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Newton peace activists say Obama withdrawal plan is not enough

Posted by Your Town  March 13, 2009 12:16 PM

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Andre Sheldon, left, and Libby Gerlach, both of Newton, kept vigil on the corner of Centre and Beacon Streets in protest of the Iraq war. (Patricia McDonnell for The Boston Globe)

By Erica Noonan, Globe Staff

Hell no. These suburban peace protesters won’t go.

President Barack Obama’s plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq doesn’t go nearly far enough, say local peace activists — many of whom are in their sixth year of grueling weekly public vigils against American foreign policy.

The president’s plan to leave a contingent in place through 2011 and deploy 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, as well as recent hostilities in Pakistan, leaves plenty to demonstrate about, they said.

‘‘Iraq is a symptom of a foreign policy and priorities that I disagree with,’’ said Susan Mirsky, 64, who was holding a sign saying, ‘‘Enough! Bring the Troops Home Now!’’ at a recent vigil organized by Newton Dialogues on Peace and War.

‘‘I believe we are making a difference. People see us and we make an impact, however slight, but you never know how it ripples out,’’ said Mirsky, 64, whose own activism began as a student during the Vietnam era.

Their determination is played out in more than 35 local vigils — involving groups from Needham, Natick, Sherborn, Holliston, Hudson, Waltham, Watertown, Wellesley — that sprang up on street corners shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Once war began in Iraq, they settled in for the long haul.

Today, nearly all the vigil groups have a core that is still active, though some have joined forces with neighboring towns or reduced their demonstrations to once or twice per month.

‘‘The invasion of Iraq was a horrible thing, so I started coming because I thought I’d go out of my mind if I didn’t do something,’’ said David Ascher, 61, who protested at anti-Vietnam sit-ins as a student at City College in New York, before moving to Newton and working as a software consultant. ‘‘I’m still here because there are still many, many unresolved questions about this war. When I stop feeling this way, maybe I won’t come anymore.’’

The mainstays of the suburban vigil movements are nearly all over age 60, and some, like longtime protester Marvin Miller, who has carried the same slightly battered, hand-lettered placard reading ‘‘Peace Liberty Justice’’ in Newton since 2001, are past 80.

Barbara Boltz, 76, of Arlington is part of a group of weekly peace demonstrators from Arlington and Lexington who gather Mondays at 5 p.m. on Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington. She plans to keep it up indefinitely.

‘‘Some people do think we should give Obama more time. But he is talking about troops in Iraq for three more years and more people in Afghanistan, which I see as just another quagmire,’’ said Boltz, who said her activism dates to the civil rights movement.

The suburban peace groups are occasionally bolstered by students from Boston College, Brandeis University, and other local schools, but by and large, young peace activists do not demonstrate on a weekly basis.

Since January 2007, a small groups of religious leaders, faculty and students at Brandeis University in Waltham have held a weekly outdoor peace vigil.

The lunchtime session, which usually lasts about 20 minutes, will continue for the foreseeable future, said Alexander Kern, a university chaplain.

‘‘We’ll do it until the war ends, and it hasn’t ended yet and there is a lot to be resolved. We feel we have to keep the pressure on,’’ he said.

Brandeis sophomore Lev Hirschhorn said student peace activists feel as committed to their activism as ever.

‘‘We also need to empathize with the people whose lives have been destroyed by this war and their suffering just goes on and on,’’ said Hirschhorn, 19.

Students tend to be more active in on-campus and online peace efforts, while the older activists say they feel there is no substitute for the old-school approach of standing out in public with a sign.

Linda Stern, 67, of Newton, was active in demonstrations during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 as a student at Carleton College in Minnesota, and marched to protest the Vietnam War in Washington D.C., where students were tear-gassed and attacked by dogs.

The retired MassBay Community College librarian said the lack of a draft for the Iraq war was probably a large factor in the shortage of on-the-street young demonstrators.

‘‘They may think this approach is passé, and they certainly have other international issues they are involved in,’’ said Stern. ‘‘But people see us and know us, and more and more often say ‘thank you’ for being here. So I think we have an impact.’’

Newton demonstrators did consider ratcheting down the protests after Obama’s victory in November, but decided to keep up the weekly Thursday afternoon pace, at least through this coming summer.

Over the years, participation ranged from several hundred during special events commemorating the anniversary of the war, to just a half-dozen on the coldest and rainiest winter evenings, Ascher said.

These days, support for their antiwar cause is easier to come by.

During last week’s vigil, several men and women driving Priuses beeped and waved, and a half-dozen pickup-truck-and-minivan owners offered thumbs-up.

An SUV driver at a stoplight rolled down a window and hooted into the icy air, ‘‘Bring my brother home!!’’

The preschooler in the SUV’s back seat waved and clapped. The vigilers cheered back.

The vigils were not always such amiable scenes. Newton demonstrators, like every group, have had their share of boos and hurled insults (Most common, ‘‘Go home, commies!’’ Second place was, ‘‘Nuke ’em all!’’) There was even a near-fistfight a few years ago, when a heckler pulled up on the curb and screamed an anti-Semitic insult.

For a few weeks, a counter-demonstrator stood across the street with a ‘‘WMDs Found’’ sign. (Weapons of mass destruction were never actually found in Iraq, the vigil participants are quick to point out.)

Weeks also went by where the general mood was widespread indifference, demonstrated by a regular stream of cars who pulled over not to talk politics, but to ask directions to the Mass. Pike, said Ascher.

Even though the tide of public opinion on the war has turned, many in the peace movement feel that the time is right to become even more visible.

Vigilers from across the suburbs plan to join together on Thursday in Watertown Square from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. for a candlelight vigil commemorating the sixth anniversary of the US ‘‘Shock and Awe’’ military attack on Baghdad.

