North Berkeley residents continue to march during holiday season
They have encountered rain, hecklers and the scheduling nightmare of the holiday season. But for eight straight weeks, every Wednesday evening, a small group of North Berkeley neighbors opposed to the war in Afghanistan, has led a march for peace through the city’s streets.
“I firmly believe that war doesn’t solve the problem,” said Don Najita, a Berkeley resident and organizer of the weekly vigils. “Violence breeds violence.”
Organizers say they have drawn between 12 and 25 marchers in the past, although there were only seven in tow this week. The Christmas holiday may have been to blame for the low turnout, they said.
The group does not have a name or affiliation with a larger organization. “It’s just grassroots,” said Najita, “a bunch of residents who decided we wanted to do something public and express our discontent.”
The group has spread the word about its weekly vigils through posters, press advisories and postings on activist Web sites like www.indymedia.org and www.protest.net.
Organizers have also coordinated with other local peace groups, such as Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace, or LMNOP, an Oakland group that conducts vigils of its own on Sunday afternoons.
Ken Knudsen, an LMNOP member and long-time peace activist, attended this week’s Berkeley march. He said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are the result of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly the periodic bombing of Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War.
“We’re into this mess because of the bombing of Iraq,” he said, “and bombing Afghanistan isn’t going to help matters.”
Patrick Weseman, a veteran of the Gulf War who served as a yeoman with the United States Navy, focused on American foreign policy as well.
“I think the U.S. support of Israel is at the root of it,” Weseman said, discussing the causes of terrorism, “and the Persian Gulf War didn’t win us any friends.”
Protesters, who walked with candles and carried signs reading “war: your tax dollars at work” and “not my president/not my war,” received a warm response from most passers-by. Several drivers tooted their horns in support, and a number of pedestrians flashed the peace sign or offered words of encouragement.
Janet Cambra was walking along Sacramento Street when she encountered the group. An Oakland resident who works for Empower, a Berkeley-based company that raises money for progressive causes, Cambra was supportive of the march.
“I like it,” Cambra said, “but I wish there were more people.”
Oakland resident Andy Worthington passed the group on Shattuck Avenue and said he wasn’t surprised at the small number of marchers.
“I think it’s a sign of the times,” he said. “Berkeley, known for its activism, can only get about 10 people out.”
Some passers-by said they disagreed with the protesters and supported the war in Afghanistan. Worthington, for instance, said he is generally opposed to conflict, but feels it is necessary under the current circumstances.
Thomas Watkins, another Oakland resident on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley Wednesday night, said he sympathized with the protesters’ concerns around civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but thought they were unavoidable.
Najita said the protesters have encountered quite a few opponents during their vigils. Some have shouted obscenities, he said, some have bumped into protesters, and others, like Worthington, have simply said that marchers are wrong.
“Some people say we are preaching to the converted,” Najita said, referring to Berkeley’s reputation for anti-war liberalism, “but there are no converts out there now. It’s a different town.”
Karla Meek, another organizer of the weekly vigils, said the United States should have responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by gathering evidence against the perpetrators, and making a case in the international courts.
Meek admitted that the delays inherent in such a lengthy procedure might have created openings for further terrorism, but she said the United States can never hope to bring an end to terrorism.
“I think we can try to do as much as we can, but there will always be terrorists,” she said.
Najita emphasized that the pursuit of legal action, rather than war, is particularly important for a country like the United States that promotes the courts as a proper way to resolve conflict.
Najita said his group will continue to hold Wednesday night vigils for the foreseeable future. “That’s the point of a vigil,” he said, “to stick with it.”
The group meets at the North Berkeley BART station each Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.