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Saturday afternoon, Eastern Market, a few weeks shy of Christmas. A stiff wind blowing in off the Detroit River lowers the already freezing temperatures. The gray sky hangs low, softening sharp edges and blanching the concrete and warehouse sprawl. The air is redolent with car and truck exhaust.
A crowd of 150 gathers at the corner of Russell and Wilkins. The bundled-up assembly is full of mirth and intent. Their zeal lends itself to dialogue and banter. Some pass out lapel buttons inscribed with the words “No War,” and fliers touting Detroit-area anti-war protests. Others calmly debate the best way to approach the cold and the task at hand.
Though men make up a third of the throng, it calls itself Women in Black. More than 150 such WiB groups exist around the world. Each convenes, often simultaneously, to hold silent vigils.
WiB started out with aspirations of creating peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
WiB Detroit is at Eastern Market to wordlessly denounce war in Iraq and George W. Bush’s itinerant threats and overall trigger-happy inanity.
A woman moves to the center of the crowd to remind the group in a convincing and unforced tone that the demonstration is to remain absolutely silent. “Remember not to engage hecklers,” she adds without a trace of irony.
A single-file line forms and begins to move solemnly down Russell Street, southbound toward the farmer’s market, which teems with vegetable growers and festive bargain-hunters.
Swathed from head to ankle in black fleece, the procession ambles so quietly that one can hear the brush of overcoats and jackets, shoes shuffling on the sidewalk and murmurs of faraway conversation. It’s a movement of deliberate determination.
The line stretches for blocks, nearly a half-mile. Dozens of protesters wield homemade placards with Ghandian slogans: “Hatred Can Be Overcome Only by Love,” “Violence begets Violence,” “Why War? Ask Those Who Profit,” “No War In Iraq,” and “Bush Inspect Thyself.”
Every stratum of Detroit society appears to be represented. There are mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends and wives. There are ex-nuns, old hippies, seasoned activists, cub anarchists, poets, artists, teachers, bank workers, the retired, the unemployed, the wealthy. The predominantly white procession is peppered with Muslims, Jews, Arabs and Africans. There are chirpy, snow-haired octogenarians and mannerly children not yet 6. One wrapped tot rests in a baby carriage. A woman commands a powered wheelchair.
The faces are plaintive, marked by the cold with blue lips, crimson noses and rosy cheeks. Four high-flung puppet heads toddle in gawky grace, symbols of mourning for lives lost in war.
At the head of the line, Kathy Rashid thumps steadily on a bodhran drum. The measured, somber beat becomes haunting.
There is ineffable magic to silent protest, an unspoken solidarity. To WiB, protest needn’t be heard, only seen and felt. It’s a reverent petition, almost prayerlike.
Reaction to the passive movement is mixed.
Some motorists bristle, others wobble heads and shrug shoulders in bafflement. Some honk horns and offer the thumbs-up. Pedestrians call out compliments, encouragement and salutations. Jaded merchants look on expectantly, as if something of enormous consequence is on the verge of happening.
The black procession moves slowly with a courtly dignity.
As much as it is anti-war, Women in Black is more about believing in a life of variables, not in the totalitarian method of living in one way and one way only. There is no actual figurehead or leader, no actual spokesperson. There are no detached philosophical debates, no fighting or shouting.
Women in Black is a loosely concocted organization that just is. The groups around the globe are connected only by name, ideology and the color of mourning. Women in Black claims no manifesto or statute.
WiB Detroit is a group of women (and men) who take war and injustice personally. Many are in other protest groups. Since all agree that there is no individual voice for the group, many are cautious not to speak about the group as a whole, offering only personal takes.
Jewish Israeli women initiated WiB in 1988 to oppose their government’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. These women stood by the homes of Palestinians while Israeli tanks shelled. They met head-on with war criminals in the Balkans.
From Belgrade and Jerusalem to London and San Francisco, WiB is said to be growing quickly.
An indication of WiB’s mounting persuasiveness: In 2001, a Serbian WiB group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. That same year, a Belgrade WiB — which was drawing attention to the methodical rape of women in the former Yugoslavia — won the Millennium Peace Prize for Women from the United Nations’ Development Fund for Women. An Israeli WiB chapter won the Aachen Peace Prize in 1991 and the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s Peacemaker Award in 2001. In 1994, Italian WiB took home a peace award from the city of San Giovanni d’Asso.
What’s more, WiB vigils have gone lengths to ruffle feathers of certain world leaders. Ex-Serbian leader and accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic called them “dangerous allies of America.”
Stateside WiB groups have been christened “potential terrorists” by the FBI and threatened with grand jury investigations. According to the London Guardian newspaper, the FBI has contacted Jewish Women in Black mainly because of its anti-war political work in the Middle East.
