News & Features » Cover Story

Is the Peace Movement Dying?

Local anti-war advocates struggle to build their ranks and energize the faithful.


The justice Syverson is looking for is not the sort federal judges can provide. It can only come from the Top, the president of the United States himself. Yet he stands here Friday noon, in the rain and in the sun, nearly every week. The downtown courthouse is not exactly the front door of the White House (where Syverson has protested 11 times). But in Richmond, this is the closest he gets.

When he first came out here two-and-a-half years ago his sign said, "Iraqi oil isn't worth my sons' blood." Now it says, "Don't send my son back to Iraq."

Sometimes Syverson has company, most often from John Gallini, a longtime local peace activist. Some days, he is alone. Today, however, is a special day. An exhortation from the Virginia Anti-War Network, coupled with the excitement generated by Cindy Sheehan protesting in Crawford, Texas, has brought a small crowd to stand here with Syverson and Gallini. TV cameras and scribbling reporters have appeared.

Diane Farmer, wearing red capris and a star-covered shirt, is here for her son. Robert Farmer Jr. is a second lieutenant in the Army. He joined ROTC at Virginia Tech in 1999. "I talked him into it," she says. She thought the discipline would be good for him. Robert later enlisted in the Army. At the time, she says, "we weren't at war."

On Sept. 19, he'll be promoted to first lieutenant, Farmer says. On Sept. 20, he'll be sent to Iraq. He's worried about taking care of the young men in his platoon, she says. They're only 18 and 19; Robert is 23. "To me," she says, "he's just so young."

Brent Newton, a tall man in a Green Party T-shirt, is here to help maintain the peace movement's momentum. He recalls the big peace march in Richmond in March 2003, about a week after the United States dropped the first bombs on Iraq. About 4,000 people strode through the streets. The march that preceded the war in November 2002 was impressive too, he recalls, with about 1,000 people attending.

On this August afternoon, 25 seems a crowd. "It's disheartening," Newton says. "Because this is a really, really conservative place."

A man drives by the protesters, jabbing his middle finger and shouting something inaudible and angry. A bumper sticker on the back of his white SUV says "Jesus Loves You."

"Jesus loves you too!" chorus the protesters, delighted with the irony.

"Look at this stupid idiot," Newton mutters. "That's what we're dealing with."

Gil Lake, longhaired and sandaled, is here because he wants to be seen. "I didn't have anything better to do," he says, "and I thought, 'Somebody has got to do it.'"

Lake just moved here from western Michigan, he says, and he heard about the protest from independent radio station WRIR. The government's reasoning for Iraq is incomprehensible, Lake says, and he's been against the war from the beginning — so he wanted to "stand up and be counted."

Who will do the counting is unclear. Will Lake's presence suddenly spur one of these lunchtime commuters to question United States involvement in Iraq? "No," he says after a moment of thought. "I think pretty much everybody has their mind made up already."

Therein lies the paradox of the peace movement.

Activists generally agree it's essential to demonstrate, to march, to be vocal in opposing continued involvement in Iraq. That's what worked in the Vietnam era, right? That's what peace advocates are supposed to do.

But will standing on a Richmond street corner change the course of events in Iraq? No, they guess not.

"It's mainly about energizing the faithful," Gallini says of protests. "It's not the main purpose of all of them, but it's the main effect of all of them."

In Richmond, the faithful, defined as those who take an active role in anti-war activities, are few. The number of silent supporters, however, seems to be growing. While the courthouse each Friday rarely sees more protesters than Syverson and Gallini, those two report a steep increase in the number of smiles they receive and a precipitous drop in middle fingers. "Things are kind of exciting all of a sudden," Syverson says.

One recent vigil for Cindy Sheehan, publicized by, recently drew about 75 people to stand on the Boulevard. "That's very unusual," says Wendy Northup, board chair of the Richmond Peace Education Center, "I mean, we don't do that in Richmond, Virginia."

What do we do? The local anti-war landscape is a hilly one, with organizations of all sorts affiliated with the recently formed Virginia Anti-War Network. These include the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; Pax Christi; Food Not Bombs; the Richmond Independent Media Center; the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project; and United Parents Against Lead National Inc. There's also Women in Black, a group that carries out silent vigils. The Richmond Peace Education Center is arguably the city's most enduring and prominent nonviolence organization. But even so, it's hardly a household name.

