One Small Step

One story the press overlooked last year is that peace got a chance

Peace in many different languages. Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt Pink Sherbet Photography/Getty

The ragtag army was jubilant as it marched down Route 1 in Maryland on the cold November morning. In the ranks, young girls with rosy cheeks and windblown hair laughed with delight. Little old ladies were bundled in down parkas, and lean, athletic men and women with the bronzed, glowing faces of people who have long been out-of-doors grinned and cheered. Buddhist monks in saffron robes played drums and bells. A man dressed as the "peace clown" waved at the bored car salesmen who had gathered behind showroom windows to watch the spectacle and read the gaudy banners that advocated peace and nuclear disarmament – issues seldom discussed by suburban auto dealers. A few of the salesmen waved back tentatively. They too couldn't help smiling.

As the marchers proceeded down Queens Chapel Road, they could just make out the tip of the Washington Monument over a distant hill. At the University Park Elementary School, a class of second graders came running out to greet them, clapping hands and hugging. The kids had prepared posters for the marchers that read WE WANT PEACE and LET IT HAPPEN.

At noon, the procession stopped at the park that divides Maryland from the District of Columbia. This was the last border to cross – the triumphant step that four hundred of them had dreamed of taking for the last eight and a half months. Their ranks now swollen to more than a thousand, the marchers joined hands and spread out in a long line. Led by a bullhorn from a flatbed truck, they counted down all the borders they had crossed: "California! Nevada! Arizona! Utah! Colorado! Nebraska! Iowa! Illinois! Indiana! Ohio! Pennsylvania! New Jersey! New York! New Jersey! Pennsylvania! Delaware! Maryland!... The District of Columbia!" Then, with a triumphant shout, the Great Peace March stepped into the nation's capital.

As the cheering subsided, the joy turned bittersweet. Dawn Friesen, a twenty-five-year-old from Denver, hugged her husband, Kent, as they both stood crying and smiling. They had quit their engineering jobs early last summer and joined the march when it passed through Colorado. Suddenly, they realized, it was over. "This group of people won't ever be together again," Dawn said, wiping away her tears. "We've been living with all these people for five months now. It's hard to say goodbye to all of them." "It's so hard to believe we're here," Kent said. "I'm used to being so logical," Dawn said. "The march has really developed my emotional side, my spiritual side. Everything you don't learn in engineering school."

But what did it matter? Did it make any difference – especially in the age of Reagan – that 400 people and more had marched 3701.4 miles over mountains and plains, from coast to coast, in the name of peace and in support of global nuclear disarmament? Like most of the marchers, the Friesens weren't sure. All they knew, for certain, was what they had learned about America – the warmth and openness of its people, the stirrings of interest in their cause, the expressions of gratitude in unlikely places – and what they had learned about themselves.

"We planted seeds," Kent said. "The children understood. Everywhere people were so giving. I have to believe we planted seeds."

In Philadelphia, a dentist, caught up in the infectious spirit of the Great Peace March, organized his colleagues to provide free teeth cleaning for 120 marchers. The Dial-a-Pizza shop, in Laurel, Maryland, cranked out twenty pizzas for the passing army. In hot and humid small Nebraska towns, local firemen turned out with their hoses to cool off the marchers. "I will always remember Girard, Ohio," said Tyler Divis, a twenty-two-year-old store manager from Nebraska. "We marched through, and they rang all the church bells, and all the kids came out to greet us. The whole town came out. The barber even came out of his shop and was waving at us, and his customer was standing there with shaving cream all over his face. It was wonderful. ... I cried. I've cried a lot on this march."

"My own personal high was the day I walked across Loveland Pass, in Colorado –— the Continental Divide, at 12,000-feet elevation," said Bill Jensen, a thirty-six-year-old psychiatric technician from San Francisco. "Besides the beauty, it was the blessing I felt then. The mountains and trees were full of snow, but the sun was shining, and it even felt warm. It was such a good feeling, like 'Well, from here on, it's all downhill.'"

Like many of the others, Jensen had never been active in peace politics before. "When I read the pamphlets, it seemed like such a grandiose idea – walking across the country," he said. "The next morning I woke up and I was compelled by this idea. I couldn't not do it."

