Mark Kimble COLUMN
‘White-haired crowd’ keeps protest circuit going
Citizen Associate Editor
Remember the olden days (which are hereby defined as the years before my hair became gray) when it was the young kids who were running around protesting this or that war?
The war I am most familiar with was Vietnam. I had a college deferment at the time, and thus was spared the opportunity to participate in that mess.
And although there were some exceptions, at the time, the vast majority of the protesters seemed to be people my age. That seemed logical, since it was people my age who were being dispatched to the front lines.
But that’s not how it will be this evening and how it has been every Thursday evening in downtown Tucson. For two decades, a group of protesters – some of them retired and most of the rest close to it – have kept up steady criticism of various federal government policies.
It started out as a place to oppose U.S. policies in Central America. In later years it was U.S. policies in Kosovo and the Gulf War. Now, of course, it is a place for critics of war in Iraq to gather where they are joined by critics of most everything that President Bush has done or stood for.
“It is a white-haired crowd,” said Joseph Bernick, who probably has the longest tenure among the current crop of protesters. Bernick has been there since shortly after he moved to Tucson in 1980. But at 58 years of age, he is one of the junior members of the group.
Also standing out in the 100-plus-degree heat was Pat Birnie, a month shy of her 75th birthday, and 82-year-old James Bird.
No one is in charge of this eclectic group, although many are affiliated with local churches. The protesters set up shop every Thursday so they can catch the going-home crowd passing by the Federal Building, 300 W. Congress St. They start at 5 p.m. and pack it in an hour later.
Bernick or one of the other veteran protesters usually bring a large satchel filled with a couple of dozen signs. Those who show up can bring their own sign to protest a cause of choice, or select something that appeals to them from the sign library.
Bernick pulled out one sign that was a crowd-pleaser. “Bush’s lies kill” it read, with a Hitler-style mustache drawn on a picture of the president. “This one gets a good response,” Bernick said, defining “good response” as honks of support as well as angry shouts of derision and waves by motorists displaying only one finger. “The anti-Bush signs are popular now.”
Birnie brought her own signs – huge things on big sheets of colored plastic that threatened to carry her away whenever there was a breeze. With her right hand, she asked people to “Practice empathy.” In her left, “Democracy is best taught by example, not war.”
“These are hot off the presses,” Birnie said.
Bird, a World War II veteran, waived a sign that seemed to draw little opposition: “Stop the war. Save our troops.”
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This is an interesting group of people drawn to the Federal Building by different backgrounds, somewhat different political philosophies and aspirations.
Opposition to war has been a nearly lifelong avocation for Bernick. He became a “peace activist” when he was 17 and was granted conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War.
By default, he is the de facto leader of the crowd, the one who keeps an eye out for those he terms “wingnuts” – people who go too far. “We’d have a guy who was armed and we’d ask him to leave. We can’t have that,” Bernick said.
But what is the point? Will a handful of people holding up signs in front of a building in downtown Tucson have an impact in Washington, D.C.? “When you look at an election and people put up signs with their names everywhere, does that make a difference?” Bernick asked. Good point.
The gatherings have a couple of purposes. Those opposed to administration policies can see others of like mind – “It’s a morale boost,” Bernick said. And if there is a significant event that demands a major protest – such as the invasion of Iraq – the core group of weekly protesters can serve as an organizing force.
Birnie, who moved here from Maryland, also has a lengthy commitment to nonviolence. On this day, she wore a T-shirt from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which she joined more than two decades ago.
“We have never learned from our experience that war has never solved anything,” she said. “You’ve got to make a statement publicly. If you just grouse at your wife or your husband or your friends … ”
Birnie and several of the others have a regular protest circuit. Wednesdays, they are outside the military recruiting office on East Speedway Boulevard. There they have been treated kindly by several of the officers who confided that they are just as opposed to war. Thursdays, they are at the Federal Building. And Fridays, they are in front of the First Christian Church for protests related to U.S. border policies.
Bird is concerned about the emasculation of the United Nations. “We put up the United Nations to try to make things rights and we’ve done more to kill the U.N. than to help it.”
But as the war in Iraq drags on, it is getting more difficult to keep the protesters energized, one of them admitted.
“When the Iraq thing first started, there were a couple of hundred people,” Frank Jents, 56, said. “But as the war goes on and on, we have fewer and fewer.”
Mark Kimble’s column appears on Thursdays. He also appears at 6:30 and midnight Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Phone: 573-4662; fax: 573-4569; e-mail: email@example.com