Thus, the center is trying to figure out how to energize the peace-minded community. When the first television cameras captured anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan sitting in the Crawford dust, waiting to speak to the president this summer, local peace activists recognized a golden opportunity to get people to talk about the war. "Cindy Sheehan has been a real catalyst," Northup says, "by galvanizing those who are already opposed to the Iraq war and encouraging the uncertain to question political rhetoric."

But Sheehan's not in the news anymore. Nor, really, is the war, having recently been washed away by coverage of Hurricane Katrina and hearings for a chief justice nominee. Many people feel ambivalent about the proper course of action in Iraq, and their desire for peace is tempered by the fact that America itself has come under attack.

Members of the Richmond Peace Education Center now must figure out how to move forward, how to tip those who question over to their side. They're also trying to shift their focus from the Middle East to the streets, seeking to bring peace to the city and the world. That's a tall order for a group with $50,000 and a newsletter. But for 25 years they've been trying. And they haven't quit yet.

In 1980, fear drove the peace movement.

President Jimmy Carter had reinstated mandatory registration for the draft and no one knew what the Soviets were scheming. People wondered whose bombs would go off first. "And I think people were starting to be very frightened about it," Northup says.

A handful of Richmonders who had worked together on a local Conference on the Arms Race in 1979 decided the city needed a permanent organization that would focus local energy on peace. The Richmond Peace Education Center, directed by seminary student Steve Hodges, was born. "Well, I think it grew pretty fast," says Gallini, a member from the beginning. "I don't think it was that hard to do."

At the center, a big, bright room with worn wooden floors, two boxes perched on bookcases illuminate the reasons for the center's founding. One is labeled "draft counseling materials," the other "Nuclear War: What's in it for you? slide show."

Northup, a small, sunny woman who today wears yellow, was one of the members who taught workshops on the arms race. "I used to be able to tell you [about] things like ICBMs," Northup says. "I can't do that anymore."

The threat of nuclear annihilation sparked movements all over the country. But it "never mobilized as many people as the Vietnam conflict," says Murray Milner, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Virginia, "because the threat was much more remote in the sense that your son and daughter weren't being sacrificed or in harm's way. We all were, in a more remote and difficult-to-calculate sense."

In 1985, Gallini says, peace centers with paid staff existed in most major metropolitan areas of Virginia: Roanoke, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Northern Virginia and Richmond. Of those, Gallini says, only Richmond has kept its alive.

"So in one sense," he says, "Richmond has surprisingly, I will say, maintained an active peace center/movement through all this time. In part, because we changed as the issues changed."

As fears of a draft or nuclear war faded, the peace center shifted its focus to other issues: the United States' intervention in Central America, the death penalty, racism and nonviolent conflict resolution.

The latter may seem like an odd direction, but the peace center was the first place in Richmond to begin teaching it. That's the real reason the center has survived all this time, Northup says. "It's very difficult to get people to think on a global level all the time," she says. "It's much more pragmatic to think about what's happening here."

The center has kept that focus on local peace, especially in schools and prisons. It's also sponsored programs on the Middle East, panel discussions with legislators and interracial dialogues.

The center's resources are few. Its annual budget hovers around $47,000. Fund-raising efforts are modest: a spring concert, annual dinner and auction, and recently, collecting used ink-jet cartridges, for which the group receives $2 each. "We're always right on the edge," Gallini says. "We spend everything we get."

Not long ago, RPEC nearly flickered out of existence. Membership and funding first ebbed in the late 1990s. Donations further declined after 9/11 as they did for most nonprofits. And in early 2004, the center's leaders faced the possibility of having to let the staff go and close the center's doors.

First, however, they made a last-ditch effort to raise money by calling longtime members and explaining their plight. Most gave something. And the center heaved another breath.

Since then, RPEC has remained in "a bit of a holding pattern," Northup says. The number of volunteers and active members (meaning those who do more than read the newsletter) has decreased. But the board recently hired a new executive director, after searching for one since June. With help from member Noah Scalin, founder of socially conscious graphic design firm ALR, the group has updated its logo and Web site to, it hopes, attract more attention. "Now we really need to be back into building," Northup says.

How do you get people into peace? Protests just don't do it anymore.

"If that's the only thing that people do, I find that people get really burned out," Scalin says. He has participated in scores of demonstrations himself, ever since he was a child accompanying his mother to marches for equal rights. "I've done that," he says, "and I don't see the change."

