While Yale students toiled away during the last days of midterms, concerned simultaneously with overdue papers and last-minute spring break planning, WEEKEND met up with three individuals with very different concerns. Joan Cavanagh, Paula Panzarella and Frank Panzarella, three peace activists living in New Haven, talked to us about their history as anti-war protesters, their weekly Sunday Vigil near Broadway and how they see the future of peace activism in the country.
Q. What was your first act of protest or activism?
PP. I think my first activism in New Haven was in the 60s, at the time of the Black Panthers.
FP. We’ve been activists for a long time.
JC. We’ve been alive for a long time!
FP. My first activism was against the bombing of Cambodia.
JC. I think my first activism was against the bombing of Cambodia in 1973, in Maryland. In Connecticut, there were movements in the 80s against the US government’s involvement in Central America, supporting the regime in El Salvador, and then the anti-apartheid movement at Yale.
Q. Could you talk more about that movement?
FP. Yeah. In 1986, we built shanties in the Beinecke Plaza, and they stayed there for two years. They were occupied by Yale students.
CV. It was a call for divestment of Yale funds in South Africa. We were also involved in the anti-nuclear weapons movement, especially against Trident.
Q. When did the Sunday Vigil start?
JC. 1999. There had been vigils all over town, since the beginning of the first Gulf War. After the war ended, sanctions were imposed against Iraq, and people continued to vigil against them, because the sanctions were killing people, denying medical care and necessary food supplies. There were also continual aerial bombings, and we were protesting that. But in 1999, there was the invasion of Kosovo, and the Connecticut Peace Coalition formed at that time, specifically to oppose this invasion. And there were branches in Hartford, Middletown and New Haven. The organization, as a statewide entity, was short lived. It dissolved right after the war in Kosovo ended.
However, the vigils continued. We decided the location on Broadway, Elm and Park Street, was a very good place to talk about the devastation of the sanctions on Iraq. So we continued with that theme predominantly, because we were aware that war had not ended. The vigil continued from then on.
Of course, then Bush came into power, and then there was 9/11, and the invasion of Afghanistan, and we continued to oppose that invasion. We also continued to talk about the build-up to the war against Iraq, almost immediately after 2001.
Q. Was it more controversial to oppose the entry into Afghanistan in 2001 because the invasion had been in response to 9/11?
JC. There were negative responses and positive responses to our stance. The war was totally about something other than the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. It was used as an excuse, and a lot of people understood that. I mean at that moment, after 9/11, for about a week, the world looked as us with sympathy and empathy, because people across the world have been bombed. They have experienced it and they knew what it felt like. So we were part of the universal community that was appalled by what had happened. And there were vigils and people who did not talk to each other normally were talking to each other, and there was a historic opportunity to really stand in solidarity with the world. Instead, the war-mongering government decided to completely squander that opportunity and start another war.
FP. The government also conflated it to Iraq, and tried to whip up the most hysterical anti-foreigner feeling that had been seen in years. I mean, even during the first Gulf War, it wasn’t easy because there was so much visceral hatred against anybody who looked vaguely Arab or was from the Middle East. There was really horrible stuff going on, people being beaten up and assaulted. There were a lot of things that we experienced at the time that were horrendous. When 9/11 happened, it was totally exploited by Bush and his cronies, who purposefully made it seem as if it was all one big thing, it was all the same people. Then the same hysteria appeared as in the first Gulf War, and I think the anti-Arab, anti-Middle Eastern bashing only got worse. Of course, there were people who agreed with what we were saying.
JC. The opposition to the Iraq War of 2003 was immense. There was a huge demonstration in D.C., the largest one ever, I believe.
PP. All over the world, there were demonstrations. It was in the winter, the beginning of 2003.
JC. I remember coming home from the demonstration on March 20th and turning on the TV. The bombing had started.
Q. Were you ever prevented from protesting by the government?
JC. Well, there were demonstrations in D.C. and then there were also demonstrations in New York. And the ones in New York were particularly challenging because the police put up barricades all over the city. You couldn’t get from Point A to Point B easily, it was very difficult, and the cops were harassing people all over town. I saw less of that in D.C.
