The PeaceWorks Park vigil was an anti-war protest action that occurred in Gas Works Park beginning Sunday, August 26, 1990 and carrying on through the end of the [Gulf War]. Throughout this period of over six months, including the cold of winter, there was a continuous 24-hour-a-day vigil in the park in opposition to the military buildup and the war itself. Although the core of the vigil was a group of 25-50 dedicated, mostly young, activists, among the people who would participate in the vigil at one point or another were former congressman and future governor Mike Lowry, then-city-councilperson Sue Donaldson, sixties icon Timothy Leary, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
"A free speech zone for world peace"Edit
The vigil arose out of a Peace Concert that had been held in the park the weekend before Labor Day. Don Glenn, organizer of the longstanding Peace Concert series (an outgrowth of his days with the Love Family) had addressed the crowd, expressing the irony of continuing the concert series as usual with a war looming ("When the president of the United States is undermining peace in the world, it's pretty hard to hold a celebration for peace."). He called for people to stay after and discuss what to do, saying "[We should...] stay here until we can hold the real peace concert"; little did anyone know they would stay half a year.
Initially, the group gathered in and around the Seattle Portable Outdoor Theater (SPOT), a large, circuslike tent/stage that had been erected for the peace concert.
The group's first consensus statement already expressed what were to prove the themes of the vigil. Although the chief focus would be opposition to the Gulf War, it almost equally focused on the creation of a space for free-speech discussion. In keeping with the democracy movement that had so recently swept through the Communist Bloc, there was as much concern with means as with ends:
PeaceWorks Park is a free-speech forum for world peace. We are calling for an end to the U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf region. We are gathered in the center of Seattle's Gasworks Park, exercising our First Amendment rights to speak out: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war."
One of the first institutions established were "silent circles" occurring every six hours: at midnight, 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. A flyer from early September announces, "We especially need people for the 6 a.m. circle. Come by on your way to work in the morning. Bring juice, coffee, breakfast rolls, etc."
Meetings typically occurred immediately after these silent circles. Within a few weeks, the group had adopted a regular agenda for meetings, with items ranging from "morale" to "educating ourselves" to "food and wood".
One of the vigilists likened it to "a continuous town meeting held on the commons", an attempt to prevent "a silent America going to war". Another, a veteran Greenpeace canvasser, remarked that while he had no expectation that "a bunch of ragtag hippies in Seattle are going to stop a war", he still hoped that this would prove an effective way to educate and to draw some media attention to what was, at the time the vigil started, a relatively ignored troop deployment.
Participants at first slept in the parkEdit
From the start it was clear the the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation wanted the vigil out, and the vigilists were determined to run their vigil in such a manner as not to give them an excuse to kick them out. A September 3, 1990 story in the Seattle Times, about a week into the vigil, records, "Participants at first slept in the park. Friday afternoon they were asked by the Seattle Parks Department to move elsewhere after holding that night's midnight candlelight ceremony."
Even the earliest communiques any flyers carry hints that the difficulties of holding such an action in a public park extended beyond dealing with city officials. "Come join us. Come speak out!" they called, "Bring food, bring musical instruments," but also, "Please do not bring alcohol or other drugs." Six weeks in, when a group of non-violence trainers from Seattle Non-Violent Action Group came to do a role-playing workshop on Thursday, Oct. 4, they were a bit surprised that most of the vigilists were more interested in tactics for dealing with park drunks than with the police.
Although Gasworks was, at the time, a 24-hour-a-day park, there was a rule against "camping" overnight. The rule was written broadly enough that simply remaining in the park overnight, even wakefully, qualified as camping. However, after some lengthy conferences with the police up at the North Precinct, it became clear that as long as people came and went, and no individual was in the park through the night, the continuous vigil was technically in compliance. For a period, the parks department held the vigilists to this absurd ritual; within weeks they relented, and while few people actually slept in the park, the maintenance of a wakeful overnight vigil was tolerated.
