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Marchers Prepare to Start Long Walk for Peace : Despite Delays, Problems and Changes, Symbolic Journey Begins Saturday

February 28, 1986|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

"We've been camped out here for two weeks. So far we've had 30 m.p.h. winds, frost on the tents one morning, my sprained ankle and now the deluge. I fully expect locusts before we leave on March 1."

It was the weekend of the great rainfall of mid-February when David Mixner, founder and director of PROPeace and leader of its Great Peace March across America, uttered his lamentations, still on crutches from his inglorious exit from a portable toilet at the White Oak Recreation Area in the San Fernando Valley.

"I stepped down wrong," he said of his fall, chuckling philosophically about injuries anticipated on the nine-month march, "It's going to happen. I may as well be the first to set the example."

Problems Abound

The locusts never did hit. But locusts are about the only problem that has not plagued PROPeace in the final weeks of preparation.

A fierce Mother Nature. A seemingly chronic financial crisis. Equipment delays. Obstacles to liability insurance. Lack of permits. Culture shock for new marchers. Expectations not realized. Canceled grand plans. Stress, burnout and dissension among staff. Rumors about all of the above within PROPeace, and in Los Angeles's sizable and diverse peace movement, and beyond.

They begin their journey Saturday, setting out about 1,400 strong at last estimation--far short of the year-long plans for 5,000 marchers. Their send-off will be a 1-to-4 p.m. free rock concert at City Hall, not the hoped-for Olympian-scaled ceremony before a 100,000-capacity crowd at the Coliseum.

The logistics of the march remain basically the same: At 4 p.m., the marchers will set out from City Hall, walking to Cal State L.A. where they will camp for the first of 255 nights on the road. They will walk a distance of 3,235 miles at an average of 15 miles a day, six days a week, through 15 states, arriving in Washington on Nov. 15.

And the overall goal is the same: global nuclear disarmament. As Mixner voiced it one day at White Oak, by their efforts and contact with fellow citizens across the country, the marchers hope "to create a climate where we make it impossible for leaders of the world to do anything but start taking down these missiles."

And to that end, he is fond of saying, they will do whatever it takes: "If it requires change, we chaNge. One key to all of this is our flexibility. It's one of the great strengths of PROPeace. We're determined to succeed, no matter what."

The changes in Saturday's opening ceremonies are signs of a healthy organization to Mixner and others. But they also are viewed by many as glaring indicators of flaws in the organization and trouble ahead. The grandiosity of the plan, and the grand dreams of the man who thought it up, are at once cited as the reason why the march will succeed--in growing to 5,000 participants by Denver, in reaching Washington and creating that climate that will lead to disarmament--and a sign it will fall apart before it ever reaches Barstow.

It falls short of being a consensus, but for all the misgivings, fears and blame placing, an attitude seems to be developing that the changes PROPeace has had to make, and the difficulties that people are experiencing, just may be the best thing that could happen to the group.

One source close to the march for more than a year, who has grown steadily disaffected with it, did not wish to speak for attribution but predicted three possible outcomes: It would disintegrate fast, it would fumble its way to Washington only to have it not matter at all, or it would be taken over by the marchers who would depose the leadership and make it their own, a true grass-roots movement, gathering momentum as it moves across the country.

There is no telling about the first two predictions, but the latter seems to be in process, except that there has been no palace revolt. Rumblings, grueling confrontational staff meetings and a few resignations and departures, but no coup.

Any early traces of a smooth operation somewhere between a well-financed presidential campaign and a media-hyped Hollywood-packaged event are fast disappearing. In its place is the event that the marchers themselves have been shaping. As organizer Mixner put it, looking pleased rather than threatened, "The Great Peace March has become the marchers. It's theirs now."

While the numbers may be disappointing, it is beginning to have the look of the "genuine article"--a grass-roots organization on the move and growing, where the bonding that is going on among the participants is palpable and where the attitude is an unwavering, almost formidable, "We're going."

Conceived of by Mixner in late 1984, and announced last April, PROPeace (People Reaching Out for Peace) operated out of offices on Beverly Boulevard in West Los Angeles (where its headquarters remain) as an amazing, fast-growing computerized machine organized with advance, legal, field, communications, merchandising, fund-raising and march divisions.

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