In 2004, there was a huge protest near the Republican National Convention in New York. The war was now being fought but there were a lot of people on the streets. And a group of us from War Resisters, gathered at the site of the former World Trade Center. All we were planning to do was march from there to the site of the Republican National Convention. However, we were arrested, and stayed in jail for 24 hours. They had no reason to arrest us; we had done nothing wrong. I think 1,600 people were arrested, and some held up to 48 hours. Clearly, that was an attempt to preempt protest.
Q. Throughout the past 10 years, has the membership of the vigil group been consistent, or do people come and go?
JC. I think during the height of the Gulf War, we had many, many more people. Usually when things heat up in some areas, we have more people. Right now, we are down to three or five people at the weekly vigil.
Q. Your website’s mission statement contains a specific section about drone warfare. When did that issue become important to you?
JC. I think it really came into prominence, in my consciousness anyway, towards the end of the Bush administration. They started talking about drone warfare and it was being used in Afghanistan, but then it started widening, and the Obama administration has just escalated it beyond belief. It has become the new mode of warfare. In the last two years, we have done a lot of leafleting about it, because it is something that the American people are either unaware of, or do not want to know about. It’s become our new anonymous way of killing people by remote control. To me it’s the ultimate refinement in the kind of wars that the United States is prepared to fight all over the world. I do not mean refinement in a good way.
FP. But I think, to me, it started back in Clinton’s time because in those times it wasn’t the technical drones, but it was cruise missiles that were being used from hundreds of miles away. And they could be shot wherever, killing many innocent people.
JC. Historically, less and less Americans feel the need to be concerned with these wars, and I think it is because of this refinement. To me, it started with Nixon’s secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. As I said, thousands of people were protesting Vietnam because people that we all knew were coming home in boxes. Nixon comes into office, and he changed everything. They slowly took away the ground troops and started bombing.
FP. They carpet-bombed Cambodia.
JC. Withdrawal of the ground troops, and then the Paris Peace Accord, made people think that the war was over. It was not. But it became more and more remote from the American experience. Then the draft ended and Americans needed to care even less. Drone warfare is also very cost-effective. They are trying to reduce the cost of war, and this is what we get.
Q. You talked about increasing apathy within Americans regarding wars abroad. Do you think there are reasons to that besides fewer casualties?
JC. I think the understanding that you can make a difference through protest is waning. However, these wars are having a tremendous impact on society. Veterans who come back might be living through injuries they wouldn’t have lived through during Vietnam, but the psychological injuries, the mental toll, is insane. In addition, there are people who were exposed to depleted uranium, and that is giving rise to birth defects among the children of returning soldiers.
FP. And there is the whole psychotic gun culture it has helped amplify within this country. So many veterans are killing themselves; the suicide rate is huge.
But in another way, I think the culture of protest has shifted to the Internet. Protestors use the Internet to oppose a lot of these things, and have created their own culture. It has burst out in a lot of major events in the world, like Tunisia, Egypt. People are looking for new ways to resist.
PP. The Occupy Movement really broke through the no-protest culture that was pretty much settled. Occupy took a lot of people’s imagination and bloomed all over the country. It didn’t last but a lot of the connections were being made, of economy, of the war, of no jobs for returning soldiers, no jobs for college students, heavy student loans, etc. There was a lot of flow between people with anti-war sentiments and people who were working for civil rights within this country. I think if this interview had taken place last March, we would not have said that the activism culture within the US has died, because there was one protest going on right at the Green.
Q. Are you optimistic about the future of activism?
PP. People are always going to be active. You can’t keep pushing people down.
FP. Well, I have a different take on that. On the cosmic side, I am an optimist, because the world will survive even if humans don’t. On the human scale, I am not so sure, because I think Mother Nature can take only so much abuse, and we are reaching a point where what we have done to the planet is so egregious that it could be pretty dangerous. My hopes lie in the little kernels of resistance that we see, like Portugal this week, like Egypt, the Occupy movement. I think there are a lot of very bright young people out there who can do a lot. I am astonished at how creative they can be. I also think more countries are resisting the way American foreign policy treats them.
Q. What would you say that you stand for at the end of the day, as peace activists?
JC. I think everybody should have the right to live without fear. I think that we have no business killing people for an idea. I think we have no business targeting people for assassinations. I think we should not be fighting wars anywhere. I think we should be working to develop the Marxist system that asks “from everybody according to their abilities, to everybody according to their needs.”
PP. And also a society with fairness, everybody having the right to a home, to healthcare, to education.
FP. Yeah, that’s good enough for now.