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War Vigils Evolve, Continue

November 10, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Each Friday as daylight begins to dim over Glendale, a lone woman pushes an odd contraption up the sidewalk of Brand Boulevard toward the intersection of Broadway.

From a distance, it looks like a small, wheeled frigate with numerous sails sticking out at many angles. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a long pushcart laden with folded chairs and a folded table, its "sails" battered picket signs demanding, "U.S. Out of Iraq," "Support Our Troops -- Bring Them Home," "Healthcare Not Warfare," and the like.

The pusher of the cart, 56-year-old retired elementary school teacher Nancy Kent, has been coming to Brand and Broadway every Friday evening for 14 months to register her opposition to the U.S. policy on Iraq. She and 74-year-old Julianne Spillman, a retired Ford production worker, first took to the street corner on Sept. 20, 2002.

That was the founding of the Glendale peace vigil, one of an estimated 40 such weekly affairs that have persevered in the Los Angeles region despite having failed to prevent the war or, so far, return the troops or capture the attention of the mass media.

"We can't afford to lose hope," Kent said, as she set the unfolded table with informational fliers.

Active weekly street corner vigils continue in widespread communities such as Santa Barbara, Mar Vista, San Pedro, West Covina and Palm Springs. Like the lighted candles they sometimes employ, the vigils have flared and flickered in the shifting winds of public sentiment.

Hard to Number

As in the rest of the country, the protests were almost exclusively spontaneous and neighborhood-based, making them difficult to quantify. But last summer a loose affiliation of local activists, called the Congress of Vigils, assembled a list of 135 then-active vigils in the region.

The vastness of Southern California, the fragmented nature of social life here and the dependence on automobile travel made the region a natural breeding ground for neighborhood demonstrations.

"It's grass-roots and really appropriate for the character of such a dispersed city," said Chris Venn, coordinator of the weekly Friday vigil at First and Gaffey streets in San Pedro. "If we tried to go to Westwood for a 5 o'clock demonstration, it would take us 2 1/2 hours to get there. Instead, people drive 10 minutes, and they're at the vigil, and I find that that's true across the city."

Sarah Jacobus, a writing teacher at Culver City High School and an activist in a vigil at Palms Boulevard and McLaughlin Avenue in Mar Vista, said the grass-roots nature of the vigils has given them the flavor of "neighbor-to-neighbor participatory democracy."

The numbers of vigils and participants peaked in the months shortly before and after the war began March 19. As the war unfolded with American military successes, participation fell off. Some vigils ceased altogether and others combined. "There was some sense of dejection and despair," said Lisa Lubow, a member of the Congress of Vigils steering committee. "They felt they had contributed to the deaths of Americans and Iraqi people because they hadn't stopped it."

The vigil at Ventura and Laurel Canyon boulevards in Studio City "hit 100 vigilers every Friday night for a period of months beginning in January," said Steve Fine, a fiction writer who is the coordinator of the vigil there. "We started falling off in April and that continued through the summer, although we never went away. At one time we were down to just a few people."

On a recent Friday evening, the Glendale vigil drew 35 participants at its peak shortly before 7 p.m. Demonstrators stood on the corner, or mixed with other pedestrians and marched with their picket signs across the streets in time with the traffic signals. Increasingly, their picket signs, and those found elsewhere, carry messages about domestic issues -- the redirection of public funds from social services to the military, the effect on civil liberties of the Patriot Act, the suitability of President Bush for reelection.

Stretches of silence are relatively few. Much of the time, prolonged bleating of automobile horns in response to the demonstration drowns out conversation at the intersection. The spikes in public response appear to be driven by Iraq-related news developments. Fine said that when the Studio City vigil began in October 2002, about half of the motorists who responded did so supportively. As the war in Iraq drew nearer, support among those who responded was overwhelming. "Then, when the Saddam statue was pulled down, it shifted, and the attitude toward us was, 'Why are you still out here?' "

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