A message from women, witnesses in black

  Today, in the short space of one hour, I was cursed, yelled at and repeatedly shown the finger. One man pulled down his pants and stuck his rear out of a car window.

Why? Simply because, together with seven other women, I donned all black clothing and a veil and stood silently on a sidewalk in Flagstaff, Ariz. We held no signs. We did not chant, sing, or shout back. We stood, hands folded in front, looking straight ahead.

"Support our troops!" yelled someone as he roared by, angrily giving us the thumbs down sign. That's exactly what we were doing. I do support our troops and I also happen to be the wife of a former military commando, so I understand better than many that soldiers do not choose their marching orders. I believe it is possible to support our troops -- to fervently hope and pray for their safe homecoming -- and, at the same time, to oppose the policies of our administration which have put our troops in such peril. That is my right.

I broke no laws today by participating in this silent, non-confrontational vigil, but I can't say the same for those unable to control their angry responses. The man who "mooned" could, I suppose, be charged with indecent exposure, and those who cursed and tried to intimidate us could possibly be charged with disturbing the peace or inciting acts of violence. But let them have their right of expression, however crude or lacking in respect. Yet, simply for standing silently alongside the road dressed in black, we somehow became the "guilty" ones.

Women in Black is a loose-knit international peace network, started jointly in 1988, by grieving Israeli and Palestinian women and since spread worldwide. The movement was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and received the Millenium Peace Prize for Women from the UN Development Fund for Women. There is no formal organization or dues to pay; it is simply an opportunity for expression, as well as reflection.

A truck cruises up, slowing down just in front of us. "Flatten 'em all. Kill 'em all," screams a young woman. Is this the spirit of democracy our government intends to export in the name of the United States? There were also several thumbs-up signs, smiles and friendly horn honks, but we counted 61 hostile responses during this one hour, almost all of them from young, white males.

And that makes me wonder: Why do so many feel provoked by a non-threatening, silent vigil? Does the sight of women dressed in symbolic mourning confront them with the image that war actually kills and maims people? That it makes widows of healthy women in their child-bearing prime and orphans of young children? That war leaves strapping, young men and vibrant, young women in wheelchairs, or sterile? That war leaves parents with nothing but photographs and a folded flag for comfort in their old age?

We wear black because we are mourning all victims of war -- men, women, children, infants; our casualties as well as others. We remain silent, because words cannot express the tragedy of war.

My first impulse was to write this anonymously because individual egos are not important here. But I also feel threatened. In late March, after 21 people were arrested in Flagstaff -- the largest mass arrest in the city's history, for civil disobedience -- the local paper received e-mails suggesting that demonstrators should have been run over.

The people sending these threats confuse patriotism with fascism; they even feel threatened by a few middle-aged women standing on a public sidewalk wearing black. But why should bullies who don't have the guts to sign their names to their emails hold the power to intimidate me into silence?

War, particularly when forced upon us the way this one has been, compels us to have opinions; I believe in the right to express mine, and will defend other's rights to express theirs. That is what American democracy is supposed to be about.

We have the right to be seen, to be silent, and to convey a message that resonates.

"God bless you," calls a male voice from a car, as he gives us the peace sign. "From Veterans for Peace," he adds, as he drives on.

If, in your downtown, you see women like us wearing black and standing quietly, you might think about our message; it is one of peace.

Susanne Severeid is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and has earned two Emmy awards for PBS television documentaries.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.