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[whitespace] San Jose's Peace Center
Peace in a time of ambiguity: The South Bay's oldest Peace Center struggles to find relevance in the wake of Sept. 11.

Put a Fork in Her: Peace is Dead

It's not easy being a peacenik these days--just ask the straggling few at San Jose's Peace Center

By Justin Berton

FIVE DAYS AFTER bombs first hit Afghanistan, members of the San Jose Peace Center held an evening meeting inside their downtown office to plot their own response. By 7:30pm all the seats around the conference table had filled and, over pickings from a plate of apples and animal crackers, a few members observed it was the best-attended meeting in recent memory. Thirteen people showed up.

The meeting was called to order by its acting director Rob Molinar, a ponytailed grad student from San Jose State University. Molinar said he had never presided over such a large gathering and felt a bit uneasy guiding the discussion with so many experienced activists in the room; Molinar was a good generation younger than most of his peers.

Next, acting treasurer Aaron Belansky, 80, reported on the Peace Center's monthly finances--and the news was not entirely good. Despite the recent bombings, which made the phone ring a lot more often, the center was operating at a near loss, down to just a few hundred bucks after expenses. The change jar, one member said, held at least $5. "I know that because there's one roll of dimes in there," she said.

Belansky also announced that the Peace Times, the center's monthly publication, was ready to go to press; instead of holding the printer at bay, Belansky offered to pay the printing costs. Again. To date, Belansky had spent about $4,000 to keep the paper running. "As long as we don't have the money, I don't have to be repaid," he said.

On a lighter, but somewhat somber note, several Peace Times readers had sent in cash donations, along with sympathy cards, after learning about a car crash involving Peace Center members Alice and Bill Cox. To much applause around the table, it was announced that Alice, the coordinator, and Bill, the treasurer, had been released from the hospital and were resting at home. Also, a handful of readers signed over their federal tax refunds to the center. Financially speaking, Belansky said, September was an unusually good month.

"And the war should be good for us, right?" one member asked.

"Well, yes," Belansky replied, with some hesitation. "This month we got a lot more money than we usually do. But I'm not sure we can keep this up."

An Easy Enmity

Lately, things have been tough all over for peaceniks. It's been 10 years since the government provided a good war to protest, and few Americans are challenged by the merits of the current war. If news surveys and polls are accurate--and several members in the peace movement believe they aren't--between 92 and 94 percent of Americans support the ongoing military action. Earlier this month, a city councilwoman from Berkeley--Berkeley!--was chastised by her colleagues for drafting a resolution denouncing the war. The wording of the document was "too harsh" toward the American government, they said. Half of her peers abstained from voting on the resolution.

"The people involved in the peace movement today have got a much more difficult case to make than they ever have before," says Peter Haas, an American Politics professor at SJSU. "It was easy to protest the Vietnam war. Conscription gave people a personal stake, for one; there was the hand-to-hand combat, for another; and finally, it was just a much broader protest as part of a larger social movement. It wasn't just the war that was under protest, but also the quote-unquote establishment."

By contrast, Haas says, today's popular movement seems to say: Support the establishment. "Even people who would normally be skittish or skeptical about an arms conflict--in this case, they may see diplomacy as not a viable option," Haas says. "They consider what's happening as an act of self-defense. And the nature of the enemy, in its apparent inscrutability, and to the extent that it is scrutable, it's still hard to relate to suicide bombers as an act of rational men. It makes them an inhuman enemy, as opposed to being an enemy of a peace-loving country, with peace-loving people."

Spinning Against War

The San Jose Peace Center is one of just two peace organizations inside the 408 area code, and it's the South Bay's oldest. In 1957, a decade after the catastrophes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a man named George "Shorty" Collins walked downtown San Jose streets to hand out pamphlets that called for an end to nuclear weapons. Eventually, Collins opened a meeting place for like minds in the bottom floor of an old Victorian home, on Seventh and Santa Clara streets, near the city's university.

Since then, the Peace Center has organized students and citizens in protests against the Vietnam War, foreign policies in Central America, and the Persian Gulf War. In between major conflicts, it survives as a resource center supporting a myriad of social justice issues, such as lifting the embargo against Cuba and sanctions against Iraq.

