"Honk for Peace" at Lake Merritt--now in its 10th year
by Daniel Borgström
An earlier version of this article was in the June 2005 issue of Z Magazine
There's a lake near the edge of downtown Oakland, and for a decade now it's been the centerpiece of a weekly antiwar demonstration. Every Sunday afternoon a small group gathers at the northeast end of the lake, then sets out on a three-mile stroll around its perimeter.
The first time I attended was in March 2003, just a couple weeks before the war started. The meeting place was the "Colonnade," a tastefully designed structure which looks like something out of ancient Greece. It was almost three o'clock, and I got there as people were beginning to arrive.
A thin, agile-looking, elderly woman named Pat was passing out copies of an antiwar cartoon. A younger woman carried a hand-sewn quilted banner which read: "NO WAR." Her name was Ingrid, and she was a preschool teacher. There was an elderly couple in wheelchairs, Bob Miller and his wife Jean. Other couples were young; some brought their children. This being my first day, I didn't know any of these people yet; I learned their names later.
Before long, about forty people had showed up, many carrying placards and banners which read: "No Blood for Oil," "Bush & Ashcroft are the Axis of Evil" and "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease." Others expressed support for the Palestinian cause, and some were about the environment. There were also sign-bearing animals. One fellow brought a St. Bernard dog bearing the notice: "I pee on Bushes."
The group included all ages, from the very young to the very old. Pat Maginnis, the group's resident cartoonist, was in her mid-70's; she'd been involved in politics since the 1950s. Then there was Vern Krohn, an 87-year-old activist with his "contraption"--a small cart on which was mounted a tremendously huge sign that passing motorists could read from a block or two up the street. "HONK FOR PEACE!" it read.
"May I have your attention!" called out a woman with a Southern accent. She's in her fifties and her name is Beth Wagner. Beth has been a peace activist since the Vietnam Era. She's from a conservative family in Virginia and began her life as a Republican. During her freshman year at William & Mary, she joined the campus chapter of Young Republicans for Nixon, because she thought that if we changed presidents that might bring the war to an end. "I was just a naïve country girl from the sticks who'd never been away from home before," she says. After the Kent State killings in 1970 she joined the antiwar movement. Since the Yugoslavia bombings in 1999, she and her husband, Steve, have been instrumental in Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace (LMNOP), as the lake walkers are called.
Beth announced several items, including the latest information on where to assemble for demonstrations if the war started. This was the second week in March 2003, and people were expecting Bush to launch his assault on Iraq any day.
Then, getting back to this afternoon's activity, she said, "Some of you are new here today. I should tell you that last week we had an incident where a man hassled us, shouting insults and trying to start a fight. Peace is controversial and this does occasionally happen. We just ignore such. We're a disciplined group and we don't respond to provocation."
She also reminded us that we were carrying several signs which read, "Honk for Peace." When motorists responded, it was important that we wave back to them in acknowledgment of their support.
Announcements completed, we set out on our three-mile walk. It's an attractive scene, with the lake in the center, surrounded by tall apartment complexes and a few modern office buildings. Meandering its way around the lake in a setting of grass and trees is the path, which sometimes immediately borders the street, and sometimes takes us away from the motorists, and close to the shore.
At times there was the honking of autos responding to us; at other times there was the honking of geese, mostly ignoring us as well as other human passersby. Lake Merritt is a federally funded wildlife preserve; it's the oldest in the country, dating back to 1870. Large flocks of geese and other water birds live along the shore. There were also some cormorants; it was the first time I'd seen one. Some people in our group had brought bread crusts to toss to the birds.
Out in the middle of the lake were two or three sailboats. Closer to the shore was a mother duck, instructing her little ones in the finer points of swimming.
"Since ancient times ducks have appeared in folklore," observed a tall, thoughtful-appearing woman with a green hat. "There's a mystique about them because they live in three realms: water, air and earth. So they have a lot of freedom we don't. Yet they're humble and kind of cute."
From the beginning of our walk, passing motorists had been giving us a positive response. Sometimes it was a single driver; sometimes several at once. At times the honking reached an ear-splitting crescendo.
