By Bruce Burdett
Five hundred and eighteen times they’ve gathered on the Little Compton Commons — ten years worth of Sundays — to stand in vigil for peace.
When the Sakonnet Peace Alliance assembles this Sunday morning at 9:30, they’ll mark an anniversary they never imagined, and probably wouldn’t have hoped for, back in 2003.
“Sadly, world and national events keep bringing us back. A lot has changed but a lot hasn’t,” said Betty Torphy, one of the groups organizers. They are already planning for their second decade.
That first Sunday in 2003 was on the Martin Luther King holiday. Three friends — the Rev. Dan Burke, Pheobe Cook and Ms. Torphy — got on the phones to recruit volunteers or a vigil “to protest the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq.” Thirty five people showed up that day and the Alliance has turned out ever since.
Among them are residents of Little Compton, Westport, Tiverton, a few from Portsmouth and once in awhile a visitor from much farther away.
There are some younger people, even children on rare occasions, but “Most of us are children of the sixties,” Ms. Torphy said — “In other words we are getting older.” They have talked recently of reaching out with Facebook in hopes of attracting younger people.
“Seven of us have died,” among them Luke Van Orden this past year. “He was a World War II veteran,” a fact that she believes lent the group credibility with some people. Dennis Almeida, a Vietnam veteran, has also stood with the group. Another who joined them was Stephen Olesky, the lawyer who argued against the Bush administration for habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo prisoners.
Their numbers typically run about 15 to 25 people in summer, 10 to 15 in the winter. And events on the news can cause spikes in attendance — a recent example was the Connecticut school shooting.
They would have a perfect 520 Sundays but for two blizzards, “Days we couldn’t even get out of the driveway.”
Otherwise they’ve stood through snow, rain, sleet and heat.
They should have earned extra credit for turning out during the height of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
“There were four of us and it was a very brief vigil, mostly for the sake of saying we had done it,” she said. It was a very bad day for holding signs and banners, she recalls.
They stand together and they have other ways of getting their messages across.
Almost from the beginning they have sewn banners — big ones of up to 18-feet long, and smaller ones — made of cut-out pieces of colored felt over felt.
The growing collection of banners resides at Ms. Torphy’s house and cover a variety of themes.
They just finished one that states “Stop drone attacks.” Among others are “Heal the World,” “End hate speech,” End Afghanistan War, “Work for Peace,” “Not in our name,” “No Iran War.”
“Unfortunately, most of them are still current,” so will see more Sunday use, she said.
They also spread the word every week with newspaper ads in this newspaper. A recent ad listed the names of every child killed in the Newtown school shooting.
When they first stood out on the commons, reaction was mixed. Support for the war and troops was strong — the Commons was decked in yellow ribbons and people were handing out bumper stickers proclaiming support for the Iraq War and President Bush.
Some people were clearly not comfortable seeing this group standing with anti-war signs, Ms. Torphy said.
But over the years, the response has been much more welcoming.
“People come up to talk to us, wave and toot their horns as they go by,” she said.
The decision to join the town’s annual twice-around the Commons Memorial Day Parade was not an easy one.
“We had trepidation (but) decided to go ahead in a non-confrontational way.” The Alliance members didn’t announce their intentions beforehand — just got in line behind the Little Leaguers. The banners they carry in the parade honor the soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“At first I remember something of a stunned silence but then men started putting their hands over their hearts,” and people waved. “There was no hostility.”
From the beginning, Ms. Torphy said the group has tried to get its message of peace across while being as supportive as possible of the troops. The focus is on the policies that put those soldiers there, not on the soldiers themselves.
It has been a rewarding experience over the years, and sometimes emotional.
“One of the things we do each week is read the names of soldiers who have been killed,” Ms. Torphy said. “For me, that is probably the most difficult thing.” One week, nearly 30 had died — “That was very, very hard.”
A release marking the anniversary states, “The group’s initial purpose to protest the war in Iraq has expanded and changed over the years. Today, through its weekly ads in the Sakonnet Times and the Westport Shorelines, the Sakonnet Peace Alliance aims to define and challenge the many aspects of war and militarism, the unfathomable costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars on our soldiers, on innocent civilians, and on our economy, human rights violations at Guantanamo, the pernicious effects of the gun culture, the questionable legality of drone warfare, and whatever is timely and a challenge to our democratic system.
“Other projects, petitions, film showings and gatherings of the Sakonnet Peace Alliance over the ten years have aimed at educating and motivating community members to support peaceful resolutions of conflict. In its second decade, the group will continue to be a faithful witness to non-violence.”