"You can devote a lot of energy to protesting and saying this current situation is bad," Scalin continues. "For this current situation to not occur, we need fundamental changes to occur." And that can only happen through education, he says, and a focus on the streets of Richmond before the streets of Iraq.

Richmond has long remained near the top of national rankings of homicide rates. Former peace center director Ken Willis quoted an observation by former Richmond Police Chief André Parker: "What we have in Richmond is a large number of people who don't know how to resolve conflict peacefully." Thus the center aims to change the idea that violence can solve problems, wherever they may be. No easy task.

The peace center's board members met recently to decide where to focus their energy and modest resources. Priority one, they agreed, was not challenging U.S. involvement in Iraq. It was supporting the Richmond Youth Peace Project (RYPP), an anti-violence initiative begun by Ram Bhagat, who teaches chemistry, anatomy and yoga at Open High School.

The project is an offshoot of Bhagat's program Drums No Guns, a creative performing group for Richmond students founded in 1994 after seven people were shot and five killed, including three children, in Gilpin Court. The peace project seeks to teach young people techniques of conflict resolution and peer mediation.

Supporting RYPP made sense for the peace center because it fit in with members' goals of educating and working with young people. Members tend to be graying. "Inevitably," Scalin says, "they're going to have a hard time speaking to people, to younger people who are coming at it from a different perspective."

Bhagat's students don't spend too much time thinking about the war in Iraq, though. They've got enough on their minds with the war in their neighborhoods. "I think they are more practical than idealists, like me. ... I know for a fact a lot of kids have to live in fear," he says.

Bhagat, in his yoga course, tries to teach the concept of ahimsa, or not-harming, and students have a hard time with the idea of a nonviolent reaction to a perceived slight. "What frustrates me is the disregard for life," he says. "You know, you see a moth you want to kill it, when you could just open the window and let it fly out."

He hopes his students will become activists, will organize and speak out for peace in their city. "I don't know if it's going to happen," he says.

Today's peace movement is more complicated than its predecessors, UVa.'s Professor Milner says, in part because many local peace groups, like the peace center, focus their energies on a multitude of concerns: the environment, fair wages, conflict resolution, handgun violence. For someone who opposes the war but is not sure how they feel about these other matters, the mixture can be "difficult to disentangle," he says. "The more different issues that you take on, the more difficult it is to maintain a broad base."

But the Richmond Peace Education Center's members see their many concerns as linked on a single continuum — the violence of poverty, the violence of anger, violence against the earth. It's only natural to attack them all, they say, even with their small resources. Even Syverson, the father of the four military sons, agrees with this thinking.

"It's been around for so many more years than Iraq," he says of the group. "And even Iraq will go away and the Richmond Peace Education Center will still be there."

Adria Scharf, the center's freshly appointed executive director, who starts Oct. 5, applauds the education efforts but hopes to refocus some of RPEC's energies on Iraq. She envisions a "large-scale public effort" of forums and Op-Ed pieces to bring the issues of war once again into the local consciousness. "I think we need to wake up Richmond to the true cause of this war," she says, with "conversation that includes not just self-identified activists but really reaches a broad cross-section of the community."

Scharf wants to better connect the various state and local peace groups, and make the center known on college campuses. Demonstrations are an important part of building the peace center's public image, as well as showing the world that some Richmonders, too, oppose American foreign policy.

Demonstrations, on a large scale, do make a difference, says Milner, especially when they become broad enough to encompass different groups and when they happen on a regular basis. "That's not to say they're going to change their policy" because of protests, he says of the administration, but "they certainly are not oblivious to them."

Scharf, 33, was until recently a Boston resident and editor for economic justice magazine Dollars and Sense. But she knows Richmond sure ain't Boston. "It's so easy there," she says. "I think it takes more courage to stand up here." Boston boasts a plethora of anti-war protests, lectures and workshops, at least one major event every week. Richmond has Larry and John.

Each week John Gallini updates his sign, smudged and taped, with the number of American dead: 1,896 as of last Thursday. Iraqi civilian dead: 24,712. And money spent: $200 billion, give or take a few million. You could solve a lot of the world's problems with that sum, Gallini notes glumly. "That's a lot of money."

Gallini is a near-lifelong advocate of nonviolence and a member of the Catholic group Pax Christi. He sees nonviolence as a spiritual cause, to be supported quietly and steadily, with prayer. The man he stands with in front of the federal courthouse, who is perhaps the Richmond peace movement's most galvanizing figure, is loud and no peacenik at all.