"Maybe we should be more careful about what we ask for," I heard someone remark in jest. Others agreed that sometimes the honking did get painfully loud.
Joggers and bicyclists were also expressing support. "Beep! Beep!" said one jogger as she passed. Others waved the two-fingered peace sign, or gave us a thumbs-up. On the lake was a gondola; the gondolier waved and shouted to us in Italian, "Pace!"
We passed a small boy who pointed to the symbol on one of our placards and asked his mother what it was. "It's a peace sign," she told him. "They want people to stop killing each other."
But not everybody agreed with our cause. It was as Beth had warned--a couple of guys drove by flipping us the finger, yelling, "We want war! War! War! War!"
"I wonder why those war-lovers aren't in uniform," said a fellow near me.
"Because they're following the example of our Chickenhawk-in-Chief," answered another of our group.
Our peace advocacy was, of course, controversial. We could hardly expect everyone to agree with us; fortunately, those who expressed negative reactions were rare, and some of their comments were unintentionally funny. "You're totally irrelevant to everyone around here," shouted one ill-wisher. "Nobody's listening to you! Nobody!" He also said something more, but his voice was drowned out by a chorus of auto horns honking in support of us.
Despite those few war supporters, we were getting an overwhelmingly positive response. Some pedestrians said to us, "Thank you for taking time to do this!"
As we walked, we also chatted among ourselves, and I spoke with people around me. One was Mark Boynton, who is old enough to remember the Second World War. He grew up in this area and as a boy used to come here and fish for smelt. In the 1950's he was a logger, cutting down redwoods in the vicinity of Garberville. "Some of those redwoods were well over a thousand years old," Mark told me, "so large they had to be split in two to be hauled by truck. There was a width limit. Those huge logs were called 'pumpkins,' and the splitting was done with dynamite."
This was approximately the 75th time Mark had walked around the lake, he told me, adding that the demonstration actually dated back to the First Gulf War.
The peace walk originated back in 1991 when a lone person took up an antiwar banner and held a nightly vigil by the lake. Others joined him, and they turned it into a weekly walk around the lake. At the end of that war the peace walk became dormant for nearly a decade--till 1999 when the U.S. attacked Serbia. Members of the old group got together again and at this time Beth and Steve Wagner set up an email communications list.
"For the next couple of years we contacted people to go with us to various anti-war events, especially in support of Palestine and against the sanctions on Iraq," Steve told me. "After the attack on the World Trade Center, it was obvious that Bush would be dropping bombs somewhere or other very soon. Due to all the jingoistic manipulation of people's genuine grief, we had some anxiety when we broke out the signs and started the walks again on September 23, 2001 with banners calling for 'Justice, Not Revenge.'
"The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive from the very beginning," he said. "The attendance has ebbed and flowed, but we've been out here every Sunday, presenting a presence for peace to the neighborhoods surrounding the Lake."
Steve Wagner was born in Albion, Washington, which is downwind from the Hanford Atomic Works. "Albion was a wonderful place to be a child," Steve had testified to a government health effects subcommittee. "Little did we know what simply living downwind from Hanford was doing to our health." One of his cousins died of leukemia, and another of a brain tumor. "My family often wondered why Jerry and Karen died at such early ages, and now we have a pretty good idea why." Steve himself has thyroid disease for which he'll have to take medication the rest of his life.
Other lake walkers have also had poignant experiences of one sort or another which motivated them to become activists. There's Ed, a retired orchestra musician. As a teenager Ed spent nine months living with relatives while studying music in Germany; that was in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. He remembers that the Nazis immediately began forcing Jewish musicians out of the profession. "I was 14 at the time, and those months following the Nazi takeover radicalized me," he said.
Although I'd been living here in Oakland for several years, I rarely came to this part of town. This was the first time I'd ever walked all the way around the lake. One of the group, Cathy Green, told me more about the lake area. She was working on her master's thesis in geography, and her analysis was from the perspective of a protester who's a geographer:
"Lake Merritt is a cultural and transit hub," Cathy explained, a bit pedantically. "It's located between two major freeways, and encircled by two heavily traveled streets. The main library's on one end of the lake and a branch library's on the other. There's also the Oakland Museum, a Children's Fairyland, boat rentals, landscaped gardens as well as a community garden. The lakeshore is popular with joggers, walkers, and bicyclists.
