War Vigils Evolve, Continue

Times Staff Writer

Each Friday as daylight begins to dim over Glendale, a lone woman pushes an odd contraption up the sidewalk of Brand Boulevard toward the intersection of Broadway.

From a distance, it looks like a small, wheeled frigate with numerous sails sticking out at many angles. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a long pushcart laden with folded chairs and a folded table, its "sails" battered picket signs demanding, "U.S. Out of Iraq," "Support Our Troops -- Bring Them Home," "Healthcare Not Warfare," and the like.

The pusher of the cart, 56-year-old retired elementary school teacher Nancy Kent, has been coming to Brand and Broadway every Friday evening for 14 months to register her opposition to the U.S. policy on Iraq. She and 74-year-old Julianne Spillman, a retired Ford production worker, first took to the street corner on Sept. 20, 2002.

That was the founding of the Glendale peace vigil, one of an estimated 40 such weekly affairs that have persevered in the Los Angeles region despite having failed to prevent the war or, so far, return the troops or capture the attention of the mass media.

"We can't afford to lose hope," Kent said, as she set the unfolded table with informational fliers.

Active weekly street corner vigils continue in widespread communities such as Santa Barbara, Mar Vista, San Pedro, West Covina and Palm Springs. Like the lighted candles they sometimes employ, the vigils have flared and flickered in the shifting winds of public sentiment.

Hard to Number

As in the rest of the country, the protests were almost exclusively spontaneous and neighborhood-based, making them difficult to quantify. But last summer a loose affiliation of local activists, called the Congress of Vigils, assembled a list of 135 then-active vigils in the region.

The vastness of Southern California, the fragmented nature of social life here and the dependence on automobile travel made the region a natural breeding ground for neighborhood demonstrations.

"It's grass-roots and really appropriate for the character of such a dispersed city," said Chris Venn, coordinator of the weekly Friday vigil at First and Gaffey streets in San Pedro. "If we tried to go to Westwood for a 5 o'clock demonstration, it would take us 2 1/2 hours to get there. Instead, people drive 10 minutes, and they're at the vigil, and I find that that's true across the city."

Sarah Jacobus, a writing teacher at Culver City High School and an activist in a vigil at Palms Boulevard and McLaughlin Avenue in Mar Vista, said the grass-roots nature of the vigils has given them the flavor of "neighbor-to-neighbor participatory democracy."

The numbers of vigils and participants peaked in the months shortly before and after the war began March 19. As the war unfolded with American military successes, participation fell off. Some vigils ceased altogether and others combined. "There was some sense of dejection and despair," said Lisa Lubow, a member of the Congress of Vigils steering committee. "They felt they had contributed to the deaths of Americans and Iraqi people because they hadn't stopped it."

The vigil at Ventura and Laurel Canyon boulevards in Studio City "hit 100 vigilers every Friday night for a period of months beginning in January," said Steve Fine, a fiction writer who is the coordinator of the vigil there. "We started falling off in April and that continued through the summer, although we never went away. At one time we were down to just a few people."

On a recent Friday evening, the Glendale vigil drew 35 participants at its peak shortly before 7 p.m. Demonstrators stood on the corner, or mixed with other pedestrians and marched with their picket signs across the streets in time with the traffic signals. Increasingly, their picket signs, and those found elsewhere, carry messages about domestic issues -- the redirection of public funds from social services to the military, the effect on civil liberties of the Patriot Act, the suitability of President Bush for reelection.

Stretches of silence are relatively few. Much of the time, prolonged bleating of automobile horns in response to the demonstration drowns out conversation at the intersection. The spikes in public response appear to be driven by Iraq-related news developments. Fine said that when the Studio City vigil began in October 2002, about half of the motorists who responded did so supportively. As the war in Iraq drew nearer, support among those who responded was overwhelming. "Then, when the Saddam statue was pulled down, it shifted, and the attitude toward us was, 'Why are you still out here?' "

Then, the week after reports of Saddam Hussein having received nuclear material from Niger were shown to be false, "you could hardly speak to each other because there was so much honking," said Venn of the San Pedro vigil. Similarly, when Bush requested $87 billion from Congress for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq, "that was a watershed," said Alvaro Maldonado, coordinator of a year-old weekly vigil at Main Street and Garfield Avenue in Alhambra. "Then you just saw big shift in the response to the vigil."

