Veterans & First Fridays

Veterans for Peace at Oakland's First Fridays

by Gregory Ross
March, 2015

Oakland, Ca. keeps working to bolster civic pride amongst it's citizens. Not an easy thing to do in a city with the fifth highest murder rate in America. One thing they do is throw a party. The most successful result of this strategy is called “First Friday”. It started as an event designed to bring more people to the “Uptown” area. It was originally organized by the art gallery owners in the district. They stayed open late the first Friday of every month, offering a little food and wine, maybe acoustic music. As word spread more people showed up. Streets got blocked by unexpected crowds that over time have come to be in the thousands. Now it is a big social occasion: food trucks, arts and crafts booths, three stages with amplified music, “Public Service” tables and EMT and Police presence.

The President of Veterans For Peace Chapter 162 passed out leaflets at UC Berkeley every Wednesday afternoon. I joined him whenever I could as did other members. Eventually, it fizzled. It was disheartening to find, as we walked back to our cars, half the fliers scattered about. At a meeting a member suggested tabling. We brainstormed where. The first suggestion and the one that stuck was “First Fridays”. It had become the place to be: a hip, cool, giant party.

“Vendors” were let in around 3PM. We set up our table, a portable canopy; attached the 8 foot by 2 foot VFP, East Bay Chapter 162 banner, stacked up copies of “War Crimes Times”, the VFP newspaper, which recently changed it name to “Peace In Our Times” and prepared to hawk peace {unintended double entendre`}. The gates opened at 5PM. The whole thing went until 9pm, sometimes 9:30PM. Most people ignored us or worked very hard to do so. After about six months, I began to refer to our presence as “The Shell Shocked Veteran Uncle Who Showed Up Unannounced At His Nephew's Ecstasy Orgy And Wouldn't Go Away”. But, people did stop to talk. Some were Veterans: Iraq, Afghanistan, occasionally, Viet Nam. We would give them info about Veterans For Peace, Swords To Plowshares, Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Afghan Veterans Against the War, the Veterans Administration. Or sometimes they just wanted to talk.

Non Vets stopped as well. Many had relatives or friends or lovers who were thinking of joining and wanted to talk. Or they themselves were thinking of joining and wanted to talk. The story was usually the same: can't afford college, no real job possibilities, tired of feeling useless. We tried to have info about education, job fairs, trainings. We had fliers about the truth of military service, recruiters, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, Military Sexual Trauma. We would point to ourselves: one of us in a wheelchair, one with a prosthetic leg and a cane and one with a limp and a cane; all of us with PTSD. We would suggest they did not want to turn out like us. We viewed ourselves as the best anti-war propaganda at the table.

In the over two years that we have been tabling; one of the most satisfying experiences was the two High School Seniors who wanted info to take back to their school as a project for their Social Studies class in a city seventy five miles away in the Central Valley of California. They came three months in a row. We did out best to connect them with a closer VFP Chapter.

Later, Grandmothers Against War joined us for part of the night. They donned vests with their logo, waded out into the crowd passing out their fliers. Not many people, not even the most “Tragically Hip” said NO to a Grandmother. We on the other hand were viewed more as “Grumpy Old Men”, no matter how nice we were. Most people just ignored us but, to those who abruptly, with irritation, said, “No Thank You”, we might reply, “I wish I could have said that 50 years ago” Some got it and maybe smiled, a few stopped to look at our literature. We kept up a patter of “Free Paper here” or “It's free”, until we got irritated with being ignored, then one of us might say, “It's free, I already paid for it.” Some got it. As the evening wore on, sometimes out of frustration one of us would say, “Come on take it, I dare you”. And as the night was coming to an end, sometimes we would say, “Come on, take it so we can go home” That seemed to work well but, we followed it, in our best Dad and to some our best Grandpa, voice with, “Now read it, don't just throw it away.”

Veterans for Peace, East Bay Chapter # 162