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News ::
12/31: Peace Vigils at First Night
02 Jan 2002
Modified: 04 Jan 2002
Two peace vigils were held during this year’s First Night activities in Boston. About a dozen people gathered in Copley Square from 4:00-5:00 to protest against the on-going war in Afghanistan and the “war on terrorism”. From 5:00-6:00 about fifty people gathered at Park St. Station to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Peace Vigils at First Night
by Matthew Williams

12/31/01; Boston, MA, USA--Two peace vigils were held during this year’s First Night activities. About a dozen people gathered in Copley Square from 4:00-5:00 to protest against the on-going war in Afghanistan and the “war on terrorism”. From 5:00-6:00 about fifty people gathered at Park St. Station to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The protest in Copley was organized by Food Not Bombs and United for Justice with Peace (UJP). They gathered in the bitter mid-winter cold with signs such as “Justice Not War”.

Louise Dunlap of the Cambridge Peace Commission explained the reason for holding a protest, even when the war seems to be winding down: “It’s easy to think that the war is winding down, but the President has said that we’re in for a very long war that’s really different from any other war because it’s ‘against terrorism’. They seem to think that they’re going to go into each country that has what our country defines as terrorists and bomb them out.” She sited Iraq, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan and India as countries that might be the victims of this extended war. “I see the whole world being drawn into this conflict.”

Elizabeth Leonard of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and UJP argued that the war actually has little to do with terrorism: “Our government is not going to stop until it has control of all the world’s oil. That’s what this is all about, giving us hegemony over all the rest of the world. We need that oil to keep all our cars and other things going and we can never produce enough for ourselves. People are afraid to conserve, but that’s got to be part of the answer.”

Dunlap said that the United States needs to change the way it conducts foreign policy: “There’s an assumption that there’s one country that’s pre-eminent. That country controls the weapons and therefore doesn’t have to abide by the laws and policies of the World Court and United Nations. I think our country is acting like a big bully in a schoolyard, but of much greater proportion. We’re not willing to abide by international law unless it serves our purposes. A bully will never abide by the rules voluntarily. I don’t think people in this country know that’s the way we are.”

They did not feel that the war was a solution to even the immediate problems of terrorism. Leonard said, “Terrorism is a result of people that are cold and hungry and not feeling very good about what’s going on in their worlds. They’re seeing the United States as a very rich, very privileged country that’s gone around killing people of color in Vietnam and Central America and many other countries. No wonder they’re upset with us.”

Elaine Hagopian, a retired professor of sociology and an expert on the Middle East with whom I spoke at the second vigil, said that the war had done little good for people of Afghanistan: “Obviously everyone’s glad the so-called Taliban has been destroyed, but up until this past summer, the Bush administration was not against the Taliban; they were cozying up to them because of the oil pipeline. The attack on September 11 gave us a chance to get rid of the Taliban government. Our bombing has probably produced about 5,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Karzai [the new Afghan president] looks nice, he fits a Western model, but apparently he was a consultant to one of the oil companies that have a big interest in that area. I think it’s going to get messier than people think. The way the US has kept it quiet is by not having too many American casualties.”

She also thought the war had done little for the long-term stability of the area: “Right now, all the governments in the Middle East are oppressing their people and keeping them under wraps. While it may appear to be quiet, there are rumblings underneath and I think that there’s going to be long-term instability. You can not ever repress whole populations and have them bend to American interests. People want to do business with America, but on an equal basis. It’s not a question of not dealing in the area, but of not simply exploiting the area. We need to have a greater sense of equal partnership instead of oppressing people.”

The protest in Copley Square was held in the last vestiges of sunlight with the First Night crowds swirling around. Most people simply ignored the peace activists. A few shook their heads disapprovingly. More either asked questions or gave the activists the thumbs up. Leonard said, “I where this button that says, ‘War is the real enemy,’ and I am absolutely incredulous at the number of people who come up to me and say ‘You’ve got the answer!’ People are afraid to speak out.”

The vigil at Park St.--organized by the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights (BCPR) and Jewish Women for Justice--was held in the dark. People stood in a semi-circle with candles and signs reading “International Protection for Palestinians” and “US Tax Dollars Fund Israeli Apartheid”.