The September 3 Seattle Times story represented a victory of sorts for the vigil: with a story like that in the paper, the vigil's profile was much higher and, hence, their tenure in the park much more assured. It was no accident: about a dozen of the people involved had scrambled like mad for a week to bring together a Sunday, Sept. 2 "Prepare for Peace" rally (speakers, music, etc.) in the midst of the vigil, and to get press coverage for it, in order to shore of the perception of the vigil as a legitimate political action, not just the extension (without permit) of a one-day, permitted concert.
The first 1000 hoursEdit
Some of the character of the vigil, and of the issues it had to deal with, can be gleaned from the various announced events during roughly the third through fifth weeks of the vigil:
|Saturday, Sept. 8||"Join most of us at the peace march downtown!... Then come up and join our vigil to continue talking and working toward future actions. (We also need people who can sit the vigil during the march.)|
|Sunday, Sept. 9||12 noon: Picnic. |
2 p.m.: Teach-in.
|Wednesday, Sept. 12||8pm. WORKSHOP. "Consensus: What it means and how to achieve it"|
|Thursday, Sept. 13||7pm. Open acoustic music (drums welcome till 10 p.m.)|
|Friday, Sept. 14||Sunset Drum Circle.|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||12 noon. MEDITATION WORKSHOP: Instruction provided by Bemaraj, nephew of Shiva Bala Yogi. Come explore inner peace through meditation.|
2pm. Play on homelessness, by Seattle Public Theater
|Sunday, Sept. 16||12 noon. Picnic, with speakers from NORML|
2 p.m. teach-in "Our Native Lands"
|Tuesday, Sept. 18||8pm. WORKSHOP. "Racism: a poison inside and outside the peace movement"|
|Wednesday, Sept. 19||8pm. WORKSHOP. "Consensus: What it means and how to achieve it. This workshop proved so popular last week that we are planning a review and a continuation"|
|Friday, Sept. 21||Sunset Drum Circle.|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||12 noon. Free Speech Picnic|
|Sunday, Sept. 23||12 noon: Picnic and concert: The Ducks, Venus Envy, Kuli Loach, Innocent Bystanders|
|Tuesday, Sept. 25||7pm. WORKSHOP. "Drugs, Oil, and other addictions"|
|Wednesday, Sept. 26||12 noon and 7pm. WORKSHOP. "The future of the vigil" The vigil is one month old. Where we stand and where we're going. Agenda.|
|Thursday, Sept. 27||8pm. Acoustic singalong.|
|Friday, Sept. 28||Sunset Drum Circle.|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||noon. ART-IN. All artists welcome. Display your work, create art inthe park... Please respect the Seattle Parks Code: do not attach your works to parks structures... Team projects, political art especially encouraged...|
5pm. Poetry: Jesse Bernstein, Ricardo Wang, Randy Thompson & others
8pm. Discussion: "PEACE". Led by PeaceWorks Park Men's Group (at the sundial at Gas Works).
This was all on top of two, three, even four internal meetings every day; also, a mid-September flyer announces women's meetings every Monday 8pm and every Thursday 2pm.
Sunday October 7 at 10 a.m. marked 1000 hours of the vigil.
The two coalitionsEdit
By this time there were three main entities in Seattle opposing Operation Desert Shield: the vigil, the Northwest Coalition Against U.S. Military Intervention in the Mid-East, and the Seattle Coalition for Peace in the Middle East. The Northwest Coalition was jokingly described by one vigilist as "Six Vanguards in Search of a Following": member groups included Workers World Party, the Freedom Socialist Party, and the Revolutionary Communist Party. The Seattle Coalition included numerous church-based groups, local chapters of third-world solidarity groups such as Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), and several Jewish peace groups, notably the local chapter of International Jewish Peace Union (IJPU). The main overt point of difference between the two coalitions was that the Northwest Coalition took no position on Saddam Hussein, and the Seattle Coalition condemned Iraq's advance into Kuwait as firmly as they condemned the U.S. buildup.