But the new war, "a war like no other," as President George Bush calls it, has challenged the Peace Center, and groups like it, to stay on message, artfully, without getting tagged as heartless subversives. In times like these, it's a tightrope not easily traversed.

Andy Page, the political director of California Peace Action, a statewide organization with offices in Berkeley and Los Angeles, says CPA members were forced to halt outreach projects following Sept. 11: "We were shocked, stunned, just like everyone else." Instead of immediately pushing for a nonmilitary response, the CPA diverted its energy to fighting the anti-Arab/Muslim backlash by calling mosques and prompting anti-racism rallies. "We didn't get into analysis [of the conflict] right away," Page says. "It wasn't appropriate at the time."

Pat O'Connell, a former coordinator of the San Jose Peace Center, says that in the days following the attacks confusion spread within the peace movement on how to call for a nonmilitary alternative without inciting a backlash. "I think a lot of people feared being viewed as nonpatriotic," O'Connell says. "At a time like that, how do you say, 'Bombing isn't a good idea. It won't change anything'? And how do you say it in a good way that will make people think about the spiral of violence it's creating?"

Those who hoped for a peaceful resolution lost crucial time on television, and in print, for two reasons, O'Connell says. First, as it was reported recently on NPR, in the immediate hours and days following the attacks, media stations quickly hired defense and terrorism experts to muse on possible outcomes--yet no one offered airtime to a nonviolence expert. Reason two: Even if media outlets had, peace organizers shied away from articulating an antiwar stance. Retribution had filled the popular consciousness and its vernacular, and little room was left for negotiation.

Silence, for whatever reason, on the part of peace activists created a lag time in the movement's effort, O'Connell believes.

"We could have helped set the agenda instead of responding to it. We lost our ability to impact what was going on by not speaking up, by being cautious, by not wanting to offend anyone."

At the most recent board meeting, members at the Peace Center first concluded that, economic woes be damned, the Peace Center needed to work with other groups to harmonize the local antiwar effort. For instance, a few members observed, a group of San Jose students was scheduling a rally for Friday afternoon, and another group was set for Saturday. "There's a lot going on right now," O'Connell said later. "We need to get everyone unified."

Another item caused a rustle of debate. The day the war began, office manager Ann Beaudet drafted a peace petition and purposely omitted President Bush's name to give the document a general feel. Other members, like acting treasure Belansky, wanted the president's name included, to hold him accountable. Beaudet eventually won out. "What if we have some Republicans who oppose the war but not the president?" Beaudet asked.

Not Love, But Justice

Outside the Peace Center, San Jose State students wearing baseball caps, with messenger bags slung over their shoulders, walk by every few minutes. A blue sheet with a white dove hangs in the window, along with a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. Noticeably missing are the old "Make Love Not War" ultimatums of wars past; instead, a new, more pragmatic, sign of the times: "Justice, Not Revenge."

One afternoon last week, Beaudet, who's also a candidate to become the Peace Center's next coordinator, sat on the porch and observed that the peace movement, on a larger scale, had been slowing down in the last decade. The new war had awakened activists of the past, but the organizing response was slow and scattered. "If you ask me, we need to consolidate our efforts," she said. "Too many people are doing too many different things right now."

Beaudet joined the Peace Center in 1987 and recalled the glory days when thousands of people caravaned to Lawrence Livermore Lab--several hundred coming from the South Bay--to sit arm in arm at the gates, chanting slogans and singing songs to protest nuclear weapons. "We'd get arrested, then do it again," she said, waving her Marlboro Light 100 cigarette in the air, no biggee. The Peace Center had weathered some quiet years, Beaudet added, but the phones had been ringing off the hook lately, "Just like the good ol' days."

Beaudet herself had spent the previous weekend at Plaza de Caesar Chavez Park collecting signatures for the peace petition. The gathering brought out 100 people, tops. It was a dreadfully low number, Beaudet said, compared with the estimated 1,000 people who showed up in the same park the weekend following the start of the Persian Gulf War, 10 years prior.

Beaudet said it didn't bother her one bit that so few people in San Jose opposed the bombings in Afghanistan, or that the peace movement seemed a little tranquil these days.

She dipped her voice into a mocking impersonation of President Bush. "If anything, it's only strengthened my resolve!"

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From the October 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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