Pleasantonians 4 Peace rally for end to wars

Carry peace messages to monthly downtown candlelight vigils

With temperatures hovering around the low 40s and high 30s, a group of about 20 people gather in front of the Museum On Main, clutching candles in plastic cups and yearning for a peaceful world.

Despite the cold, the Pleasantonians 4 Peace group was there to have a moment of silence and share thoughts on peace during a time of war. Peace is a popular topic during the holiday season, one that the group believes contrasts with the current military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and with President Barack Obama's recent announcement to send more troops overseas.

Kathy Dowding opened the gathering, as she has since they began meeting in March 2007 on the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, reading the names of servicemen and women who had died since they last met.

"Stephen L. Murphy, 36, Marine Staff Sergeant, Jaffery, New Jersey," she read. "Justin J. Swanson, 21, Marine Lance Corporal, Anaheim, California. Shawn P. Hefner, 22, Marine Lance Corporal, Hico, Texas."

She remarked that the list was short this time -- 20 people and not counting those killed at Fort Hood -- but later said that her participation in the group stems from her goal of one day having an empty list. By reading the names of those killed, instead of just the numbers, she hopes it will make it a real, emotional impact for those listening.

"We are hoping to bring about an end to the wars," Dowding said, "and also honor those soldiers and not forgetting those who have lost their lives. The ultimate goal is to stop reading the names because there are no more to read, and to stop having vigils because there are no more wars."

It's an idealistic view, she admits, but one that many share with her.

Dowding credits much of the Pleasantonians 4 Peace effort to Fred Norman. Back in 2007, when he and Dowding first met, Norman was trying to encourage Pleasanton to do something about the war. Having read an article about soldiers dying, he took it as a call to action.

Since then, he's been to almost every City Council meeting, using his public comment time to take a moment of silence to remember the fallen soldiers. When he was unable to appear at one meeting, Dowding came to fill in and began her tradition of reading names. She now also attends most meetings.

With the support of Councilman Matt Sullivan and Norman's wife Cathe, they set out to establish a way for people to support peace and the servicemen and women who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first meeting garnered about 125 people, although the meetings now include about 20 to 35 regulars.

Sullivan said he suggested the monthly meetings in front of the Museum On Main, where people could reflect on the human and monetary costs of the wars, honor the veterans and civilians who have died, and visualize a more peaceful world.

While many of the attendees have similar beliefs on the war and peace, they're not all the same.

"I think peace means different things to different people who have been attending," Sullivan said. "For me, it means that we need to try different means to address terrorism and the conflicts in the Middle East than 'war to end terrorism,' which I believe just leads to more of both."

One aspect most people agree on, however, is supporting the troops. While critics may say otherwise, the founding members of Pleasantonians 4 Peace wish to honor them.

"I would say that there are many ways to support the troops," Sullivan said. "One way is to not send them into battle in the first place without just cause."

For Sullivan, both of his parents were Korean war veterans, with his mother being a Navy nurse. He was also in the Merchant Marine and Navy Reserve, involved in Cold War activities. Many of the group members, Sullivan said, are veterans, including Fred Norman and Dowding's husband Steve.

Another member, Art Tenbrink, said he isn't anti-military and that his son just finished his tour in the service. While he and his son have differing views about the war, Tenbrink said he supported his son's decision. He also feels like a patriot, he said, in "exercising what we're supposedly fighting for" as a member of Pleasantonians 4 Peace as well as other organizations.

"Our attempt is to be visible in our community as an active force for peace," he added. "It's an invitation to others to develop a critical mass that will turn a tide for peace."

This group meeting is just one way for him to exercise the democratic process, he said. Another way to do this, which the group encourages attendees to do as well, is to contact elected officials, both locally, regionally and nationally.

While the City Council has failed on several occasions to muster a majority vote to host a public forum for discussing the war, many in the group wish that it would take some sort of stance for peace.

"I would like [our elected representatives to all pass a resolution to bring wars to an early end and to stop funding the build-up of the conflict, but to use those funds for necessary domestic improvements," Tenbrick said.

Sullivan, who was first elected to the City Council in 2004 and was recently re-elected to serve through November 2012, said he wished to represent his constituents.

"I believe that the majority of Pleasanton residents are opposed to these wars, as is a majority in the country," he said. "City government is as close to the people that you can get. If we don't provide a venue and opportunity for our citizens to express their beliefs and to influence the government -- on any subject -- then we have failed as representatives of the people."

Norman said the polls he's seen show a majority, if not a vast majority, of people oppose the wars.

"Being opposed and doing something are two different things," he said. "Imagine if all those who are opposed in Pleasanton and the Tri-Valley came to the vigils."

What keeps Norman involved is seeking to actively do something instead of complaining about a war that he feels is morally wrong. To keep himself in check, he said that every night he asks himself what he did that day to stop the wars.

Hope -- another theme of the holiday season -- is alive within the group, but Norman grounds it in reality.

"I hope that what we're doing inspires others, but I don't have an absolute belief that it will," he said, adding that sometimes thinking about it can be depressing. "I don't have expectations. In the ninth year of the war, how long do your expectations last? What gives us strength is possibility."

Despite the low attendance rates, Kathy Dowding remains encouraged.

"The very first vigil had close to 125 people [in attendance," she said. "It was just phenomenal. Since then, the numbers have dwindled significantly. Even though the numbers are small, these are people who have made a commitment to do something, which is more than the nothing that a lot of people do."

The group hopes that more visibility will help grow their cause. Kathy Dowding said the group isn't very computer savvy, and thinks that a website could help spread the word as well.

The group meets at 7 p.m. the second Wednesday of the month in front of the Museum On Main, which is located at 603 Main St. The meetings are ongoing, until the wars are over. For more information on the vigils, call the Normans at 462-7495 or Sullivan at 415-533-8164.

The group's next meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 13.

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