Last week I visited three communities in the Great Plains as part of a Wheels of Justice bus tour. We travelled in a made-over 56 passenger bus powered by a 290 Cummings diesel engine that once transported school children in Tucson, Arizona. At stops in Denver, Wichita and Manhattan, Kansas our 100 gallon tank was filled with fuel made from soy, now costing more than five dollars a gallon. Our clown like bus called out at whoever noticed the animal life and written words of hope on the sides of the vehicle “War is not the Answer”. The sight of our bus made us a hit, an instant enemy, or a curiosity in every town and rest stop, mostly a curiosity.
We travelled in this way to elicit conversations on war and peace. The mission of Wheels of Justice now approaching eight years of criss crossing the country is to tease the nation away from war. The bus is under the able management and driving of Bill Hill, 62 , a foster child, Viet Nam war veteran and single father who raised two daughters. Bill learned to manage big machines as a tank driver with the 3rd Tank Battalion of the 3rd Marine Division in Da Nang, Viet Nam. He helps two speakers on the bus’s travelling team by telling his story that includes war making, addictions and the war memories buried deep in his mind that last for a lifetime. During the six months of the year when the Wheels of Justice is not announcing “war is not the way” Bill has retooled 20 old buses that now carry passengers in Cuba through Pastors for Peace.
High school students, college students and peace warriors made up our audiences as we wound our way through the Great Plains. In ventures like this I am accustomed to at least a little hostility, but this was not to be last week. The mood of the times has swung away from the days of Shock and Awe. But we know a single incident may bring those days back. Warrior-peacemakers like me can get inspired when students push us for new, more effective ways of violence reduction and peacemaking, a strategy for the future. I feel the hope in their faces looking for something worth working for, worth living for, worth dying for.
On this trip I mostly told stories of Iraqi families and their children who are still disappearing into the catacombs of US and Iraqi prisons. The two speakers, me on Iraq and another on Palestine wove together the threads of war, terror and smart bombs in the Middle East and here at home. We nudged and challenged our audiences to remember that comprehensive solutions lead back to dealing with the US government’s unbalanced support for Zionism expressed in the nation of Israel.
A brightly painted bus gets attention. But attention getting buses, speakers and literature tables reminded me that organizing for peacemaking is still hard work. After getting people to notice you must keep their attention long enough to motivate them to do real long term work. Thirty-eight years ago I helped organize the Indochina Mobile Education Project, not a very catchy name by today’s standards. The project did in another war period some of what Wheels of Justice tries to do today.
We equipped a VW mini van to carry 24 display panels showing everyday life for Vietnamese people and the effects of war. Over five years the exhibits appeared in 350 shopping centres across the country for two to five days. Viet Nam hands, civilian and military, Vietnamese and Americans who had been through the war spoke in schools, colleges, churches, service clubs and community meetings. I wish we could have been a little more creative with the paint on our VW vans. To be honest I think one reason we didn’t spice up the paint was because we preferred not to have our vans trashed by people who hated our message. Several times the travelling team called me to prepare a replacement display panel that had been spray painted or destroyed by upset citizens.
In those days the country was not yet so carefully tucked in with “private” regulations about shopping malls or a “free speech culture” of a Department of Homeland Security. We expected that our message might be a hard sell and learned how to deal with harsh charges and mean words. I would get a calls from a local organizer who couldn’t figure out how to get permission to place the exhibit in a mall.
Often I jumped into my aging Volvo and travelled to a future display site, put on my only suit and went with local people to meet the mall manager armed with letters of blessing and recommendations from important personalities and mall managers who had formerly opened their doors to us. Often the negotiations were protracted. Occasionally when we suggested that the media might be interested in the success of our local display, its speakers and special Vietnamese dinner the door got nudged open a little bit further.
We learned early on not to take the easy way out and place the exhibit in little visited church basements. Like people everywhere we Americans go to market, but we call it the mall. Could we get into 350 malls today? I doubt it. It would easier to get into a Baghdad or Saigon market. Forty years ago the law of the private American market place had not yet constrained us to consumer conversation and colourful displays of boundless goods.
So now we need attention getters like Wheels of Justice and local organizers who know how to work the phone, the internet, and breakfast meetings to bring visibility to hard truths. By combining the visuals of a display, the sounds of our voices, the touch of materials from Viet Nam with the taste of Vietnamese food we learned how to light some flames. The steps to creating a recipe for conversations about the signs of times is as difficult on the Wheels of Justice as it was with our fledgling efforts 40 years ago.
One thing these two projects have in common. Everywhere we went last week as in the late 60s, we met veterans newly returned from war who are trying to put their lives together and escape the memories. I always looked for a better way to include their pain and harsh memories in the trek across our country. Bill Hill, the driver helped me get closer to an answer by telling his story.
“War is not the answer.” “Occupation the Roadmap to Nowhere” cries out from the side of our bus as we move on. I suspect it’s a little pushy for some. It may make others cringe with embarrassment that there are people like us who have not yet learned to see America as that unique nation under God put here to be a light on a hill.
As we travelled I watched spring unfold. I saw lush green wheat fields drinking up the sparse sunshine. These are the field where settlers met and their government betrayed native people. In those days the earth sometimes shook. In the fields I saw another future for all of us, the children of clashes, the prophets of hope.
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