As the march crossed Loveland Pass, Jensen met a local cop who did not share his enthusiasm. "He wasn't hostile exactly, but when I said hello, the cop said, 'It's supposed to snow today,' like it pleased him," Jensen recalled. "'Well,' I said, 'we're a kind of magical group here –— snowstorms don't bother us.' The cop just smiled, and when we left, he said, 'Good luck to you.' I could see him melt right in that moment."

The marchers, most of whom were white and middle-class, were especially moved by the reactions of poor people –— unemployed steelworkers in the mill towns of the Midwest, impoverished blacks living in big cities. They were among the most openhearted spectators along the way.

"We camped in Harlem, and it was beautiful," said Kevin Deame, a thirty-year-old computer programmer who left his job at an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. "Everyone came out with food and drinks and thanked us. It seems like the poorer people are, the better they respond. They understand that if we're spending all that money on weapons, it's not available for other things, like schools and housing and health. They understand what we are trying to do, and they appreciate it.

"Why did I quit my job? Hey, I don't know," Deame said. "On the off chance that this might make a difference. Turns out it has. I see it every day. Just talking to people, we plant some seeds. It gives people a shot of energy, a feeling that it's really possible to achieve global disarmament."

"It never failed," Kent Friesen said. "Whenever people told us we were headed into a 'bad neighborhood' that was really dangerous, the people there were always warmer and friendlier and came out to thank us. I grew up in a typical white neighborhood myself, and it was a real blow to me. The people in the bad neighborhoods are not who we think they are. The lesson for me is that the Soviet Union is probably the ultimate bad neighborhood."

Some Folks were not so receptive. "We get an occasional food donation at fifty miles per hour," said Kevin Deame. "'Get a job.' 'Go home, commies.' 'Up yours.' For every one of those, there are ten good moments."

"They give you the one-finger peace sign," said Diane Clark, a former kindergarten teacher from Jamestown, New York, who became the unofficial mayor of Peace City. "How do you interpret 'Peace sucks'? They're afraid. That's what it is. We are challenging things, and it's too threatening for them."

Despite occasional hostility, the marchers really did try to love their enemies. Even Bible Bob, a right-wing evangelist who accompanied the tour for a while. With his own bullhorn and banners, he delivered fiery sermons at every stop in competition with the peace speeches.

"Bible Bob believes that Jesus really wants nuclear war and that we are the antichrist trying to prevent God's will," Diane Clark explained. "We let him talk. Shortly, Bible Bob changed his tone. First he called us 'fucking sinners.' Then he started saying, 'If you have sex, your legs are going to be weak and you won't be able to march.' Finally he said, 'Well, brotherly love is okay.' When he ran out of money, we chipped in on gas money so Bible Bob could stay with us."

The real challenge to the great Peace Marchers was not from hostile outsiders but from themselves. The fun quickly wears thin when you are walking about fifteen miles every day and sleeping in a tent for more than eight months. A steady diet of beans and rice and occasional Whoppers gets old. The logistics involved plain hard work —– maintaining the traveling caravan of trucks and vans to carry everything from food and small children to Porta Pottis. People naturally get testy and sometimes a little weird.

What held them all together – and inspired them to slog on –was the knowledge that they weren't supposed to make it on their own. The idea for the peace march originated with David Mixner, a brilliant political organizer in Los Angeles, whose expansive dreams sometimes get a bit ahead of reality. Mixner incorporated PRO-Peace and announced a high-tech trek across the nation, with private sponsors and a very large budget.

The journey was launched from Los Angeles on March 1st, and thirteen days later, with the marchers camped in the desert near Barstow, California, PRO-Peace was broke. Mixner came out to the campsite and announced it was all over. The sponsors that had extended credit to PRO-Peace were ending their support, and the companies that had lent things like trucks wanted them back. There was nothing more he could do. The marchers should all go home.

Diane Clark described the spontaneous regeneration that arose like a phoenix from the desert: "We got to this little patch of desert – no showers, no laundry. The wind blew and blew and blew across the desert. That's when we were informed that PRO-Peace had collapsed.... With the wind, we were all huddled inside the large town tents all day long, holding endless meetings, talking and arguing about what to do next, until at times it was too late and too dark to have coherent thinking. A lot of us got up at 3:00 a.m. to watch Halley's comet, and we'd start talking again under the stars. It made us so aware of our own small moment in history. We couldn't let it dissipate in the desert winds."