The vigil attempted simply to split the difference, participating in and helping to publicize actions of both coalitions equally, inviting both to hold meetings in the shelter structure of the park as a sign of solidarity with the vigil. Vigilist and military veteran John Hatch, quoted in the the University of Washington Daily (Oct. 19, 1990) remarked that the group "has no consensus on how the problems of the Middle East should be solved. But we all agree that the U.S. does not need a military presence there." However, the vigilists were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that certain members of the Northwest Coalition, especially those connected to Workers World, were active apologists for Saddam Hussein. While still maintaining generally positive relations with the Northwest Coalition (and especially with the FSP), the vigilists were drifting closer to the Seattle Coalition, as indicated by an October 3 consensus statement:
Being, for the most part, citizens and residents of the United States, it is our first duty to speak out when the U.S. government undermines peace in the world. The PeaceWorks Park vigil has done that since its inception. Our original, widely reproduced, consensus statement calls for "an end to U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf region."
However, we are also, one and all citizens and residents of the world. It is our duty to speak out against breaches of the peace committed by other governments as well. We are equally clear in our condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The problem is not the U.S. government alone. Imperial aggression is imperial aggression, whether committed by the U.S., Iraq, or any other nation. We are not endorsing the exiled Emir of Kuwait: ideally we support a democracy in Kuwait, not a restored monarchy. That issue is secondary to the removal of foreign troops.
Saddam Hussein's Iraq started and prolonged a war with Iran. This war was conducted with unrelenting brutality. Iraq used chemical weapons against its own citizens in Kurdistan. Iraq's invation of Kuwait was a stab in the back to a fellow Arab state and longstanding ally.
Saddam Hussein and George Bush both act from the principle of rule by the sword. This is precisely what we oppose. It is crucial that we speak out against both of them: in the fight that really counts, they are on the same side.
Almost from the first, the lower level of the Gasworks Park shelter "barn" had functioned a month as something like a movement headquarters, with not only meeting spaces but bulletin boards, stack of flyers, political art, and even a bookcase of (mostly) political books. With colder weather coming, discussions turned first to the need for an indoor office, but soon to the need for a base house, as well, providing both a kitchen and indoor crash space.
Many of the vigilists were poor. Quite a few were vehicular dwellers, and several others had given up jobs to participate heavily in the vigil. Feeding the vigilists was no small matter: while there were quite a few donations of food, they usually didn't keep pace with the need. An October 12 document on the food situation contains comments like "Ask your family and friends", and "Emergency only: food bank, but we should be careful not to hit them unless they have a surplus. Donate our surplusses", and "If we dumpster dive, it should be to cook: health consideration", but also specifics like "Ask at Hot Lips Pizza on the Ave (but don't undercut Teen Feed; set up a regular night)" and "When we must spent money... extend produce with pasta, rice... Ma Poh Tofu at Original King on Roosevelt... is a bargain at a little over $5, easily serves 2, add rice..."
To support the vigilists and to provide shelter to the growing number of people attracted to the vigil, the PeaceWorks Park Affinity House was opened five blocks north of the vigil site. The Affinty house was, at any given time, the home of upwards of 40 people. Rent was provided by those who could afford to pay with the remainder coming from one of many "financial angels". Most of the organized activity took place in the "Zen Room", the graffiti covered office space that housed the phone, a beleaguered Mac and its deafening dot-matrix printer.
Events in the park continued. A flyer from around this time announces a "Tuesday evening 'bring-your-own-coffee' coffeehouse at the park". General meetings remained frequent, but were now roughly every day or two, instead of every six hours. A standard agenda was adopted: meetings began with about a 1-minute self-introduction of each person present, a 5-minute review of consensus process, a 1-minute reminder of top-level goals (concretized at this point as "Help end the Gulf Crisis in peace, justice, liberty; free speech; steward the park; Spiritual center; Democracy/"people power"; education"), then on to business: "maintaining the vigil" (a long list of related topics ranged from "internal flow of information" to "sleep"), "educating ourselves", "events", and "publicity".
The idea that the people involved with the vigil all fit into some category of "hippie" or "peace freak" or any stereotype at all was immediately shattered for me when I first met even a handful of the vigilists. The vigilists I have met range from conservatively dressed psychologists to young men just out of the military to back-to-the-land organic farmers. Some are Seattlites, others came to Seattle for the vigil, while others have been travelling around the country and just happenned to be here at the right time. One vigilist joked that if she hadn't stopped for coffee, she wouldn't have known.
