Volume 74, Number 3 | June 8- 14, 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Dan Greenwald, 87, got the message out to cars passing on 24th St. at a recent demonstration by Chelsea Neighbors United To End the War.

Chelsea group taking a stand for peace each week

By Jefferson Siegel

A year after the start of the Iraq war, a mounting insurgency spurred coalition forces to seek out and destroy what they thought was its base of operations. On Nov. 8, 2004, after weeks of air assaults to “soften up” resistance, an unprecedented attack on the city of Fallujah began. Government planning had always feared a house-to-house battle in the close quarters of local streets, so U.S. forces chose instead to virtually demolish large portions of the city.

Outrage against this wholesale destruction was immediate. Two ministers from St. Mark’s Church-in-The-Bowery “made the call,” in activist lingo, to “attempt to bring out the faithful.” They wrote an appeal proclaiming their rejection of the city’s leveling. That night, almost 30 people gathered under the arch in Washington Sq. Park, and the Fallujah Witness Vigil started. Since then, every night from 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m., anywhere from two to a dozen people stand silently, holding protest signs and the occasional candle. Their intent, said James Klicker, one of the co-organizers, is to assemble nightly until the end of the war.

Last month, a second, weekly vigil began in Chelsea. The group Chelsea Neighbors United To End the War has started holding a Tuesday gathering from 6 p.m.-7 p.m. This assemblage, however, is not so silent. At their second gathering on May 17, over a dozen members, from the young to the elderly, took up positions on the corner of 24th St. and Eighth Ave.

At the stroke of 6, two locals unfurled a large banner reading, “We The People Oppose The War. Bring The Troops Home Now.” Penn South resident Katharine Roberts sat in a chair on the sidewalk, holding a painting of a dove, next to the words “Peace Now.” Marlene Litwin stood at the corner holding a sign reading, “Empty Warhead Found in White House.”

Chuck Zlatkin, a longtime Chelsea resident and a co-organizer of Chelsea Neighbors United To End the War, pressed a flier into the hands of every passerby. He caught the attention of shoppers and strollers by proclaiming, “We live in Chelsea, we’re against the war, we’ll be here every Tuesday night from 6 to 7 until the war ends and the troops are home safe.” His call to action varied when the occasional dog walker strolled past, when he would say, “Money for dogs, not for war.”

The Chelsea group coalesced last August when locals gathered for a protest during the Republican Convention, which was held just up Eighth Ave. The size of the turnout surprised organizers, who decided to harness the activist sympathies of the community. After several planning meetings, they held their first major event last March, a candlelight walk through the neighborhood.

Zlatkin believed an ongoing effort was necessary to keep the community’s awareness sustained, so last month the weekly vigil was born.

On this Tuesday night, Chelsea resident Kate Abell stepped off the sidewalk and held up a sign pointed at Eighth Ave. traffic. The large red letters on the placard read, simply, “Stop The War.”

“I have two boys who are 16 and 22. It just kills me every time I look in the paper and see another 20-year-old killed in Iraq for absolutely no reason,” she said, as cars roared past, often honking in support. “My youngest son was Downtown when the towers fell. He was in a school [I.S. 89] that was evacuated, four blocks away. I feel like we’re the people that felt the brunt of terrorism here in the city. All I can see are these mothers whose children, younger than my oldest son, have died for nothing.” She held the sign even during a red light so traffic waiting at the intersection had something to contemplate. “I want people to know that they’re not alone in feeling almost powerless in the face of the bigger and bigger lies that allow the things that the Bush administration has been able to push through to happen,” she said.

Around the corner, 87-year-old Chelsea resident Dan Greenwald held a “Peace Now” sign visible to cars heading east on 24th St. “I hope to come out every day,” he said. On the sidewalk, organizer Zlatkin called out to commuters emerging from the subway exit, “We’re spending $9 million 24 hours a day and there’s not enough money to keep the token booths open.”

Friends and neighbors stopped by to talk with the group, as two mothers led a group of children on scooters around the gathering.
“I felt that we had to do something ongoing and I also realized that there are a number of people in our group who are active in their heart but it’s difficult for them to walk because they’re advanced in age,” Zlatkin said, explaining the thinking behind the weekly vigils. “So what would be better than to have a stand-in against the war near where they live?”

As the afternoon light dimmed, Chelsea resident Bob Martin continued selling artistic peace buttons for $1 dollar each.

“People thank us for being out here and that’s touching,” he said.

As the supply of fliers dwindled, Zlatkin said, “The purpose behind this is the need to show that it’s not just a big demonstration on one day and ‘We’ll see you later.’ To actually show that it’s ongoing work to end this war and that we will be here to bring attention to that work.”

It was almost 7 p.m. and time to roll up the banner.

“People were also just thrilled realizing that we’ll be here week in, week out. Unfortunately, they’re aware of the reality of how long this may take. In my heart, I believe that I will be here every week until the war ends,” Zlatkin added.

As the activists began making plans for the following Tuesday, Abell finally lowered her sign and said, “I feel like if we all stand up a little bit and connect with each other that we can build something that can change things. That’s why I’m doing this.”

In addition to the Tuesday night vigils, each Saturday from noon-2 p.m. they will set up a table in front of the Gristede’s on Eighth Ave. between 21st and 22nd Sts. to distribute literature and discuss their cause.

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