Honk For Peace At Lake Merritt




T

here’s
a lake near the edge of downtown Oakland and for over three years
it’s been the centerpiece of a weekly antiwar peace walk. Every
Sunday afternoon a small group gathers at the lake, then sets out
on a three-mile stroll around its perimeter. 


The
first time I attended was in March 2003, just a couple of weeks
before the war started. The meeting place was the Colonnade, a structure
that looks like something out of ancient Greece. About 40 people
showed up, many carrying placards and banners that read: “No
Blood for Oil,” “Bush & Ashcroft are the Axis of Evil,”
and “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease.” Others expressed support
for the Palestinian cause and some were about the environment. One
person brought a St. Bernard dog bearing the notice: “I pee
on Bushes.” 


The
group included all ages. Pat Maginnis, the group’s resident
cartoonist, was in her mid-70s and had been involved in politics
since the 1950s. Then there was Vern Krohn, an 87-year-old activist,
with his “contraption”—a small cart on which was
mounted a huge sign, “Honk for Peace,” that passing motorists
could read from a block or two away. 


“May
I have your attention,” called Beth Wagner. Beth had been a
peace activist since the Vietnam War. She came from a conservative
family in Virginia and began life as a Republican. During her freshman
year at William & Mary, she joined the campus chapter of Young
Republicans for Nixon because she thought that if we changed presidents
that might bring the war to an end. “I was just a naïve
country girl from the sticks who’d never been away from home
before,” she says. After the Kent State killings in 1970 she
joined the antiwar movement. Since the Yugoslavia bombings in 1999,
she and her husband, Steve, have been instrumental in Lake Merritt
Neighbors Organized for Peace (LMNOP), as the lake walkers are called. 


Beth
announced several items and then we set out on our three-mile walk.
Lake Merritt is a federally funded wildlife preserve; it’s
the oldest in the country, dating back to 1870. Large flocks of
geese and other water birds live along the shore. 


From
the beginning of our walk, passing motorists had been giving us
a positive response. Sometimes it was a single driver; sometimes
several at once. At times the honking was ear-splitting. “Maybe
we should be more careful about what we ask for,” I heard someone
remark in jest. Others agreed that sometimes the honking did get
painfully loud. 


Joggers
and bicyclists also expressed support. “Beep, beep,” said
one jogger as she passed. Others waved the two-fingered peace sign
or gave us a thumbs-up. On the lake was a gondola; the gondolier
waved and shouted to us in Italian, “Pace.” 


We
passed a small boy who pointed to the symbol on one of our placards
and asked his mother what it was. “It’s a peace sign,”
she told him. “They want people to stop killing each other.” 


But
not everybody agreed with our cause. A couple of guys drove by flipping
us the finger, yelling, “We want war, war, war, war.” 


Of
course, we hardly expected everyone to agree with us; fortunately,
those who expressed negative reactions were rare and some of their
comments were unintentionally funny. “You’re totally irrelevant
to everyone around here,” shouted one ill-wisher. “Nobody’s
listening to you. Nobody.” Despite those few war supporters,
we received an overwhelmingly positive response. Some pedestrians
said to us, “Thank you for taking time to do this.”



As
we walked, I spoke with people around me. One was Mark Boynton,
who is old enough to remember World War II. He grew up in the area
and used to come to the lake to fish for smelt. In the 1950s he
was a logger, cutting down redwoods in the vicinity of Garberville.
“Some of those redwoods were well over a thousand years old,”
Mark told me, “so large they had to be split in two to be hauled
by truck. There was a width limit. Those huge logs were called ‘pumpkins,’
and the splitting was done with dynamite.”  


This
was approximately the 75th time Mark had walked around the lake,
he told me, adding that the peace walk actually originated in 1991
when one person took up an antiwar banner and held a nightly vigil
by the lake. Others joined him and they turned it into a weekly
walk. At the end of that war the peace walk was discontinued until
1999 when the U.S. attacked Serbia. Members of the old group got
together again. Beth and Steve Wagner set up an email list. 


“For
the next couple of years we contacted people to go with us to various
anti-war events, especially in support of Palestine and against
the sanctions on Iraq,” Steve told me. “After the attack
on the World Trade Center, it was obvious that Bush would be dropping
bombs somewhere or other very soon. Due to all the jingoistic manipulation
of people’s genuine grief, we had some anxiety when we broke
out the signs and started the walks again in September 23, 2001
with banners calling for ‘Justice, Not Revenge.’ 


“The
response from the community was overwhelmingly positive from the
very beginning,” he said. “The attendance has ebbed and
flowed, but we’ve been out here every Sunday presenting a presence
for peace to the neighborhoods surrounding the lake.” 


