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Sunday Journal

Passing the torch of peace

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

In 1967, when I was 16, my parents would not let me go to an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Manhattan. The police used their nightsticks to beat protesters, they told me, and would not hesitate to use tear gas to break up crowds.

They also believed that if our government said we needed to fight in Vietnam, we should not question it. They didn't know until many years later that Robert McNamara and other presidential advisers had lied to Lyndon Johnson about our chance for victory.

I watched the demonstrations and the speakers on the evening news and wished I had been there.

In college, I protested against the war and the draft one early morning in front of the Syracuse, N.Y., draft board. After the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, I demonstrated against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

And on Feb. 15 of this year, I took my 13-year-old son to his first peace demonstration, at Bayfront Park in Sarasota.

I had to spend the Friday night before trying to entice him to go with me. After all, what teen wants to go to a peace demonstration with his aging hippie mother? Finally, I promised we could take the convertible and ride over the Sunshine Skyway bridge with the top down.

I was determined to go, even without my son. After learning that Feb. 15 would be a day of worldwide peace activity, I had surfed the Web, looking for a local demonstration. I am not a member of any organization. I am just a woman, a mother, who thinks there is an alternative to war and the murder of innocent people. I found a list of peace activities in the bay area. I decided on Sarasota.

At noon Saturday I set out with my son, his friend and his friend's dad, who like me is a middle-aged, antiwar hippie. We arrived in Sarasota to a flurry of cars and demonstrators of all ages. There were many people my age, but I was thrilled to see a large number of high school and college kids, and even a few young couples with small children. The boys met some classmates who also were there with parents.

We found a grassy spot under a tree where we could listen to the speakers: a woman who has been involved in social action since the civil rights marches in 1963, a young Islamic woman and a minister whose emotionally gripping speaking style was reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Sarasota police boat patrolled the sun-drenched bay, past a sailboat with a huge peace sign painted on its mast. We listened, exchanged agreeing nods, applauded, cheered. Looking around at the estimated 1,000 protesters, I felt once again as if I was part of a community.

I watched as my son and his friend took in the scene. They commented on the signs protesters held and the messages on the T-shirts they sported. A young woman held an old, familiar sign: a large flower with the words "war is not healthy for children and other living things" printed around it. A woman in a pouffy orange wig and leopard print outfit held a sign that said, "More wigs, less war." A man's T-shirt had three names printed on it, identified as the "axis of ignorance." An older couple sat on a bench, their sign leaning beside them: "Thank you France."

My son and I shared a protein bar, something he would never do before ("it tastes like chalk") and a bottle of water, then he and his friend went off to look for people they knew and to be on their own for a while. We found them in time for the silent march to the war memorial.

In the car going home, we asked the boys what they thought.

"Not radical enough," said the boys, "and the T-shirts were ugly."

Thirty-five years ago the peace movement was dominated by young people. Us. Our parents' generation was trying to sell us war and death, and we weren't buying. There was a draft back then, and we feared for our lives and those of our friends. We would not be complacent like our parents. We would stand up and make our voices heard.

The same generation powers the peace movement today: people my age who continue to believe that war is not healthy for children and other living things and that weapons of mass destruction would simply reduce the planet to ash, creating a world where the living would envy the dead.

All children strive for an identity apart from their parents. It is part of growing up and becoming an adult. But even though my son saw this event as something I insisted on doing, I'm glad I could show him how people who disagree with the government go about making their opinions known. I showed him that dissent is not the opposite of patriotism.

For me, it's also is an attempt to smooth the rough edges around a kid who watches South Park and listens to bands with names like Guttermouth.

Maybe the peace demonstration was less exciting for him than it was for me, but it is locked forever in our brains, and I am certain that he will call up the memory later, when he has children, to draw them closer to his world, as I did.

-- Alice Graves lives and writes in St. Petersburg.

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