"I'm not a pacifist," Larry Syverson says. He's proud that all four of his sons entered the military. Brian, 29, worked aboard Navy submarines until he received a medical discharge for claustrophobia. Brent, 31, is a petty officer first class aboard the USS Camden. Branden, 33, is a sergeant first class, teaching at the master gunner school at Fort Knox. Bryce, 27, is a staff sergeant with the 1st Armored Division. Until recently, he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Syverson did not protest when Bryce was sent to Bosnia in 1998. He did not carry a sign when Bryce was readying himself to be part of the invasion force in Kosovo in 1999 (he never had to go). But he stood up against the war in Iraq.

"This was a war of choice," he says, "for oil and for revenge — the Bush family wanted to settle a score." His first protest took place in Washington, D.C., March 15, 2003 — but first he called his Army sons, Branden and Bryce. "Is it OK if I put your picture on my sign?" he asked.

"Branden said, 'You know, go ahead. It won't make any difference,'" he says. "Bryce was like, 'This is great, maybe it'll keep the war from happening.'"

Wednesday, March 19, he marched in downtown Richmond with five friends and ended up at the federal courthouse. "And that night," he says, "the war started."

The next day, Syverson says, between 70 and 100 people showed up at the courthouse. He came again Friday. "I'm in this for the long run," he told people. He didn't know how long the run would be.

Syverson stood by the courthouse for an hour each weekday until mid-April. He stood there Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until July 2004, when Bryce left Iraq. Branden had left in March. He's been standing there nearly every Friday since then, a total of 192 times.

As time has passed, fewer and fewer people join Syverson. Most days there are just him and Gallini. But as the crowd of protesters thinned, he says, support for his cause seems to have amplified.

"Before the war, before the actual invasion, my sense was there was a lot of support," Gallini says. When the war began, people stopped smiling at him. Older people and African-Americans, more than anyone else, showed signs of support. As for the rest: "Minivans, construction workers, no. SUVs, no. Anything with the flag on it, no."

Horns assaulted him. "When I looked over, they'd shoot the finger, shake their fist, all kinds of foul words. … It was very demoralizing." He felt a knot gather in his stomach each day as he prepared to walk to the courthouse from his downtown office. "My sons are in a desert dodging bullets," he said to himself. "The least I can do is stand on a street corner for an hour."

In April, he made a sign that said Honk for Peace. "By doing that, I confiscated their honks," he says. In May 2003, when Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq had ended, Syverson hit a low point. "Go home!" people yelled. "Haven't you read the newspaper? The war's over." But his sons weren't home.

As Syverson stood on the sidewalk Nov. 3, 2003, the day after 16 soldiers died when their helicopter was shot down, "everybody's honking. And that's when the tide started turning." Since then, he says, angry reactions have been few. Although the anti-war movement as a whole suffered after Bush's re-election, it's once again gathering steam, he says. "People are moving to our side." And he'll stay there until all the troops are home, he says.

As Gallini and Syverson stand by the courthouse, they don't much discuss foreign policy or the virtues of nonviolence. They simply stand together with their signs and chat. "Most of the time we talk about Branden and Bryce, and what I've heard from them and what's going on," Syverson says. "It's really lifted my spirits so much."

Bryce, now back in Germany, seems to be doing a lot better, Syverson says. It's hard for him to go to restaurants or travel on the Metro in Washington. Crowds pressing around him make him nervous. When he came home on weekends, he and his parents played a lot of Trivial Pursuit. Now he plans to talk to his chaplain about his self-doubt. "He says he's completely lost his confidence and he doesn't think he can lead soldiers anymore," Syverson says.

Branden, now teaching at the master gunner school, has trouble sleeping. "That's all he'll say," Syverson says. He doesn't talk much about the war. He did tell his father about being a sharpshooter on the front lines, picking off enemies 600 meters away.

Syverson had trouble picturing a distance of 600 meters. Was it one football field? Two? Well, he said to his son, at that distance, at least, you don't really know when you hit people.

"Dad," Branden said. "You know when you do." S

Buses arranged by the Virginia Anti-War Network will be taking Richmonders to Washington, D.C., Sept. 24 to join an anti-war rally. A seat costs $20 per person, or $10 for students and people on limited incomes. Buses will be leaving from the James River Bus Lines parking lot in downtown Richmond Saturday morning and will return that evening. Contact Garrie Rouse at 804-512-2063 for information.

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment