If you’ve been downtown in Manchester on a Thursday around lunchtime, you might have noticed a handful of people holding up signs that say “End the War” and “No New War.” They are out there every week, and they have been for many years. But who are they, and why are they protesting?
The weekly vigil on the corner of Mechanic and Elm streets doesn’t protest a specific war — these people are against all U.S. military involvement, period.
“It began as a reaction to the war in Iraq, which [prompted concern with] the war in Afghanistan,” said Curtis Smith, a demonstrator and member of NH Peace Action. “Since then we’ve become aware that the U.S. is in the state of almost continual war.”
Smith said the group opposes the fact that the U.S. military budget is at least as much as all other countries’ military budgets combined. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2012, the U.S. spent $682 billion on defense, while the next 10 top-spending nations spent $652 billion combined.
When they’re out on their corner each week they are advocating nonviolent conflict resolution and hoping to make people aware of the economic and human costs of war.
“We believe that the military industrial complex is a great threat to our democracy,” Smith said. “Somebody said you can have empire and democracy, but not both.”
The core group consists of four people from southern New Hampshire, but up to about 10 people come out on any given week. Barring terrible weather, they don’t miss a week.
The vigil formed out of a similar one in Nashua. Dave Tiffany was one of the founders of the Manchester vigil, but he first organized a group in Nashua in 2005. At one point, up to 40 people met every Saturday morning in front of City Hall. There’s still a vigil in Nashua, but it’s thinned out to about three people.
When efforts expanded to Manchester, the protesters wanted a high-traffic location. City Hall was an option, but it was the middle of the winter, and the area didn’t catch any sunlight.
“We saw a corner in the sun, so we went there,” Tiffany said. “Someone from Edible Arrangements gave us chocolate-covered strawberries. We knew it was the place.”
Employees of businesses in the area said the vigils haven’t affected their work.
“It’s just a typical Elm Street thing,” said Edible Arrangements kitchen supervisor Catherine Lacey. “There’s some people on the street all the time. We’re used to having people around.”
While Hichy Mounab, an employee at USA Chicken and Biscuit, said he has never had a problem with the group, he doubts the location is the best place to get a message across.
“I think nobody notices them besides the people who live over here or work over here, so I’m not sure they chose the right position to protest against war,” he said.
But the vigil members said they’ve gotten plenty of response. When Will Thomas, a Manchester resident and member of Veterans for Peace, joined the vigils about six years ago, it was the height of U.S. occupation in Iraq, and hostility seemed to dominate the atmosphere toward the protesters, he said.
“People would drive by and call us commies or traitors. They’d say, ‘Go back to Russia,’ he said. “We sometimes got the middle finger. People would roll windows down and yell obscenities.”
But lately the response has been mostly positive, because people in the U.S. are weary of the financial, physical, and psychological costs of war, Thomas said.
“We think the American people are very tired of trillion-dollar wars, which is what Iraq and Afghanistan cost us,” Smith agreed.
According to the Pew Research Center, opposition to U.S. airstrikes in Syria surged last September, with 63 percent in opposition compared with 48 percent in August. But another Pew poll from July showed that 78 percent of Americans say members of the armed services contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being — a small decline from the 84 percent in 2009.
Regardless of public opinion, the group isn’t leaving any time soon.
“As long as the U.S. is in a state of permanent war,” Smith said, “we’re in a state of permanent vigiling.”
As seen in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Hippo.