Nancy Murray of BCPR explained the reasons for the vigil: “We’re hoping that we can end this terrible cycle of violence which is causing so much pain on both sides and get back to negotiations for a viable Palestinian state, which was not what was offer at Camp David, even though the media says it was. Any true analysis shows that what was offered the Palestinians was more like a Bantustan,” referring to the “black homelands” created by the South African government under apartheid.

Merrie Najimy of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) attempted to convey some sense of what the occupation was like: “Place yourself in your own neighborhood, in your own community and your own home. Now imagine that a government not your own tells you which roads you can drive on and which roads your restricted from. At the end of your neighborhood where your relatives and friends used to live, their homes have been demolished and a gated community has been put up and opened to people not of your own ethnicity, but you’re restricted from moving into that gated community. People in that gated community are allowed to drive on the roads you’ve been restricted from.” She continued to detail other aspects of the occupation, then said, “This is just the beginning of what the occupation is like. This is what the Palestinians have been living under for several decades.”

Murray elaborated on the comparison to apartheid: “The Camp David summit of July of last year actually offered Palestinians about 90% of the West Bank, but it would have been divided into three parcels of land separated by two long belts of settlements and by Jewish-settler-only bypass roads. Plus the entire thing would have been surrounded by a ten-mile wide military border patrolled by Israel. Palestinians would not have controlled their own borders, they could not have traveled from the north to the south of the West Bank, and only with difficulty traveled to Gaza. This would not have been a viable state. When black South Africans were offered something similar under apartheid, the whole world said, ‘These are not really independence states,’ and the whole world treated it as what it was--an attempt to get rid of the population while controlling the land.”

Responding to the widespread tendency to focus on the suicide bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Najimy said, “We have to understand that they don’t have popular support--they might have 20% of the public support. We also have to understand that desperation leads militants to extreme acts of violence if we really want to stop the suicide bombings.”

Hagopian argued that neither the Israeli nor the American governments have been seriously interested in the peace process: “The Israeli Labor Party wanted to have some sort of Bantustan where they could shut up the Palestinians and control their lives and make believe it’s a state. Sharon [the current Israeli Prime Minister, of the conservative Likud Party] doesn’t even want to be involved with that--he just wants to destroy the Palestinian infrastructure, the Palestinian people, and humiliate the Palestinian Authority [. . .], with the hopes of eventually making life so miserable that the Palestinians would flee. I don’t have very much hope for our government changing its policy. The Colin Powell initiative was very short-lived. Bush has decided no one is complaining, so he’s gone with Sharon. [. . .] It’s very depressing but we need to keep on having vigils and hope the American public will make some demands on our government for real peace.”

Muuray explained the sign calling for “International Protection for Palestinians”, saying that this “is crucial right now because of the rate at which Palestinians are being shot and killed. It’s true that suicide bombings have been occurring with more frequency in the last month--and that is really lamentable--but on a daily basis over the last fourteen or fifteen months, Palestinians have been killed by sharp shooters, F-16s and Apache missiles. We feel that the only way to really get back to a negotiated settlement is to have an international force there that can separate the two sides, but really offer protection to the people under occupation because they’re the ones who need it. Israel could always just pull out of the West Bank--and if it did, its citizens would be a lot safer--but they have so far refused to do so.”

As for the sign saying “US Tax Dollars Fund Israeli Apartheid”, she explained, “We give Israel over $3 billion a year--we’ve given $91 billion total to Israel. If it weren’t for our taxes, they couldn’t have expanded the settlements and built the bypass roads and could not have maintained the occupation.”

Najimy also talked about the situation that Arab-Americans are facing right now: “People who are rational and sane have reached out to try to embrace and stand in solidarity with the Arab-American and Muslim communities. But there’s still a tremendous amount of backlash in the form of hate crimes and job discrimination, as well as civil liberties violations on the part of law enforcement agencies.”

The ADC (Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee), a national organization with 30-35 chapters, is working against these problems. Because of the large Arab-American population in Boston, they hope to hire a staff person for the local ADC chapter. Najimy said, “Our goal is to have the ADC become a rooted civil rights organization that has longevity in Massachusetts.”

For more information on United for Justice with Peace, see:; on the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, see; and on the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, see:
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great reporting
04 Jan 2002
Great story, Matthew. I felt like I was there !!