"The best thing about this peace march is that the people who see us are probably the most diverse group in the Bay Area. Oakland is really ethnically diverse. We have immigrants from all over the world--Latin America, even parts of Africa like Ethiopia and Senegal. There's a large Chinese population, as well as many people from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
"Oakland has a substantial African American component, and the Fruitvale neighborhood is a mix of Latino barrio and Southeast Asian community. The Islamic Cultural Center is nearby; it was established by Iranian immigrants. You couldn't ask for a more mixed audience.
"A lot of the people who live around here probably don't go to the marches, but they see us and give us an enthusiastic response. Plus, we're just east of the downtown, and the streets that surround the lake get lots of car traffic. So we're getting our message to a large number of people."
Cathy is herself part of the diversity she spoke of; she's part Gypsy, or, as they call themselves, "Rom."
I originally heard about LMNOP (Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace) from Jeff, a postal worker, who was also here this afternoon. Jeff had been attending since the previous October. At first he'd felt really shy of participating in a visible, on-stage activity, he told me. Eventually he'd gotten used to it and found he got a positive feeling from it. "Taking part in this makes me feel good about myself," he said. "The great response we get from people around here is a big part of it."
Many of the group affirmed this feeling of being part of a good cause. There was also a social aspect, meeting and talking with like-minded people. Unlike most antiwar marches, there was no chanting; instead, everyone chatted, gossiped, and exchanged the latest news. Many of the conversations I had were about politics, and this group could perhaps have been called the "Lake Merritt Walking Political Discussion Club." Books, newspaper clippings and audiotapes were exchanged. Among the favorite authors here were Howard Zinn and Michael Parenti. Computer information was also shared; people helped each other get on-line and learn to access the Internet. Friendships formed. Even romances began at the peace walk.
I enjoyed the ambience of the lake. The trees, the ducks, geese and cormorants, the boats, and the smell of salt water. "Is this an inlet connected to the bay?" I asked someone, and was told that it was. Eventually we came to a place where the water flows under a wide bridge and eventually empties into the bay. At this moment, however, the tide was coming in, and we could see the ripples as the water rushed though.
One couldn't find a much better place for a weekly demonstration than right here. With a picturesque lakeshore on one side of us and a busy street on the other, this was both a pleasant stroll in a park, and, more importantly, a good place to be seen by passing motorists.
The circuit of the lake took an hour and a half; it was about 4:30 when we reached the colonnade where we'd started out.
The war began on March 19, 2003, and the next few days were a flurry of protest activity. There were demonstrations everywhere and for a couple of days San Francisco got put in gridlock. Judging by the number of people who participated, the antiwar movement seemed to have massive support. Or did it? According to polls being published in the corporate media, the war had suddenly become an immensely popular cause. Even here in the Bay Area over 60 percent supported the war, the polls reported.
So, on the following Sunday back at Lake Merritt, I was wondering what sort of response our peace walk would receive this time from passing motorists. In recent weeks some forty of us had been participating; today there were over a hundred of us. And as for the response, the honking of autos went way beyond anything I had experienced during previous Sundays.
The blare of honking was often so intense that my ears were hurting. Normally, this assault on my ears would've been unbearable, but today it was welcome. How did people feel about the situation now that the war was on?--I was getting my answer.
I wasn't the only one who'd been wondering about that. "The polls report that 60 percent of the people in the Bay Area are pro-war," a woman near me remarked. "Doesn't sound that way to me."
"Yeah, where are all those pro-war people today?" said another.
At that moment somebody in a passing car yelled, "Fuck you! Fuck all of you!"
"There's the 60 percent," someone remarked, and everyone within hearing chuckled. To be sure, if large numbers of people had been booing us and shouting obscenities, it wouldn't have been so funny. But the few negative responses we got were so unrepresentative that they struck us as amusing. What we were seeing for ourselves was entirely different from what the corporate media had been reporting.
"So where do the pollsters get their data anyway?" was the topic of the afternoon. We suspected that the pollsters and the corporate media were deliberately finding ways to bias the results and falsely make the war look as though it were an overwhelmingly popular cause.
