For 20 years — starting just after the 9/11 terror attacks — a dedicated group of peace activists has gathered nearly every week in downtown Reno to advocate for non-violence.
People of all ages and walks of life joined the Interfaith Action for Peace vigils outside the Bruce Thompson Federal Building. Sometimes there were dozens of participants; other times just a handful of people came together to stand against the seemingly-endless wars that followed the terror attacks.
It wasn’t an easy way to spend an evening. Sometimes passersby would accuse the participants of being unpatriotic or of betraying the American troops who were in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, week after week, year after year, folks kept coming back to the federal courthouse.
The vigils persisted. The wars continued — until now. This year, as both the local vigils and the war in Afghanistan marked their 20-year anniversaries, U.S. troops exited the war zone and local activists planned another gathering to mark two decades of quiet protests.
Group’s anniversary vigil
The Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace will be hosting an anniversary event beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 20 to celebrate two decades of vigils and the end of U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The group had been formed more than 10 years before the attacks, but that terrible event galvanized the local peace movement.
Rita Sloane of Reno, a member of the group and coordinator for the Alternatives to Violence Project Nevada, recalled organizational meetings that were held as the nation mourned the victims of the terror and anticipated the military retaliation that was sure to follow.
“We had a lot of people join us in the beginning,” she said. “There were meetings down at the downtown library right away after 9/11. (The attacks) were horrible events. And yet, I had this thought to advocate for non-violence.”
Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace champions non-violent solutions to war. When American troops were pouring into the far-flung war zones, vigil participants urged U.S. leaders to bring the soldiers home and pushed then-Sen. Harry Reid to redouble his efforts to end the wars.
Honoring the fallen
The group also sponsored yearly Memorial Day remembrances alongside other like-minded organizations. In 2009, men, women and children at the vigil read aloud the 4,000 names of those who lost their lives in the war zones. Other participants planted American flags in the lawn surrounding the courthouse.
Sloane, 72, said her involvement in the group was a natural extension of her Catholic background. “My church has a great body of social teaching; that is a thing to be proud of,” she said. “It’s a beautiful scholarly work and it comes down to, essentially, following the gospel.”
As the carnage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars accelerated, the vigils evolved into rallies. People stepped up to a microphone to share their thoughts about peace and non-violence. On occasion, musicians brought their instruments and played music with anti-war themes.
John Hadder, 60, got involved with SIAP in 1991, a few years after he moved from the East Coast to Reno. He is now the director of the Great Basin Resource Watch, a non-profit group aimed at protecting the Great Basin’s land and water resources from extractive industries.
“I had seen some flyers for different activities at that time, and so I investigated and started to learn a little bit about some of the activist community organizing in Nevada,” he said.
Lessons of confrontations
Hadder said the gatherings were more than a weekly meeting of a like-minded people. The vigils and the situations they spawned also were learning experiences. He said he still uses the techniques he learned dealing with people who objected to the protests.
“For me, it really did a lot and changed a lot of what I do, how I function and where my direction has gone,” he said. The people he met in front of the Thompson building provided a window of empathy into folks with opposing views.
Understanding how to communicate with others, especially those who have been disproportionately affected by land issues like resource extraction, has helped Hadder in his work at the Resource Watch.
When gathering information about a proposed mining project, for example, “we work a lot with communities” where mining translates into jobs and greater prosperity, he said. “We go directly to where it’s happening, and it’s important to have that rapport, to be able to be a good listener and try to really understand what someone’s perspective is.”
Looking for scapegoats
Communicating with people who seem to be on the other side of an issue was a natural outgrowth of the vigils. People would often come out of the restaurant across the street from the courthouse and voice their disapproval of the vigils, Sloane said.
“Sometimes we had people come out and talk to us, kind of in opposition to peace and pro-war,” Sloane says. “They were not with us on this.”
Hadder recalled another event near Carson City where a man angrily confronted him and others who were demonstrating for peace.
“There was someone that came in who was very loud and obnoxious,” he said. Hadder tried to understand the person’s motivations. He suspected the belligerent man was upset about losing a job or employment opportunity and was taking his frustration out on their group.
“He was looking for someone to blame and liberals were, as he would say, the cause of the problem,” Hadder said. “When someone’s economic base is affected, they look for a scapegoat.”
Such confrontations were a chance for group members to put their non-violent policies to the test. “One of the methods is to allow the person to really, in a way, speak their mind, as much as they can, and basically empty out,” Hadder said. “It’s hard to have a good dialogue with someone when there’s something behind what they’re saying that has to come out.”
Vigils’ future uncertain
The group’s numbers have fluctuated over time, with as many as 25-40 people actively participating during the early 2000s. Now, as long-time members get older and the U.S. military has extracted itself from the far-away quagmires, attendance at the vigils has waned.
The core group members, about 12 people, were regularly meeting at the Thompson building and getting together virtually during Zoom calls at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The long health crisis and the recent persistent air quality alerts caused by Sierra wildfires have reduced attendance at meetings and vigils. As the troops come home, interest in the demonstrations also has waned.
In recent weeks, some members asked if the vigils could take place on Zoom. Some members suggested the regular vigils be discontinued — something Sloane said never came up previously, even when weather conditions were harsh.
“That tells me that some people are a little tired,” she said. ”I don’t feel tired (but) I don’t know that we’re accomplishing much anymore if we’re down to (so few) in numbers.”
Sloane said it may be time to let the sun set on Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace, but no formal decision has been made.
What was accomplished?
Sloane often is asked whether the long-standing vigils accomplished anything. The wars finally ended, but military intervention remains a ready option when the U.S. is faced with a crisis abroad. Twenty years after 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan are devastated by war. At the same time, the planet is threatened by environmental crisis; gun violence has escalated; deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement officers are common; and homelessness is a major problem in every urban area.
Rather than moving the needle towards peace, it often seems that people are embracing violence more than ever.
Through it all, the small group in Reno kept holding vigils, praying and advocating for peace. They raised their voices and stood for a better world.
Hadder said the group’s actions focused attention on alternative ways to solve problems.
“The hope is that, as more people understand other ways of being and the principles of non-violence, it can carry even further into how we make decisions in the political realm” and other situations, he said.
An act of patriotism
One small group in Reno isn’t going to change the world by itself, Sloane noted, but groups advocating for peace and nonviolence have proliferated across the globe.
“There are small groups like ours and there are very large national and international groups,” she said. Together, these nonviolent movements, protests and rallies can bring about lasting change in the ways humans approach conflicts, whether political or environmental.
“Calling for peace is a patriotic act,” Sloane said. “Violence begets violence…
“What have we accomplished?” she asked. “We, along with an increasingly aware humanity, have learned that violence is never the answer.”