Honking for Peace: Two Seconds of Solidarity

MACMILLAN: If you’ve ever traveled along Broad Street just north of Philadelphia City Hall, you might have spotted them standing along the narrow median strip: A small band of demonstrators – mostly silver-haired women – asking you to honk your horn.

ZAPPALA: Oh, I sort of leave here deaf sometimes, but I get over it.

MACMILLAN: That’s Celeste Zappala, and she doesn’t want you to forget about the wars.

ZAPPALA: We as a little group have signs that say “honk for peace;” “honk to end the war,” and “support our troops; bring them home now.”

MACMILLAN: The first part of her plan is working – and the discordant din blares along the block for an hour – but Zappala thinks it does much more.

ZAPPALA: Even if it’s – you know – a two-second honk, it’s two seconds of solidarity. It’s two seconds of consciousness-raising. It’s just a way to remind people that there are wars going on in their name.

MACMILLAN: Now ten years after the United States first waged war in Afghanistan, there’s a lot of honking. Zappala says the nation has been following a “frightening” path – but she is driven by personal reasons as well.

ZAPPALA: My son, Sgt. Sherwood baker was killed in Iraq on April the 26th, 2004. And I knew before he went that the war was wrong. I wasn’t loud enough.

MACMILLAN: Baker was the first Pennsylvania National Guard soldier to be killed in action since 1945.

ZAPPALA: When he was killed, my family made a decision that we would speak out.

MACMILLAN: After college, Baker worked as a nursery school teacher and a social worker, caring for mentally handicapped adults — even helping one couple to get married. Zappala describes her son as someone who would’t let you stay sad if he was around, that loved kids and drew people to him:

ZAPPALA: Musical; he was a disc jockey. He was a funny guy.

MACMILLAN: And Zappala says Baker was the kind of guy that you could count on.

ZAPPALA: If you were in trouble, and you had three people to call; he’d be one of the people you would want to call to help you out.

MACMILLAN: Baker was a big guy too, and he answered that sort of call in 1996, to fill sandbags as the Susquehanna River was threatening to flood Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, where he was living at the time. He found himself working side-by-side with National Guard soldiers, and later told he mother that he liked the guys.

ZAPPALA: And in 1997 when he joined the National Guard, they promised that they would clear off his student loans and he would have all this extra money and he could get his house, and he would never go to war.

MACMILLAN: Zappala was concerned – like the mother of any soldier – but her son reassured her that the national guard didn’t go to war. He told her they just helped out at disasters.

ZAPPALA: “And what’s the worst that could happen mom? Maybe I’d have to arrest you and daddy at a demonstration.

MACMILLAN: Zappala has been a lifelong antiwar demonstrator.

EWING: Celeste was born an activist.

MACMILLAN: That’s Zappala’s lifelong friend, Ann Ewing. The have been fighting for peace together for decades, going back to the Vietnam era.

EWING: The Vietnam War was pointless, a waste of life.

MACMILLAN: Then in 2003, with American wars underway in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pennsylvania Guard was called to active duty for the first time since World War II.

ZAPPALA: He was conflicted but he said you know I have taken an oath before God, and I will go and do my duty, and bring myself and my men home safely.

MACMILLAN: Zappala says Baker’s unit was on a mission providing security for the Iraq Survey Group, which was still looking for weapons of mass destruction.

ZAPPALA: There was some kind of an explosion in a factory building. I don’t know what it was really; never did learn. And he was killed.

MACMILLAN: As soon as they got they news, Zappala says her family sensed the turning point.

ZAPPALA: I knew that night. His father knew it. His brothers knew it. We were not going to be quiet. This was wrong, and I was not going to let anybody co-opt his death; and wrap their flags around it and call it right, because it was wrong

MACMILLAN: Behind her glasses, tears are welling in this bereaved mother’s eyes ones more time – but she grabs every chance to engage those passing by. Another mom – with a son in Iraq – stops to commiserate over the treatment of soldiers, but defends the mission. A homeless Vietnam veteran asks Zappala for help and she hands him a little cash, asking only that he spend it on food. He lashes out as he walks away.

HOMELESS VETERAN: We’re not dug addicts. We was betrayed.

MACMILLAN: Ewing says that these encounters are not unusual but that her friend handles rejection well.

EWING: Well, Celeste’s persistence is staggering. There are people here that will give you the finger and that sort of thing. Her grace in the face in the face of that is always a lesson to me.

MACMILLAN: But looking forward, Zappala admits that she has not been feeling hopeful for awhile.

ZAPPALA: You know; in a lot of ways I see a great nation that is crumbling under the weight of it’s own greed and bad decisions; and it’s frightening to me.

MACMILLAN: She seems concerned in particular with the generation now entering the workforce, at the same point in life as her son when he first  joined the guard.

ZAPPALA: I see that many young people finish college with enormous loans; and they can’t find a job. The best they can do is Starbucks.

MACMILLAN: Yet, Zappala laments, she has seldom found much youthful support in resistance to the wars.

ZAPPALA: Kind of sick at heart that it’s all old people; it’s Vietnam vets, it’s parents of military. It’s old lefties and church people that come to anti-war demonstrations.

MACMILLAN: SHE was feeling just as discouraged six years ago when she happened upon a man – with his nine year old son – who were protesting alone on this same spot. Zapalla and her friends have been standing with him ever since.

ZAPPALA: And we have joined, and there are always at least three of us and sometimes as many as 30.

MACMILLAN: Jeff Harland was fearing for the life of his brother, who was in the military and had just been deployed to Kuwait. He conceived of this “Final Friday” protest – held on the last Friday of each month – and finds encouragement in Zappala’s support.

HARLAND: Oh, her works is so inspiring. I mean, I was honored that she wanted to come out here and stand with me because you know her work reaches thousand of people and emanates from her extremely generous heart

MACMILLAN: Now, much as when she found Harlan, Zappala is suddenly finding new inspiration   – in the faces of the recent the OccupyWallStreet protesters.

ZAPPALA: I’m very excited by what’s going on in New York..  energized but the fact that there are people there that don’t have gray hear.

MACMILLAN: For Zappala, this new wave of inspiration may have come just in time.

ZAPPALA: Just a month ago I thought I can’t do this anymore, I’ve got to give that up, I can’t, it’s just hopeless – and then, there is is; there’s those kids in New York City, like the kids who went out in Egypt and Tunisia and decided that they were just going to go for it; and that gives me great hope.

MACMILLAN: Since Zappala and her friends began meeting here on Broad Street, the Army closed a recruiting station at the other end of the block, but as the wars linger on, this group has no plan to leave.

ZAPPALA: People can count on us being here – once a month – and in this very visible, very busy place – give people a chance to express their opinion along with ours: The wars need to stop, and our troops need to come home.

MACMILLAN: As the hour draws down, sirens wail along the block as police cars escort buses from a nearby university, apparently transporting the football team, and Zappala exits laughing at the collective priorities.

ZAPPALA: I’ve never had a police escort to go some place. I’ve had police escorts to leave.

MACMILLAN: More protests – called  “Occupy Together” – have now taken hold in dozens of US cities. Celeste Zappala has already joined them at Philadelphia City Hall – as well as on Wall Street and in Washington, DC – but still plans to return to the corner of Arch Street and North Broad for the next Final Friday – on October 28th.

For War News Radio, I’m Jim MacMillan

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