by Kerry Johnson
“Peace, Vigilers! , Last Friday was a good day to stand a Vigil for Peace, Justice, and Earthcare.”
Thus begins the weekly email that some folks have asked to receive, giving a brief report of the previous week’s “Vigil” — mainly a “listing of names of attendees” (and an occasional note or two of “incidents” during the Vigil).
My name is Kerry Johnson, and I’ve been asked by Sally Hewitt (the Whatcom Watch editor) if I wanted to do a short write-up about the Bellingham “Peace Vigil.” I’m happy to give it a try … first by trying to answer questions that I imagine someone might ask, someone who is unfamiliar with the Vigil.
• What is a “vigil”? Basically, it is a means for individuals and/or groups to publicly show their view on some public issue, usually by standing in a public area, with or without having an explanatory sign. (There is also a tradition of attending a “candlelight vigil,” in silence, in commemoration of something, or as a very mild-mannered “protest.”) It may be a one-time occurrence, or an ongoing, repeated event.
• What is “The Peace Vigil”? It is a peculiar Bellingham institution … that happens once every week, in the downtown area. For many years, it was known as “The Whatcom Peace Vigil,” but a few years back I tried to shift that title to “The Bellingham-Whatcom Peace, Justice, and Earthcare Vigil” (in order to be more specific, and broad, at the same time). It’s usually called “the Peace Vigil” or “the Vigil.”
Further, it should be known that the Vigil is anarchic in function — there is no organization, or authority, and does not represent any organization (though, there is a loose affiliation with the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center).
Known by Other Terms
• Is the Vigil known by other terms? Yes, over the years, some folks have referred to it as: a demonstration, a demo, a rally, a protest, or even as picketing.
• Why attend a vigil? There is a certain “virtue” in doing it — you’re “doing something” (participating, instead of doing nothing); you’re doing something that you think is correct (merely because it seems like the “correct thing to do”); and possibly “making a difference” (at least to a few passersby).
Qui tacet consentire videtur. An old Latin phrase, and truism, that means, roughly: “if you do not actively demonstrate that you oppose a policy or condition, you appear (to others) to approve.”
• Who started it? My understanding is that two local Friends (Quakers), Rosemary Harris and Colleen Dickinson, had the idea (in part because it is something of a Quakerly tradition), somewhere around December of 1966, to take a public stand with a personal vigil, opposing the “war in Viet Nam.” I heard that they started their vigil in one location, but then moved it after a couple of weeks to the front of the Federal Building (now the “former Federal Building”), where it has existed ever since. Early on, Rosemary asked her husband, Howard, to join them. And it has grown, and morphed, and continued from then on.
• Why is it located where it is? It is located near and around the “former Federal Building,” at the intersection of Magnolia and Cornwall, because of … “tradition” (“Fiddler On The Roof,” anyone?). When it was started, it was sort of an obvious site to make one’s point about national policy. Over my time of participation (since September of 2002), it has been suggested many times to move the Vigil to another, more heavily trafficked spot. While other locations were tried, at different times and days-of-the-week, in addition to the Vigil, no other place has ended up lasting.
• What “happens” at the Vigil? Not much, really. Originally (as was the Quaker tradition), it was a silent standing, in a group, with a single sign that said what the event was (and asking people, politely, to join in). However, over time, and changing circumstances and Vigilers, it came to be most common for each person to hold a sign that they felt expressed their sentiment for the day; and, to move to all of the corners at that location, and chat with each other.
For the last few years, we’ve had a sidewalk sign that reads “honk for peace” (yes – something of an oxymoron), that was given to us by the local members of the Socialist Alternative. Drivers passing by and honking at us, has become something of a new tradition.
Some of us wave the “peace sign” hand-gesture (,) at passersby, and this often gets a positive response.
Over the years, we’ve had some “disruptive elements” come to “the corner,” but not much since Covid-19 set in. Occasionally, someone will yell something at us from their car window, as they pass by.
Quite a few drivers and pedestrians tell us that they appreciate our doing what we do.
• What “sort” of folks tend to be present at the Vigil? In brief, I’d say those who care (about people in general, and about issues), who are aware (of what’s happening in the world, beyond what the mainstream media says is happening), and who dare (to stand in a public space, declaring their concerns).
During times of obvious “social turmoil” (Iraq War, George Floyd, etc.), the numbers of people swell (sometimes into the hundreds), and the attendees can be diverse (especially in ages). However, on a regular basis, something like 10 to 20 people show up, who are mostly senior-citizens (who have the time and ability to show up on a Friday afternoon).
Also, the regular Vigilers (or perhaps “regular irregulars”) tend to be rather independent-minded, from the mainstream, and even from each other. Sometimes a local contingent of the Raging Grannies accompany us, and sing their protest songs
For a few years, there has often been a small Native American representation, and from them there is often some drumming and chanting.
(For quite a few years, in the early 2000s, Food-Not-Bombs distributed free food during the Vigil, but the Health Department placed more restrictions on the FNB than the participants wanted to meet, so it discontinued).
Badge of Honor
• What does it “feel” like, to be at the Vigil? For most newcomers, it probably will feel quite “odd,” as this activity is highly unusual in our society. However, if one gets to meet and chat with others, this “oddity” starts to feel more like a “badge of honor” (if noted at all).
