Age, gender come into play at ‘Peace Corner’ protests
By David Jasper / The Bulletin
Each Friday afternoon, armed with their signs, voices and strong personal conviction, a group of Central Oregon women in their 60s and 70s stand side-by-side in downtown Bend, voicing their opposition to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They gather at the intersection of Wall Street and Greenwood Avenue — informally dubbed “Peace Corner” at some point during the past several years — where they wave and hold signs aimed at passers-by from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Many of these women are members of CodePink, a national group of women (and men) who voice, sometimes in controversial ways, their feelings about war and peace. According to CodePink’s Web site, it “is a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stop new wars, and redirect our resources into healthcare, education, “green” jobs and other life-affirming activities.”
A small but dedicated group of local citizens has protested the ongoing war for years. Their grass-roots activities date back to the ramp-up to war in Iraq in January 2003, when a large group of people began meeting at the intersection of Third Street and Greenwood Avenue in the heart of Bend before moving to Wall and Greenwood a few years ago.
Monday, five women in their 60s and 70s, all regulars at the weekly protest, sat in a room at the Bend Public Library and discussed their actions and motivations.
They are Meg Brookover, 66; Janet Whitney, 70; Beth Hanson, 61; Betsy Lamb, 70; and Kathy Paterno, 60.
About 90 percent of people driving, walking or riding by echo support for their cause, they say.
The women say they love it when younger people, usually teens passing by, join them during the protests.
“Teenagers will sometimes stop, and they’ll want to hold signs. The younger girls love it because they get attention,” said Whitney. “But maybe that’s why we go out.”
Someone else answers, laughing, that “I thought we were cute in pink.”
There are about 160 people on CodePink’s local mailing list, says Brookover; some of them are men such as Phil Randall, 65. Randall is an Air Force veteran who was stationed in Germany from 1967 to 1970, he said Thursday by phone.
An “honorary” CodePink member, Randall says the ratio of men to women protesting changes weekly, and he says that the average age of protesters might be 60, skewed by one woman who attends and is only 45.
Like many in the movement, he’s puzzled by the generation gap that finds younger adults not so interested in the cause of peace.
Some attribute the presumed indifference among those in their 20s and 30s to the fact that many are raising families. Randall, who has three young adult sons, doesn’t quite buy that.
“I have three kids,” he said. “I’m raising a family. I’m a husband, I’m a father.”
He’s been at the Friday afternoon protests for six years and estimates they have “about 98 percent of the people with us,” he said. “Most people flash us peace signs. I have a sign that says ‘honk for peace,’ and they honk for peace.
“It’s crazy, because it’s younger people, the people who, I think, we’re trying to save their lives, who flip us off or get angry at us or, we’ll call it ‘drive-by shouting.’ I don’t know.
“It’s just weird. I would really like to talk to people that disagree with us. … Quite a few of us guys who are there were in the military. It’s not like we’re naive or hippies,” said Randall.
Whitney says she did her best to protest during the Vietnam War in Santa Cruz, Calif., where she ran with a crowd who felt just as she did.
“I was raising four little kids,” she said. “So I’m sympathetic to the fact that you try to make things work in your day.”
Paterno stresses that the women of CodePink don’t take pains to recruit others, preferring to let the cause draw people in of its own accord.
Betsy Lamb, wearing a bright CodePink shirt, says her activism stems from her faith.
“I grew up very much oriented toward being charitable, and helping one another and being involved in volunteer organizations,” she says. “I’d grown up with a Sunday school Jesus who was meek and loving … but I never knew the Jesus who was resisting both civil and religious rules of his day.”
It wasn’t until the early ’80s, when she took a course in liberation theology, that she made the connection “between the fact that people need help, and the fact that there are causes for the reasons that they need help.”
Before moving to Bend in 2005, she lived in Washington, D.C., where, as a result of her protesting, she was briefly locked up in a U.S. Park Police holding cell on March 19, 2003, the start of the Iraq war. She says it was “the only place that I felt good being at that time.”
Beth Hanson of the Peace Center of Central Oregon strives to teach compassionate communication, “starting a culture of peace on an individual level.”
Hanson points out that the word “peace” “has become such a broad term and is sometimes considered idealistic or too idealistic.” She’s fond of a Ronald Reagan quote: “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it’s the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
“Throw it in, and then a few more people will listen,” Whitney says, laughing.
Reagan’s viewpoint was similar to the one they’re coming from, said Hanson, who’s not officially a member of CodePink.
“Human nature is to react,” said Hanson. “But part of our mission is to raise our own consciousness … and then send that outwards by talking to other people about it.”
Adds Whitney: “I think it’s really important for us to practice … meditation and reflection, as (Hanson) says, in our own individual lives, and ask every day for support in dealing nonviolently with people around us and the community. Without that base, we don’t have much to go on.”
Along with the weekly Peace Corner protests, members write letters to newspapers and members of Congress.
“It makes us feel good to be part of the vision, to make some kind of a statement of hope, because we know other people want to feel that.”
Paterno, who lives in Powell Butte, is part of the Rural Organizing Project, which is “like a mother ship of social justice and democracy in Oregon,” she said. The group helps those in small communities become more active and participate in democracy.
She, along with Lamb and Brookover, was among a group of six — all women — arrested in 2007 at Rep. Greg Walden’s Bend office, where they staged a sit-in when he wouldn’t meet with them in person to talk about funding the war.
Randall says he’d been with the women earlier in the day but was not willing to be arrested.
He has a theory as to why so many women share a concern for peace.
“I think women are drawn to the peace movement because women give birth,” he said. “A baby is born and they nurture that baby. … I think women are more in touch with their nurturing self than men are.”
Lamb expresses concern, though, that they may have less influence, “not so much because of our age, but because we’re women.”
CodePink garnered criticism when some members called former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a “war criminal” as he entered the White House Correspondents’ Dinner earlier this month.
While such actions might be “out there,” Lamb says, “the voice that is heard in the powers in this country is still the voice of the white male with a necktie. There’s no way a group of women of any age is going to have the voice that a white man of any age is going to have just by going in to see his legislator.
“The things that CodePink is saying so need to be said, that it’s so important that women who are ready to do so stand up and really speak things out in the way that they need to be heard. Even if it’s not acceptable in our culture.”
Says Whitney, “It starts here. It starts at home. It starts with us.”