By David Villano
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By Allie Conti
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By Frank Owen
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In Coral Gables, the City Beautiful, toeing the line is a way of life.
Mildewed roofs and sidewalks are forbidden by law, peeling house paint is verboten, and trucks are outlawed from driveways after dark. It's here in the square capital of Miami-Dade County that a small band of independent thinkers has stood its ground for more than three years, meeting every week to remind people that soldiers are still coming home in body bags.
They call themselves Miami for Peace. A motley group of artists, scientists, attorneys, and grandmothers, they hold signs declaring "War Is Not the Answer," "Torture Is Wrong," and, simply, "Peace," while waving at passing traffic outside the Quaker meeting house on Sunset Drive near SW 52nd Avenue.
They're here every Wednesday evening. Some weeks, more than 100 demonstrators have waved signs and shouted slogans. Other weeks, just two. Seven showed up January 18 all older women except for Chris Phoenix, a bearded 35-year-old who looks like he'd fit in at a Phish reunion. That day some passersby honked and waved, and some shot low-key peace signs, but many just stared straight ahead.
It's hasn't always been this mellow, says vigil-keeper Carmen Gonzalez, a spunky 52-year-old with short brown hair and glasses that slip down her nose. In the past, some drivers have thrown garbage or waved with middle fingers. Others have rolled down their windows to toss out verbal gems "You fucking Communist, go back to Cuba!" someone yelled last fall.
A burly motorcyclist in his forties pulled over, shouted at them red-faced, and knocked candles from their hands, his long hair flying.
Like most antiwar groups, Miami for Peace is modest in size, with fewer than twenty dues-paying members. When area peace groups including Concerned People Opposed to War in Iraq and Miami Coalition Against the War attracted about 700 people to a "counterinaugural" at the Torch of Freedom downtown in January 2005, it was considered a major rally.
On November 6, Miami for Peace held a teach-in at the University of Miami, something members hope to re-create at Florida International University some time this spring. They've met with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and helped plan demonstrations such as the observance of the Iraq War's second anniversary last March, which brought about 300 people to the Torch of Freedom.
On Veterans' Day last year, Democracy for America, a political action group, erected a faux cemetery on South Beach sands, with more than 2000 crosses representing the war dead. Veterans for Peace, a group based in North Miami, has brought Iraq War veterans to speak at area high schools and universities. If you cast your net wide, you can find an antiwar vigil, protest, or meeting to fit any schedule: Monday evenings in Delray Beach, Wednesdays in Coral Gables, Thursdays and Fridays in Fort Lauderdale, Saturdays in West Palm Beach, and Sundays in Coral Springs. Boca Raton and Deerfield Beach have weekly vigils too.
But the local antiwar movement is nevertheless struggling. Alan Kobrin, a cofounder of Miami for Peace, says that instead of trying to attract people by concentrating on the war's threat to national security, the movement has muddled the waters with discussions of Palestine, Haiti, and other issues. Kobrin stopped attending Miami for Peace meetings about two years ago. "It's the same old story of leftist politics," he says. "If you never grow in numbers and you never attract media attention, why are you doing it?"
It's difficult to blame antiwar protesters for their relatively small numbers, says George Gonzalez, a University of Miami political science professor. South Florida's sprawl creates a "lack of connect," making large-scale organizing a challenge, according to Gonzalez. The area's transplant and transient-heavy population often looks elsewhere for political inspiration, he adds. "I would scoff at the notion that people just don't care here."
Patrick McCann, president of the local Veterans for Peace chapter, sees it another way. Almost three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the antiwar movement is just beginning to tap into its strength, he says. The trick is to prioritize issues and encourage participation from Latinos and blacks, communities that have sent disproportionate numbers into battle.
Aileen Brousseau of Truth in Recruiting, a group that hands out anti-military-recruiting pamphlets at Miami schools, says she hadn't thought much about the war until her son, then fifteen years old, began receiving phone calls from army recruiters one summer. Now the 52-year-old from Coconut Grove lugs her two-tone tote bag full of flyers to high schools whenever she gets the chance. "This is life or death," she says.