Likewise, the idea that all of the vigilists think along the same lines was shattered with the first conversation I listened in on. Despite being a peace activist group, not all of the vigilists are pacifists, nor are all against U.S. military intervention in all circumstances. Despite the religious tradition of vigils, spiritual beliefs range from pagan to atheist and all points all around and in between. With the addition of visitors not involved in the vigil, there is rarely an opinion stated in conversation whose opposite cannot be found.
A considerably less sympathetic description of one vigilist came from Fredic Sanai, writing in the University's right-wing alternative paper, where he described one vigilist in the following manner:
…a thirtyish rail-thin man who appeared to have been up for the last three or four days, during which time he was apparently able to go about his business unhindered by the copious quantity of viscous secretion collected in the corners of his bloodshot eyes. He sported a very chic wool watchcap (of the "Escape from Alcatraz" style) on which someone had painted crusty white peace symbols with what looked like typewriter correction fluid…
Goddess of DemocracyEdit
One of the more dramatic events within the vigil was the arrival in the park of a 15-foot-high, 300-pound replica of the statue of the Goddess of Democracy from the then-recent protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The statue arrived on Saturday, October 27, arriving across Lake Union in a canoe paddled by nine Suquamish Indians. The statue had been constructed by Chinese and other international students at Seattle University under the guidance of artist and (at that time) student advisor Jeff Hengst, who later became a prominent Seattle artist, and is now known simply as "Hengst".
Almost none of the vigilists knew that the statue was coming until they saw the Suquamish canoeists paddling toward the park. Don Glenn—organizer of the Peace Concert where the vigil had started—and a few of his close associates had communicated with Hengst, but by this point they were only tangentially involved in the vigil, and they hadn't communicated with any of the people who had emerged as the leaders or spokespeople of the vigil.
A ceremony was quickly organized for the arrival of the statue. About 40 vigilists, were present, along with Hengst, the Suquamish canoeists, and a few others. Someone managed to get hold of Seattle Times reporter Leon Espinoza and photographer Alan Berner, who knew a good story when they saw one. Jason Brown, one of the spokespeople for the vigil, quickly penned some verses to deliver as part of the welcoming ceremony.
The statue became a potent symbol for the vigil, and a physical reminder of many of the vigilists' identification with the civil society movements that had recently brought down most of the world's Communist regimes. However, it was also a bit of an albatross: the Department of Parks and Recreation does not look kindly on the erection of unauthorized statues in its parks. As one spokesperson for the department said at the time, "What if the next statue someone tries to erect is of Jefferson Davis?"
While the vigilists understood this logic, they also understood that they were in possession of a very potent symbol. When Parks Department officials threatened to "red-tag" the statue like an illegally parked vehicle and tow it out of the park, some of the vigilists made it clear that if that was attempted they would chain themselves to the statue. The Parks Department had the sense to realize that photos of police arresting protestors around the statue would provide a visual echo of the Tiananmen massacre, not exactly good publicity for the City.
Jeff Hengst and Miwako Igarashi, as the owners of the statue, wrote a letter to the Seattle City Parks Commission, in which they asserted that "both the artists and the Peace Vigil steering committee [no such committee existed - ed.] seek to co-operate with the regulations of the Parks Commission while at the same time finding a solution that is acceptable to those involved in the vigil." They asserted that they owned the statue, and had loaned it to the vigil, that "neither the artists/owners nor the Peace vigil consider the statue to be a permanent addition to Gas Works Park," and expressed their intention to bring it in and out of the park several times for various demonstrations, and to get it out of the way of some planned roof repairs on the roof of the "barn" where the vigil was largely taking place.
A compromise was finally worked out: the statue was placed on a wheeled platform, making it easy to move. It came and went from the park several times (most notably as part of a protest march against a visiting Chinese trade delegation), before finding its way back to Hengst's studio of that time, on the edge of downtown. Being mostly made of plaster, it had an only slightly longer life than the Tiananmen original.
