(7:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)
Witness Against War, a walk from Chicago to St. Paul to promote non-violence and an end to the war is Iraq, is in its final week.
Dan Pearson, the one who dreamed it up, scouted and planned the route, and coordinates much of the logistics, calls it “a totally worthwhile endeavor.” He and Kathy Kelly are co-coordinators of Voices for Creative Non-Violence, the Chicago-based group that organized and sponsors the walk.
The drive from Milwaukee, where I had last walked with them, to Pepin, WI, on the Mississippi River, to rejoin them, took five hours. It had taken the walkers five weeks.
As they started Saturday’s trek from Pepin to Maiden Rock, along one of the most spectacularly scenic stretches of river in the country, they had covered 420 miles. When they reach St. Paul this weekend, in time for the Republican national convention, they will have walked nearly 500 miles.
There are 10 walkers on Saturday, including Marie Kovecsi, who joined the group in Winona, MN to spend a week walking with them before returning to start another school year as a teacher of deaf and blind students, and me. The rest are part of the core group who left Chicago in mid-July and have walked most or all of the way. Most days they are joined by local activists who walk with them for a day or two, but there are none on Saturday in this sparsely-populated area.
Almost all of the others have some connection with the Catholic Worker movement, inspired by Dorothy Day and dedicated to non-violence. (I changed the title of this piece to reflect their point of view.) I am an atheist, although the best argument I have seen for some sort of intelligent design is Lake Pepin, the wide, 20-mile stretch of the Mississippi we are walking today. I discovered it – much like Columbus “discovered” America – 45 years ago, and it is where my ashes will be scattered one day.
The walk starts early, shortly after 7 a.m., to avoid the heat of the day. It’s a slightly hilly, winding stretch along the river, and with a couple of stops at scenic overlooks, bathroom breaks and even a quick pot of propane-stove coffee, it takes almost exactly five hours. The first seven miles, to Stockholm, a tiny artist colony with a population of 98, goes quickly. The second half is hillier and seems longer, with the promise of Maiden Rock just over the next hill – or maybe the one after that.
The walkers carry signs -“Witness Against War,” “Keep Red Arrow (Wisconsin’s National Guard division) Home,” “Stop War Spending,” “Rebuild Iraq, Rebuild America.”
The reception from drivers and motorcyclists is positive, with waves, honking horns, peace signs, and thumbs-up from many – and nary a middle finger during the five-hour, 13-mile walk along Highway 35.
“We have made a lot of good connections with people along the way, both people who agree and those who disagree,” Dan Pearson says in explaining why he thinks the walk has been an unqualified success. “It has ended quite well, usually, when people – often active duty military or veterans – pull over to talk. Once you show people you’re willing to listen and they understand that we are not attacking them personally, we have had some good conversations and find there is a lot we can agree on.”
When the walk reached Fort McCoy, Wisconsin’s main military base, two weeks ago, 13 people – including core walkers Kathy Kelly, Josh Brollier, Lauren Cannon and Alice Gerard — were arrested for crossing the line onto the base. Most were quickly processed and released, but Kelly was held on a 10-year-old warrant from Ashland County for civil disobedience against Project ELF, a submarine communication antenna system based in northern Wisconsin, now abandoned. She spent two nights in the Monroe County jail and another in Ashland County jail before being released.
When Ashland County jailers announced at 10:30 p.m. that she was being released, Kelly didn’t know if anyone was there waiting for her, and she was hundreds of miles from the walk. “Well, I know I can always walk 15 miles,” she recalls thinking. “I wouldn’t have thought that a year ago.”
The soldiers were friendly at Ft. McCoy, she said, but the military presence and influence is overwhelming. “In the Monroe County jail, an older woman jailer was keeping an eye on us,” Kelly said. “She was excited that she was going to Ft. McCoy where they would let her carry an AK-47 and play the role of an insurgent — and pay her $12 an hour. There is such a powerful presence around military base that it affects people’s hopes and imaginations.
“Bessie, the kindly jailer, should have an affinity for the Iraqi mothers and grandmothers, the refugees with sick children, but no one’s going to pay Bessie $12 an hour to identify with them.”
The walkers, with a colorfully painted old bus as backup, usually finish walking around mid-day, leaving afternoons to check in online, prepare for evening events, pitch tents if no one has offered overnight accommodations, prepare a meal, and have some personal time. Along the way, many local peace groups have hosted the walkers, sponsored events and held community programs. Most of the walk has been in Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, a Madison-based network of some 150 groups, has helped make those connections.
The walkers slept in a rectory in Alma Friday night, and will camp out at the end of Saturday’s walk. After reaching Maiden Rock – where legend has it an Indian princess leaped to her death from a high bluff rather than be forced into marriage with a man she didn’t love — the group discusses whether to camp there, in a campground right on the river, or return to a campground in Pepin. Pepin has showers; Maiden Rock seems more likely to have a wirelsss Internet connection. Showers carry the day.
Others in the core group are Lauren Cannon, a theology student and staff member at Voices for Creative Non-violence; Paul Melling, an Iraq veteran from Minnesota who shares bus-driving duties with Bob Abplanalp, recently returned from a Pastors for Peace caravan to take supplies to Cuba, and who’s also part of the Voices nucleus; Josh Brollier of Clarksville TN, a musician who takes a drumming break now and then; Mary Dean, part of Chicago Voices community, returning to a new physical therapist job when the walk ends; and Alice Gerard, a freelance writer from Grand Island NY, who met Kathy Kelly in a Columbus GA jail after both had crossed the line at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning.
Several of them have spent time — and sometimes put themselves in harm’s way — in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other hot spots, working to end sanctions and aid refugees. Pearson, 27, a native of Luck, WI, learned Arabic in Syria, where he has twice lived and worked with refugees. Cannon was in Iraq three times during the Voices campaign to end economic sanctions there.
Kelly and Voice challenged economic sanctions against Iraq by delivering medical supplies to Iraqis and organized over 70 delegations as part of a campaign of civil disobedience from 1996 to 2003. In October 2002 Voices organized the Iraq Peace Team, in Baghdad, where they maintained a presence throughout the bombardment and invasion. Kelly remained in Iraq throughout the US Shock and Awe bombing and has returned three times, most recently in May of 2006 when she traveled to northern Iraq. She recently spent five weeks living in Amman, Jordan, amongst Iraqi families who have fled Iraq.
They walked from Maiden Rock to Red Wing, MN on Sunday and, after a day’s rest there today, leave Red Wing on Tuesday for the final 50 miles to the Twin Cities, where they expect to link up with Vet erans for Peace and other groups calling for an end to the war and occupation while the Republicans nominate warmonger John McCain, a candidate who appears never to have seen a war he didn’t like.