At the Studio City vigil, Fine said, "as the president's policy began to unravel, the honks and our support have gone up again."

Interpreting horn honking is an inexact science. Vigil participants are sometimes surprised by who responds, and how. "We had a first last week when two policemen honked at our 'Honk for Peace' sign," said Venn. "We'll have pickups with American flags on their cabs honk for us. But, on the other hand, we've had the Volvo driver with two little kids in the back give us what we call 'the one-finger peace sign.' "

Peace vigil participants still regularly encounter passersby who vehemently oppose them. Venn detects a slight increase in the number of people "who just go berserk when they see us. It's just that we're still there that some people object to."

Support Varies

In West Covina, "somebody threw an egg at us recently and hit one of our people," said Bob Saylor, coordinator of a vigil at Vincent and Lake streets. "Opponents tend to be young and male, so we get a lot of, 'Bush rocks!' and 'Go, Bush!' " But the negative response is about a tenth of the positive response, even though West Covina is kind of a conservative area."

In the weeks before the war's onset, a number of the vigils, including the one in Glendale, found themselves opposed by counter-demonstrators supporting Bush and the war. Shortly after the war began, the counter-demonstrations for the most part disappeared.

A counter-demonstration has endured, however, in Studio City.

On a recent Friday evening, seven counter-demonstrators stood on the corner carrying picket signs with such messages as, "C'mon, America, Stay Strong," and "Bush Leads, Iraq is Freed," vying for horn-honks with the 35 peace demonstrators. Some motorists seemed confused as to whether the Bush supporters were in accord or disagreement with the demonstrators across the street (both groups prominently displayed American flags).

"A lot of people will flip us off, then come back see, and say, 'I'm sorry. I thought you were with them,' " said Lauren Schmitt, coordinator of the counter-demonstration.

Although there have been no untoward incidents at the corner, bad blood clearly runs between the two groups, each of which accuses the other of boorish comments and gestures.

One of the counter-demonstrators, 56-year-old businessman Bill Shriftman, wore a "God Bless America" T-shirt and expressed pronounced disdain for the people across the street. "I'm a moderate -- but not when it comes to these people," he said, gesturing toward the vigil. "These people are just '60s leftovers. I think they're ignorant. I don't think they know the issues. It's their right to do it, but Saddam Hussein would have killed them for what they're doing."

Schmitt accused the peace vigil participants of "regurgitating propaganda." They failed to stop the war, she said, so they've turned their attention to stopping the occupation, "and they've failed at that."

Ultimately, the peace vigil participants have to face the question of how a small group of people standing more or less silently on a street corner in, say, Glendale, can affect decisions being made in Washington, D.C., or distant Iraq -- especially if the sort of mass demonstrations that preceded the war failed to dissuade American policymakers.

Historical View

"The same could have been asked of the early Christians," said 67-year-old engineer Henry Fliegel as he handed out fliers at the Glendale vigil. "How could a small of bunch of guys at an agora in Greece change the world? The peace movement didn't stop the war in Vietnam, but after a lot of hard knocks, people began to see through American foreign policy."

One of the demonstrators' prime goals is countering television reports about Iraq, which they see as overly influenced by the Bush administration. One of the signs carried at the Glendale vigil read, "Weapons of Mass Deception: Fox News, CNN Network."

Phyllis Jackson, a 62-year-old former army nurse, took a break from patrolling Brand and Broadway with her picket sign ("No WMD? Oops!") and spoke of her powerful memories of treating returning Vietnam War casualties.

"And now it's happening all over again," she said. "Somehow we don't learn there are ways to solve things other than violence, which doesn't solve problems, ever, ever, ever. If we can just make people stop and think and not just follow the rhetoric they hear -- if I can affect one person to do that, then I think it's a success."

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