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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

A Birds Eye View: The Bonny Doon Beach naked peace sign

Vital Signs

Looking for a new way to spread goodwill to all this holiday season? All we are saying is give peace your pants.

By Sarah Phelan

Getting naked leaves you vulnerable. Think nudists and thistles. Strippers and stalkers. Streakers running past, dangly parts swishing. Even professional nudists or strippers lay themselves open to criticism and ridicule, not to mention self-doubt, every time they toss their panties and Y-fronts to the wind. All of which gives you an inkling of how much courage and determination it took for 26 adults to take it all off for peace at Bonny Doon Beach in the middle of the worst winter storm this year. Yup, with the ocean raging mere yards away, and rain pissing down at times, 26 brave souls--not to mention two very loyal dogs--came together at the edge of the continent, where ocean meets sand, to form an international peace sign with their naked bodies.

Was this extreme act just a cute way of saying "Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth?" Or something much more powerful and desperate? In the past few months, thousands have marched against a war on Iraq, even as President Bush's trigger finger has gotten increasingly itchy. Weapon inspectors have yet to find any conclusive evidence to support claims that Saddam really is manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, yet Bush and his hawks talk only in terms of assassination, regime change and first-strike nuclear attacks--attacks that would, it might be a good time to remind everyone, likely cause millions of deaths and possibly trigger the beginning of the end of life as we know it on Earth.

Yes, clearly, extreme acts are necessary, as our Karmageddon-crazed leaders prepare for war and the rest of us prepare to celebrate the holidays. Christmas and Chanukah and Kwanzaa are here, but peace on Earth is not--unless people around the world start taking some pretty radical steps. And like generations before them, activists in this newest wave of the peace movement are discovering that adding nudity to their public relations arsenal is one way they can get themselves major media coverage in an otherwise violence-obsessed world.

Santa Cruz is of course no stranger to naked actions. The former home of the Bare Breasted Bandits and the Mud People, this politically charged town was invaded in July by the Areola Rebel Forces, who brandished the Mammary Manifesto as they removed their shirts at a Santa Cruz City Council meeting to protest ordinances that were supposed to target drugs, violence and harassment, but also affected street performers--and topless women.

"Naked people and artists are not the problem ... Drug addicts rarely shoot up naked ... The only time women go topless is to make political statements," declared one topless ARF member as she addressed a red-faced council, who subsequently decided to hold off enforcing said ordinances until at least January 2003.

That same month, thousands of miles away, hundreds of Nigerian women threatened to disrobe--a local symbol of shame--and brought production to a halt at Chevron Texaco pipeline facilities. In the past, actions against Nigerian-based oil and gas companies have taken the form of kidnapping and sabotage, but the women managed to strike a deal with Chevron without resorting to violence, a deal that hopefully will bring jobs and funding for schools and hospitals to their desperately poor region.

And this November, 50 members of the group calling themselves the UnReasonable Women of Marin bared all in Point Reyes Station to spell out "peace," an action that got international attention and inspired the naked peace sign in Santa Cruz, with rumblings of similarly indecent actions in other activist hot spots in the future.

You Put Your Left Foot In: This is not as easy as we make it look.

Making Peace with Our Bodies

Can we be frank? Some of us who participated in the naked peace sign you see on the cover had a bit of performance anxiety about our naked appearance prior to the event. If only we'd known, we'd have laid off the doughnuts and started doing sit-ups months ago, some of us complained, while others wished this all could have happened a lot sooner--and certainly before gravity took its inevitable toll.

All of which made it even more powerful when we finally did bare all. Lying naked on the sand, bathed in rain as if the ocean had just spit us up onto the edge of both the continent and the current political spectrum, all of us--men and women, young and old, black and white--looked beautiful and felt courageous in our full frontal vulnerability.

Maybe we will all make peace with our bodies, I thought afterwards, as fellow peacesters acknowledged how crazy it is that shots of male genitalia are largely still taboo, when close-ups of breasts and vaginas greet the average convenience-store shopper at every turn.

Or, as Donna Sheehan, the driving force behind the UnReasonable Woman of Marin's peace sign, put it: "Penises are hard to publish, so get the guys to put them between their legs or bend their knees up."

Sheehan, who says the peace sign idea came to her in a dream, likes to point out that naked bodies are weapons we can use undetected in our fight for peace, no matter what Homeland Security says, thinks or does.

Sure, there are some who will say that taking our clothes off for peace is ridiculous, an act that does nothing other than cater to the media's taste for all things prurient. And yes, going nude for peace definitely taps into our nations' puritanical fascination with sexuality--but doesn't it also turn it on its head? Let's face it, endorsing a war and allowing a nuclear buildup--neither of which will create peace or security--is far more ridiculous than anything we could dream of doing with our naked bodies and a camera. Besides, blatant acts of public nudity are unlikely to trigger World War III.

Take-Offs and Put-Ons

Anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, who once disrobed with 50 others and marched through San Francisco chanting "Nudes, not nukes!" was delighted to hear about our naked version of the peace sign, a sign based on an inverted life rune, and first used as an anti-nuclear emblem in 1958, at a demonstration outside Aldermaston, a British research center for nuclear weapon development.

"What if thousands of people got inspired and went to Washington and took their clothes off for peace?" asked Caldicott, reached by phone in Australia.

Warning that "we're in grave danger of a nuclear conflict, more than we've ever been and much more than in the 1980s," Caldicott revealed that she's preparing to move to Washington to be, as she put it, "where the power and the source of the wickedness is."

That's good news for all of us who are wondering why more isn't being said in Washington as Bush gives the green light for an anti-missile defense system--which, as Caldicott points out in her latest book, The New Nuclear Danger, "would be utterly useless against suicidal men armed with box cutters and plane tickets."

Her own experience in the San Francisco march speaks volumes about the possibilities for nude peace. "I've never seen people so exhilarated, ever," said Caldicott, "and it taught me that a) the human body is so vulnerable, b) so absolutely pure and beautiful, and c) clothes separate us. I've never felt so courageous in my life."

Sure, you may not want to get naked for peace--yet--but in the meantime you could do worse than reading her uncannily well-timed tome, in which she explains why "aggressive militarization under the rubric of defense against terrorism threatens to provoke a chain reaction among nuclear nations," and how "there is now enough explosive power in the combined nuclear arsenals of the world to "overkill every person on earth 32 times."

And that's not counting all other life forms on this rock we call Earth.

Yes, as the year draws to a close, and people make their New Year's resolutions, here's hoping you'll be asking, "So, what can I do for peace?"

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From the December 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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