Every Sunday afternoon from noon until 1 p.m., Joan Cavanagh GRD ’96 maintains her post on the median between Elm and Park streets and Broadway. Her short stature, neutral dress and long, gray hair contrast with her formidable attitude as she shoves fliers at pedestrians and probes: “Do you want to get involved in stopping our wars?”
Cavanagh, who wants an end to all wars, has been part of the battle against American apathy since 1968. In her arsenal, machine guns have been replaced with informational pamphlets. Flanked by several other members of the Connecticut Peace Coalition New Haven, she stakes her battleground next to a banner reading, in large block letters: RESIST THIS ENDLESS WAR.
Cavanagh has no regrets about having been thrown in jail, no qualms about discussing what she calls the evils of the U.S. government and no fears describing American leaders as guided by “woefully misbegotten priorities.” Staunch in her beliefs, she is on a mission.
FIGHTING SINCE AGE 14
Cavanagh has participated in this so-called “Sunday Vigil” in New Haven’s Broadway district since it began in 1999 under the sponsorship of the Connecticut Peace Coalition/New Haven, a local anti-war organization of which Cavanagh is a member.
“The wars just go on and on,” she said.
But Cavanagh has considered herself a part of the movement since long before she arrived on that corner 11 years ago; she was first drawn into Vietnam War protest efforts in 1968, at the age of 14.
In Cavanagh’s youth, war was on the forefront of people’s minds because the draft could disrupt anyone’s life, she said. Still, her motivation to stand up against American warfare comes not from having lost a father or a brother, but from a deeply held conviction that killing people is wrong.
Taking time out of her work as an archivist — she holds jobs at both the Greater New Haven Labor History Association and the Ethnic Heritage Center — Cavanagh said in an interview over the summer that she withdrew from Towson State University in Maryland after five semesters so she could focus on her anti-war efforts. Years later, she enrolled in Weslayan University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in history with a concentration on the United States.
Cavanagh has not kept track of the total number of times she has been arrested for her protesting efforts. But she said the first incident occurred at a “pray-in” (even though Cavanagh said she is not particularly religious) at the White House in opposition to the bombing of Cambodia in 1973. (The protesters were not sentenced.) During Christmas weekend later that year, she served time in jail after joining others who chained themselves against the White House fence in response to America’s continuing involvement in Vietnam.
The following year, she joined a group whose members attempted to pour their own blood on records from the Vietnam Overseas Procurement Office in order to bring attention to the fact that the office was channeling money meant for humanitarian aid into its own government. The protest group spent two months in the capitol’s Women’s Detention Center, Cavanagh said.
“I never regretted it,” Cavanagh said. “Being in jail was boring, but a lot of us felt that was the place to be because our government was acting criminally.”
WORD ON THE STREET
Last Sunday, Cavanagh along with two other members of the Connecticut Peace Coalition New Haven — Monica McGovern and Corrie Carton — were demonstrating against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Cavanagh and McGovern held up the banner, Carton pranced among the pedestrians and offered pamphlets from her outstretched hand.
For a protest “committed to ending the violence of the United States government” as described on both sides of their half-page fliers, the group remained surprisingly quiet. As they stood, Cavanagh offered a history lesson to her colleagues about Whalley, Goffe and Dixwell (three judges involved in the execution of King Charles I who then fled to New Haven, where streets are now named after them); she then chatted about the beauty of hiking in West Rock.
Cavanagh said most people who walk by her on the median pay attention to her anti-war message, though some continue on their ways without a second glance. Many of the war veterans who have passed have thanked her, and cars driving by sometimes honk in support.
Carton, a single mom who makes a living by doing “odd jobs,” attends the Sunday Vigil as often as she can.
“I don’t know what else I could do to speak as loud as this does,” explained Carton, who said she cannot use the Internet and would not know how to write her thoughts on paper.
“I don’t know or care what peoples’ response to us is. But I know that we’re visible,” she said. “I put myself on the street corner. Everybody’s got to do something. All I can do is show up.”
Cavanagh, for her part, said that despite her continuing activism, she is not as optimistic as she once was and no longer expects fundamental change to American foreign policy to occur in her lifetime.
“I guess at some point, when I was young and protesting the Vietnam War, I always thought we’d have an impact and change the world,” she said. “As I’ve gone along, I’ve realized the Vietnam War wasn’t an anomaly. We don’t take care of our own people. We go off and fight these wars.”
Regardless of her frustration, Cavanagh said she finds purpose in the words of a friend, and fellow activist, as spoken during a protest of the bombing of Cambodia: If we didn’t speak out now, what would subsequent generations think about us? What would they think about humanity?
So Cavanagh continues to take a stand each Sunday on her New Haven corner. She and her compatriots stand at their vigil in all weather, having only cancelled three times in the past 11 years. At 1 p.m., after the protest is over, Cavanagh climbs into her car — appropriately covered with activist bumper stickers and signs — to head to work.
“You just have to keep doing it. You have to keep speaking out or else you’re a part of the problem,” she said. “You have to keep trying.”