With Bush poised to pulverize Iraq, and with the ongoing but ambiguous war on terrorism, WiB attempts to humanize a situation so easily thrust into a formula.
The Detroit WiB coalesced in 1991 during the Gulf War, morphing from a group called Women in Unity Against War. WiB faded in and out during the 1990s and came on strong again after Sept. 11.
The group functions mainly by word of mouth and fliers. Its monthly vigils sometimes draw upward of 300 people.
WiB members say anybody is welcome.
Kathy Rashid, 46, is one of the founders of Detroit’s WiB. Witty and well-spoken, she talks about WiB with measured passion. Rashid is an artist who teaches in the education department of the Detroit Institute of Arts. She created the giant puppet heads that emboss the vigils. A key figure in the group who is dutiful to the organizational side of things, Rashid spent time kicking up dissention with groups such as Metro Detroit Against Sanctions.
“It began as Women in Unity Against War/Women in Black, and it was at that time (during the Gulf War) that we heard about the Women in Black in Israel and Palestine,” she explains. “We immediately felt sympathy for what they were doing. We were really inspired by what they were doing.
“We wanted to link with them, so we used their name as well. Immediately it just seems to inspire people.”
Bloodshed in the Middle East is a big impetus.
“There are quite a few Jewish-American women involved,” Rashid says. “The seed group probably had more Jewish and Arabic women because all of us felt close to the issue.”
Alise Alousi is a new mother and a part-time creative writing teacher. Her father is Iraqi and she still has relatives in Iraq, a fact, she says, that made her initial ties to WiB and similar pacifist groups significant. She has been with WiB Detroit since its inception.
“When the Gulf War started it was just hell, a really difficult period for me,” Alousi says. “So it was really great that there were folks that I knew that were completely opposed to the Gulf War, a group that wanted to bring people together and organize things. Going to those things [vigils] was just my solace. I think even more then than now, there were not a lot of people speaking out against the war. I felt like, ‘OK, I’m not crazy.’ This is a bad thing and there are people who care that there are people suffering and want to do something about it.”
“It’s hard to keep in focus because you feel very small,” explains WiB member Joan Mandell, a documentary filmmaker who spent seven years in the Middle East. She speaks Arabic and has undying empathy for innocents in the Middle East.
“I am appalled that lives over there can be considered so frivolous,” she says. “And there are so many democratic movements in the Middle East that aren’t recognized. There is a lot of criticism of Bush, but what are these people doing about it? You wonder about your neighbors who just sit there.”
According the official Detroit WiB mission statement, the organization seeks “an end to U.S. support for regimes and policies which oppress people, deny their access to basic needs and obstruct their right to self-determination.”
The group opposes the expansion of military operations in any country, suspensions of civil liberties and the detention of innocents based on religion or ethnicity. The group is against violence as a means of change, and is, in a sense, appalled with war on terrorism.
“What happened with al Queda may have opened people’s eyes, Americans’ specifically, to world situations they weren’t aware of,” says Rashid. “In terms of the violence that occurred because of their objections to America’s foreign policies and so forth … No, we don’t agree. And I think I can pretty well speak for the group when I say that that is the point we are trying to make. The victims of the World Trade Center attack are victims of that sort of violent mind-set that is all across the board.”
Why women? One collective WiB belief is that women are innately nurturing and have more experience caring for others. The majority of refugees in conflict are women. And women often bear the brunt of big-voiced gender aggression in both war and peace.
“All of us have been activists for a long time, and I think that we just see through the big voices,” Rashid says. “You have to deal a lot with your ego, why you’re involved with things, and when it all falls away, ultimately what’s left is still the desire to change things for the better.”
Pewter-haired Evelyn Baron is nimble and spirited. Her energy is characteristic of her fellow WiB activists. The diminutive woman could be a model for active adult living in a Sun Belt retirement haven. Her eyes practically sparkle.
The mother of four sons made lollipops festooned with little peace signs during the Vietnam War. Once she started distributing them, she says she became a target for the John Birch Society, which claimed her suckers contained LSD. The Birchers passed out fliers saying the LSD lollipops stood for ‘Leftist Socialist Dribble.’”
“During the Vietnam War I had painted on the front of my house, ‘War is not healthy for children and other living things,’” Baron continues, laughing. “That really got ’em.”
“My heritage is pacifist,” says Millie Knudsen, who is “not 80 yet.” She says hawks in the U.S. government “may not like us only because we don’t think like them.”
Jerry Black, 63, is retired from General Motors. He and his wife, Mary, 62, started protesting during the Vietnam War.
“I’ve been marching for a few years now (with Women in Black),” he says. “I think far more people are supportive of us. We’ve had a lot of good comments at these vigils.” He pauses and adds, “Maybe having a bit of an adversary might help.”