With public opinion against the war, ‘‘it’s time to show people there is an active peace movement in the United States,’’ said Marilyn Levin, a United for Justice with Peace activist from Arlington who plans to attend a planned national March on the Pentagon, sponsored by dozens of peace groups, this Saturday in Washington DC.

‘‘We are the only force that can stop our government,’’ she said. ‘‘It is only the power of the American people that can change foreign policy.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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10 comments so far...
  1. While they are at it why not bring the troops home from South Korea, Japan, England,Germany,Turket Diego Garcia, Spain Guam, & johnson Island and all the otherplaces we have troops stationed

    Posted by WB Thornton March 14, 09 11:32 AM
  1. How about a little truth in reporting... like the fact that the Obama's "Withdrawal" plan will leave almost half the troops in Iraq doing the same things they have been doing since the occupation began. To call the 40,000 or 50,000 troops to be left in Iraq a "contingent" is not just a poor choice of words, it is a lie.

    Posted by Pat March 14, 09 11:33 AM
  1. Old leftovers from the Vietnam era. All trying to reclaim the wild days of their long-gone youth.

    Posted by Cincinnatus March 14, 09 12:11 PM
  1. It's my fault, Obama told me that if I voted for John McCain we would not be pulling out of Iraq any time soon, I voted for McCain and we are not pulling out of Iraq any time soon. So sorry guys.

    Posted by March 14, 09 12:24 PM
  1. I'm just trying to imagine how long these activists would be standing there under:
    (1) Iraq - under Saddam Hussein
    (2) North Korea
    (3) Iran
    (4) Come to think of it .... Moscow today

    Posted by JGN from Maine March 14, 09 12:47 PM
  1. There is a national demonstration in DC around these issues next Saturday at noon.

    Posted by ron March 14, 09 12:47 PM
  1. Looks like they have had a huge impact over the last six years.


    Posted by daisy cutter March 14, 09 12:47 PM
  1. Wow, another Obama lie, another Obama campaign promise broken. It's getting to be a common routine. So much for "change". As for the protestors, I wonder how they'd feel if Obama pulled all the troops from Iraq only to watch the Iraqis team up with the Syrians and the Iranians to wipe Israel off the map? Would they be anti-war then?

    Posted by David Stein March 14, 09 03:52 PM
  1. Who would've guessed that these people have nothing better to do!

    Posted by Joe Donthavetawork March 17, 09 08:58 PM
  1. TO: Cincinnatus (#3)
    You think that is such a witty comment that it is worth posting and wasting people's time with? I suppose with that level of intelligence it is necessary to point out to you that people who are now in their eighties were not in their "youth" during the years of the Vietnam war. They were in their youth during the years of World War II. Most of the men and some of the women who come to our vigil are veterans who served in WWII, Korea, and even Vietnam. None of them recall their days of military service with great pleasure. Your flip and foolish comment does the name of Cincinattus no honor.

    TO: "JGN" (#5)
    I cannot help interpreting your comment to sound like you think it would be a good idea for the secret police or some gang of goons to chase us from our weekly anti-vigil - as would happen in a totalitarian state. Is this your idea of America being a bastion of freedom? It's not as if we're denouncing the Pope's infallibility. We're denouncing the continuation of a completely unnecessary war that the American people were stampeded into with lies about weapons of mass destruction and the connection of Iraq to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Most people do understand by now ( I mean most Americans, since, of course, it was obvious to most people in the rest of the world long ago) that the invasion of Iraq has destabilized the Middle East, encouraged Iran in its nuclear ambitions, killed somewhere between 300,000 and ONE MILLION Iraqis and over 4,200 US troops, maimed many many more, and has left US policymakers holding a time bomb in the briar patch. Only a complete idiot could not understand that MORE people should be speaking out against the US continuing to occupy Iraq.

    TO: David Stein (#8)
    The depth of your apparent ignorance of the realities of the Middle East's history and of the realities of military power in the region is truly stunning. Gosh, what if the Iraqis teamed up with the Klingons and attacked the E.U.? Get real. Israel has the bomb and the most powerful army in the region by far. It ain't gonna happen. Oh - perhaps I missed that you think we fought this war to protect Israel - not because we thought Saddam had WMDs? or because he was involved in the WTC/Pentagon attack? That's different... But the good president (Bush) had to lie to the American people about this because Americans are anti-Semitic and would never consent to another war (like WWII) to save the Jews. If you believe this, you are truly an ignorant idiot.

    TO: "Joe Donthavetawork" (#9)
    Generally, in our country, people who are 80 don't have to work. That's why we are able to have a core of old folks come to our Vigils every week - in freezing cold weather, sleet, snow, and ice, and in burning hot weather, and in the pouring rain. Because they crave the challenge of being spit upon by hysterical passersby who think there is something terribly wrong with actually thinking a thought that was not given to them by "The President". The President and The Pope are two different people, Joe. The Pope is infallible - but only when he says he is being infallible. Otherwise, even he can make a mistake. The President is NEVER infallible. Sometimes he's right and sometimes he's wrong (sort of like The Pope, except The President never declares his infallibility). It is the right and duty of loyal Americans to speak out when they think that The President is wrong. Even if it means putting up with some discomfort and inconvenience... maybe even missing a Red Sox game.

    Perhaps, some of you find it 'funny' that people should care enough about what the government is doing in the name of the American people (that would be us) to speak out against it. Tell that to the people in other countries who have developed a distrust of Americans who have invaded their countries (NOT just Iraq, you ignoramus) under a variety of pretexts over the past century.

    Posted by david ascher April 16, 09 02:15 PM