Giving peace a chance
Peninsula Peace and Justice Center celebrates 25 years
The phone rang in Paul George's office at the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, at 457 Kingsley Ave. shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The center had come out opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and emotions were running high, he recalled.
The anonymous caller delivered an ominous message:
"I'm going to kill you," he told George.
The director of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center in Palo Alto sat back in his chair, considering the weight of those words. "That one we told the police about," he said soberly.
In the grand scheme of things, it was but one of many threats the center has experienced in 25 years of opposition to war.
"I've been doing stuff like this since I was 16. You get used to not being a popular guy," George said. "If you alter what you do or how you act because of these threats, then they win, don't they?"
At a young age, George experienced the ugly side of intolerance first-hand. At 16, he was the youth coordinator for Sen. Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in New Jersey. Because of McCarthy's anti-Vietnam War stance, George often arrived in the morning to find the campaign-office windows smashed, he said.
"I had a lot of questions and I wasn't getting good answers," he said. One day, a pet store he passed on his way to school in Westmont, N.J., suddenly became a McCarthy for President office, setting George on his path of activism. He volunteered for many groups, eventually transplanting to Berkeley where he had a good-paying job as a computer programmer. In the mid-1980s, he decided volunteering wasn't enough. When he started working with the center, his first thought was that he was heading for the frontier of activism.
"I thought, 'What the heck am I doing going to Palo Alto?' I thought Berkeley, where I lived, was the center of activism in the Bay Area," he said.
Palo Alto, it turned out, has a healthy activist community, he said. As director of the center, he has united an often-fractious board and brought financial stability to a once-foundering organization. During his first week at the helm, the former director called to tell him his payroll check had bounced, George said.
On April 22, the center will celebrate its silver anniversary with a party open to the community. Looking back over the years, George said a local place such as the Peace and Justice Center is more meaningful than ever. The current administration is one of the most secretive in American history, according to George.
He said the center, which chiefly serves to educate the public and provide a platform for alternative points of view is under surveillance by the CIA. Surveillance documents collected by the CIA that the Peace and Justice Center requested one year ago through the Freedom of Information Act still have not been provided, he added.
"In a political system like we have, that is dangerous. ... If you're not with them, then you're with the enemy. If you criticize policy, you are a traitor. We have to have open debate or it's not a democracy," he said.
How the center works to keep open debate alive has evolved over the last 25 years. Since the inception of the Gulf War in 1990, Peninsula Peace and Justice has morphed from an information clearinghouse into an organization that uses technology and the media to influence politicians and to teach the public about issues beyond the immediate crisis of war: immigration, economic inequality and civil rights -- and to help disparate voices join together.
"One of the most important things about PPJC is that it is local. It gives a local face to the peace movement. It's not some group in Washington; it's friends and neighbors. It makes the movement more personal," he said.
The clout of Peninsula Peace and Justice became apparent to people in the highest level of federal government on April 21, 2006, when the center mobilized 1,000 local voices in a last-minute blitz against President George W. Bush outside Hoover Institution at Stanford. Local peace and justice groups around the Bay Area marveled at the center's mobilizing capabilities.
"On a Wednesday the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center learned Bush was coming to Palo Alto. On Friday, they got 1,000 people there to meet him. Bush canceled his plans and hid in George Shultz's house, unwilling to come out. It shows how quickly (Paul George) can organize," said Father John Butcher of Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice.
The Bay Area peace and justice movement has coalesced from sometimes fractious factions following their own agendas to a highly interconnected group in part due to the inclusiveness fostered by Peninsula Peace and Justice, leaders of other local organizations said. At any time, religious, secular, peace and civil-rights groups may band together, sharing information and even tools for garnering public and media attention, such as a pile of picket signs that sat in a corner of the center's offices recently, borrowed by another group.
"The peace movement in Palo Alto is highly interconnected and cohesive, and Paul is at the center of the web. E-mail, Web site, phone calls -- he communicates in any way that he can," said Craig Wiesner, a rabbi with Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice.
The center maintains a core e-mail list of 2,500 people, who can be called upon to barrage government officials with e-mails, letters and phone calls concerning critical issues coming up before Congress.
On Oct. 2, 2002, Peninsula Peace and Justice staff and board members held a telephone conference with Rep. Anna Eshoo prior to the Congressional vote on war authorization. The conference came on the heels of an action alert that mobilized thousands of phone calls, letters and e-mails to Eshoo's office. Eshoo voted against the war resolution and issued a strong statement against pre-emptive war.
"Paul is a man of conscience. I've always valued what he thinks and I respect his work with the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center," Eshoo said in a statement through her spokesman.
"It was a while before she came out," said Peninsula Peace and Justice Assistant Director Julia Bernd, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics who was thrown out of Stanford "because I spent too much time writing little pamphlets about the war in Afghanistan."
Rep. Anna Eshoo's local chief of staff asked Bernd to back off on the barrage of phone calls because Eshoo's office couldn't keep up with them.
"I politely declined," she said. "That's my job -- and it's her job to answer them."
George's dealings with the City of Palo Alto have been equally tough -- and yet also collaborative.