• Does the Vigil make any “difference?” Hard to say — difference Vigilers would give different responses. Certainly, the Vigil is mostly appreciated by regular passersby. To Vigilers themselves, it is something of a community (and maybe even a little bit of an alternative to a church).
Over the years, some pedestrians have commented that the Vigil seems like a “waste of effort,” as they assume that this activity is the sole social-activism that we Vigilers do — which is mostly … incorrect!
• Are “opposing views” expressed at the Vigil? Not as a rule, but there can be. Some of us refer to our location as “democracy corner,” as we are aware this is a public space, and varying opinions are likely to take place — we may not “like” everything we see and hear, but we do not “control” anything.
• Are there signs available for newcomers to hold? If so, what do they say? May I bring my own? As the “acting Vigil caretaker,” I store, bring, and take away the signs that are readily available for folks to hold. The signs express many issues, as they were brought to the Vigil by different Vigilers, over time, and left as part of the “menu” to choose from. You may also make (or have made) your own sign, saying whatever it is you want to say.
• If I attend the Vigil, might I be “spied on?” Maybe. Who knows. The Bellingham Police Department has a CCTV at the corner, but we’ve been told that the department does not store the videos for long (except if there has been a “public incident” that needed investigation). I do take photos every week, and send these out to Vigilers who have requested to receive them in an email, and I can’t be sure where the photos end up.
• Does anyone get “paid”? No (but we do joke about getting time-and-a-half, if we happen to stay late).
• Where is the Vigil located, and when does it take place? We Vigilers gather at the corner of Magnolia Street and Cornwall Avenue, every Friday afternoon. Traditionally, and most commonly, it takes place from 4:00 until 5:00 p.m. In the last couple of years, during winter’s early-dark period (November through January), we’ve shifted the time one hour earlier (from 3:00 until 4:00 p.m.).
• There are currently three separate email lists that I maintain: “The Vigilist” (noting who was attending), sent out once a week (usually), “Vigilpix” (photos from this last week’s Vigil), sent out once a week (usually), and “Vigil events/actions/info,” sent irregularly, about information I sense the Vigilers might like to know. So far, the addressees are all in the “public” section of each email (as I try to engender some sense of “community” within the Vigil, even though this may present some privacy issues).
• We claim that our Peace Vigil is the longest-standing one in the United States (or even “universe”), and will continue to think this until someone proves us wrong.
• In past years (pre-Covid), members of the Vigil have participated in various parades around Bellingham, carrying (“flying”) Jane, The Peace Dove. This was at the instigation and leadership of Jamie Donaldson, using the instructions given by Jane Goodall (on the internet), and put together by a small party of members, behind the Firehouse Café. This was fun for all those who participated, many parade-watchers seemed uplifted in spirit to see the Peace Dove, and it helped The Vigil to be even more well-known. (I have a dim memory that there may have been one or two previous outsized doves constructed locally, but I don’t have firsthand knowledge.)
• We’ve had an occasional picnic during summers, most often behind the Firehouse Café, under the spreading bows of the Asian Sycamore. We’ve also (rarely) gathered at someone’s house (or at the Peace Center) to make new signs, or repurpose old ones.
• In the most active anti-war years (2003-2008?), there was also an after-Vigil discussion group that would meet at various nearby locations/cafés.
• We would like people in the area to know about the existence of the Vigil, and for them to consider attending. If you think you might be interested in trying it out, or you know of someone who might be interested in trying it out, please consider coming down if you are able, and telling others about it.
There is a Facebook page (Bellingham-Whatcom Peace Vigil), graciously set up and maintained by one of the younger Vigilers a few years ago, but has recently fallen into disuse (due to that person’s “other priorities” in life). (Anyone wanting to work on this?)
• We maintain a list called the “Honor Roll,” for Vigilers who have passed to a more peaceful place. If you know of someone who should be on this Honor Roll, please contact me with specifics.
• If you know of where to obtain photos of Vigils from years past, please let me know, as I would appreciate collecting them.
People have been very supportive of the Vigil over the years, and I can’t speak for all of its history before I became involved, but certainly the contributions have been many, and varied.
A few folks to make special note of (during my years as caretaker):
• Judy Perry donated her 1994 Ford Aerostar minivan to “the cause.” (The van has been named the “Judiffann Vigilvan” in her “honor.”)
• Kurt Dunbar has had made and donated beautiful T-shirts (using the logo that he designed) a couple of times. As well, he has had made (and donated) two types of Vigil lapel-pins, and a business card.
• Harold Niven created many of the handmade flags that are flown in good weather, and has tie-dyed some of the Vigil T-shirts, for extra color. (At the Vigil, he often passes out small chocolates to folks.)
• Martina Boyd (with a backup from Bruce Radtke) has worked several years to secure a convenient parking spot for the Vigilvan, near the Old Federal Building.
• Many folks help get the signs and flags set up at the start of each Vigil, and likewise, many help taking things down and back into the Vigilvan.
Images Gathered by DuckDuckGo:
If anyone knows of more video or article links, please contact me with them. Thanks! Kerry Johnson: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kerry Johnson started attending The Vigil around September 2002, following the example of a friend, due to seeing that a major immoral invasion was coming, based on lies. Kerry believes that he started “caretaking” the Vigil paraphernalia (signs and flags) in early 2010, as he had a van available that could hold and store everything. The Vigil has been, and continues to be, rewarding for Kerry.