"Berkeley in the sixties, Seattle in the nineties!"Edit
When the film "Berkeley in the Sixties" opened at the Neptune Theater around the beginning of October, vigilists were out working the line with a specially made handbill that began, "Berkeley in the sixties, Seattle in the nineties!". The prophecy would be fulfilled nine years later at WTO, when the nineties had barely a month remaining.
Two aspects of the vigil definitely pointed the way to the WTO demonstrations. One of these was a strong sense of street theater. The other was that although there was definitely a primary issue at hand — the impending Gulf War — the vigil was by no means "single-issue politics". In addition to workshops on everything from racism to drug abuse, the vigilists turned out en masse in support of other groups' actions, ranging from CISPES's Walkathon for El Salvador to a protest by Chinese students and Tibetan Buddhists against a visit by a PRC trade delegation. (One of the Chinese students did a translation of the vigil's consensus statements into traditional Chinese and posted copies around the International District.)
One echo of 'Sixties Berkeley was Allen Ginsberg's attendance at a vigil meeting when he was in town in mid-October 1990 (with Ray Manzarek, formerly of The Doors) to do a poetry reading at the Backstage, a bar and performance venue in Ballard at the time. Ginsberg said of the vigil, with a sort of optimistic pessimism, that it "reminds me of a number of successful peace movements that were successful in being prophetic, and even could be considered somewhat successful in halting or delaying or diminishing a war."
"Honor the Veteran. Oppose the War." Edit
On Veterans' Day, November 11, 1990, the vigilists organized a rally on the plaza in front of the Federal Building in Downtown Seattle, under the slogan "Honor the Veteran. Oppose the War". This was the first major action organized by the vigilists outside of the park. The rally lasted a little over an hour, and consisted mostly of short speeches. It was a cold blustery day, and the center of downtown was a bit empty for the holiday, but the event drew reasonable media coverage, and even showed up on at least two channels on the nightly news. The roster of a dozen or so speakers included at least seven war veterans, dating from World War II through the Vietnam War, all speaking against war in the Gulf.
The weather became steadily colder. The vigil lent its support to quite a few other groups' actions. One of these was the Seattle Coalition's December 1 rally, which gathered at the Federal Building marched to Steinbrueck Park and continued there. The vigilists lined up musicians to play at both rallies and, at the tail end of the rally at Steinbrueck Park, ran a high-energy open mike session of three- and four-minute speeches, including one rather memorable speech by a Marine Reservist who was unhappily facing being shipped to the desert and called upon the crowd to prevent a war in which he did not want to fight.
On December 8, the vigilists organized a sunset candlelight memorial at Gas Works on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the death of John Lennon. On the same evening, at Shaffer Auditorium at Seattle University the vigil co-sponsored a panel with the university's International Student Union (through the Jeff Hengst connection) entitled "What kind of Movement are we trying to build?" Panelists included two of the vigil spokespeople, as well as Saba Mahmood of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Paul Zilsel of the International Jewish Peace Union, and a speaker from the Freedom Socialist Party whose name seems to be lost in the mists of time.
Several times events had threatened to move the vigil into the realm of civil disobedience; several times, the vigilists had backed away from the prospect. In mid-November, however, Toni Long of the Parks Department informed Jason Brown and Joules Graves that an anonymous Wallingford resident had insisted that the department enforce a rule against fires in parks after 11 p.m., a rule that had never before been enforced at Gas Works, where vehicular dwellers and homeless people often congregated late at night, especially in the winter.
Brown put out a statement in solidarity with the homeless people saying, among other things, "Homeless people have burned fires at Gas Works Park fire pit for years. To them at this time of year it is a matter of necessity… The shelters are full. Can anyone expect these people to risk freezing to death in order to avoid violating an ordinance which has rarely, if ever, been enforced in the past?" He suspended himself from his role as a spokesperson for the vigil in order perform civil disobedience in solidarity with the homeless without implicating the vigil: "While I can survive without the fire, and in fact very rarely frequent the fire pit area, I see many homeless people around that fire whose health would be in grave danger without that warmth. I have taken it upon myself to risk arrest by building a fire tonight and maintaining it beyond 11pm. I will not put the fire out in response to requests from Parks Security or Police. If they extinguish the fire, I intend to rebuild it."
