Transforming War, One Peace Activist at a Time

When I found myself on 59th Street in New York City on February 15, hundreds of protesters on Third Avenue were pressing angrily against the barricades. About 12 police were holding back the crowd. It was a testy group being thwarted from the stage on First Avenue, where Holly Near was singing, "I’m not afraid of your Yahweh, Allah, or God."

I had shaken myself out of bed at 5 a.m. and joined a bus with women Friends. We were going to the "largest ever mobilization against war." The temperatures were in the low 20s(F), but this did not deter us. Half a million people in New York City (probably more) were determined to speak for peace, to let our cry for no killings be heard in the smallest hamlet in Iraq. I came to pray and to mourn and to rage, not just for the current war the government is waging against Iraq, but for all the killings and maulings we humans do to each other. I have gone to many demonstrations to speak out against violence.

But my message is no longer stop the war: I go to practice peace. I come to mourn the loss and destruction of wars, and I come to rage against the intentional killing. Moreover, I come to see how much this mass of activists is ready to do the hard work of transformation from a culture of domination to one of cooperation. Above all, I come to pray with others, for a new way of being with each other.

Here, before me, were thousands of peace activists like a river swollen by a barrier, blocking them from moving directly to First Avenue. Two young men with virgin beards were yelling across the street to the crowd on Third Avenue.

"Push on through. It’s your first amendment right."

An organizer from the rally replied, "No! That’s not what we’re here for." The police clenched their jaws and stood akimbo. Words were flying around them.

One man with a beard said some flaming words back. "Just do it: break on through."

I looked this man in the eye and said, "If the crowd pushes through there will be a scuffle with the police. Maybe even a stampede. Aren’t you afraid someone might get hurt?"

"Yeah," he said noncommittally. "Don’t give up your rights." But maybe not. "The f. . . police can’t keep us from doing this."

The organizer responded, looking past the young man, "Today is about peace. The rally’s not perfect, but we’re not here to fight for first amendment rights."

The man wasn’t buying it. He continued egging on the protesters, "Push down the barricades. Do it. Do it. Do it!" The police near us looked nervous.

So I said, "I saw some young kids in the crowd. If people shoved through, they might get hurt. Do you know any families at this rally?"

"No," he spoke curtly. I asked his name, observed that he looked like he was freezing, like me. He answered my inquiries in short sentences. His words came at me like a tail of a horse, trying to flick off buzzing flies. I figured I wasn’t about to change his mind. At least I’d redirected his anger for a while. The police looked calmer and were chatting about the weather.

"Well, I have to go," I said to exit. "But, hey, thanks so much for showing up today. I’m glad you’re here, because we’re all about stopping deaths, in Iraq and everywhere." For the first time, the guy stopped looking at the police barricades. He faced me when I said thanks, with a genuine look of surprise. I had put myself on his side. I imagine up until now, he had just seen me as antagonist. He almost smiled, at least his beard widened. That thank-you did more than all the ten minutes of confronting him.

Yes, God manifests in sharing between Friends, and we need to see God working in conflict as well. God’s way of interrupting violence may come in unexpected ways. I keep looking for the unexpected, but I can be too self-absorbed to notice God’s innumerable ways of acting in our lives. This is how transformation starts. We are acting in the name of peace, now we must start living it.

Elizabeth Claggett-Borne

Elizabeth Claggett-Borne is a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.) and a nonviolence trainer.