You may have seen them outside the Urbana Post Office or the Free Library or the Champaign County courthouse during the lunch hour. Perhaps you’ve seen them at the junction of North Prospect Street and I-74 in Champaign. More recently, you might have caught sight of them on University Avenue, across from Carle Hospital.
At first they were a small group composed exclusively of women, but now on a given day there may be as many as 25 to 30 people of both genders. They range in age from pre-teen to senior citizen, and in vocation from student to teacher, factory worker to computer programmer to college professor. They are your fellow citizens, and they have been braving the elements and a seemingly hostile political climate every weekday since September 20 to talk to you, their neighbors.
They are attempting to engage you in dialogue about a subject that is very important both to them and to you, in one of the few ways that are open to them. They are standing outdoors along busy streets using signs and banners and pamphlets to communicate their point of view, and now they are communicating it in these pages.
They are the Ladies and Laddies Against War, and they’d like to make your acquaintance.
Susan Parenti, an artist and teacher at the School for Designing a Society, conceived the original idea for the Ladies Against War in the aftermath of September 11. A longtime student of language and its relationship to politics, Parenti observed with trepidation the media response to the events of that day. She saw clearly that the US media’s extensive use of emotion-laden language – what she calls the “pirating of grief” – in framing the issue as an “Attack on America” would contribute to a rapid militarization.
In those first days Parenti visualized “the slow movement of a bully who has just been tapped on the shoulder”. When she and some of her friends made small “No War” banners which they pinned to their clothing, Parenti’s “inner American” was frightened as she observed the glares of her fellow citizens in response.
Within a week, Parenti had organized a small group of women who resolved to make themselves available publicly as a “Red Cross station for those who were suffering from propaganda”. Initially the Ladies Against War stood quietly outside the Urbana Post Office during the lunch hour each day, dressed nicely and displaying anti-war signs and banners. While they encountered a great deal of hostility and verbal abuse, and even some scattered incidents of physical violence, Parenti and her colleagues discovered that a lot of their fellow citizens actually wanted to unburden themselves. After screaming for a bit, some of them would calm down and engage the Ladies in dialogue about the events of September 11.
Another purpose of the Ladies’ demonstration, Parenti relates, was to test the extent to which non-violent protest was still protected by law in America following the events of September 11. She cites one of her mentors, Herbert Brun, who stated that he emigrated from Germany in 1935 not so much because Germans were breaking Jews’ windows, but because the German police stood by and did nothing.
In contrast, Parenti was assured by the Urbana police that what she and her colleagues were doing was perfectly legal, and the Ladies received ample police protection from the very beginning. Parenti has nothing but praise for the response of the Urbana Police Department.
Another positive discovery, Parenti recounts, was that contrary to the media’s portrayal of reality, not all Americans were in favor of the administration’s policies in the aftermath of September 11. A number of cars bearing American flags, she says, gave the Ladies the peace sign as they drove past. While the responses they received from African Americans were about 99% positive, the Ladies observed that contrary to stereotype, women were no more likely to express pacifist sentiments than were men.
Sometime in October, the Ladies decided to move their noon demonstration one day a week to the intersection of North Prospect and I-74, and it was at that point that they encouraged men to join them. Thus they became the Ladies and Laddies Against War.
Parenti goes on to explain in greater detail the philosophy underlying her decision to organize a public display of dissent. She observes that the mainstream media has been co-opted to such an extent that it has lost its original focus as a watchdog on the excesses of government. Instead, the press has become “Hollywood”, she feels, so that rather than seeing the real news, we see a “movie” about events. This movie is orchestrated in part by the government in its propaganda efforts, and in part by the corporations that own the media, in a complex and incestuous web of deceit.
In this media climate, Parenti sees the Ladies and Laddies Against War as a form of alternative newspaper. She perceives dissent as a means of creating a “public space” in which to “do democracy”, and emphasizes that with democracy and dissent as with so many other things, one must “use it or lose it”. She even encourages non-violent disagreement, because disagreement leads to dialogue which can lead in turn to greater mutual understanding between people, and perhaps solutions to shared problems.
If you ask them why they are there, you will receive a number of different replies from the Ladies and Laddies. There are recurring themes, but these are themes not often or well articulated in the mainstream media.
Many of the Ladies and Laddies, of course, want to communicate their opinions to others. The signs and banners express opposition to the bombing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, and concern for the impending starvation of potentially millions more.The Ladies and Laddies feel that the atrocity of September 11, while eminently tragic, does not necessitate or justify further and greater atrocities against civilians in countries overseas.
Scott Smith, age 30, is concerned about what he calls the “ongoing cycle of violence.” He doesn’t have a magic solution to all of the world’s complex issues, but he understands that peace and justice have their origin in the hearts and minds of individuals, and that the solution to terrorism lies not in escalating violence but in more spiritual approaches and perspectives.
David Green, a middle-aged husband and father with a PhD in Education, is also concerned about the likelihood of a war of uncertain duration against an ill-defined enemy. He is afraid that the current war will not end in Afghanistan or with the capture of Osama bin Laden, but may well spread to Iraq, perhaps to Somalia and other countries, as our nation’s leaders are emboldened by their ‘success’ and attempt to extend American control over the entire oil-producing region in the guise of “fighting terrorism”. Green feels that until the American public tires of war, he and others expressing dissent both in Champaign-Urbana and throughout the world cannot afford to grow complacent about war and starvation and human suffering.