In fact, the matter did not come to a head, and Brown rejoined the vigil. The matter of whether there could be fires at night continued to be a bone of contention for the next several months; some nights there was a fire in the fire pit, some nights no fire at all; eventually, a permit was granted for a barrel fire.
The written recordEdit
The vigil left behind a prodigious quantity of printed materials. A zine from within the vigil, "Time for Another", produced three proper issues and a few one-sheets; there were numerous position papers, agendas, notes from workshops, etc., and there were often several different posters by different designers to promote any given event, with styles ranging from neo-hippy to clean and contemporary.
There are also tape recordings of many of the meetings, including the one where Allen Ginsberg showed up and led the group in some meditative chanting. Having decided early on that the best defense against police spying was to be so radically open that there was nothing to infiltrate, and having adopted a protocol at meetings where an object was passed to determine whose turn it was to speak, the vigilists soon hit upon a brilliant synthesis of the two: participants in meetings passed around a portable cassette deck (which was promptly dubbed "the sacred tape recorder"), and the person holding the tape recorder was the one allowed to speak.
About fifteen people were officially recognized at one or another time by the vigilists as spokespeople, trusted to speak publicly on behalf of the vigil and to accurately represent consensus positions. Like other decisions, spokespeople were recognized by consensus; generally, this mean something very close to unanimous agreement that the person could fulfill this role. Among the spokespeople were:
- Joules Graves, who at 19 emerged as one of the youngest spokespeople of the vigil, and who counted it as her first political activity, has gone on to a career as a songwriter and performer; her songs reflect strong feminist and environmentalist convictions.
- Vivian McPeak — already an activist at the time of the vigil (he founded the Peace Heathens) — has continued to be a visible figure in grassroots politics, in more senses than one: he is executive director of Seattle Hemp Fest.
- Marlin Hathaway, now owner of the Asteroid Café in Fremont: besides inspiring many of the vigilists with his radical political vision, he also fed them very, very well.
- Joe Mabel, a software developer and later a major contributor to the Wikipedia, who has been involved on and off in activist politics and who maintains the archives of the vigil. During the first eight weeks of the vigil, Joe had primary responsibility to liaise and negotiate with the Seattle Police Department.
- Jason Brown, who held a similar role in dealings with the Department of Parks and Recreation.
- Randy Thompson, who with his wife Tyrtle was responsible for the SPOT tent in which the vigil began.
- Michael "Spiz" Bishop, a former Greenpeace canvasser, who probably spent the largest amount of time physically in the park.
- Much of this article was written from the archives of the vigil. Currently those are held by User:Jmabel, who seeks a more appropriate longterm repository for the archives.
- Apparently there was a wire report about Ginsberg at the vigil; see, for example "Ginsberg goes to war", Dallas Times Herald, October 15, 1990; also a mention in that same day's "People" column of the Dallas Morning News.
- —, "PeaceWorks Park vigil perseveres", Seattle Community Catalyst, November 1990; the Catalyst was a Seattle activist paper of the time, edited by Lansing Scott; most likely the unsigned article was his.
- Siamka Vossoughi, "'PeaceWorks Park' is site of protest", U.W. Daily, October 11, 1990, 6.
- Elouise Schumacher, "Peace vigil for Mideast continues", Seattle Times, September 3, 1990, B3.
- Chuck Taylor, "Peace vigil hears Ginsberg's message", Seattle Times, October 12, 1990, 3E.
- Tom Warner, "'Til Johnny comes marching home again", U.W. Daily, mid-November 1990, precise date unknown.
- Jeff Hengst and Miwako Igarashi, letter to the Seattle City Parks Commission, November 1990, precise date unknown.
- Fredric Sanai, "Focus on Filth: In the Valley of the Peace Scum", publication name unknown, November 1990, precise date unknown.
- PeaceWorks Park vigil photos on Wikimedia Commons