Winter soldiers’ vigil for peace
Committed band stands its ground 600 Saturdays
COBLESKILL Everyone who was outdoors Saturday was trying to get in. Drivers navigated snow-slick roads with great care, their car lights the only thing visible from a distance in the snowy haze. People walked into shops to run errands. If they ran into a friendly face outdoors, they didn’t stop for long to chat.
Cobleskill, like much of the Capital Region, was a snow globe on Saturday, and many residents went to great lengths to avoid the weather.
But at the corner of Main and Union streets in the village, in front of Harmony Acres Flowers, a handful of people carved out their usual spot as the clock struck 11 a.m.
Katherine Hawkins planted a “Veterans for Peace” flag into a snow bank. The snow’s not ideal, she thought, but at least it’s useful today. Her coat was zipped all the way up. Her hood fit snugly against a winter cap.
Wayne Stinson’s glasses were specked with snowflakes. He held a simple, white sign: “Stop the Pipeline,” it read, above the outline of a fist smashing a long pipe. A proposed natural gas pipeline through the county is a current issue there.
Ann Adams was holding a rainbow “PEACE” flag. The bright colored cloth whipped in the blustery winds, offering a rare speck of color against the white, winter landscape. It was also a sign to passing drivers. The Peacemakers are out again. It’s almost lunch time.
“When we’re here in bad weather, people go by and see how committed we are,” said Hawkins, who held up a “Peacemakers of Schoharie County” sign.
The group has met at the same corner for 600 consecutive Saturdays. They, along with many other loose-knit groups across the country, held their first vigil to protest war in October 2001 when America invaded Afghanistan. Many haven’t stopped.
The group has seen a lot over the years from their corner spot along the rural village’s Main Street — the comings and goings of the Saturday morning crowds, the vitriol of pro-war advocates, obscene gestures, curse words, hollers out car windows from supporters, beeps of slowing drivers and the curiosity of passersby.
“There have been fingers thrown and a lot of swear words,” said Hawkins, 62, of Fulton. “I mean, we have women and pastors who come out, the elderly — people tell us to go get jobs. They tell us they support us, but 'go home,’ which kind of gives us the right to be here and then takes it away.”
About two years ago, a young woman at SUNY Cobleskill with “all sorts of enthusiasm” approached the group and asked how she could get involved, maybe include the college in getting the word out against war and social injustice.
“And then one day, somebody went by and faked a gun at her,” recalled Hawkins, as she gestured pulling an invisible trigger on an invisible gun. “She never showed up again.”
Negative encounters are fewer and further between for the group with each passing year. At the start of the vigils, pro-war sentiment was palpable as the nation turned from mourning to anger in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A group of Schoharie County activists from the Vietnam era had been meeting regularly for casual conversation in the Community Library, just a block from where they would eventually gather in protest of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We were fearful of what the country would do in response to 9/11,” said Hawkins. “And we did exactly what we feared.”
The Peacemakers decided to hold a weekly vigil until the wars stopped. Over the last decade, their mission began to encompass all kinds of social issues. They’re against war, torture, the use of drones and the killing of innocent civilians. But they also speak out against the wealth disparity currently evident in the nation. They protest corporate personhood and the oil, gas and coal industries. Global warming is a dire situation that needs to be addressed now, they say.
The issues are many. Ask them today when they’ll stop meeting at their corner and they’ll offer you a sad, tired smile.
“There’s no dearth of issues to be talking about,” said Wayne Stinson, recalling his impetus to join the Saturday morning vigils. “I had to say something. I had to do something.”
The 72-year-old Summit man grew up on Long Island. When he was in his late 20s, he brought his two children to stand with him in a protest line outside the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant in East Shoreham. As a result of public opposition, the plant never operated and was eventually decommissioned.
“I saw it as a threat and an idiocy that should not be allowed,” said Stinson. “And we were successful.”
Stinson is happy, even if all he accomplishes by standing on the corner with a sign is registering a flickering thought in a passerby’s mind: “Oh yeah, we’re still at war.”
He likes when people stop to ask questions, like the time a group of elderly women pulled their car over to talk about Social Security cuts or the time a group of young college women pulled over to stand with the group for 20 minutes.
Sometimes he gets a bag of cookies from local residents who have become familiar with the group over the years. Sometimes he’ll get a thumbs-up or a wave. Other times someone will shout, “God bless the USA.”
On any given Saturday, there are anywhere from three Peacemakers to two dozen standing at the corner. On this wintry Saturday, there are four, red-nosed, waving and smiling to pedestrians as if it were a breezy summer day.
A man bundled in layers of warm clothing plodded over to the huddle, taking careful steps onto the slippery sidewalk.
“Hi Richard, how are you?” said Ann Adams.
It’s about a half hour into the vigil, and the gathering had so far been the recipient of continuous beeps (of solidarity) and one angry shout.
“We didn’t think you’d make it,” exclaimed Mary Lou Garrett, who explained later that her father had been an activist for years, getting her into the environment.
Adams and Garrett were both inspired to attend the vigils by John “Jack” Daniels, a peace activist in Schoharie County and the Capital Region for decades.
Daniels was a mainstay of the group since 1984. He retired early from a job in state government to work full time toward world peace and racial equality. He died this summer at age 96.
“Oh, he used to be very good,” recalled Garrett, 60, of Cobleskill. “He could make anybody smile. He’s always been a peace activist and he has just been an inspiration for all of us.”
Outside of their Saturday vigils, the Peacemakers work to address social injustices through community forums, lobbying the county’s Board of Supervisors, and sometimes writing letters to the editor for the local newspaper.
They don’t have to try very hard to find a new issue to speak out against. Earlier Saturday morning, Hawkins read a photo caption in the New York Times that renewed her anti-war beliefs.
“It reported there are 1.6 million homeless children in the country,” she said. “Now there’s a reason, if any, to stop the wars. Three trillion dollars is spent on wars and on the military and we’ve got 1.6 million homeless children? Something is wrong.”