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In a Time of Rallies, Some Protest in Subtler Ways

People not wishing to attend marches that could become confrontational attend 'peace poetry' readings, stand solo with placards.

March 28, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

As ribbons of sunlight streamed into the nave of St. Monica's Catholic Church, dozens of parishioners bowed their heads in prayer and a Vietnamese American priest delivered a rousing antiwar homily.

"From time immemorial," Father Ben Le told worshipers at the Santa Monica church, "people have used violence to solve conflicts. As Christians, we are called upon by the teachings of Christ to resolve problems peacefully."

Le knows something about war. He spent his boyhood near Vietnam's demilitarized zone, where his father, a South Vietnamese soldier, died alongside U.S. troops while fighting Communist forces.

After the service, parishioner Paul Hansen, 27, hurried over to thank Le, saying he was so upset about the U.S. war against Iraq that had the priest not addressed it, Hansen would have taken the unorthodox step of standing up in church and speaking aloud.

"According to the information we have received, this war is not justified. Innocent people suffer because of war," Le said, adding that he decided extemporaneously to deliver the peace message.

These are some of the personal acts being taken by dissenters who, led only by their consciences, have chosen to express nuanced misgivings that may not fit into the more confrontational context of marches and rallies.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert H. Berdahl sought out reporters to voice his concerns when hostilities began, saying the war represents a radical shift in American foreign policy and could signal U.S. intentions to control political developments in the region, using Iraq as a base.

Elsewhere, protesters have stood at street corners alone. At the State Department, three diplomats resigned. A teacher in New Jersey quit a private school rather than remove an antiwar button.

Many people, not caring to attend marches that could erupt into confrontations with police, are attending "peace poetry" readings and art shows or -- if they are prominent -- simply going public.

"In the past few days, I've heard from a lot of people who want to do something, but they don't necessarily want to be marching," said Francisco Letelier, a Venice artist whose father, former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, became a martyr of his country's pro-democracy movement when he was assassinated in a 1976 car bombing in Washington by killers with ties to Chile's military government.

"Some people kind of feel that they have something to give to the antiwar effort, and whatever they have to give isn't best expressed when they're marching on the streets," he said.

The rapid appearance of grass-roots acts of conscience represents a shift from the Vietnam era, when it took years for strong public questioning of the war to move outside universities and the youthful counterculture. "You get the feeling that this is contagious," said Tom Hayden, a dean of antiwar leaders during Vietnam and again today. "You don't have to receive marching orders from an authority figure.

"What they're really feeling is that, for the first time or second time in their lives, they're part of history," Hayden said. "That's a very empowering feeling. And it encourages more of the same."

It also means that the number of marchers at protest rallies does not accurately convey the strength and diversity of antiwar sentiment, which has not polarized the country the way it did during Vietnam. Then, the My Lai massacre and other abuses caused protesters to demonize soldiers as "baby-killers."

Today, opponents of the war commonly express concern for U.S. soldiers.

"I'm praying for everyone," said Santa Monica resident Ethel Steen, 92, who was once married to a World War II veteran. She goes to St. Monica's regularly to pray for peace.

"At 92 you're entitled to your opinions," she said. "I hate to see wars. People fighting all over the world -- what's it all about?"

Kayren Pace, a Venice massage therapist, stopped going to protest marches when the war began, not wanting to take her toddler, Salvador, "because of the police presence and the confrontations with protesters.... We are trying to find some way to continue to get together in a nonaggressive way."

One step in that direction was Pace's involvement in an art exhibition at the Merging One Gallery in Santa Monica. On Saturday, a crowd of 300 came to look at photographs of 55 women -- Pace among them -- who used their nude bodies to make a sculpture for peace in Topanga Canyon.

"We were trying to heal the boundaries between women that society and war put between us, and to pray in a strong way for peace," Pace said.

Chancellor Berdahl said he decided to voice his concerns about the war because he believed Americans should engage in a more active dialogue.

"There's been virtually no engaged public debate ... despite this very dramatic shift in the direction of American foreign policy," he said.

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