That day was one of the high points of our peace walk at Lake Merritt. It would've been great if that many people had been out there every Sunday, but of course that's not what happened. As the weeks went by and March became April and April gave way to May, our numbers slowly diminished. Our usual attendance of around forty people went down to thirty, then to about two dozen or fewer.
Then suddenly the war was over--or at least it seemed to be--and now the corporate invasion was on. It looked as if all that lay ahead would be the peaceful looting of Iraq by Chevron, Bechtel, Halliburton and other Bush/Cheney favorites. Meanwhile, US search teams set out to find the famous Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)--and at the time it seemed possible that those weapons might soon be found.
Most of us expected Bush to start another war before too long, but, for the moment at least, there was the illusion of being between wars, and it appeared to many people that the antiwar movement had outlived its relevance. It's hard to oppose a war that's over, and perhaps we seemed a bit out of tune with the times as we continued to march around the lake with signs that read, "Stop the War!"
It was the first Sunday in May. Beth Wagner, the woman who'd been leading our group announced that, due to ill health, she'd no longer be able to continue. She had a degenerative disease that made physical activity increasingly painful. During the year and a half, she'd participated in more than eighty circuits of the lake. But now that the war was over, there seemed to be little reason to continue the peace walk.
So today would be the last time we'd be walking around the lake together, at least till the next war. But, as we set out for what seemed to be our last three miles together, we got to talking among ourselves, Jeff, Mark, Catherine and others.
"Can it really be over?"
"The peace walk, or the war?"
"There'll always be war, as long as Bush and the Neocons are out there building an empire."
By the end of the walk we'd unanimously decided and affirmed that this was no time for us to quit. Peace had to be a lot more than a momentary absence of shooting.
We soon came up with new slogans that were more in sync with the current between-the-wars era. "What price oil economy?" was one, and, when the WMD hoax was eventually exposed, Cathy brought a sign saying, "Fire the Liar." Some of the "Honk for Peace" signs were replaced with "Honk to Impeach." Meanwhile, there were some old ones that seemed eternally appropriate, such as "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease."
There were other adjustments to make now that Beth wasn't here any more, and they weren't always easy. But we managed, and our weekly march went on. Steve Wagner, Beth's husband, continued to attend and also to take care of the group's email list, sending out announcements and occasional articles. "Wm" William maintained the web site, which is at http://lmno4p.org
Nevertheless, our numbers continued to diminish. By August there were only a dozen of us, and even this number was dwindling. Mark and his wife Dorothy had been coming almost every Sunday, but one day Dorothy broke her ankle. Then Mark got sick and was absent for several weeks. Vern Krohn, the 87-year-old fellow who'd brought his huge Honk-for-Peace "contraption," was often missing nowadays, presumably because of health problems.
The truth seemed to be that even in this pleasant setting along the shores of Lake Merritt, a three-mile antiwar march is more stressful and demanding than a casual Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.
There were also the numerous tasks that people had put aside during these months. Everything from basements that needed cleaning to backyards that had gone untended. Our thinning ranks also seemed to reflect the condition of the antiwar movement in general. There wasn't much going on at this time, in the late summer and fall of 2003.
The second anniversary of our weekly demonstration was in September, and we considered it remarkable that our activity had lasted this long. But, finally, on a Sunday in late October, came the situation we'd been dreading. Only three of us showed up.
So, would this be the end of it? We got together on the phone and discussed what our group should do. Call if off for next Sunday? Discontinue our peace walk altogether? Rather than make a hasty decision, we decided to give it another try.
Meanwhile, the shooting war in Iraq was heating up again, a guerilla war this time; maybe the people who'd been saying that "Iraq" is Arabic for "Vietnam" were right after all.
A mass rally was to be held in San Francisco the coming Saturday, October 25th, and we hoped that event might put new impetus into the movement. Some 10,000 people attended--not a large number in comparison with the hundreds of thousands who'd attended the rallies in January and February--but we could see that the antiwar movement was still alive.
The following Sunday six people showed up at the lake--fewer than we'd hoped for, but we did our peace walk anyway. "We need to keep the flame burning," we told each other. But our numbers did not increase. All through the fall and winter there were many Sundays when there were fewer than half a dozen of us.
