C’mon, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.
—“Get Together,” The Youngbloods, 1969
It’s Saturday afternoon at the Green House in Royal Oak, where one faction of the metro area’s peace movement is purposely wading against the tide of public opinion.
About 15 people sit on office chairs facing a podium. There is a television and VCR off to one side. A video camera is set up to record speakers, who show up weekly to discuss topics ranging from the Enron scandal to a boycott of Taco Bell because of the alleged mistreatment of laborers supplying food to the company.
Since Sept. 11, much of the focus at this meeting place for Green Party members and their fellow travelers has been on how the United States is responding to terrorist attacks against this country. Most of the nation has applauded our show of military force in Afghanistan, giving President Bush a 90 percent approval rating for his handling of a war designed to root out the “evildoers” believed to be behind the suicide assaults in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
But the folks at this gathering aren’t cheering.
“There are a lot of people who subscribe to W.’s view that you’re either terrorists or you’re with us,” says Rudy Simons. “We simply believe that there is another opinion to be heard. I think it’s good for people to be skeptical. Skepticism doesn’t equal a lack of patriotism.”
At 73, Simons is a sort of elder statesman among Detroit activists. A co-founder of Stone and Simons, Inc., he left the successful advertising firm in 1965 to devote himself to human-rights causes. But the people at this meeting aren’t just veterans of the ’60s anti-war movement. Unlike that era, which was dominated by images of long-haired, dope-smoking flower children wearing love beads and sandals, the peace advocates now uniting form a multigenerational front.
“The peace movement of the ’60s was a very old-vs.-young thing,” says Tom Ness, a local Green Party leader. “We’re not seeing that separatism as much in the new movement.”
Compared to recent history, we are at a unique juncture. During World War II and the subsequent conflict in Korea, there was no peace movement of great consequence. Here in the United States, the almost universal opinion was that we were fighting the good fight, first against fascism, then communism.
Vietnam was much different. As the war dragged on and the body bags mounted, a youth-led peace movement poured into the streets and forced change. A significant number of those who came of age then embraced opposition to war as a bedrock political philosophy. Now that those young protesters have become gray-haired grandmothers and grandfathers, they are willing to link arms with a new generation of dissidents in a way not often seen 30 or 40 years ago.
“In the ’60s we had that definite feel of ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30!’ and the older ones were seen as being like Ozzie and Harriet and as being wrong or screwed-up,” said Mike Whitty, 60, a business professor at University of Detroit Mercy and a longtime progressive activist. “But now, we’ve got the benefits of the elders, people who are in their 60s like myself who are totally with the young people. It’s not a generational war, it’s an intergenerational sensibility that people of all ages share.”
That new face is reflected at the Green House gathering. There is Mary Cronk of Oak Park, a 76-year-old grandmother. Sitting alongside is Dawn Nelson, 27, of Brighton, who brought her 13-month-old son.
What binds them is not age, but a shared philosophy that the United States is pursuing a path that will only lead to more death and destruction. They believe there’s a better way.
“We could have followed the examples of Italy, France, Germany and Japan,” says Simons. “When they were victims of crimes of terror, they chose to pursue the perpetrators as criminals, using intelligence services and the police to track them down. In our current situation, there should also be a twofold reaction occurring: Examine our own policies and then react in a way that doesn’t kill innocents.”
But theirs is a voice that has largely been silenced, lost amid the prevailing jingoism.
It’s a tough time to be a peace activist in America. To many people, the very idea of even considering other solutions seems almost an unpatriotic throwing of water onto W.’s fiery linguistic blaze.
Ness, a former Green Party congressional candidate, has seen firsthand what it’s like to advocate a position that runs counter to the Bush doctrine. With his lengthy locks and barefooted bravado, Ness may seem like the stereotypical hippie. Yet he is familiar with the struggles of practical reality. A businessman who publishes the local music magazine Jam Rag, Ness got kicked in his campaign trail khakis in the 2000 election, garnering only about 2 percent of the vote. The road he’s walking now is equally rough.
“People saw the attacks on the World Trade Center as an attack on us, whereas the during the Vietnam War, it was a lot easier to sell peace.” Ness says.
That attitude is reinforced by many of the reactions he’s been encountering. “Just a couple of hours ago, I was walking through the neighborhood just putting copies of the magazine [The Green House News] on doors and when I got back, the first message on the machine was ‘You Green Party people, don’t you ever bring this crap to my house again. This is vandalism, this is littering, this is trespassing. …’ And it’s not! It’s totally legal,” says Ness. “The problem is that people want to believe that this war will end terrorism, so they don’t want to consider other solutions to the contrary.”
Ness sees support for a prolonged military response beginning to erode, if only slightly.
Bush “is looking for a permanent war and I don’t think you can sell it to the American people forever. This is why I think that pacifism is ultimately going to be the only viable answer. You don’t have to be a big nation or a superpower to attack someone anymore. You can be an individual with anthrax or a handful of people who hijack a plane. We have to learn to see things the way that other people see them or we’re just going to have a world of trouble.”
And what does he think about those who would label him as un-American for voicing such opinions?
“I feel I’m as patriotic as anyone in this country,” says Ness. “I spend a great deal of my time on this planet on civic responsibilities of one kind or another. And people may not agree with my opinions, but at least I’m not sitting home watching a football game. I’m trying to make this world a better place and I don’t think that makes me unpatriotic.”
