This past month, I was in Washington D.C. at an international conference on human rights. Tired from a long morning of meetings and uninspiring speeches, I decided to slip away from the gathering early and play the role of tourist. Even though I have been to Washington on many occasions, I had never really had the opportunity to see some of the remarkable sights which the nation’s capital has to offer. My first stop was a tour of the White House, an international symbol of democratic government (and place of wrongdoings of more than one President). I approached the White House from Lafayette Park, the adjacent green area, which had been set aside by Thomas Jefferson, when the home of the President was built in the late 1700’s. Since 1984, Lafayette Park has been popularly known as “Peace Park” by many demonstrators, guides and media types from all over the world.
That day, however, I never made it to my White House tour. On the edge of Lafayette Park and Pennsylvania Avenue stood a man with long hair, a scruffy beard and tie die clothes. He looked like the typical hippie who never quite made it out of the sixties. Strapped over his chest, was a cardboard sign with a message scribbled by a black magic marker. He was engaged in blowing bubbles from a large tub of soapy water next to him. Curious, I altered my path in order to walk towards him to find out just what he was doing, as he continued to blow bubbles and hand out leaflets. He saw me gaze inquisitively at him and looking in my direction, he said in a loud voice “Bubbles – not bombs!”. Confused, I sheepishly said “Excuse me?”. Once again he said, “Bubbles – not bombs!”. At this point, I realized that I was committed to a conversation and I walked over to speak to him.
He introduced himself simply as John and I soon discovered that he had spent the last 20 years with his friends in front of the White House maintaining a vigil to promote the abolition of nuclear weapons. He explained that he has been helping to maintain the 365 days-a-year, 24 hours-a-day vigil for peace, which has been in effect since June 3rd, 1981. Perhaps you, yourself, have seen him or even spoken to him during a visit to the nations’ capital. Every night, John sleeps outside, braving frequently difficult climate conditions and occasional verbal abuse from the police. The only time that he leaves the area where he is encamped is when he showers at a near-by YMCA and when he buys food at a local grocery store. Even when he leaves, his friends stand guard of the site because of the real possibility that the police will confiscate their placards and materials.
John began to tell me his story. Twenty years ago, he was a successful business man with a large house in a typical American middle class suburb. He had two cars, a mortgage and a well paying job. One day, he woke up and began to question himself and his life. He asked himself if he wanted to continue to be a slave to his material possessions. He had become angry that many of the decisions our governments made were threatening our futures and the well being of our children. He had grown more and more concerned that we were living in a society very much threatened by weapons of mass destruction. His thoughts along these lines resulted in a decision to sell his house and possessions to simply begin walking. John wanted to walk across the United States to become more in tune with “real people” and to protest the fact that the American government was building a formidable arsenal of weaponry that could destroy all of humanity.
John’s meandering eventually brought him to Washington. He arrived at the White House and he has been there ever since. He told me that nearly 3 million people come to this landmark every year and that he thought that his actions were an effective way to educate America about the absolute necessity of abolition of nuclear weapons. In 1988, he was arrested for “camping” and recently charged with having a sign which was ¼ inch larger than the permitted dimensions for protest materials. His efforts, however, have helped in the recent introductions of Proposition One into Congress, which calls upon the American government to “disable and dismantle all nuclear weapons and refrain from replacing them at any time with any weapons of mass destruction”.
I was amazed at his dedication and commitment. I was inspired by his story and taken aback that he would give up all that he had worked so hard for in order to live a life of protest. I shared with him a famous quote from Gandhi, one of my heroes. Gandhi, once asked by a reporter if he had a message for people in the industrialized countries, simply replied, “my life is my message”.
Struck by the fact that I was speaking to a man who has been camped outside of the White House for nearly two decades, I did a quick mental calculation in my head and realized that he has been in front of the same building in a five square foot area since I was three years old. I asked him how long he planned on being out there. He replied, “I will be here until there are no more nuclear weapons”.
Fate is a strange thing. If I had not left the conference early that day, to take a tour of the White House, I would never had met this truly remarkable individual and be moved by his overwhelming desire to have peace in the world. A world free from nuclear weapons was never something that I was concerned about while growing up. When I first became involved in social issues at the age of 13, my interest was in helping the environment, protecting human rights and providing meals to the homeless. I soon came to realize, however, that all of these social issues are interconnected. Nuclear weapons threaten our world, our species, our natural surroundings and are an abuse of our most basic human rights. It is for these reasons that I believe that we must all raise our voices to let decision makers know that we demand to live in a world free of nuclear weapons. We also need to support the actions of those individuals who are courageous enough to stand up and speak out against maintaining weapons of mass destruction. Young people, especially, have an important role to play in creating a world devoid of the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Youth must to ensure that adults follow John’s suggestion and make bubbles, not of bombs.
In April, I hosted a peace leadership training in Santa Barbara under the auspices of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and made possible by the generosity of Mr. Pierre (Clysons). Over the two-day session, forty young people, from all walks of life, came together to be taught valuable communication, interpersonal and fundraising skills in order to help further their social involvement. The participants learned, for example, how to write and deliver a speech, work with the media, fundraise and inspire others. If we are to achieve a world free from nuclear weapons, we need the involvement of young people. Youth have energy, enthusiasm and many good ideas to share. Most importantly, however, it is young people who will be inheriting the problems which have been left to them by the generations past.
This issue of Waging Peace is one which I believe is very exciting. We have asked a number of outstanding young people to write articles, share their stories, outline their social involvement and provide their views from the future. Three young people have contributed to the journal, including Dianna English, a young woman from Connecticut, who became involved in helping her peers in Kosovo without leaving her home town; Lorissa Rienhart, a Santa Barbara resident who recently addressed hundreds of people, including royalty, in a rally for peace and Ishmael Beah, a former child solider from Sierra Leone who now speaks out on behalf of children in armed conflict. I hope that the words and actions of these youth will inspire you as much as they motivate me. It is through examples of individuals like Dianna, Lorissa and Ishmael that more and more adults are coming to realize that young people are not simply potential leaders of tomorrow. Many, indeed, are in fact the leaders of today. Give young people a chance, our generation may just surprise you!