Green has not always been an activist. He was not vehemently opposed to the war in Viet Nam, but he says that his views on foreignpolicy have evolved over the past ten years or so ashe learned more about the American government’s clandest
ine activities in Central America and in the Middle East. About five years ago, Green says, a “light came on” in his head and he said to himself with something of a jolt, “We’re a fearsome nation!” He feels that while ordinary citizens may be sincere in their beliefs, the leaders at the very top of the pyramid know that the real issue is control of global resources, and don’t for a moment believe their own rhetoric about “terrorists hating our freedoms”.
Indigo Franks, a 13-year-old middle-school student, has been present with the Ladies and Laddies nearly every day. She wants, she says, to demonstrate solidarity with other citizens who are also against the war but who may be afraid to express themselves so openly or publicly. This too is a theme that is echoed by several others in the group. Already conscious of the connection between America’s dependence on oil and the incidence of wars involving the US in oil-producing nations, Franks feels that the US needs to research and employ more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy. She is concerned, should the present course of American foreign and energy and environmental policy continue to be followed, about the eventual extinction of all humankind.
Maria Silva is also there to demonstrate that not everyone is in favor of the war in Afghanistan, and to present an alternative point of view. She feels that terrorism is not and should not be considered a problem only of the United States. She perceives it as a problem of the entire world, which should be addressed not through war but through peaceful legal means in such international venues as the United Nations.
Silva emphasizes her love for America. She has heard people say that to be against the war is to be against the US, but she knows that this is simply not true. She emphasizes that dissent, too, is patriotic, and that the right to dissent is a precious Constitutional freedom which must be vigorously protected and defended. She also stresses that she and her colleagues are not standing outside in the cold because they enjoy it, but because they have an important message to communicate and no ready access to the mainstream media.
Meg Miner, a thoughtful and articulate retired Air Force veteran, tries to make a different ‘theme’ sign each day that is reflective of that day’s news. One day her sign read “John Ashcroft – Winner of the 2001 Joe McCarthy Lookalike Contest”, attempting in a few words to equate the new military tribunals espoused by the current Attorney General with the witch-hunt mentality of the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Several days later, her signwas an abbreviated version of another variation on the theme, which she expressed verbally in greater detail: “If we’re randomly arresting people of Arab descent for the events of September 11, why not randomly arrest PhD biochemists in response to the anthrax episodes?”
Barry Miller, a 55-year-old mechanical and wind engineer, is also an Air Force veteran, from the Viet Nam era. He is a descendant of ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, and is present with his wife Barbara Dyskant. They are the parents of three children.
Dyskant feels that mothers share a special concern for human life, and are therefore natural allies. She expresses the hope that American mothers, considering their love of their own precious children, will feel an empathy for the mothers in Afghanistanand Iraq whose children are needlessly dying, and will translate that empathy into political action. She was appalled by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s now-infamous statement, that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to economic sanctions were “worth the price”.
Dyskant also thinks that America shouldn’t have a double standard for terrorism. She asserts that we as a nation support at least as many terrorists as we oppose, and that therefore a ‘terrorist’ as we currently define it is in fact simply someone who employs violence and who disagrees with us.
Dyskant is of the opinion that there will never be true security in the world as long as the world’s wealth and resources are so disproportionately distributed. This inevitably results, she is convinced, in anger and frustration, which may lead to acts of terrorism.
Anita Keller, present with the Ladies and Laddies for the first time, agrees with Dyskant and elaborates a bit further. She suggests that the anger and frustration is compounded by the manner in which the inequality in resources is created and maintained. A Master’s student in African Studies at UIUC who has spent time working in refugee camps on that continent, she is well aware of the long history of exploitation of the resources of Third World nations by America and western European countries, with nothing of value being given back.
While the Ladies and Laddies are there to express alternative points of view and, they hope, to make their fellow citizens think more deeply about government policy, Mark Enslin, an artist and teacher like Susan Parenti, is also present to listen to his fellow citizens, to try to find out what they are thinking. He does this, he says, by making himself and his own position as obvious as possible, and seeing how they respond as they drive past. Reactions of passers-by range from smiles and friendly supportive waves of the hand while honking their horns, to angry comments and obscene gestures. About a month ago Enslin says he kept a rough tally, and was somewhat surprised to find that the positive responses outnumbered the negative ones by a factor of approximately 3 to 1. While he freely admits that his polling method is far from scientific, he has been encouraged by the results.
On the two days of my visit with the Ladies and Laddies on North Prospect, both types of reaction were in evidence. At one point a burly man, appearing to be in his mid-twenties and driving an SUV with an LA Raiders logo on the rear window, leaned out of his window and bellowed across three lanes of traffic, “Go to another country! Get the hell out of here!” At the other extreme, a grandmotherly white-haired lady wearing a red, white, and blue outfit emerged from her own car window to shout, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
One woman, with an embarrassed-looking teenage son staring straight ahead in the passenger’s seat, stopped at the curb long enough to engage in brief but impassioned dialogue with Barbara Dyskant while the rest of us listened. At first the woman said, speaking of the peaceful protest, “You couldn’t do this in any other country!” A few moments later, seemingly oblivious to the multiple ironies inherent in her comment, she exclaimed, “If I could have you arrested I would!”
With the approach of frigid weather, the Ladies and Laddies have scaled back their outdoor demonstrations to one day a week. But they will still be out there, attempting to dialogue with their neighbors about more sustainable and affirmative ways in which to think about war and peace, about terrorism and justice, about how to live.