Still, it wasn't all gloom and doom. An encouraging sign was the enthusiastic acknowledgement we continued to get from motorists and pedestrians along the lake. "The response is still out there," one of our group noted, "We're the ones who seem to be missing from this scene."
Eventually Mark recovered from his illness and rejoined us. In a tiny group like this, each person made a major difference, and Mark's reappearance was a boost to morale. However, Dorothy didn't return; although her broken ankle healed, it wasn't strong enough to walk three miles on.
Vern Krohn was another person who didn't return. He went to stay with his son up north in Lake County, and shortly afterwards we received word that he'd died. He was 87 years old; we remembered him for his perseverance--as well as for his "contraption."
"I think that Vern's life should be a model for all of us," said Ken Knudsen. "Vern was always out there against the war, no matter how old he got. I was often amazed that he could survive going around the lake. By the end he was always so tired."
"It's people like Vern. He was always an inspiration," said Jeff. "I'm getting older now and I wake up in the morning with a bunch of aches and pains. I had a lot of weeks where I didn't feel like going to the Peace Walk. Then I'd think to myself, 'Well, Vern is 87 and he's bound to have some ailments as well. He's thirty years older than I am.' Vern was always there and he'd bring that great big sign to boot."
Jeff also remembered him for his stories. "He would talk to me in that crusty voice, and tell me about his experiences. He knew a lot about history that I had only a vague familiarity with. The depression, and stuff before World War I."
Vern Krohn had spent his life in political activism, and that's how we remembered him. Barbara summed it up well when she said, "Bless his heart! Sorry to see him go, but you know, that's how I would want to go--an activist right up to the end, out there with my signs and banners."
It's over a year now since Vern died. Autumn of 2004 saw the third anniversary of the walk, and we're well into our fourth year. The ducklings and goslings whom we first saw in their coats of yellow down have, over time, grown to full-fledged birdhood and become the parents and maybe even the grandparents of more little ones along the shore. It's their abode; we share it with them. Several generations of ducks and geese have grown up with us.
We've grown too, from the friendships we've formed, from the events we've experienced together, and from our interactions with the motorists and pedestrians along the lake.
Bob Miller comes in his wheelchair, carrying a huge hand-sewn American flag with the stars arranged in the form of a peace sign. Pat Maginnis continues to distribute her cartoons in leaflet form. Catherine Jones brings her posters, some of which are displayed at galleries of protest art.
A romance which began here at the peace walk continues. As Catherine says, no community institution, political or otherwise, is quite established until it has brought together at least one happy couple.
A few people attend almost every week; a lot more of us come once in a while. Our group seems to be gradually increasing, from a low point of six or fewer people during the last months of 2003, to around fifteen of us at the present time.
While the huge rallies, varying from a few thousand to as many as hundreds of thousands, have been the most important events of the antiwar movement, such things can't be done every week. In contrast, this Lake Merritt peace walk is a low-key, long-term activity which has become as much a part of the local scenery as the ducks and geese. With a handful of participants, LMNOP is helping to keep the antiwar movement visible here in Oakland. Although we get very little coverage in the media, we are in a very real sense our own media, reaching out directly to the people around us. People who live or work near the lake don't even have to see us; they can hear the honking and, if it happens to be on a Sunday afternoon, they'll know it's the lake walkers passing by. We believe that our activity helps to set a political tone in the community.
Bush's 2004 election victory, which many of us suspect was stolen, was certainly a disappointment. But our numbers have increased since that election, and so has the enthusiastic response we've been getting from motorists and pedestrians. As Mark Boynton put it, "So it's going to be four more years--of walking around the lake."
Follow-ups & updates
It's now August 2007, and we continue our weekly peace walk. There's usually about a dozen of us most Sundays, though not always the same people every time. We still get the same supportive response from drivers, pedestrians and even boaters on the Lake.
Sunday, September 23, 2007: The weekly peace walk celebrated its 6th anniversary. 42 people attended this event.
November 2009: this weekly event is now in its 9th year. On most Sundays, about a dozen people have been attending.
January 2011: The weekly peace walk is now in its tenth year.