Activists for peace persevere
CAPITAL REGION Sometimes Jack Jacknowitz loses track of the years that have passed since he started protesting in front of the post office in downtown Saratoga Springs.
Much has happened since the retired city man and Korean War veteran joined the vigil that started after hostilities broke out in Afghanistan. He’s protested through the two terms of President George W. Bush, the fall of the Taliban, the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the election of President Barack Obama and the American withdrawal from Iraq.
For nearly five years, his wife, Maki, joined him on the corner at noon every Saturday. But she died in 2007, and Jacknowitz continued, alone, carrying on the couple’s message of peace.
With a handful of others, Jacknowitz has been on the sidewalk just about every Saturday for more than a decade now. They are little older and admittedly fewer in number, but they carry the same message with the same vigor they did when the peaceful demonstration started in 2002.
“At this rate, it might be a decade more,” Jacknowitz said during one of the vigils earlier this month.
Many of the Capital Region’s peace activists bonded to form loose-knit organizations in wake of the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Groups such as the Saratoga Peace Alliance, the Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace and the Schenectady Neighbors for Peace were all born after the United States entered one war and started making preparations for another in the Middle East.
These groups organized peaceful demonstrations by various government buildings, area post office branches and on the steps of the state Capitol. Though they had some differences, their goal was clear: “The one thing we were always united in is our opposition to war,” Jacknowitz said.
The peace movement brought large crowds of demonstrators as war began in Iraq. The protests also spurred rival demonstrations — so-called patriot rallies — orchestrated by those who supported the conflicts.
In Saratoga Springs, city police were called at times to separate rival demonstrations occupying the same corner by the post office.
Joe Seeman, a peace activist from Ballston Spa, recalled several times when the demonstrations became shouting matches between the groups. “They’d try to start fights with us,” he said.
Today, only the peace demonstrations continue.
The group has braved weather of all types: rain, snow and wind. They’ve persevered through the summer’s heat and the sub-zero temperatures that follow.
“We’ve shoveled out our own place in the snowbanks,” said Dave LaCart, an Army veteran from Gansevoort who joins the group each week.
The gatherings are small now, with only the most devoted activists, many of them vestiges of the protest movement during the Vietnam era.
The weekly demonstration in Albany recently cut back to once a month. The change, group members said, was to draw bigger numbers by focusing their efforts.
Demonstrations in Saratoga Springs and Schenectady typically draw fewer than a dozen people. Likewise at the Four Corners intersection in Bethlehem, where Joe Lombardo protests every Monday with the Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace.
Lombardo says the smaller size of the demonstrations is not a measure of the discontent Americans feel toward the ongoing military actions overseas. Lombardo said many people find themselves more concerned with issues closer to home, such as home foreclosure, rising debt and the high cost of education.
“What is really going on among the U.S. population is the war is not the critical issue for people,” he said. “So the movement took a little bit of a different direction.”
That direction culminated in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which started with 100-plus demonstrators in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan and spread to hundreds of cities across the nation and world. Lombardo said the anti-war movement shared core beliefs with the Occupy movement but was also somewhat overshadowed.
“I think the anti-war issue is lost in a host of other issues,” he said.
The anti-war movement also doesn’t get nearly the attention it once did when people were taking to the streets in masses. Lombardo, who traveled to Pakistan with a delegation of activists last month to demonstrate about the ongoing use of drones by the United States, said he had to travel to another country to get any attention from the local and national media.
Still, Lombardo believes there’s an underlying support for peace that has grown throughout the nation. He believes the public’s level of political consciousness has grown over the past 10 years and it’s only a matter of time until an even greater movement flares up.
“There’s a lot of dry kindling out there, and it’s waiting for a spark,” he said.
Others see the peace movement resonating with a greater number of people even if they don’t take to the streets. Mabel Leon, an activist affiliated with Grannies for Peace and the Schenectady Neighbors for Peace, said the number of cars that honk in support of the peace message has multiplied exponentially since she took to the corner of Jay Street and Liberty Street near City Hall.
“While it may seem we are voices in the wilderness, I think we are voicing what many Americans think and just don’t act on,” she said. “That, for me, makes it even more important.”
Even with the diminished size of the protests, Leon sees them as a critical component to reminding people that the nation is still at war. She also regards her participation in demonstrations as a personal responsibility.
“It is only with increased involvement we can change things,” she said.
field of flags
The streetcorner vigils aren’t the only visible demonstrations that have endured the test of time. Caren Crootof’s memorial display that started in the Saratoga County hamlet of Middle Grove continues, even though it has evolved into something markedly different from its original incarnation.
Crootof and her family began planting small yellow flags in their highly visible field on Route 29 to represent each soldier killed in Iraq about a year after the first casualty reports started coming in. She was spurred into action after the Bush administration upheld a Pentagon policy of prohibiting news organizations from photographing the flag-draped coffins of the military’s war dead.
Crootof, who was against both wars but doesn’t identify her display as being part of the peace movement, said the flags were aimed at getting others to reflect on the cost of armed conflicts. She said the message seemed particularly fitting during a time when the military is all-volunteer and many citizens can escape the brutal reality of war.
“We as a nation never had a shared grief about the cost of this war,” she said. “That was the whole impetus behind the flags — to have a point of shared grief and shared remembrances.”
For nearly eight years, Crootof and her family watched U.S. casualty reports in Iraq and increased the number of flags planted in the field. They also updated a large banner posted prominently in the middle of the field showing the total number of troops who had died.
What started with nearly 900 flags multiplied tragically by the time the United States withdrew from Iraq last year. Then last spring, Crootof decided to change the display to a living memorial.
During Memorial Day, she hosted a gathering at the field where more than 100 people read off each name of a deceased soldier and then plucked one of the flags from the ground. For each flag removed, Crootof planted a daffodil bulb in its place.
One of her neighbors carved a wooden plaque to post in the field so those who visit understand what the flowers represent. Now she’s hoping the field that was once a macabre reminder of the bloodshed overseas becomes a place of rebirth and reflection for one month every spring.
“It’s my way of making people pause and think about what the decision to go to war has meant and the cost of the wars,” she said. “Our lives all go on, but for the people who lost someone in the wars, their lives are never the same.”