BY LUCIA WILKES SMITH
“Sometimes they show us the ‘one-fingered peace sign’.” That’s the way Sister Brigid McDonald describes the nasty gesture made by some people who drive past a peace vigil. Brigid and her sisters—Kate, Jane and Rita—are Catholic nuns who were subjects of the History Theatre’s dramatic production of “Sisters of Peace” in St. Paul this spring. The specific vigil portrayed on stage has continued, for 20 years in real life, every Wednesday afternoon, along the Lake St./Marshall Ave. bridge linking Minneapolis to St. Paul above the Mississippi.
It’s one of several vigils that include members of WAMM (Women Against Military Madness). Historically, people have kept vigil in tune with strong personal beliefs and to publicly demonstrate commitment to an ideal. WAMM people hold signs during the bridge vigils as a way to inform, educate, provoke thought among the people who pass by in cars, on foot, and on bicycles. The signs shout opinions in a silent way – “END the Endless WARS” or “NO Sanctions Against IRAN!” or “Hands Off Venezuela!” – painted to promote the vigil theme of the day.
Over the years of bridge vigils, WAMM people have noticed changes in the responses of passers-by. True, there were counter-protesters and hecklers along the bridge for some time following the terrorist attacks in September 2001. In more recent times, WAMM people witness a definite proliferation of friendly horn-honks, waves, and real, two-fingered peace signs extended at car windows.
Attitude shifts have been noticed during other vigils, too. At St. Paul’s corner of Summit and Snelling Avenues, WAMM people who stand in support of justice for Palestinian people in Israel’s Occupied Territories have seen marked changes in responses to their “FREE Palestine” posters, especially following the mainstream media focus on Israel’s refusal to admit two American congresswomen into the country.
Of course, WAMM offers more traditional educational events and a “2nd Monday Movie” at the 4200 Cedar Ave. S. location. In keeping with WAMM tradition, “Never a meeting without an action,” WAMM people sign petitions, write letters and postcards to elected officials, and, as in all the years since WAMM was founded in 1982, march in larger demonstrations and protests in coalition with many local peace and anti-war groups. WAMM people sometimes come together to raise money to maintain the organization. Usually such fundraising activity has political focus, like the annual Walk Against Weapons held every June. Every so often, WAMM people raise funds and gather just for the joy of being together—to celebrate the 100th birthday of Polly Mann (a WAMM founder) planned for November or for the Silent Auction Sunday afternoon, 5 to 8 p.m., Sept. 15. (Call 612-827-5364 or check www.womenagainstmilitarymadness.org for information.)
Still, the regular vigils hold unique meaning and opportunity. Early on Tuesday mornings, WAMM people stand with other local activists to communicate solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers, outside the gates of the ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) court at Fort Snelling near the light rail station. On the second Tuesday of the month, a faith-based coalition draws up to 150 people for a more formal program. On other Tuesdays, the vigil group of three-to-25 people witnesses the arrival of tinted-window vans from various counties carrying migrant detainees to court. Sometimes people show the vigil-keepers a thumbs-down or that one-finger salute. One woman has walked close to the vigil on her way to the station and clearly said, “I’m a hard worker, and I support Trump!” But, more and more people smile and wave and give a thumbs-up. One frosty morning a young man pulled up in his commercial van and jumped out carrying a sack of doughnuts and cups of coffee for the vigilers.
That particular gesture brought to mind a favorite quotation by Emily Greene Balch, the American economist, sociologist and pacifist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for her leadership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1914 during World War I. She wrote,
“ … We have a long, long way to go.
So let us hasten along the road,
The road of human tenderness and generosity.
Groping, we may find one another’s hands in the dark.”
Certainly, Emily Green Balch would understand the hope, especially during WAMM’s Silent Auction on Sept. 15 at St. Joan of Arc auditorium, that many of those hands would hold a bit of cash. Because WAMM needs office space, staff members, computers and telephones to organize and undergird the educational programs, protest demonstrations and vigils—the work of peacemaking.