is hooked to money, the great industrial military complex."
I asked, "Are you happy with Obama?"
Meisenheimer swallowed, "I could have blinders on because I did vote for him. I have thought he was the greatest, since 04 when he spoke at the Democrats National Convention. I probably do have some blind spots. I have been disappointed at some things, but it seems he has also done some wonderful things that I have embraced. He has done any number of things and it is overwhelming to try to keep track of the Bush era things Obama has corrected or tried to correct. I was overwhelmed by Bush, all the disasters he created, willfully, blindly. There have been so many wonderful things Obama's done I can't track them. In comparison, it seemed Bush was created by the media as an excuse, like that ventriloquist's dummy, Charley McCarthy sitting on Cheney's knee or whoever the puppeteer was that day. Bush didn't have a lot of person strength. I feel the strength of Obama.
I asked, "How can liberals reach mainstream Americans, or at least the Kingman version of that elusive myth?"
"It is a challenge, whole concept of peace is threatening to the far right because their perspective is so different. It's like they like to look at the world with glazed eyes, like their brain is Teflon--whatever piece of info you want to give them simply slides off," she laughs. "I'd simply ask people to realize I am not against them. I am not out here protesting against the war, I am being an activist for peace. I don't want to be an activist 'against' something, I want to be for something. These are basic principles of non-violent resistance that King and GandhI used. I think it is working and will work for the Kingman peace movement. I have been very pleased to see how much the community has adopted to our presence. I think we help with the necessary overcoming of the community belief system.
Christine and Will intend to return next winter and rejoin the Kingman peace movement they expect to still be active. "It is such an important topic. People can't help but care. Even with all the fighting we are seeing, especially since the health care bill, I must say I am refreshingly delighted at very positive reception we get when we ask people to think about peace. It was a big surprise and I love surprises. The world is a much better place because of the surprises. It feel so good to see children go by and wave the peace sign."
--mikel weisser writes from the left coast of AZ.