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Ventura County

War Talk Brings Call for Peace

Ventura doctor gathers activists who provide a meeting place and a friendly ear for those who oppose nuclear arms and invading Iraq.

October 21, 2002|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Robert Dodge stood at the end of his Ventura driveway one morning in March, looking in disbelief at a newspaper headline:

"U.S. Works Up Plan for Using Nuclear Arms."

It was the latest in a string of headlines that had left the Ventura physician depressed about the violent direction the world seemed to be heading since Sept. 11.

And for him, it was the last straw.

Starting with a neighbor who was outside reading the same headline, Dodge began recruiting members for a group he would call Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions.

The first meeting consisted of a handful of people sitting around a kitchen counter. But since then, the group's messages have struck a chord with doctors, teachers, scientists and others in Ventura and throughout the county.

In six months, the group's e-mail list has grown to more than 300, and its meetings, held from 3 to 5 p.m. the first Sunday of every month, typically draw more than 100 people.

"So many people are afraid of speaking up because they will be labeled unpatriotic and un-American," Dodge said. "I wanted to give people permission to talk about these issues."

That role becomes increasingly vital, said Debbie Golden, a Ventura school board trustee and citizens group member, after Congress recently granted President Bush broad powers to declare war on Iraq -- unilaterally, if necessary.

"It's so important to just get together and ask questions right now," said Golden, who has been active in politics since her teens. "Why would we want to attack Iraq right now? Isn't there a better way to take care of Saddam Hussein? Why aren't we working toward eliminating nuclear arms instead of escalating weapons of mass destruction?"

Recent public-opinion polls show that a majority of Americans support an overthrow of Saddam Hussein, even if it means a first-strike invasion.

Living in Ventura County, so far from where such decisions are made, it is hard to stay hopeful, Golden said. Belonging to the peace group helps, if only because it makes her realize that she is not alone.

"I truly believe that grass-roots groups can make a difference -- that one person can make a difference. I couldn't live without hope for a universe that's more peaceful," she said.

Last month, in a meeting room at E.P. Foster Library in downtown Ventura, Dodge stood before about 60 people as they brainstormed ways to get their anti-war message out: Call the White House. Call your congressman. Ask your kids' teachers to make extra-credit assignments related to war debates and rallies.

Sign up at Toastmasters, a woman suggested: "They'll let you talk about anything."

Dodge, who talks more rapidly as he warms to a subject, told about an unannounced, "pre-emptive visit" he and others in the group recently had made to Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara).

"We weren't going over there to confront her," he said. "We just wanted her to know that part of her constituency has this opinion."

He said Capps had received half a dozen letters from her constituents supporting a prospective war in Iraq and hundreds opposing it. Though she stood on the fence for weeks, when the House of Representatives voted on Bush's war resolution, she was among 133 members to vote against it.

Still, the resolution passed with 296 votes in the House, and with 77 votes in the Senate.

"You realize there are baby steps along the way," Dodge said. "You have to look for small things."

While much of Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions' energy now is focused on protesting a war in Iraq, organizers said they also want the group to last beyond any immediate conflict.

To that end, the group has hosted several events in addition to regular monthly meetings, including a speaker from Peaceful Tomorrows -- an anti-war group started by families of Sept. 11 victims -- and a candlelight vigil to mark the bombing of Hiroshima.

Last month, the group took part in a community summit on the Earth Charter, an international movement calling for development of a peaceful, equitable and sustainable future.

"We may not be able to influence what goes on in Washington, but we can influence what goes on in Ventura County," said Paul Belgum, a teacher at Pacifica Continuation High School in Ventura. "In that way, we can have an effect right where we live."

Dodge, 50, started out as an activist in the 1970s and '80s against the nuclear arms race and the Cold War. He believes there are large numbers of people from his generation who are starting to politically reactivate.

"My hope is that we're waking up," he said. "I have to feel like I have done everything I can to try to change something. Then I can sleep at night."

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Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.

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