Resistance on the Corner

At 11:30 a.m. on the Sunday after President Donald Trump’s Inauguration, Susan Klein dons a floppy maroon hat with a pink “Women for Peace” button planted proudly on the front, straps on a red fanny pack stuffed with fliers, and steps out the door. It’s a half-hour walk from her home near Westville to the triangular island at the corner of Broadway and Park Street in New Haven, across from Christ Church and Maison Mathis. By noon, she’s in position, holding up a silver Styrofoam sign emblazoned with two words in bold black letters: RESIST WAR.

Klein, who spent twenty years working in the Yale University library system before retiring in 2011, grew up in New Haven where her parents protested the Vietnam War on the Green. She has stationed herself on this corner most weekends for the better part of two decades in a ritual called the New Haven Sunday Vigil. “We’re US citizens,” she told me when we first met. “We have to speak out against terrible, criminal injustice by our government.”

By noon, she’s in position, holding up a silver Styrofoam sign emblazoned with two words in bold black letters: RESIST WAR.

The protest tradition evolved out of a vigil against the Gulf War that met on the corner of Church and Chapel Streets every Thursday, starting in 1990. In 1993, the group broadened its scope and renamed itself Peace and Justice News and Views. Shortly thereafter, it morphed again into the Connecticut Coalition for Peace and Justice, a larger group of activists from nearly a dozen local organizations. In 1999, when Klein first joined, the vigil moved to its current spot, and the ten members protested the NATO bombings of Kosovo. For the past six years, she has held vigil on the corner from noon to one almost every weekend.

Just after noon, Paula Panzarella and Monica McGovern arrive. Both have been protesting for over a decade. Panzarella has held several jobs over the years, including director of a soup kitchen, volunteer providing aid to the homeless, and garment factory worker. For her, activism has provided continuity. She grew up in New Haven and became engaged with local organizing in 1991, volunteering with the Progressive Action Roundtable, a forum for New Haven-area activist groups, for eight years before joining the vigil. McGovern, the group’s most right-leaning member, joined the group in 2005 and volunteered with Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Panzarella and McGovern take over the sign, standing solemnly under the gray sky, while Klein patrols in front, tightly gripping a stack of fliers. She’s soft-spoken; sunglasses shield her kind eyes. Politely but persistently, she plies passersby with pamphlets.

The women distribute eighty fliers each Sunday, typically produced and printed by Klein or a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. This week’s flier, entitled “The Biggest Meddler,” details seven egregious examples of political interference by the United States. The women oppose all military conflict, shifting their message as the government shifts its interventions.

The day before, hundreds of thousands of women had descended on Washington, DC for the Women’s March, chanting and singing as they filled the National Mall. The women of the New Haven Vigil occupy their triangle quietly, holding their banner and waving back when a car honks. They don’t sing or shout or beat a drum. The last Sunday of each month, members of the New Haven branch of Jewish Voice for Peace stand with them. Otherwise, it’s just Klein, Panzarella, McGovern, and Joan Cavanagh, who is on her way back from Washington today.

“It’s very meaningful to stand here and bear witness and try to catch people’s attention quietly,” Klein says. McGovern doesn’t think their method reaches as many people as a larger protest might, but says, “there’s no room for me in big demonstrations because they’re dominated by left-wingers.”

Panzarella agrees with McGovern’s dislike of large protests, but disagrees with her rationale. “At a bigger demonstration, it’s hard to engage,” she says. “We give people the chance to ask the questions they have. Sometimes people approach us with animosity, but this allows us to exchange ideas.”

Some people race past, heads down. Some begrudgingly take a flier and stuff it into a pocket. But others walk away reading the flier curiously, and a few strike up conversation.

The women have spread their message in varying styles over the decades. In 1973, to protest the government’s bombings in Cambodia, Cavanagh climbed a water tower on a freeway outside Baltimore and landed in jail for ten days. At one protest on the Broadway triangle, after sharing that story, she asks Klein the name of a tall building a couple blocks away.

McGovern doesn’t think their method reaches as many people as a larger protest might, but says, “there’s no room for me in big demonstrations because they’re dominated by left-wingers.”

“That’s the Hall of Graduate Studies,” Klein replies. “Are you thinking of going up there, too?”

Cavanagh grins. “No, just looking.”

The others are less audacious in their methods. Panzarella speaks slowly and ponderously. McGovern uses short, clipped sentences. Klein often just listens, encouraging passersby to voice their concerns with occasional words of assent.

Today, a woman in a black parka walks up. “I’m Israeli and I’m absolutely terrified,” she says out of the blue. “Netanyahu and Trump are the same person.” Klein nods in agreement. They spend a few minutes decrying settlements on the West Bank.

After she leaves, Klein lets out a sigh of relief. “Sometimes you get these Orthodox Jews who say, ‘You don’t want Israel to exist,’” she explains. “I’m glad there was no argument. I’m not a confrontational person.”

Today’s vigil is the first since the inauguration of Donald Trump, but the women on Park and Broadway haven’t altered their message.

“The election didn’t change my sense of hope,” Cavanagh told me a week earlier. “It reinforced everything we’ve been standing for the last twenty years, thirty years, forty years, fifty years.”

“I’m not sure if I’ve thought of things pre-election and post-election as being different,” Klein says today.

Peace advocacy is a never-ending endeavor. Since 1999, the women have handed out around sixty thousand fliers. But there are still soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Obama, extra-judicial drone killings became commonplace, and the United States sent troops to Syria, Libya, and Somalia. Even in left-leaning New Haven, reactions to criticisms of these policies are not all positive. Sometimes people wave in support. Sometimes they give them the finger. Regardless, the women’s aims remain lofty, their dedication unfailing. “My goal would be to live in a country with a government in which everyone is respected,” Klein said. “I expect to be vigiling for the rest of my life.”

At around 12:45 p.m., a man drives by on a yellow motorcycle, blasting Wiz Khalifa and honking enthusiastically. The driver of a Mercedes gives them a thumbs up. Klein is bemused.

“This has been among the most positive responses we’ve ever had. I wonder if the inauguration and the demonstrations have something to do with it.” She pauses. “Maybe I could allow a little optimism to filter into my consciousness.”

A few minutes before the women head home, a man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a green cap shuffles up to the corner. Klein hands him a flier, and he begins speaking animatedly. “I’ve got a couple Vietnam buttons,” he said. “Lot of my friends didn’t make it back. Sometimes I get nightmares. It really scares the hell out of me. I’ve seen people killing women and children, and I still remember all of that.” His voice rises. “It makes me sick!”

“And it’s still going on,” Klein says.

They chat for a few more minutes. “Talking to you made me feel better,” the man says. He and Klein shake hands.

McGovern and Panzarella leave at one. Klein folds up the sign. “The vigil is not only important for the people who pass by,” she says, stuffing the last few fliers into her fanny pack. “It’s important for us, too. On the weeks I can’t come, the rest of the week doesn’t feel right.” The women recognize they aren’t agents of seismic change. All they try to do is get people to look up from their phones, stop for a second, and think.

Klein walks back down Broadway, heading home. The island is empty. Pedestrians stroll along. Cars speed by. War goes on.

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