Steve
Wagner was born in Albion, Washington, which is downwind from the
Hanford Atomic Works. “Albion was a wonderful place to be a
child,” Steve had testified to a government health effects
subcommittee. “Little did we know what living downwind from
Hanford was doing to our health.” One of his cousins died of
leukemia and another of a brain tumor. “My family often wondered
why Jerry and Karen died at such early ages and now we have a pretty
good idea why.” Steve has a thyroid disease for which he’ll
have to take medication the rest of his life. 


Other
lake walkers have also had poignant experiences of one sort or another,
which motivated them to become activists. There’s Ed, a retired
orchestra musician. As a teenager Ed spent nine months living with
relatives while studying music in Germany—that was in 1933,
the year Hitler came to power. He remembers that the Nazis began
forcing Jewish musicians out of the profession. “I was 14 at
the time and those months following the Nazi takeover radicalized
me,” he said. 


Cathy
Green was working on her master’s thesis in geography and she
talked about the lake. “Lake Merritt is a cultural and transit
hub, popular with joggers, walkers, and bicyclists,” Cathy
explained. 


“The
best thing about this peace march is that the people who see us
are probably the most diverse group in the Bay Area. We have immigrants
from all over the world—Latin America, even parts of Africa
like Ethiopia and Senegal. There’s a large Chinese population,
as well as many people from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia,
Vietnam, and Laos.





“Oakland
has a substantial African American component and the Fruitvale neighborhood
is a mix of Latino and Southeast Asian. The Islamic Cultural Center
is nearby; it was established by Iranian immigrants. You couldn’t
ask for a more mixed audience.” 


I
originally heard about LMNOP (Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for
Peace) from Jeff, a postal worker. Jeff had been attending since
the previous October. At first he’d felt really shy of participating
in a visible, on-stage activity, he told me. Eventually he’d
gotten used to it and found he got a positive feeling from it. “Taking
part in this makes me feel good about myself,” he said. “The
great response we get from people around here is a big part of it.” 


Many
of the group affirmed this feeling of being part of a good cause.
There was also a social aspect, meeting and talking with like-minded
people. Unlike most antiwar marches, there was no chanting; instead,
everyone chatted and exchanged the latest news. Many of the conversations
were about politics. Books, newspaper clippings, and audiotapes
were exchanged. Among the favorite authors were Howard Zinn and
Michael Parenti. Computer information was also shared; people helped
each other get on-line and learn to access the Internet. Friendships
formed. Even romances began at the peace walk. 


The
circuit of the lake took an hour and a half; it was about 4:30 PM
when we reached the Colonnade where we’d started out. 



T

he
second war against Iraq began on March 19, 2003 and there were many
demonstrations in the San Francisco area. Judging by the number
of people who participated, the antiwar movement seem- ed to have
massive support. Or did it? According to polls being published in
the corporate media, the war had suddenly become a popular cause.
Even here in the Bay Area over 60 percent supported the war, the
polls reported. So, on the following Sunday at Lake Merritt, I was
wondering what sort of response our peace walk would receive. In
recent weeks some 40 of us had been participating; that day there
were over 100. As for the response, the honking of autos went way
beyond anything I had experienced during previous Sundays. 


“The
polls report that 60 percent of the people in the Bay Area are pro-war,”
a woman near me remarked, “Doesn’t sound that way to me.”
At that moment somebody in a passing car yelled, “Fuck you.
Fuck all of you.” 


“There’s
the 60 percent,” someone remarked and everyone within hearing
chuckled. To be sure, if large numbers of people had been booing
us and shouting obscenities, it wouldn’t have been so funny.
But the few negative responses we got were so unrepresentative that
they struck us as amusing. What we were seeing for ourselves was
entirely different from what the media had been reporting. 


That
day was one of the high points of our peace walk at Lake Merritt.
It would’ve been great if that many people had been out there
every Sunday, but that’s not what happened. As the months went
by, our numbers slowly diminished. Our usual attendance of around
40 people went down to 30, then to about two dozen. Then suddenly
the war was over—or at least it seemed to be—and the corporate
invasion was on. Most of us expected Bush to start another war before
long, but, for the moment at least, there was the illusion of being
between wars. It’s hard to oppose a war that’s over and
perhaps we seemed a bit out of tune. 