From the start, he refused to get a permit for any demonstration. He recalled going to the Palo Alto Police department to do a sound check for his first press conference.
"The police said we had to get a permit. I said 'I've got a permit. It's called the Bill of Rights,'" he said. "I've never gotten a permit for a march."
Instead, George got the Palo Alto City Council to declare city hall a free-speech zone, and he has worked for a collaborative relationship with the police department, often adjusting march routes, he said.
Palo Alto City Councilman Peter Drekmeier has been a member of Peninsula Peace and Justice since 1990. In his capacity on the City Council, Drekmeier has been impressed with George's sophistication and ability to organize. In 2003, the center gathered 500 signatures and convinced the council to pass resolutions against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, he said.
George hasn't shied away from unpopular stands -- the most controversial of which is the organization's long-held position favoring Palestine. Putting the issue on the agenda was controversial with the organization's own board of directors, and some members resigned after former director Lee Artz wrote a piece in support of Palestinians in a newspaper.
"It's the only issue that we routinely have opposition folks showing up for at events we do. ... It's a critical issue of human rights. Israel gets more U.S. tax dollars than any country in the world. I don't regret it. We do this to talk about what is right. For an entire people to be disenfranchised in the 21st century is just plain wrong," George said.
Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), a San Francisco-based organization that supports a two-state solution, finds the stance objectionable.
"There is a strong anti-Israel bias built into this organization. It's a constant theme of theirs. They are an anti-Israel, radical left-wing organization. What is striking is that we have one of the largest Jewish communities in Palo Alto ... but the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center has no interaction with the Jewish community in their backyard. No representatives participate in any of their forums. Have they ever asked any of us to speak (or had any speakers) on any pro-Israel position?" Santis said.
George declines to respond directly to Santis, saying doing so "makes no difference."
"Mr. Santis has been purposely mischaracterizing the position of Peninsula Peace and Justice Center for many years," George said. "We have had any number of speakers from the Jewish community to speak at our forums. A JCRC representative has not spoken, nor have they invited any of us to speak at their forums.
"We published an article by Mr. Santis back at the time of the (1993) Oslo Agreement," George added.
He said at times the center's unpopular stands are also mischaracterized in the press, such as when he spoke out against the first Gulf War. Reporters invariably questioned if that position was pro-Saddam Hussein.
"I saw myself on Channel 7 News with a caption that read, 'Paul George -- Saddam Hussein supporter," he said.
The marginalized voices that Peninsula Peace and Justice often seeks to bring to the table have broadened the local peace movement beyond the immediacy of war, said longtime peace activist Peggy Law, a member of the center.
Peninsula Peace and Justice has helped shift the dialogue of peace groups to broader issues of economic and environmental justice, civil liberties, and the kinds of socio-economic and political inequities that are at the heart of an unpeaceful world, she said.
"It's very collaborative -- and confrontive -- in an appropriate sense. Speaking truth to power, if you will, is fundamental to having a strong, participatory democracy."
The center hosts 27 speaker events annually, bringing to Palo Alto luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Cindy Sheehan, radio journalist Amy Goodman, Pulitzer Prize nominee Michael Parenti and three-time Nobel Peace prize nominee Kathy Kelly. There is a free monthly forum on local cable television station channel 27, and a Web site, which includes news, research, event information and an activities calendar linking to organizations around the Bay Area. More than 5,000 articles of what George called "good writing," are archived there, offering alternative points of view that aren't getting into mainstream news. The site receives 75,000 hits per month, according to George.
"The way democracy functions is pretty messy and hard to define. We try to impact that ephemeral debate ... to have an impact on the water-cooler debate so that it makes its way to a bigger debate," George said.
"It's like the civic function of an old town square," said Peninsula Peace and Justice President Steffy Reader.
"People don't talk about the country and the things they think they can do. They need a center where they can talk and not feel it's in bad taste. We'd like to provide a space of that kind."
"Paul George and the organization are such a boon to the Bay Area. They are very inclusive," said Rachelle Marshall of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Peninsula Branch.
"The words 'peace' and 'justice' they interpret very broadly. They involve speakers from all parts of the world. They get remarkably important people to come to Palo Alto and they provide the community with information we wouldn't get otherwise."
Looking back over the decades, George said he doesn't regret leaving a good-paying job as a computer programmer for a life of "being broke."
"It was the right decision to make," he said. The consequences of continuing on the current political track of pre-emptive wars will mean endless war with a long-term ripple effect on American society, he said.
In the next 25 years, George hope to continue to inform -- and dissent -- at the grass-roots level, including bringing back eye-witness accounts of crises around the world.
"History shows that's where change comes from. It bubbles up from the bottom. You have to keep articulating. The old bumper-sticker cliché, 'If the people lead, the leaders will follow' isn't a cliché at all."
Peninsula Peace and Justice Center's 25th anniversary celebration takes place Sunday, April 22 at 5 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Church main hall and courtyard, 505 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto. The event is open to the public and is free; donations can be contributed. Call 650-326-8837 or visit www.Peaceandjustice.org.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.