By Kate O'Neill
In January 1991, as the U.S. prepared for war, many of us spoke up and asked for sanctions and negotiations. Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, was the largest site in the northeast for the shipment of supplies and troops to the Middle East. Peace activists blocked the gates and briefly closed the base as a literal and symbolic protest several times prior to the war. On the anniversary of Martin Luther King's birthday, the night before President Bush's "deadline," 5,000 of us gathered at the gates for a candlelight vigil to offer songs, speeches, and prayers for peace. The base was on full alert. There were rumors of terrorist bombings and rumors the police were prepared to let us wait there all night. The atmosphere was tense.
Some people lay down in the road in body bags with the names of people who had already died. Many of us, arm in arm, sang peace songs. The soldiers stood at attention. People placed burning candles in the snow along the road as they returned to their cars. Helicopters flew overhead with spotlights.
The military had placed a fire truck with hoses ready to spray us. There were German shepherd guard dogs. State troopers stood at attention with bayonets, riot clubs, and shields. When they told us to clear the road, eighty of us remained in front of the gates calmly and quietly. We had all been trained in nonviolence by members of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Peace Pagoda community in Leverett, and the American Friends Service Committee. I felt deeply connected to other members of the sangha that night, which was a culmination of weekly gatherings of the local sangha. I have heard many people comment about how important these meetings were as an expression of community support throughout the Gulf War. We had some small hope that we might prevail and that war could be averted. We knew that we were part of a long chain of people dedicated to peace and social justice.
When we read the precepts at our sangha meeting the previous Monday—"Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Use whatever means possible to protect life"—I made the decision to put my whole heart and body and life on the line. I felt scared but very free at the same time. I felt that if enough people said no, maybe we could change things. Even if we could not change George Bush's mind, we could touch those with whom we came in contact that night and beyond.
A few minutes after the warning came to clear the road, a tall uniformed man with a mustache walked up, put his hand on my arm, and said, "You're under arrest. Come with me." We walked toward two yellow school buses ready to take us to the police station. As we walked in front of the lines of soldiers with loaded rifles, I started to tell the man that I had two brothers, a father, a stepfather, and a grandfather who had all served in the U.S. military, and that I did not want to see any lives lost, that I did not think it was necessary to go to war. To my amazement he quickly said, "I agree with you." He told me he had been a Marine, and he said, "Now I'm a policeman. I do what I have to do." My heart was pounding and I breathed. I knew that in a very real sense—if someone got scared and fired a gun—any moment could be my last. The policeman and I kept talking until he handcuffed me and put me on the bus. He told me to keep my gloves on so that my hands didn't get too cold. While others were pushed up against the bus and checked for weapons—he simply asked, "You don't have any weapons do you?" "No," I said, "that would be against the whole reason I'm here." "That's what I figured," he nodded. I thought, "Even though this man is arresting me, he is an incredible bodhisattva." When I remember the kindness of this man, I am reminded of nonduality. I also know that we can touch bodhisattvas everywhere—sometimes where we least expect them.
A related experience also taught me this. When the local pro-war group wanted a permit to hold a march and rally, the Chief of Police told the Mayor, "The peace activists are trained in nonviolence. But these other people are not trained. We cannot trust the pro-war group not to fight or get drunk or start trouble. Even though we let the peace activists march, I do not think we should let the pro-war activists march." I was amazed that the Police Chief would say this publicly. Again, the peace activists were not able to stop the war, but we were able to touch the people all around us.
There are many more people we touched in the courts as well. I met many inspiring people—including a Vietnam veteran and his son who were arrested together. When we went before the judge to enter our pleas, he said, "I'm not guilty. The U.S. government is guilty for sending me to Vietnam and now for sending arms and troops to the Middle East. I'm not going to let you send my son or anyone else's children off to war. It's insanity. Do what you want with me, but stop this craziness."
Ironically, we were arrested for "disturbing the peace," when, in fact, we were "disturbing the war"—or trying to. Several months later, members of our Boston sangha worked in a soup kitchen. I found that touching this suffering took more courage in a way than civil disobedience. Maybe it is just a different kind of courage to face ordinary everyday suffering. All I know is that Buddhist practice helps a great deal. The teachings, activism, and example of Thich Nhat Hanh are particularly inspiring.
Kate O'Neill, True Bright Moon, lives in Medford, Massachusetts.