The group had no leaders, only a bunch of fairly stubborn people who did not intend to go home. "Each person had to make a personal commitment," Clark said. "We'd have another meeting, and I'd say. 'How are we going to get a water truck?' Someone would get up and say, 'I don't know if we can get a water truck. But I am walking to Washington.'"

In that fashion, the group sorted out its problems and resolved to go on. Someone volunteered to handle the garbage. Another person arranged a truck for sewage. Someone else took charge of the traveling kitchen. Crews were assembled and shifts assigned. Somehow the Great Peace March would proceed, depending on the generosity of folks along the way and on the fragile spirit of cooperation.

Mim Broderick, an elderly grandmother, wore a floppy orange hat with peace buttons, and everyone seemed to know her. She is going to write a book, she says, entitled All the Men I Slept With on the Great Peace March. Broderick was "den mother" for the large tent known as Blue Town Hall, and she liked to shock younger people with risqué cracks about her tentful of men.

"It's all over so fast," Mim lamented. "When I started this march, I thought I was nineteen years old. Then I turned sixty-eight in Philadelphia."

With her zest and good humor, Mim Broderick drew young people to her; they were seeking what she had in abundance – warmth and optimism and comfort. "I had seven marchers adopt me along the way," she said proudly. "They wanted me to be their mother or their grandmother. They picked me, I suppose, because I didn't make any judgments on their lives or try to tell them how to live. Along the way, they would come up to me and say, 'Hey, would you be my mom?'"

This kind of intimacy and mutual support would dissolve when the march broke up and people returned to their other lives. They were bound to feel sad about that but also grateful for having had the experience. But the question they kept asking outsiders was whether their long journey had accomplished anything else.

"The bottom line," said Mim Broderick, "is, did we make any difference? I have to hope we did. The children came out for us. The church bells were ringing. That's got to be from the heart. That's not for TV. I have the feeling —– I don't know –— but I have the feeling that we are making ripples. But we have to be careful, we are so isolated on the march. What do you think? Do you think we made a difference?"

What I think is they did. That's what I told Mim Broderick and the other marchers who asked, and I believe it. The peace march, like the other acts of protest against insane nuclear-war strategies, seems faint and futile alongside the capacity of the government to broadcast fear. The idea of mere citizens raising their voices against the political obsession with destructive power sounds naive, but I do not think it is romantic or futile. I think it works.

Recent history demonstrates that grass-roots action does make itself felt and citizen agitators do move the politicians, even if most politicians will never admit it. For example, think back to 1981 and Ronald Reagan's bellicose rhetoric when he came into office. The president and his men talked enthusiastically about developing a "nuclear war winning" capability and even suggested the use of demonstration shots to show off the awesome power of nuclear bombs. They denounced the nuclear-freeze movement and allied grass-roots efforts as Soviet inspired.

Six years later Ronald Reagan sounds like a different man. He claims now to be the Great Peacemaker and even grandly proposes total nuclear disarmament. His new pose is transparently phony, but still it's progress just to get Reagan on the right side of the rhetoric. What made him change his line? The steady swell of popular discontent.

The major news media have not paid much attention, but the grass-roots agitation against the nuclear-arms race has grown steadily stronger and more diverse over the last five years. Its clear political message has become increasingly ominous for Washington politicians: citizens are fed up with the endless talk about building more and more nuclear arms. They are tired of hearing the so-called statesmen haggle over arms control. They want real action.

Audacious demonstrations of protest, from the Great Peace March to the continuing civil disobedience against nuclear installations, are creating broader popular discontent. Now that the Reagan era is fading and his personal aura is disintegrating, the opportunity to mobilize public opinion is better than ever before. The movement for nuclear disarmament cannot compete head to head with the slick and expensive TV advertising of electoral politics, but it does not need to. The movement can go right to the people – to shock them and invigorate them, to make a big noise and bring them out into the streets, even if it is only to wave at the passing spectacle of smiling marchers. It is literally true, I think, that every voice, every gesture and smile, makes a space for others to step forward.

Most politicians, of course, will pretend to ignore the peace marches. But the politicians do pay heed to letters from their districts. And they do read the news in their home-town papers. As the volume swells, it will become loud enough so that even politicians can hear the church bells ringing.