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Unlikely Saga of Great Peace March Nears Its Climax

November 09, 1986|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

The vision: That on March 1, 1986, 5,000 people would set out from Los Angeles for Washington, walking across the country for global nuclear disarmament. They would reach some 65 million Americans along the way, creating in them--and in the country and the world that watched--the moral and political climate necessary to bring about their goal.

Corporate donors and sophisticated merchandising would help finance the $20-million high-tech venture. Thousands would line the streets to welcome the marchers along the route and thousands more would visit the movable, solar-powered, mural-festooned, environment-friendly model community, Peace City. And, out there in m.o.n.--the middle of nowhere--the townsfolk of America would be educated about the arms race by marchers and visiting experts, and be entertained by celebrities ranging from Hollywood's Establishment to its Brat Pack.

One hundred thousand would cheer their send - off at a rock concert at the L.A. Coliseum. One million would join them on the outskirts of Washington on Nov. 14, and march into the capital with them at sunrise. Then, having compiled a computerized list of 10 million names gathered across the country, the sponsoring organization, PROPeace (People Reaching Out for Peace), would be ready to call for massive civil disobedience, and to take the march overseas, if those drastic steps seemed necessary--in the words of PROPeace founder David Mixner--"to bring those suckers down."

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The reality: It was something else.

Try a vision like that in the America of the mid-'80s and this is what you get:

Money and people not forthcoming, about 1,200 marchers left Los Angeles from the steps of City Hall March 1, cheered on by about 6,000 well-wishers--the largest crowd the marchers have drawn to date. Two weeks later, PROPeace went bust in Barstow. Done in by grand dreams and a pile of debts, it was forced to pull out, leaving the marchers stranded on the edge of the Mojave, their numbers and supplies dwindling daily.

About 500 marchers regrouped as the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament. From their base in an auto graveyard in Barstow, they scrounged for money and supplies. Two weeks later, they took off across the Mojave desert for Las Vegas. Against all odds they made it across the country and will march into Washington on Saturday, on schedule.

About 400 have stuck it out the whole way. In the past two months, as they have passed through the populous Northeast, their ranks have grown steadily to an estimated 1,000.

Undersupplied and broke every step of the way, in the nation's peripheral vision at best, forgotten by all but a few of Hollywood's stars, depending on strangers for showers, and sometimes for meals and beds, disorganized and undisciplined--this is the march that has made it across the country.

"It is the closest thing to anarchy that works," one marcher, Mordecai Roth, 66, a dentist from the San Fernando Valley, said of the march early on. It seems to have succeeded almost in spite of itself.

Doubtless no wagon train heading west ever looked less fit for the trip than the conglomeration of whimsically painted vans, trucks and old heaps that form the march's supply convoy. The march itself is no lock-step operation led by oompah bands. Most of the time it's barely a line at all, just a cluster of rugged individuals with flags, followed by stragglers stretched out for miles. The randomly pitched tents of Peace City bear little resemblance to the impressive color-coordinated mock-up plotted to the last meticulous detail in the days of the vision.

The march lost its middle-class image early on. And while the majority are dedicated people who really did take leaves of absence from schools and jobs, or were middle-class people in transition, ready for a change or retired, there are significant numbers of unkempt, strung-out, at times immodestly dressed, people from the fringes of society and beyond.

Their common and lofty goal has not united them. The most disciplined and unified among them are acknowledged, with appropriate irony, to be those young cultural anarchists who pitch their tents together around a black flag and call the spot Anarchy Village.

Ask who's in charge and watch them laugh. The marchers have bucked attempts at authority and insisted on consensus for decision making in tortuous meetings that go on for days in uncomfortable surroundings.

In the process they have turned the focus of this march with a global goal inward to a degree that many have found disconcerting. As late as Pennsylvania, in the march's final weeks, it was still possible to find those who, sounding greatly encouraged, would say, "You know, we're finally beginning to learn how to live together here."

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