Peace rings out in nations distant corner

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Every few weeks Erika Hamerquist performs a grim duty. She crosses the hayfield on her family’s farm a few miles outside this town and with a paintbrush revises the big sign that records the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

At the moment it reads: “2,051 U.S. troops dead. How many more? Uncounted Iraqi dead. U.S. out of Iraq!” It stands starkly by the side of Woodcock Road in rural Clallam County on the Olympic Peninsula, a mountainous, forested region in the Pacific Northwest.

“When I first put the sign up, it was vandalized several times,” Hamerquist said. One irate motorist even flattened it with his vehicle. “But it’s been a long time since anyone defaced it. It may be an indication that people who once supported the war now think it was a bad idea after all.”

When the toll of U.S. war dead reached 2,000 a few weeks ago, Hamerquist, a leader of the local Green Party, not only revised her sign, she helped organize a vigil at the War Memorial in this old paper mill town. A good-sized crowd turned out, holding candles in the chill darkness and singing “I ain’t gonna study war no more” and other antiwar songs. The Peninsula Daily News featured a big photo of the vigil under the headline, “Honoring the Fallen.”

Peace activists have been holding regular Saturday antiwar vigils at the memorial, and the response from passing motorists and pedestrians has grown more and more friendly, with a clear majority waving or giving a thumbs-up salute.

The Green Party and Veterans for Peace sponsored a forum Oct. 29 at Peninsula Community College featuring Michael Hoffman of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Sue Niederer, co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, and Rahul Mahajan, author and antiwar activist. The moderator was Elizabeth Rivera Goldstein, national chairwoman of the Network Opposing Militarization of Youth and a founder of Teen Peace in nearby Port Townsend.

Goldstein recounted her struggle to defend students in Washington state’s public school system from unscrupulous military recruiters or private corporations acting on their behalf. “It’s outrageous how much they hound our families,” Goldstein said. “And I can tell you I have given them an earful.”

IVAW, Hoffman said, “is trying to minimize the damage caused by this war by bringing the troops home. End this war and end it now!”

Hoffman praised those working on antiwar protests and urged the crowd to reach out to the labor movement. “My father worked at Bethlehem Steel and was a member of the United Steelworkers. My wife is a teacher, a member of NEA. It’s really underestimated by the peace movement. The Steelworkers have come out strongly against the war. Keep organizing. It’s the street protests that make it possible for the soldiers to resist.”

A collection was taken up for Sgt. Kevin Benderman, a soldier at Fort Lewis now imprisoned on desertion charges for refusing to deploy to Iraq.

Niederer said she will always mourn her son, Lt. Seth Dvorin, who died in the early weeks of the war. “What’s the mission?” she demanded. “What was accomplished? As far as I’m concerned, my son died in vain.”

“Bush is definitely not my president,” she said. “Organize, organize, organize. And vote out the people you don’t like. Our votes count!”

Goldstein said the peace movement must build on its success in bringing 300,000 or more people to the nation’s capital Sept. 24. “I think those protests are important but we must go beyond them, one-on-one education of people in our communities, working to bring pressure on our legislators.”

She pointed to the success of the United for Peace and Justice-organized “Lobby Day” on Sept. 26. “There were more than 1,000 people there, the largest number of peace lobbyists in history. We got the message through loud and clear. And one of the messages was for the Democrats. They can’t rest on their laurels because too many went along with the funding of this war. If they don’t show some backbone and oppose this war, they aren’t going to make any gains in the upcoming election.”