Story by Mary Louise Speer
Bonnie Joy Barker held her sign high so passersby in downtown Bellingham could easily view her message. “No more coal,” read the sign, topped with the figure of a salmon.
Every Friday activists promoting several different causes gather in downtown Bellingham to continue a long-time tradition of voicing their positions on current issues. The event began in 1967 during the Vietnam War and is the longest-running weekly peace vigil in the country, said Janet Marino, executive director of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center.
The vigil takes place at the corner of Magnolia Street and Cornwall Avenue. Some of the major issues focused on this year include opposition to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project, reallocating tax dollars from military spending to healthcare and supporting the Palestinian people.
Barker said she was participating in the vigil because she wants draw attention to the importance of clean water. She said she opposes “the poisoning of our water through the transportation and burning of coal which has put us beyond the catastrophic tipping point for climate change.”
“Our seas are in real trouble. As the salmon go, so do we,” Barker said.
Marino said the first vigils were organized in 1967 by Howard Harris and his wife Rosemary, as a response to the Vietnam War. As a Quaker, Harris’ religious beliefs prohibited him from supporting or participating in warfare and motivated the founding of the vigil.
Marino said Harris, who is 95, still attends the event occasionally. Local Quaker activists started the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center in 2002 to promote lasting peace, social justice and a culture of nonviolence in the U.S. and around the world, Marino said.
“I’m hoping people will notice [the signs] and think about peace,” said Jerry Smith, a representative for Veterans for Peace, a group which advocates for ending warfare.
“This is really a historic event in many ways since it’s the longest running peace vigil,” said participant Judy Hopkinson.
Hopkinson carried a sign that called for using tax dollars to fund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called “Obamacare,” by reducing military spending. She said fighting wars does not solve problems and spends U.S. tax dollars in ways that are not helpful for American society.
“I’m not saying we don’t need to be ready for defense,” Hopkinson said, “but we don’t need to put the vast amount of our tax money into weapons of war and fighting and destruction.”
Volunteers from Food not Bombs, a local group which distributes free food downtown, offered hot meals to people at the vigil. “Would you like some free food?” Levi Heuberger, 17, asked a woman who was walking past.
Heuberger, who is a Running Start student at Whatcom Community College, said a friend got him interested in helping with Food not Bombs.
Zachary Robertson, an activist with Food not Bombs, said there are a couple of local Food not Bombs chapters in Bellingham. He said both groups have the same vision of taking nonviolent direct action to change society so no one is forced to stand in line to eat at a soup kitchen. His group prepares the vegan or vegetarian meals in advance at members’ homes and begin serving food at the Peace Vigil at 4 p.m.
Robertson said the meal attracts a diverse group of people from all walks of life, including individuals who may not have enough money to purchase food for themselves.
Robertson looked at the advocates holding signs and people who appeared to be enjoying the free meal. “Here it’s a meal time,” he said. “