For her part, Nelson, who helped plan a recent peace rally held at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit, urges Americans to look at the long-term picture being painted by Bush. The fight we’ve entered will not be the sort of intense, short-duration effort seen in the Gulf War conducted by the president’s father. This time the fighting’s not going to be over in a matter of months.
“When the government says that this war may last for years, that’s very personal,” says Nelson. “It affects not only our lives but the lives and futures of our children.”
Setting the stage
Tom Logan, director of the Rising Stars, a division of Bloomfield Youth Theatre, sees the effect this current conflict is having on children.
“The kids in the group do express an added sense of anxiety, a sense of feeling less secure than they did before,” says Logan, who’s working on a production of the play Groovy, a musical tribute to the peace movement of the 1960s. “But doing plays like this one is also something of a history lesson for the kids. We had the kids bring in artifacts from the ’60s to learn some of the history behind the peace movement and the kids definitely connected the experiences of the ’60s to what’s going on right now. We told them they could bring in any artifact they wanted, except their parents!”
Chris Hanson, 14, an actor with Rising Stars, says his knowledge of the peace movement comes from his parents, school and his involvement with the theater group. “Yeah, I learned a lot of it from my dad, who was really the non-hippie of the time,” says Hanson. “But I also learned about it in school.”
Since Hanson plays Sheriff Withers in the show, an anti-hippie cop, he had to examine both sides of the issue. “You could see where people were frustrated, you know?” said Hanson. “People were on such opposite sides of such a major issue that was going to affect so many people.”
And although the Rising Stars’ production of Groovy was planned before Sept. 11, Logan notes the new poignancy it has gained.
The cast, shadowed in darkness, enters through the audience at the start of the show, dressed in hippie garb, singing a rather ethereal version of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” And through such psychedelically hopeful musical numbers as “Anything is Possible” and “Give Peace a Chance,” the show makes the statement that peace is both positive and possible. Given the ages of the cast, Logan says “They really related to the slogan ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’!”
Among the under-30 crowd in the new peace movement is Charles Jamieson, who, at 28, is well-traveled and has studied political science at Michigan State University. Involved in environmental issues since childhood, Jamieson became particularly focused on politics during the 2000 election. “I just kind of believed at the time that all parties should be on the ballot, that people shouldn’t have to petition to get them on the ballot, so I was working on that. And then during the meetings, I started learning more about what’s going on in the world in general,” says Jamieson.
Just an infant when the Vietnam War ended, Jamieson’s worldview started taking shape during the Reagan era.
“My knowledge of the peace movement has been much more through my own lifetime with the Cold War, Reagan, Bush, the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I don’t know a lot about the ’60s. I do think that the ’60s were the second greatest American revolution, the greatest movement event in American freedom that we’ve had since the first revolution. But I get the impression that people didn’t take them seriously because they did seem like a bunch of hippies. It was like they were just out trying to have fun and party,” says Jamieson, whose close-cropped blond hair and trimmed goatee make him seem as far from hippiedom as Bush himself.
“I mean, they were concerned about the issues. But maybe their message was that they were trying to live the idea of what freedom should be, that of nonconformity, and I respect that. But at the same time, people didn’t take them seriously. They called them tree-huggers, hippies, lunatics and things like that. While I believe that image is nothing and action is everything, to most people, image is still really important, especially on first impression. And when they saw the hippies, they saw people who were lazy or out of work with no responsibilities. And that image clouded the fact that they were really standing up for important issues and important freedoms.”
Now the predominant image is that of a bloodless war.
“It’s not just sheltered, it’s distorted. I mean, it’s ridiculous! Whenever W. makes an appearance on CNN or wherever, they’ve got drumrolls going on, you know, like it’s a movie! I mean, it’s a joke. It’s hard to believe that people don’t pick up on such an obvious statement that it’s all about the show and not about the substance.”
There is little doubt that the powers that be learned a lesson in Vietnam. Reporters these days are kept far from the front lines. Instead of TV shots of villages being napalmed, we’re fed a steady visual diet of Pentagon briefings and sanitized, video game-like footage of “smart” bombs hitting with pinpoint accuracy.
“I know that the Vietnam War was a much more visual event for our country. It was really graphic, really hard news and I think that that made our country much more aware of the situation and much more outraged,” says Jamieson. “People saw the war and the violence on a daily basis, and the sense of urgency was much greater as a result. And the younger generation, which sort of formed the hippie movement, was especially outraged because it was their age group that was being sent off to fight the battle. But with media coverage being so limited in this current war situation, it’s like a two-minute blip on a television screen. It’s almost like we’re not really involved in this at all. And I think that creates a sense of detachment and denial. “People just aren’t getting fired up the way they did in the ’60s, but they should be. This is still about the future of our own personal sense of peace as well as the future of our nation and the world.”
Jamieson’s generation has a tool unavailable to his predecessors — the power of the Internet. Images of the war itself may be more restricted, but the flow of ideas is more unfettered than ever.
“People probably still see the peace movement from that whole hippie perspective, but that’s a big error. The new peace movement is about information, about knowing things, which is where the Internet plays a big role. We can get real news out to so many people.”Tracy Minnis is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]