In fact, the Detroit WiB has had little if any trouble with authorities outside of one policewoman telling a member that the group sends “a sad message.”
“In the beginning there was a little more nervousness from the cops,” says Rashid. “But I think they just know what we do now. For the most part, we get very little response. Occasionally we’ll get escorted by police. We don’t need permits because we follow traffic rules.”
The group has had minor opposition. Once during a vigil in Royal Oak, a group of high school students shouted that WiB wasn’t sympathetic to the World Trade Center deaths. At another in Hamtramck, a cadre of Polish-American veterans gathered to voice support for American foreign policy.
“They were nearly screaming at us,” recalls Mandell of the Hamtramck scenes. She sounds almost aghast at the memory. “They were chanting slogans, calling us anti-patriotic. All we can do is explain to them what we are doing.”
Alousi recalls the Hamtramck demonstration as “our most confrontational, and I wouldn’t even describe that as confrontational. I think because we are a silent group of predominantly women, it’s hard … They can scream and yell all they want but we tend not to reply to that or respond to it. So it ends up kind of defusing that.
“For the most part, we have seen support in all of the communities where we’ve done things. Whether they beep or stop or take fliers and give us the peace sign or whatever.
“But that’s not to say that I don’t think that it is a scary time. Even like talking to you I kind of feel like, ‘Should I really be giving my name?’ On the other hand, people need to know, take a stand.”
There is a tangible element of fear, however slight, among Detroit’s WiB contingent. Simply put, they are afraid of being targeted by the FBI as a possible terrorist threat or added to government lists because they oppose the president’s policies. WiB members in other U.S. cities have been interviewed by the FBI, but there have been no such interrogations in the Detroit area. Still, more than one demonstrator asked me if I was a federal agent.
Many request anonymity when talking. Some are partial to the fact that WiB is not a conventional protest group in that it allows a kind of peaceful autonomy while adhering to a collective conviction.
“Everything you do is a model for what you believe in, the way you think things should be. So that goes right down to how you protest and how you demonstrate,” says Rashid.
Rashid says silent protest allows people to observe, quietly read the placards and respond in an intelligent way. She believes that simple accountability could help end conflicts, on personal, local and international levels.
“I personally think conflict and division breeds more misunderstanding. But this is very personal, my personal response. I think you gotta deal as individuals. It’s hard to do that when you’re dealing with huge corporations and huge governments that make themselves faceless and unaccountable as individuals. And that’s a real challenge. But ultimately, all that kind of unreal power has to be broken down. And people do have to be seen as individuals responsible for their own actions.”
WiB lacks the confrontational energy that people sometimes associate with activism and protest.
“The important thing to know is that all of us involved, we’ll go to every other demonstration we can find too,” say Rashid. “We certainly don’t want to be isolationists at all. And we want to support everything else that’s going on, because it’s all important. Women in Black is just another venue. It’s just another way that people protest.”
The sight of a WiB vigil is almost startling. It’s at once somber and joyful, austere and theatrical. The silence is powerful.
“I feel really strongly that the way a thing looks, the way it’s presented, is all part of your vision of life too,” says Rashid. “In terms of being an artist, you want to make things look as impressive and as beautiful as you can, even if it is protesting war.”
Rashid’s puppet heads give the vigils a peculiar element of theater. They are both symbolic and lovely. One is based on a famous news photo of a woman mourning the loss of her sister in the bombing of Iraq in 1991. Another, a gagged man with hands over his ears, is emblematic of people who refuse to see and hear. Another depicts a native American elder holding a peace dove.
An Eastern Market vegetable seller in a broad-brimmed hat leans on a broom, watching. The hushed march moves 20 feet away. He gazes at the line with a flustered expression, as if he’s staring at cavorting clowns on tricycles. He tilts his head up and says, “Jesus Christ. What the … What the fuck could this be?”
One squat gent scoffs at a protester carrying a sign that reads “Attack Iraq? No!” He crows, “Hey, you gotta attack somebody!”
A protester, looking straight ahead, breaks her silence, saying quietly, “I’d hate to be his wife.”
The line winds through Eastern Market. Arms are weary from carrying makeshift signs. Feet are frozen, faces icy.
By the end of the march, the line becomes a knot again on the same corner where it started. The Women in Black mission statement is read aloud. Julie Beutel sings a poignant, a cappella version of Holly Near’s “No More Genocide.” Heads are bowed. Some are moved to tears.
With such iron-fisted hands guiding this country, the moment is both moving and beautiful.
The next Women in Black vigil will be held at noon on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2003, at a military recruiting office, 22022 Michigan Ave. (at Monroe), Dearborn.
Brian Smith is music editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.