On
the first Sunday in May, Beth Wagner announced that, due to ill
health, she’d no longer be able to continue. She had a degenerative
disease that made physical activity increasingly painful. During
the year and a half, she’d participated in more than 80 circuits
of the lake. So we felt this walk would be the last, at least till
the next war. But by the end of the walk we’d unanimously decided
that this was no time for us to quit. Bush and the neo-cons were
out there building an empire. Peace had to be a lot more than a
momentary absence of shooting. 


We
soon came up with new slogans that were more in sync with the current
between-the-wars era. “What price oil economy?” was one,
and, when the WMD hoax was eventually exposed, “Fire the Liar.”
Some of the “Honk for Peace” signs were replaced with
“Honk to Impeach.” Meanwhile, there were some old ones
that seemed appropriate, such as “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease.” 


Nevertheless,
our numbers continued to diminish. By August there were only a dozen
of us. Mark and Dorothy had been coming almost every Sunday, but
one day Dorothy broke her ankle. Then Mark got sick and was absent
for several weeks. Vern Krohn, the 87-year- old who’d brought
his huge Honk-for-Peace “contraption,” was often missing,
presumably because of health problems.  


Our
thinning ranks also seemed to reflect the condition of the antiwar
movement in general. There wasn’t much going on at this time,
in the late summer and fall of 2003. The second anniversary of our
weekly demonstration was in September and we considered it remarkable
that our activity had lasted this long. On a Sunday in late October
came the situation we’d been dreading—only three of us
showed up.






M

eanwhile,
the shooting war in Iraq was heating up again, a guerilla war this
time. A mass rally was held in San Francisco on Saturday, October
25 and some 10,000 people attended—not a large number in comparison
with the hundreds of thousands who’d attended the rallies in
January and February, but we could see that the antiwar movement
was still alive. 


The
following week six people showed up at the lake—fewer than
we’d hoped for, but we did our peace walk anyway. “We
need to keep the flame burning,” we told each other. But all
through the fall and winter there were many Sundays when there were
fewer than half a dozen of us. Still, it wasn’t all gloom and
doom. An encouraging sign was the enthusiastic acknowledgement we
continued to get from motorists and pedestrians along the lake.
“The response is still out there,” one of our group noted,
“We’re the ones who seem to be missing from this scene.” 


Eventually
Mark recovered from his illness and rejoined us. In a tiny group
like this, each person made a major difference and Mark’s reappearance
was a boost to morale. However, Dorothy didn’t return. Vern
Krohn went to stay with his son up north in Lake County and shortly
afterwards we received word that he’d died. We remembered him
for his perseverance. 


“I
think that Vern’s life should be a model for all of us,”
said Ken Knudsen. “Vern was always out there against the war,
no matter how old he got. I was often amazed that he could survive
going around the lake. By the end he was always so tired.” 


Jeff
remembered him for his stories. “He would talk to me in that
crusty voice and tell me about his experiences. He knew a lot about
history that I had only a vague familiarity with. The depression
and stuff before World War I.” 


Vern
Krohn had spent his life in political activism and that’s how
we remembered him. Barbara summed it up: “Bless his heart.
Sorry to see him go, but you know, that’s how I would want
to go—an activist right up to the end, out there with my signs
and banners.” 



A

utumn
2004 saw the third anniversary of the walk and we’re well into
our fourth year now. Several generations of ducks and geese have
grown up with us. We’ve grown too, from the friendships we’ve
formed, from the events we’ve experienced together, and from
our interactions with the motorists and pedestrians along the lake. 


Bob
Miller comes in his wheelchair, carrying a huge hand-sewn U.S. flag
with the stars arranged in the form of a peace sign. Pat Maginnis
continues to distribute her cartoons in leaflet form. Catherine
Jones brings her posters, some of which are displayed at galleries
of protest art. 


A
few people attend almost every week; a lot more of us come once
in a while. Our group seems to be increasing to around 15 at the
present time. While the huge rallies, varying from a few thousand
to as many as hundreds of thousands, have been the most important
events of the antiwar movement, such things can’t be done every
week. In contrast, this Lake Merritt peace walk is a low-key, long-term
activity which has become as much a part of the local scenery as
the ducks and geese. With a handful of participants, LMNOP is helping
to keep the antiwar movement visible here in Oakland. Although we
get very little coverage in the media, we are in a real sense our
own media, reaching out directly to the people around us. We believe
that our activity helps to set a political tone in the community. 


Bush’s
2004 election victory, which many of us suspect was stolen, was
a disappointment. But our numbers have increased since that election
and so has the enthusiastic response we’ve been getting from
motorists and pedestrians. As Mark Boynton put it, “So it’s
going to be four more years of walking around the lake.”



 





Daniel Borgstrom
is active in LMNOP. Photos from www. lmno4p.org.